At the Earth’s Core (1976) and The Creeping Flesh (1972)

August 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

“You cannot mesmerize me, I’m British!”  It’s a little hard not to enjoy Peter Cushing in this low-budget but fun adaptation of At the Earth’s Core. And while the story by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 – 1950) is yet another thinly veiled older story about white people parachuted into a situation to set it straight, or naturally dominate somehow (much like Tarzan of the Apes), some of the humor manages to offset this antiquated idea. In a film designed for children, Cushing plays a Victorian scientist who tests out his Iron Mole drilling machine along with his American financier friend, played by Doug McClure. On arrival, they discover a human population that’s too fragmented to form a proper rebellion against enslavement by the Mahars, telepathic vulture-creatures, though on first arrival they’re chased by a tremendous monster which is really just a guy in a chicken suit.  Cushing plays the passionate professor well here, and more or less revives what he did for Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks Invasion of Earth, 2150 A.D. (1966), two films that were produced the previous decade as a result of the immense popularity of Doctor Who, and the brief Dalek craze. But it hardly matters, the important thing is that Cushing is as adept at humour as he is playing less erratic, more dignified characters. His Dr. Who is often overlooked in histories of the program because his stories are bonus remakes of a couple of the TV stories, and they have their own continuity. But it hardly matters when they’re colourful fun as well. Drop any child in front of the second of those two films in particular, and they’ll be… well, mesmerized.

Looking at his career as an actor, Cushing is a rare actor — a little like that person in high school that was popular and talented, but didn’t care much what crowd he hung around with. He was talented enough for anything, but in decades of horror and fantasy films (beginning with films like Horror of Dracula (1959) never turned in a performance that made it appear he was bored or doing anything less than trying to create a believable character. The same can be said for Christopher Lee, reunited with Cushing for The Creeping Flesh. In fact, the two actors made over twenty films together. Here they play brothers competing for prestige and financial success — Lee runs an asylum, and Cushing is a scientist who brings a remarkable skeleton back from an expedition. Not only is the skeleton unique in appearance, it appears to be  able to grow flesh and regenerate when something as simple as water is poured on it. The Cushing character is likeable, but not perfect, and it is revealed that when he reluctantly sent his wife to the asylum, he hid it from his daughter, telling her instead that her mother was dead. The character repeatedly states that he only wanted to protect his daughter, but remains resolutely stubborn about it, and after a few more misguided decisions the retribution the creature brings makes a certain amount of sense, though only in the unforgiving context of horror films. The Lee character is worse, but predictably enough by the end the creature is revived and walking the earth, and though it’s open-ended as to exactly what this will mean for humanity, maybe that’s all the creature does wherever it goes — tip the balance in favour of a morally unsatisfying result.

These aren’t even career highlights for Cushing. In the 1970s, he’d go on to play a supporting role as a villain in Star Wars (1977) and introduce himself to a whole new audience, and a new generation.

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