DVD Review Of The Mole People
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/29/07
Sometimes bad films get reputations that they thoroughly deserve- like Plan 9 From Outer Space, Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, or Robot Monster. These films are so ineptly staged, directed, written, and acted, that they are actually very funny, if not good. Sometimes bad films get reputations that they do not deserve- in the sense of being thought of as good or even great films. These are notoriously lauded films that do not even have the kitsch factor of the aforementioned films. They are dull, plodding, and preachy- like Brokeback Mountain, Crash, Monster, Million Dollar Baby, Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, or Schindler’s List. Then there are films that are thought of as bad, but unfairly so. And it’s not that they are particularly good films, but merely solid, serviceable films that entertain.
One of the best examples of this sort of film that has been unfairly critically maligned is the 1956 Universal-International sci fi/horror film The Mole People. Yes, with that title and made in that decade, one might think that this short, 77 minute long black and white B film is along the lines of the first three mentioned films, or even worse films that lack humor as a redeemer, such as Killers From Space or Devil Girl From Mars. Yet, it actually is a film that has ideas, and is much better than many of the other films that, like it, were parodied on the tv show Mystery Science Theater 3000. Yes, the ideas are silly, and a stretch, but this attempt at seriousness is portrayed from the start in a three minute prologue to the film where a supposed USC professor, Dr. Frank C. Baxter, gives a history of belief in worlds inside the earth. Whether or not Baxter was really a professor at USC is a subject for debate online. Some critics claim he was (and he seems to be, if one Googles his name), and did the film as a favor to the producer, while others claim it an act, just as was used in several Ed Wood films, to lend authenticity. Yet, it works in a kitsch way, especially when the professor intones about the wonders of modern ‘SCIENCE’- that catch-all phrase from the 50s, which could explain any monster, alien, mutation, or horror.
Even better is the fact that the star of the film is that great 1950s superstar of B sci fi films- John Agar, sort of the hammy spiritual godfather to later B film actors like John Saxon, Doug McClure, and Bruce Campbell. After serving in World War Two, Agar became pals with John Wayne- who was looking to associate himself with American glory after sitting out the war, and was cast in John Ford films with him like She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Fort Apache. But, his stock as an actor fell, and he is best remembered for his sci fi B roles in films like this, Tarantula, and most especially The Brain From Planet Arous.
The film was directed by the forgettable Virgil Vogel, and written by one László Görög, but all they really did was string a fifty minute tale- one that would be at home on then contemporaneous tv shows like One Step Beyond, The Twilight Zone, or The Outer Limits, upon recut documentary footage shot in the Himalayas. That, plus a few nifty matte paintings, and this tale of a Sumerian city sunk below a mountain after surviving the Noachian Flood, is enough to make this tale work on a gut and silly level. That plus the fact that the now albino Sumerian descendants have seemingly not had any technical advancement in 5000 years (although they do speak English- although it’s implied that it is Bentley speaking to them in Sumerian, although Bellamin speaks to them too, and he does not know that tongue- oh well!), and enslaved a race of Mole People that archaeologist Dr. Roger Bentley (Agar- in full Great White Rock Hunter mode) and his sidekick, Dr. Jud Bellamin (Hugh Beaumont- in pre Ward Cleaver of Leave It To Beaver fame) long to emancipate, means the film actually had a bit of a social message, putting it more in line with films like The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Other pluses that the film has is the requisite nubile blond outcast, Adele (Cynthia Patrick) - although listed as Adad in online film information when she is clearly called Adele throughout the film, from albino society, who falls in love with Bentley; a pre-Alfred the Butler Alan Napier as Elinu, the scheming and evil Sumerian High Priest; and a dim-witted King Nazar (Rodd Redwing), who- especially in white face, looks amazingly like actor Brent Spiner, who played the android Lt. Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Of course, suspension of disbelief is requisite- especially in things scientific, for the trio of scientists, including Nestor Paiva as Professor Etienne Lafarge (who is killed by a Mole Man) are only a couple of hundred feet below the mountain’s top- of near twenty thousand feet in height, meaning they are still thousands of feet above sea level, for that is the level of their descent when they go after a colleague who has fallen into a crevasse. The Sumerian albinos are also sensitive to light, and when Bentley shines his flashlight on them they think he is their goddess Ishtar’s messenger. Eventually, Elini dissuades the King from this belief, and they plot to kill Bentley and Bellamin. But, a kindness shown to the Mole People results in their rebellion when the two scientists are forced into a tunnel filled with sunlight. They slaughter the Sumerians, and Adad flees to the surface with the two scientists. Once there, an earthquake occurs (one had occurred earlier in the film, and started their adventure in search of Sumerian ruins and wealth), and Adad is killed, and the city buried under rubble. There will be no proof of their adventure, as in so many films. Then, the movie just ends, abruptly, without Agar giving one of his greatly ridiculous pontifications- something he does often in this film, as well as being a staple of his career.
As for the sets and costumes- standard issue crapola. The cave sets are retreads and the Mole People costumes garbage, yet that does make them scarier, especially in black and white, and filmed in semi-dark, for their very raggedness makes them all the more nightmarish. And the fact that Agar’s one little flashlight someone can shine out ahead, yet illuminate his and the others’ faces in the dark is the sort of bizarrely illogical but perfect touch that only B films like this can make enjoyable. Yet, as seemingly forgettable a film as this may sound, it has had a profound impact on later sci fi films. Its influence can be seen on films like Soylent Green and Logan’s Run. In this film, when the albinos reach a certain population- 150, they have to sacrifice citizens in a ceremony by letting them fall into full sunlight. Soylent Green dealt with a society getting rid of the unwanted in an overpopulated society, and Logan’s Run had a sealed off society that killed people once they hit the age of thirty. The Mole People also were an inspiration for The Time Machine’s subterranean fire pit dwelling Morlocks, save that in that film it was the animalistic race which enslaved the meek albino Eloi, and had a human from another society try to seek justice. Beneath The Planet Of the Apes, with its subterranean albino humans, was also affected by this film. By contrast, the only strong influences upon this film may have been the 1951 George Reeves Superman film, culled from the tv show episodes, Superman And The Mole Men, and the 1934 Laurel And Hardy film Babes In Toyland, which presages the Mole People’s rebellion when the similarly raggedy costumed Bogeymen attack Toyland.
The DVD is part of a five film, three DVD package called The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection. The Mole People shares its DVD with another Agar classic- Tarantula, and has no extra features, save the original trailer. The other three films in the set are The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Monolith Monsters, and Monster On The Campus. Universal did a good job in restoring the film- the transfer is very good and the black and white shadows of the cave are effectively used. The film is in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
Aside from its influence on later sci fi films, Agar gets off a great line that presages the 1960s, when he comments on the Sumerians’ habits of eating mushrooms and wonders if they’ve ever smoked dried mushrooms. It’s a small moment, but one that, if seen in the right light, is both comic and subversive, as well as damned insightful into what such a character might be thinking about in such a silly situation. The Mole People is not great cinema, nor even great sci fi in a B mode, and its social commentary is not very deep nor illuminating (yes, slavery is bad), but it has its moments, and it does entertain. It also has John Agar, one of those indelible actors who, for better or worse, is unforgettable in every role he takes on- something even very few A list actors can boast. Besides, any film that can provoke the making of as many quality sci fi films as mentioned, has something going for it. See what it might dig up in you.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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