|Submitted by Iain McLachlan |
(Dec 23, 2004)
VIAJE AL CENTRO DE LA TIERRA
Alternate Titles: WHERE TIME BEGAN; A FABULOUS JOURNEY TO THE CETNRE OF THE EARTH; A JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH.
RT: 90 mins
Pro Co: Almena Films
Dir/Pro: Juan Piquer Simon;
Wr: Juan Piquer Simon, Carlos Puerto, John Melson.
Phot: Andres Berenguer;
Film Ed: Maruja Soriano
Mus: Juan Carlos Calderon;
Pro Des/Viz FX: Francisco Prosper, Emilio Ruiz.
Cast: Kenneth More, Pep Mune, Ivonne Sentis, Frank Brana, Jack Taylor, Jose Maria Caffarel, Emiliano Redondo, Ana Arco, Lone Fleming, Enrique Navarro, Ricardo Palacios, Georges Rigaud.
Spanish exploitation filmmaker Juan Piquer Simon is probably most familiar to American and British viewers through his horror movies like the Lovecraft pastiche Cthulhu Mansion (1990), ecological splatter flick Slugs – The Movie (1988) and especially his Psycho (1960)/Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)/Halloween (1978) hybrid Pieces (1982). However, his career also includes a number of productions based on or influenced by the works of 19th century French author Jules Verne, including this, his 1976 debut feature adapted from Verne’s first truly successful novel, “A Journey to the Centre of the Earth”.
Hamburg 1898. At the German city’s geological institute, Professor Otto Lindenbrock and his colleagues agree that for all their conjecture about the origins of the Earth, nothing will be proved until a way is discovered to venture far beneath the planet’s surface toward its core. Later, at an antiquarian bookstore, Lindenbrock encounters a strange elderly gentleman from whom he purchases some books. The man utters a cryptic message about how the Professor will long remember the sale of the volumes. The professor is intrigued to discover one of the books records a journey to the centre of the Earth by Swedish adventurer many years before. He then goes home where his niece Glauben and Army cadet boyfriend Axel are making preparations for dinner. Becoming obsessed by the book Lindenbrock retires to his study. There a scrap of paper falls out of the tome onto the floor. It appears to be a map with a code written in Old English. The geologist spends the next several hours trying to break the code. Then the nephew, making use of the skills he has learned in the military, goes to assist him with no result. By chance the code is projected onto a mirror and is immediately deciphered. From the information revealed by the code, Linenbrock is convinced that the book is a record of a journey beneath the Earth’s surface that actually took place. He is then dismayed to learn that he has missed the deadline for a certain phenomena to take place that would reveal the opening the previous part entered in a volcano in Iceland. Then Axel points out that when the book was written when the Julian calendar was in used rather than the current Gregorian one, meaning that there were still ten days available. Lindenbrock immediately makes arrangements to travel to Iceland to recreate the author’s journey, taking Axel with him. Despite her protests Glauben is left behind. On the train journey to connect with their ship, the two men discover that they have not purchased any tickets or brought any money with them, something that would normally be organised by the Professor’s niece. Just as they are about to be thrown off at the next station, Glauben appears with tickets and cash. On the boat to Iceland, the trio examine and sort their existing equipment, agreeing to purchase extra items on reaching their destination. Axel agrees to keep a record of their adventure. In an Icelandic hardware store, the group purchase gas masks and torches, along with other essential material. They also employ the services of a shepherd and mountaineer who has been redundant for some months since his flock was wiped by lightning. The man will be paid the cost of one sheep per day in return for acting as a guide and porter. Lindenbrock and his party begin the journey to the volcano the next morning. Making their way across the spectacular but hostile landscape of Iceland, they eventually arrive at the rim of the dormant volcano described in the journal. Exploring the area, the Professor discovers markings made by his predecessor inscribed on a rock…
This version of Jules Verne’s classic novel, scripted by the director, with Carlos Puerto (Violacion Fatal 1978) and American scribe John Melson (El Collectionista de Cadavares 1967) remains faithful to its source in a number of respects. It retains the narration by Axel (Pep Mune), although his character has been changed from Lindenbrock’s raffish nephew of the book to a bumbling, but well meaning army cadet who is a suitor to Glauben, the Professor’s niece. Also preserved are the opening scenes in Hamburg, along with several key sequences that feature heavily in the story including the subterranean sea and the echo chamber, together with encounters with various denizens of the strange world Lindenbrock and his find themselves in.
