We’ve all admired director Edward G. Ulmer’s ability to make decent little movies like Detour and The Man From Planet X with nothing beyond a camera and a few actors. He had an uncanny ability to elicit an atmosphere and a look with these movies that belie their abbreviated shooting time and their even more abbreviated budget, so I was intrigued to see how his Journey Beneath the Desert would turn out. Could Ulmer finally be the guy to deliver on the promise of all those “lost races under the earth ruled by sexy broads” movies that inevitably disappointed?
Not really. Ulmer is able to stretch his French-Italian backers’ money and cobbles up some fairly impressive “lost city” sets, though I guess there’s really only about three or four different ones and they usually consist of some fancy steps, doors, and a big grinding wheel that the slaves have to keep turning.
Just so you don’t get the idea that this isn’t a cheap adventure movie, they do have a generous supply of shots featuring lots of fake rocks, fake cave walls and really smooth floors. (Why they could be the floors of a warehouse or soundstage, they’re so smooth!)
The film starts out promisingly enough with three guys (Robert, John, and Pierre) in a helicopter flying over an atomic testing range in the Arabian desert and being forced down in the nearby mountains by some bad weather.
During the storm their helicopter gets blown off the ledge of a mountain. Even though they weigh hundreds of pounds less than the helicopter they don’t blow off the ledge and manage to stumble to some shelter in the mountains.
John, the helicopter pilot, was hurt during the hard landing so they try to make him comfy when they notice a guy going over a waterfall and down a river. I was never sure exactly what type of desert this was, because there were all these rivers, canyons, waterfalls, mountains, and lost civilizations whose citizens wandered around disguised as nomads.
They attempt to rescue him and this involves Robert holding Pierre by the ankles with Pierre straining to reach this guy. After some tense moments (would the guy being rescued smell Pierre’s armpits and just decide to let go and take his chances with the hundred foot drop to the rocks below?) they pull this dude up to safety.
He turns out to be a nomad they flew over not long before the storm started. What the guys in the helicopter didn’t see that we did was that this guy ordered all these slaves with him to be machine gunned, giving us in the audience the sneaking suspicion that this character may not be what he appears to be.
They do a little meet and greet in their shelter and he claims to be in charge of some nomads and his name is Tamal. Tamal is actually the leader of Atlantis and has no intention of letting these guys go.
But didn’t Atlantis sink into the sea? Nope, turns out there was some earthquakes and it sank into the sands of the desert, but because those Atlanteans were really smart, instead of just being suffocated like regular folk who get buried in sand like a bunch of cat turds, they built their civilization under all that sand.
They meet the queen (Antinea) and she takes a liking to the hunky Robert. While Tamal is at work all day, she hangs out with Robert. This pisses off Tamal, who has pined away for his queen forever and leads to a discussion about their relationship.
Uh, that’s great that Tamal wants to talk it out and I realize that talking it out is pretty inexpensive for Ulmer, but raise your hand if you were watching this one hoping to see if Tamal and Antinea could salvage their relationship by rationally discussing their feelings.
There is a fairly entertaining slave-escape sequence where they battle guards and escape via an underground river only to get ambushed on the outside, but by and large the film is a talky affair, marked by forgettable performances by everyone involved. (Antinea seems particularly vapid.)
The movie feels like it should have rightfully finished up after the slaves escaped, so you’ll sigh audibly when Robert gets recaptured and you have to wait for him get loose again in fifteen minutes.
I was never really sure what Tamal was up to with these three guys. If he was going to make them slaves, just get on with it. Instead, they’re put in some spacious cell where they argue amongst themselves, try to escape periodically, and get involved in the queen’s pointless schemes.
There wasn’t much in the way of explaining what was going on with the civilization down there. I think the slaves were mining diamonds maybe, but only because that would be the only thing that makes any sense.
I’m assuming that these underground people did a ton of trading with the outside world because of stuff like the machine guns and Tamal’s nifty weather radio, but why bother even living down there at all, if you just want all the goodies the outside world has?
The movie does have a look that’s above the usual standards of films like this and the queen wears a series of bust enhancing and/or exposing outfits designed to keep her subjects and the audience from dozing completely off, but there’s not enough other action to merit finding this lost city.
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