Don’t Open That Door! #12: 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' (1959)

Welcome to our weekly field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: it's time to gird our loins for a Journey to the Center of the Earth

Director: Henry Levin
Cast: James Mason, Pat Boone, Arlene Dahl, Gertrude the Duck
US theatrical: 1959-12-16

Alternative title: The Jules in the Ground


* Big-budget "A" movie adaptation with some genuinely thrilling moments.

* Lavish sets, good effects, fun monsters, and decent performances.

* Once things get rolling along, there's one episode after another.

* Gertrude the duck.

* Fun climactic scene.


* Slow start.

* Lame songs and Scottish (really?) accents.

* Gender-based "humor" gets grating fast and goes on too long.

SYNOPSIS: Newly-knighted Edinburgh professor Sir Oliver (you can tell he's Scottish because of the kilted bagpipers strutting around everywhere) begins experiencing numerous disturbing phenomena, such as students breaking into song whenever he enters the classroom. One student in particular, McEwan, shows his respect by wearing a horrible green jacket and giving the professor a rock. This unbalances the old boy so much he decides there's nothing to do but throw a boring dinner party, where McEwan pines for Oliver's unpleasant niece Jennie, who name-drops Robert Burns but (perhaps thankfully) doesn't know enough of his poetry to recite any. Sadly, the same can't be said for McEwan, who resurrects "My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose" in the form of a saccharine torch ballad. It's that kind of movie.

Perhaps sensing how tedious his dinner party is, Oliver escapes to his lab, studying McEwan's rock and making things explode. Following a post-boom revelation, Oliver becomes preoccupied with traveling down an Icelandic volcano to explore the center of the planet. (Winters are long in Scotland, and sometimes that uisge beatha flows a little freely.) Before you can say "misunderstood genius or misguided crackpot?" Oliver is tromping his way across Iceland, trailed by a crooning (*sigh*) McEwan. Little do they realize that the nefarious Evil Scientist Who Looks Like Lenin is busily plotting; Professor Oliver, who's pretty dumb for such a smart guy, gets knocked in the head and tossed in a feather barn, along with McEwan. Bloody Continentals! Happily, they're rescued by a duck named Gertrude. It's that kind of movie, too.

Next thing you know, the Evil Scientist Who Looks Like Lenin is rendered incapable of further mischief, if you know what I mean, and is replaced by the Evil Guy Who Looks Like That Dumb Kid in Fourth Grade Who Used to Beat Everybody Up. Finally—46 minutes in—we get down to the business of journeying to the center of the earth, the expedition now being rounded out by Lenin's widow Carla and a big Icelandic hunka burnin' manhood. Also the duck, who you just know is going to play a pivotal role at some point.

It turns out the center of the earth is quite a colorful place, albeit a dangerous one, prone to saltslides, floods, whirlpools and gigantic lizards with dimetrodon fins attached to their backs. At least the mushroom forest is an pleasant respite from the constant danger, but the last hour of the movie is essentially one "How do we get out of here?" moment after another. Which come to think of it, is probably a pretty accurate depiction of what anyone would be thinking if he or she was wandering around down there.

Also, the duck is great. But then, I love ducks.

Best line of dialogue: "To melt lava will take as long as it takes lava to melt!"

What gets pulverized: A piece of lava; a scientist; a servant; a delightful waterfowl; a horrible person; a number of large lizards (implied); the reputation of a French novelist of some renown.

What gets saved: Um, nothing comes to mind right away.

Did you notice? After Oliver tells him—twice—to go away and book passage for Iceland, McEwan takes one step sideways, folds his arms and listens to the rest of the scene.

Party game: Play "Mushrooms." Get a bunch of people and a bunch of mushrooms and--oh heck, you can take it from there. (Alternative games: "Beer," "Peach Schnapps," "Uncle Louie's homebrew," "Aunt Natalie’s homegrown," "CO2 cartridges from Wal-Mart," "Those funny cigarettes I found in my kid's backpack." Think up your own!)

This reminds me of… … the 2008 remake, starring Brendan Fraser. Yeah, I know. The guy from George of the Jungle. I know.

Somehow their careers survived: James Mason (Oliver) was an A-list actor who worked with huge directorial names; his credits include roles in Hitchcock's North By Northwest (1959), Kubrick's Lolita (1962), Lord Jim (1965), Sam Peckinpah's ultra-violent Cross of Iron (1977), and The Boys From Brazil (1978); he also played Captain Nemo in 1954's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Compared to him, Pat Boone (McEwan) was just a youngster, but he would go on to a lengthy and multifaceted career as an actor and musician. Arlene Dahl (Carla) played a kleptomaniac in 1956's Slightly Scarlet and would star opposite Telly Savalas in the 1969 western Land Raiders. Icelander Peter Ronson (Hans) never appeared in any other movie—too bad! The same can be said for Gertrude the Duck (duck). Bernard Herrman's musical score, while not as majestic as his work on The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) or Psycho (1960), still packs plenty of oomph.

BOTTOM LINE: Visually dazzling and occcasionally cringeworthy, it's well worth taking in on a weekend afternoon--if you can get past the dull setup.

NEXT WEEK: 4D Man (1959)


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