Piquer and his fellow writers have made some significant changes, however. The first of these is to relocate the story from the 1860s to the end of the 19th century. Next, the runic script which set Lindenbrock off on his adventure has been replaced by a map and secret code that must be used in conjunction with a narrative contained in a separate book. The biggest deviation from Verne though is the expansion of the Professor’s party from three, including Hans the shepherd (Frank Brana, Ataque de los Muertos sin Ojos 1973), to five by the addition of two other characters.
Very much a marginal character in the source material, Glauben is given a much larger part to play in the proceedings, proving to be a technically adept and resourceful member of the expedition, although as dictated by genre convention, prone to screaming fits. Nowhere to be found in Verne’s work is the role of Olsen, a mysterious fellow traveller who encounters the group after saving Glauben from a sulphur pit. He remains an enigma throughout the film, his mission and abilities remaining largely undefined.
In its original literary incarnation “A Journey to the Centre of the Earth” was very much a work of speculative fiction. In it, Lindenbrock and Axel discuss at length a variety of subjects that were popular at the time, including pre-history, evolution and the geological origins of the Earth. Juan Piquer Simon and his collaborators’ ambitions are much more straightforward, using the basic framework of the novel to place the movie’s characters in a variety of extraordinary and perilous situations.
These situations usually involve encounters with the subterranean world’s resident life-forms. These include two brawling sea monsters, a herd of dinosaurs and a giant ape. The ape is very obviously a man in a suit and the illusion is further underlined by the shooting of the sequence at the wrong frame rate. However, it is at least shot from a low angle to emphasise the immense dimensions of the creature, and the mask created for the beast is suitably ferocious and highly flexible.
Considering that until the 1970s there was no real tradition of fantastic filmmaking in Spain, outside the servicing of foreign productions like Nathan Juran’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Don Chaffey’s One Million Years BC (1966), the fact that Piquer (using his own studio facilities in Madrid) attempted such elaborate effects sequences for this venture is remarkable. This is particularly true of the dinosaur footage that features a variety of imaginary creatures in a range of settings. Employing a mixture of rod and hand puppets, together with forced perspective model work, the visual effects team of Franciso Prosper (Supersonic Man 1979) and Emilio Ruiz (L’Umanoide 1979), also the project’s production designers, achieve some remarkable results. Probably the high point of the effects sequences is a bloody battle between two monsters in the sea beneath the Earth’s crust, witnessed the party stranded on a makeshift raft. Along with the encounter with the primate, this is the longest of the effects sequence. Other beasts such as the giant tortoises Axel and Glauben discover on a desolate island, a herd of dinosaurs and a cave dwelling reptile appear for mainly for the purposes of terrorising the couple. Apart from some rather obvious and tatty backdrops, much of Prosper and Ruiz’s efforts are on a par with the Kevin Connor and John Dark Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation being made in the UK, typified by the likes of At the Earth’s Core (1976). It is unfortunate that more screen time was not devoted to them.
In terms of environment, Ruiz and Prosper are largely successful in creating an otherworldly setting for the story to take place in. Of especial note is a forest of giant mushrooms, explored by Lindenbrock together with Glauben and her fiancé. Partially featuring forced perspective miniatures, this sequence largely involves full size mockups of the flora and is a striking achievement. Later, the young couple find themselves on another island and stumble upon a spectacular graveyard containing the bones of many immense creatures including that of a primate (although not the mummified homo sapien featured in Verne’s novel). Nearby is a petrified forest, the habitat of the giant ape mentioned earlier. This appears to have been created using a combination of glass shots, two-dimensional graphics and solid props. The miniature of the set, shown when the ape rips up a tree where Axel and Glauben have taken refuge, is rather well done. Again these effects are only let down by shoddy backdrops. Also featured is a violent storm that lashes the raft they group find themselves. While the storm itself is a spectacular affair (particularly the tidal wave which engulfs them), the way the raft is battered about in the water is poorly staged, with the violence of the event not being convincingly conveyed. This also features some inept model work.
