His name is Doug McLure and you might remember him from such films as Warlords of Atlantis, At the Earth's Core and The Land That Time Forgot. Years before The Simpsons immortalised him in the shape of windbag has-been Troy McLure, the poor man's William Shatner and B-Movie titan appeared in a series of sci-fi adventure films for Amicus Productions.
Amicus are chiefly remembered as rivals to Hammer; during the 50s and 60s they were producing a similar brand of low-budget gothic chillers to the famed horror studio. In fact a lot of Amicus' output are often mistaken for Hammer horrors, think City of the Dead, Doctor Terror's House of Horrors and Tales from the Crypt, all of which were made by Amicus but aped Hammer's style and, in the case of Doctor Terror's House of Horror pinched it's stars as they persuaded Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee to star.
Unfortunately, while Amicus may have been able to imitate Hammer's productions they weren't able to imitate their success; by the mid 70s Hammer style horror films were out of fashion and Amicus' in particular were performing badly at the box office. The studio's founding producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg decided to try a different approach – effects driven science fiction adventures aimed at a family audience, many of which have now been released individually on DVD.
The first of these films was the most financially successful and is undoubtedly the most well known; The Land that Time Forgot is based on the novel by Tarzan and John Carter creator and pulp adventure supremo Edgar Rice Burroughs. McLure stars as Bowen Tyler, an American submariner hitching a ride on a British merchant vessel during WWI. When their ship is sunk by a pesky German U-Boat, Tyler leads the plucky survivors in commandeering the German sub and taking the crew prisoner. The constant fighting between British and Germans means the sub is soon dangerously off course and eventually washes up on a mysterious island inhabited by terrifying dinosaurs!
Well, that's the idea anyway; the island is in fact inhabited by distinctly non-terrifying puppets. The Land that time Forgot's (and Warlords of Atlantis and At the Earth's Core) biggest weakness is undoubtedly its "special” effects. Director Kevin Connor obviously didn't have Ray Harryhausen's phone number and instead of stop-motion effects decided sock puppets were the way to go. Even in 1975 the monsters would have been laughable; today, seen outside the forgiving fog of childhood nostalgia, they are spectacularly naff. Unlike Harryhausen's effects they have no soul or charm and just look like the cheapest, easiest way to represent dinosaurs on screen. It's a real shame because if the dinosaurs were just slightly more believable and a credible threat then The Land That Time Forgot would be an excellent Sunday afternoon style adventure. It's well paced and well written and avoids any temptation to make all the British characters good and the Germans bad; there are goodies and baddies on both sides and the way they are forced to put aside their differences and work together would be a good lesson for kids if they're able to stop laughing at the dinosaurs. But for clever, forgiving youngsters and nostalgic adults it's still a solid piece of entertainment.
With At the Earth's Core, Amicus were clearly hoping to repeat the success of The Land That Time Forgot as it has all the same building blocks – based on another novel by Burroughs, directed by Kevin Connor, starring Doug McLure (giving the same good-naturedly heroic performance) and featuring horrible, charmless special effects. It also benefits from an eccentric performance from Hammer mainstay Peter Cushing; he stars as Dr. Abner Perry, a Victorian scientist who has invented the Iron Mole – a vehicle capable of drilling through the Earth's crust. Perry and his rich American financer David Innes (McLure) set off in the machine and soon end up in a bizarre prehistoric world inhabited by giant (unconvincing) bird monsters and tribes of humans in terrible wigs.
The monster effects are even worse than in The Land That Time Forgot; this time the monsters aren't only created with rubbish puppets but also with actors in rubbish suits. They seem to be trying to emulate the monsters in Japanese kaiju movies like Godzilla and Rodan but the effect is more like Barney the dinosaur or Bungle from Rainbow. It's a pity because the effects in the opening scenes set in Victorian England are actually quite impressive; making use of matte paintings and miniature models they look deliberately stylized and theatrical rather than just cheaply pathetic. They actually call to mind the effects in early sci-fi films like Georges Melies' Le Voyage dans la Lune. Unfortunately though once our heroes reach the Earth's core the action takes place on poorly designed, ugly sets and features rampant puppet-work. Despite a spirited and funny performance from Cushing it's not particularly well written and events soon become quite tedious. It's hard to believe that At The Earth's Core would have impressed kids in the 70s, after all it came out only a year before Star Wars; it's impossible to believe it could hold the attention of modern kids.
Warlords of Atlantis keeps many of the same ingredients as the previous films – it's directed by Kevin Connor and of course stars good old Doug McLure – but instead of being based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel it's an original story by screenwriter Brian Hayles, who worked on the original Doctor Who for over a decade. Set around the turn of the 20th century it sees archaeologist Professor Aitken (Charles Aitken) and engineer Collinson (McLure) chartering the ship Texas Rose and using it as a base to explore the ocean using a diving bell designed by Collinson. The crew soon end up in Atlantis (because 90 minutes of them looking at fish would be quite boring), which it turns out is actually a colony for an advanced alien race who use shipwrecked humans as slave labour.
The shoddy puppet effects are still present in Warlords of Atlantis but they are used cleverly and, crucially, sparingly so. As a result they don't dominate the film with their crapness. Another key ingredient that makes Atlantis enjoyable is that it doesn't take itself entirely seriously. There are gags aplenty in the witty script and funny characters (including scheming crewman Fenn played by future Cheers star John Ratzenberger) so the laughable effects don't seem so jarring. It surely benefits from being penned by a Doctor Who writer, as it has the same balance of humour, adventure and science fiction found in the best Who episodes. Despite that it probably still won't appeal to children today, who simply won't be able to look past the rubbery sea-monsters, the little philistines.
Also released is another Amicus sci-fi flick, They Came From Beyond Space, which stands out from the other releases because it was released in the 60s (1967 to be precise), has a contemporary setting, doesn't have any terrible monsters (yay) and doesn't star Doug McLure (boo). It's much more of a pure science fiction film instead of the pulp adventures with sci-fi elements that make up the other Amicus releases. Its directed by Freddie Francis who, when he wasn't directing B-Movies, was a first class cinematographer working as director of photography on quality films like The Elephant Man and Glory. They Came From Beyond Space tells the story of a series of meteorites that fall to Earth in Cornwall, and any human who approaches them find themselves possessed by an alien intelligence. The only human immune to this takeover is Dr. Curtis Temple (Robert Hutton), who luckily has a metal plate in his head.
It's a fairly standard, lightweight piece of 60s sci-fi fluff that pales in comparison to Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the similarly themed Quatermass and the Pit from rivals Hammer, which was released the same year. Continuing the Doctor Who comparisons it feels like a middling episode, not terrible by any means but not particularly memorable and without the good Doctor himself to keep things interesting. It does have an awesome jazzy soundtrack though.
Overall Verdict: Of these four releases from Amicus, only The Land That Time Forgot and Warlords of Atlantis can really be recommended and they will only appeal to nostalgic grownups and young people who can look past terrible effects and B-Movie acting to appreciate their clever scripts and old-fashioned spirit of adventure.
Ratings: The Land Time Forgot ****, At The Earth's Core **, Warlords of Atlantis****, They Came From Beyond Space **
New interviews with director Kevin Connor and lead actress Susan Penhaligon on The Land That Time Forgot
Reviewer: Adam Pidgeon