Monday, March 2, 2015

Unknown World (1951)

... aka: Night Without Stars
... aka: To the Center of the Earth

Directed by:
"Terrell" (Terry) O. Morse

After the success of ROCKETSHIP X-M (1950), which road on the coattails of the bigger-budgeted DESTINATION MOON (1950) yet managed to even be released before it, Lippert Pictures gave us this follow-up sci-fi cheapie which borrows many of its ideas from Jules Verne's 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth and Edgar Rich Burroughs' 1914 novel At the Earth's Core. No credit was given to either Verne or Burroughs, though the advertisements still managed to remind audiences that this was about “A journey into the center of the Earth!” The project was conceived and put together by special effects men Irving Block and Jack Rabin, who not only did the fx but also produced, did the production design and at one time co-owned the film rights. The copyright was apparently not renewed at some point so the film is now in the public domain and has been released on both DVD and VHS through numerous labels over the years. Director Morse (primarily an editor by trade) had previous made the stagy horror-mystery Fog Island (1945) starring George Zucco and Lionel Atwill but would become best known for shooting scenes featuring Raymond Burr that were added to the Japanese monster movie Gojira (1954) for its American release under the title Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956).

Newsreel stock footage warns of the dangers of The Atomic Age (“The paralyzing panic of our time!”) before we meet famed geologist Dr. Jeremiah Morley (Victor Kilian, who was uncredited due to being part of the Hollywood “Blacklist”). Because of the threat of nuclear war, Morley has formed “The Society to Save Civilization” and come up with a plan to preserve human life on this planet just in case such a war should break out. He gathers together a crack team of scientists that includes Dr. Max A. Bauer (Otto Waldis), an imminent German geophysicist who was ousted by Hitler during WWII, Dr. James Paxton (Tom Handley), an award-winning metallurgical engineer, Dr. Joan Lindsey (Marilyn Nash), a medical doctor, biochemist and “ardent feminist,” Dr. George Coleman (Dick Cogan), authority on soil conservation, and Andy Ostergaard (Jim Bannon), “sand hog,” explosive's expert and marine veteran of WWII. The team plans to construct a “Cyclotram,” a burrowing device with a large drill on its tip, to dig deep into the center of the Earth where they hope to discover fissures and tunnels large enough to potentially serve as a “geological shelter” against radiation.

Taking their plan in front of the Carlisle Foundation, the group are denied funds for the project, while the press labels Dr. Morley a “prophet of doom” and just like that a year of hard work seems to go right down the drain. Luckily, they're eventually bailed out by an unlikely source; cocky, immature Wright Thompson Jr. (Bruce Kellogg), the son of a prominent publisher whose relationship with his father he sums up in just seven words: “He makes the money. I spend it.” Wright promises to fund it under one condition: He also gets to come along on the adventure. Having no other option, the team agrees. Construction of the Cyclotram is soon underway, fuel problems are solved and a concentrated food source as well as a machine to transform snow into drinking water are developed. The finished Cyclotram is loaded aboard a ship and hauled off to an inactive (and fictional) volcano called Mt. Neleh in the Aleutian Islands “where the inside of the Earth begins."

Several miles into the Earth's surface, the team find a warning from a previous 1938 expedition, but continue on for hundreds, and eventually thousands, of miles in search of an adequate underground paradise. Along the way, they discover limestone caverns 200 million years in the marking, eyeless fanged fish, pearl-like rocks and fossils of long-extinct species and also encounter numerous threats, including pressure from a nearby active volcano, hot steam, rocky embankments, pockets of toxic gas, a water shortage and, of course, each other when stress levels increase, personalities clash and the fate of the whole mission is put in jeopardy after several accidental deaths. Will the survivors manage to discover what they're looking for and, granted they do, will it be suitable to sustain future generations? Or was this whole mission just a big waste of time and money?

Though this film is patently absurd from a scientific standpoint, if you're just looking for a mild sci-fi adventure you can turn your brain off to and pass an hour with, this will do the trick about as well as anything else. It's sometimes sluggishly-paced, very talky and boasts some pretty lame model effects (especially the toy-looking Cyclotram), but there's just enough plot complication to keep it going. The eventual discovery of a huge underground cavern that's brightly-lit due to fluorescent gas and contains a large sea of fresh water provides some genuine last minute interest, though one wishes this idea had been expanded upon more and the filmmakers hadn't already wasted so much time showing characters aimlessly walking around in dimly-lit caves. Unlike most other “lost world” style fantasy films (including the aforementioned works of Verne and Burroughs), this doesn't feature any kind of monster. The threats to the crew are all created by Mother Nature, or one another.

As was customary with many films of this type from this particular era, there's at least an earnest and well-meaning message in here about how it's better to face one's problems head on that try to run and hide from them. Known during production as Night Without Stars, this was partially filmed at Carlsbad Caverns National Parks in New Mexico, with additional bits filmed at the even-popular Bronson Caves in Los Angeles.

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