Sunday, February 18, 2024

Aventura al centro de la tierra (1965)

... aka: Adventure at the Center of the Earth
... aka: Adventure in the Center of the Earth
... aka: Adventures at the Center of the Earth
... aka: Adventures to the Center of the Earth
... aka: Adventure to the Center of the Earth

Directed by:
Alfredo B. Crevenna

Mexican genre movies from the 1960s have maintained a certain level of interest over the years, but most of the focus seems to fall on the camp appeal of their wrestler movies featuring Santo, Blue Demon, Mil Máscaras, etc. While a lot of those are certainly fun, there are quite a few other worthy titles that often get lost in the shuffle. Take this one, for instance. Doing IMDb and Letterboxd searches, about 90 Mexican horror films turn up for the decade and Adventure is definitely not among the more popular ones. In fact, it barely ranks above a bunch of movies no one has had access to for over 50 years now and may even be lost forever. Maybe this one has been forgotten because of direct competition from the multitude of other, older, typically much higher budgeted "Center of the Earth" / Jules Verne, or Verne inspired, films?

The most likely culprit though is availability issues. While most other Mexican genre films from this era have a wealth of posters, lobby cards, production stills, etc. available, ones for this title are exceedingly rare; a strong indicator that the original theatrical release was either extremely limited or somehow compromised. It never played theatrically outside of the Americas to my knowledge and also hasn't been well served on home video since then. Despite being technically released, none of the official home viewing releases were in English. Some bootleg copies on DVD-R (like the one found on Trash Palace) have English fan subs but, as you can probably tell from the many slightly altered alt titles listed above, no one seemed to even be able to agree on a title translation.

Sneaking away from their tour group, love birds Julia (Carmen Molina - THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE) and Pedro (Carlos Nieto) fall into a deep hole and end up in the bowels of an elaborate underground cave system. Unable to climb out, they're then attacked by something with a clawed, reptilian-like hand. The two are eventually found; she frozen in a state of shock and he frozen in a state of death after having his throat ripped out. Julia is taken to the hospital and administered sodium pentothal to induce a responses while under hypnosis. While she recalls most of the events, what she actually saw down there she's a little more vague about and too terrified to speak of.

Word gets around to the esteemed Profesor Díaz (José Elías Moreno) about what's occurred and he promises to get to the bottom of things. An expedition is organized and the participants are announced. Along with Díaz, there will be physician Dr. Peña (Carlos Cortés), geology professor Laura Ponce (Columba Domínguez) and speleologist, adventurer and hunter Jaime Rocha (David Reynoso - NARCO SATANICO). All of those names are given in rather flat fashion but then we enter into more problematic territory, which may be another of the reasons this has been kind of buried! The professor's assistant, Hilda Ramírez (Kitty de Hoyos), is called "beautiful" but it's assured that will in no way inhibit her "efficiency" in case you believe a woman's looks have anything to do with job performance. Even more jaw-dropping is the announcement that "The black servant of Dr. Díaz" will be joining them. Another guy asks, "Why a black man?" with an incredulous look on the face. Response: "He's the cook."

The team are all shown movie clips from One Million B.C. (1940) and Unknown Island (1948) to give them some idea of the types of giant lizards and dinosaurs they may encounter while underground. There's also a late addition to the group not initially announced; writer Manuel Ríos, who's played by Javier Solís. Solís was a very popular Mexican singer at the time and even randomly breaks into song during one of the slower moments! Tragically, the singer / actor died at the age of just 34 during gall bladder surgery just a few years after this was made.

Arriving at the caves, they're joined by a local guide named Apolinar (Ramón Bugarini), his brother and some other men and everyone ventures inside and set up base camp. Even before running into anything too freaky, dangers in the cave system are everywhere. Of course there's always the possibility you could slip while climbing or fall into a hole or get hit with a falling rock, but there are also a lot of other living hazards around, like snakes, lizards, "billions" of bats and even a random armadillo or two. During one very surprising scene, a slew of real snakes are covered in gasoline and set ablaze! (Note: I couldn't 100% tell if this was real or a really good superimposition effect due to the quality of the print I viewed but it certainly looked real and there were no other visual effects of this type in the movie.)

After a pair of eyeballs are photographed peering from the darkness, everybody is instructed to continue exploring... well, almost everybody ("You, Hilda, and the black man must return to the camp!") Laura proves to be something of a schemer and was only interested in getting into geology to strike it rich finding precious gems. Once she locates a diamond in the government-owned caves, she and Manuel plot to secretly swipe a bunch while they're there. She wanders off by herself while the others are sleeping to take a look around and runs afoul a man-in-a-suit cyclops lizard monster thingy with sharp teeth, sharp claws and a tail. She gets roughed up but survives the attack. Apolinar's brother isn't so lucky in a follow-up attack and becomes the first casualty. Unperturbed by these incidents, everyone agrees to continue deeper into the cave until they finally reach the center of the Earth, where more horrors are discovered.

If you can look past some seriously questionable character actions (like setting off a huge bundle of dynamite underground without a care in the world), preposterous bits (dangling right over a bubbling "river of lava" without so much as breaking a sweat) and the aforementioned casual sexism and racism, there's plenty of stuff to enjoy here. For starters, it was filmed at Grutas de Cacahuamilpa in Guerrero, Mexico (one of the largest cave systems in the entire world), and you really couldn't ask for a better, more atmospheric setting for a film like this. 

The director is also able to keep things tense most of the time and even manages to generate some genuine excitement and suspense in certain scenes. It's fast paced, doesn't wear out its welcome at just 78 minutes, offers up a few surprises and is entertaining throughout.

The effects are typical of a low budget Mexican film from this same time (i.e. pure cheese) but at least there's some monster variety going on with the addition of a winged creature and a giant spider. The best make-up job on one of the monsters (seen only in extreme close-up) appears to have been taken from another film entirely, and some other shots (like the lava) are clearly from another source since the aspect ratio is completely different than the rest of the film. There's a surprisingly high body count and a decent amount of blood for a 60s film.

Presumably, this was released to U.S. theaters in 1966 by Columbia Pictures (the b/w lobby card seems to prove this), but only the Spanish language version. IMDb claims it was given a Spanish-only VHS release by Something Weird Video in 1996, though I couldn't find a single copy of that video cassette to verify this and the title isn't currently listed on their website. What I can verify is that the same company used footage from the film (which they titled "Adventures at the Center of the Earth") on an earlier video release titled Mexican Monsters on the March (1994). In 2004, the company Xenon officially released this on DVD but, again, only in Spanish.

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