Unable to compete with big budget Hollywood productions in recreating expansive locations in a studio complex (although Piquer and his crew have partially pulled this off), the makers of Viaje al Centrol de la Tierra have instead opted to make use of their own country’s spectacular landscape. Here extensive use is made of the volcanic Canary Islands to stand in both for Iceland and the world located beneath the Earth’s crust. The Icelandic sequences prove to be particularly striking with their vast open spaces, blackened by volcanic ash and cooled lava, coupled with jagged peaks and still-active volcanoes. While not shot very imaginatively by cinematographer Andres Berenguer (Escalofrio 1977), the locations are such that they lend the film a unique visual quality.
The completed version of this work turns out to be an entertaining if completely undemanding family-orientated film. There are indications, however, that Juan Piquer Simon had ambitions of creating something other than a standard “lost world” movie. This becomes apparent with the introduction of the character of Olsen, played by American expatriate Jack Taylor (La Noche de los Brujos 1974). Throughout the script there are references to the possibility of Olsen being a traveller through time and space, perhaps from another world or even dimension. By thought alone he is able to manipulate his physical environment including making the sea boil and causing explosions. He is also seen carrying a mysterious metal box from which strange noises, including seemingly human voices. At one point Glaubert and Axel are led into a cave where they see a futuristic complex populated entirely by clones of Olsen. This is all fascinating stuff, with the plot veering off into potentially exciting areas. Unfortunately, the makers choose not to develop his involvement in the story to any degree and end up employing him as a means of allowing his companions to escape from the subterranean world by arranging a massive explosion. This is an extremely frustrating missed opportunity.
Kenneth More (The Spaceman and King Arthur 1979), a British matinee idol of the 1950s and early 1960s, proves to be an affable Professor Lindebrock. It could be argued, however, that he really lacks the intensity needed to convey the obsessiveness of a Verne character in the way that someone like James Mason (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 1954) or Vincent Price (Master of the World 1961) can. Pep Mune, meanwhile plays his role in a broad manner that eventually makes his comic relief character rather irritating. The relationship between him and Glaubert (Ivonne Sentis, The Sky is Falling 1979) proves tiresome. Overall, the best performance comes from Jack Taylor who manages to convey both the hidden depths of his character and his quiet dignity. There is also a rather witty cameo from Enrique Navarro as the grumpy bookseller who can’t pronounce others’ surnames.
Juan Piquer Simon, a former documentary filmmaker directs the material in a rather detached manner which may indicate the influence of his background in documentary filmmaking. Together with his subdued visual style, this results in rather deliberate pacing of the narrative for the most part, particularly in the first act with the protagonists exploring the caving system leading from the volcano mouth. It is fortunate for the director that the wealth of incident inherent in the plot, alongside the visually striking settings and the imaginative effects work combine to make the movie seem more compelling than it might actually be.
Viaje al Centro de la Tierra ends with Lindenbrock returning to the bookshop and discovering that someone has left him Olsen’s mysterious device. Through a window he sees a greatly aged Olsen, suggesting that a sequel to the tale may have been planned. Sadly this never transpired.
On the strength of this production’s showing at the Cannes Film Festival of 1977, Juan Piquer Simon not only managed to secure a US distribution deal, he also managed to find himself in the enviable position of having most of his subsequent work backed by American money.
His next venture into Jules Verne territory would be Mystery on Monster Island (1981), at the time the most generously budgeted Spanish feature film ever.
On a trivial note, the credits sequence of this picture features extensive and fascinating footage from the work of cinema pioneer Georges Meliere, partially marred by the addition of a particularly cheesy folk-rock song.
©Iain McLachlan 2004
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