I confess I've never read Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, and that my only exposure to its story has been through that Filmation cartoon from the 60s, that movie starring James Mason, Pat Boone and a Dimetrodon played by a monitor lizard with a fin taped to its back, and that 3D movie with Brendan Fraser. Okay, you're right; I wouldn't have seen that Brendan Fraser movie even if it meant the fate of the free world. But my point is that, despite never having read the book, my suspicion is that Verne's classic has not been served well by the popular media. Could it be that the Mexican film Aventuras al Centro de la Tierra is the first adaptation to truly get it right? Well, given that Verne doesn't even get a nod in the credits, probably not.
Aventuras is a movie that seems to exist primarily to take advantage of a spectacular natural set, that being the Cacahuamilpa Caverns in Guerrero, Mexico, one of the world's largest natural cave systems. The film even opens on a guided tour of the caverns, during which a pair of hot-to-trot young lovers break off from the group, only to fall into a deep crevice and get attacked by a mysterious monster. In response to this, an expedition into the caverns is organized, headed by the distinguished Professor Diaz (Jose Elias Moreno) and his muy caliente assistant Hilda (Kitty De Hoyos). To prepare the members of the expedition for their adventure, Diaz shows them a film of some dinosaurs fighting. Interestingly, none of them asks him either (a) how he got a film of dinosaurs fighting, or (b) why he just showed them a bunch of borrowed special effects footage from at least two other movies.
Once the gang arrives at the caverns, it's time for the human drama to begin, with the first order of business being everyone pairing off into romantic couples. Hilda cozies up to the dashing Dr. Pena (Carlos Cortes), while the journalist Rios (Javier Solis) decides to pitch his tent with Dr. Laura Ponce (Columba Dominguez), the unscrupulous geologist. (She's all about the gold and diamonds, you see. Fucking geologists!) Once Ponce discovers a hidden diamond deposit, which she tries to keep a secret between herself and Rios, famed hunter Jaime Rocha (David Reynoso, non-masked star of the awesome Blue Demon contra Cerebros Infernales) also tries to insert himself into the mix, paving the way for much murder, betrayal and skulduggery later on.
Alongside these characters, the movie also introduces a number of red shirt types to provide the necessary beast feast. Of course, this being a Mexican film, the inevitable dispatch of each of these faceless ciphers is greeted with much throaty lamentation on the part of the woman folk, even though we aren't even told their names until after they've adventured on into the hereafter. We are also introduced to a character who is only referred to by the others as either "the black man" or "the black servant". I was curious to see whether this would end up being some kind of plot point, but, once the character had been casually picked off a couple of reels later, realized that the overt racism, as is its tendency, was merely there to irreparably mar and make less enjoyable that which contained it.
As is so often the case with these Mexican creature features, Aventuras ultimately saves itself by giving the impression that those behind it were just as excited about cheesy monsters as you were when you were eight years old. Fairly early on, a vampire cyclops makes an appearance, and then, for the final act, an amorous half man/half bat creature takes a shine to Hilda and absconds with her for what seems like a hasty, on-the-fly recap of the plot to Creature from the Black Lagoon. While the bat-man's flying sequences have their dignity preserved by way of some intentionally (I presume) murky photography, the monster suits themselves live up entirely to the scrutiny the camera gives them. For all it's other flaws, Aventuras certainly can't be faulted for not giving good beast.
It's hard to escape the impression that Aventuras al Centro de la Tierra is a film that was made up entirely as its participants went along, with each of its episodic events existing solely to give the actors something to do between all of those shots of them climbing around in the caverns. And, despite the beauty and alien allure of that natural setting, those shots do end up getting pretty tedious. We are constantly told that the expedition party are moving ever closer to the "center of the earth", while at the same time falling prey to the sneaking suspicion that we are merely seeing the same several formations over and over and over.
All of this, of course, comes with the territory. And, if you're someone like me, who thinks that there can never be too many cheesy old B science fiction movies of this type, you'll be happy with the modest addition to the canon this one makes. As for Jules Verne, I'm afraid that, as of yet, his grave is still emitting that distant spinning sound, with the author's corpse perhaps burrowing its way to the center of the Earth even as we speak.