Posted by medusamorlock on October 31, 2010
There’s nothing like a monster movie from your childhood to keep hold of your imagination LONG after you’ve grown up — waaay up! Though it isn’t a horror movie per se – not a mummy or a ghost in sight — Universal’s 1956 feature The Mole People has some creepy scaly reptilian underground monsters that give the Morlocks of The Time Machine a run for their money.
The movie starts with a super introduction by Dr. Frank Baxter, the USC professor of literature who had a second career as a popular and Emmy-winning television presenter of educational programs and most famously a series of films for Bell Science Labs such as “Hemo the Magnificent” and “Our Mr. Sun” which many of us saw in our elementary school classrooms. I know I did, and I loved them. His intro to The Mole People is mocked mercilessly by many reviewers, but it’s interesting and he’s delightful, I think. I’m there.
The Mole People is one of those adventure monster movies that grounds itself in science — in this case archeology — and then gleefully descends into crazy science fiction. It’s got that wonderful serious tone that entices you along to follow a band of intrepid archeologists as they travel up into the desolate mountains of Asia in search of a lost ancient civilization of Ishtar. Treacherous avalanches endanger the group, but the discovery of a statue’s hand high atop an isolated peak drives the men forward. And there it is — the ruins of a Sumerian temple! Eureka!
We should introduce the participants before we go further. Of greatest interest to me as a classic TV lover is the down-to-earth actor Hugh Beaumont — best known as Ward Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver – as one of the scientists, and breezy leading man John Agar as his glib cohort. “Archeologists are underpaid publicity agents for dead royalty” he quips early on. When one of their fellow explorers falls through a crack on the temple grounds, the stalwart Agar descends in for a rescue. This may be cut-rate Indiana Jones, but it’s pretty good for 1956, and it’s played straight. It’s bare bones adventure, in documentarian B&W, and it works. The rest of the party follows. The cave set is good, with limited visibility and much use of flashlights (which fellow Morlock RHS wrote about here) to spotlight the areas of interest.
I don’t know about you, but I want my B-grade science fiction films to be really serious. When the notions are preposterous, I want my actors taking it in with no sense of irony or camp. (The audience, especially these days, supplies plenty of that, unfortunately.) I especially like actors playing scientists when they’re walking slowly through dark tunnels with much trepidation, ready for danger and hopefully some monsters. We get that with The Mole People.
At least these are guys who are searching for something, searching for knowledge. It’s great to see heroes who are smart — however movie-goofy their science and history is — and doing it for the advancement of brains everywhere. What we also get are those monsters, and there’s a creepy scene where Mole People surprise the men while they’re sleeping, slip bags over their heads, and drag them down through the sand into a hidden lair filled with skeletons chained to the rock walls. You expect them to be eaten by the Mole folks, but instead a rock opens and they’re greeted by very pale soldiers in ancient garb who gesture for them to follow. The scientists take it pretty calmly, too, only mildly puzzled. “Gentlemen, we’re in 3000 B.C.” Agar happily states when they finally see the underground temple structure ahead.
At this point The Mole People begins to look like a pretty good episode of original Star Trek, even down to the configuration of the three scientists – ala Kirk, Spock and Dr. McCoy. Alan Napier — Alfred from Batman — is the high priest, and the men are hauled before the ruler to explain if they’re gods or not. No, they’re just brawny scientists who at first try to use swords but then discover that their flashlights — “The Burning Light” — are the better weapon against these pale-eyed, never-seen-the-sun unpigmented albino captors. Our scientists are a threat to the undisturbed purity of Ishtar, even more of a threat than the monsters who have been somewhat domesticated — actually enslaved — by the pale ones. They labor under the eyes and whips of the soldiers, and dine on giant mushrooms tossed out as small payment for their toil producing the food.
The High Priest tries to make buddies with the scientists — there are only two left now — and they put on a fancy feast for the visitors, dishes served by pale ladies dressed in white robes, all of them dark-haired except for one blonde beauty who gets a vicious whipping for dropping her plate of mushrooms at the sight of the newcomers. When John Agar intervenes in the whipping, the Priest immediately pimps her out to him — talk about hospitality! Our duo learns about population control here — too many born and they’re sacrified in the divine light of Ishtar — and Agar has a heart-to-heart with the lovely fair-haired Adad (Cynthia Patrick). Very Star Trek-ky — he’s like a less horny Captain Kirk — especially reminiscent of Kirk’s relationship with Shahna in “The Gamesters of Triskelion”. The High Priest observes them talking and hmmmm……
The scientists admire the ingenuity of the Ishtarians – forges powered by lava — while the priest tries to convince his people that the newcomers are bad for business. Take their cylinders, he advises, and Ishtar will have all the power again. Maybe not too hard to accomplish; while Beaumont and Agar have a long sitdown and fantasize about Agar’s progeny with Adad playing baseball in front of the temple — if they have to stick around, of course — a minion of the priest tries to snatch their flashlight. Unsuccessfully. This time.
The scientists witness the guards whipping and starving the overworked Mole monsters — it’s an unjust society. Soon Agar is explaining “love” to Adad, and promises to take her back to the surface, but she is a “marked one” and has her doubts. Now the High Priest sets his ultimatum — the scientists give up their flashlights so that the beasts can be controlled — but our boys will have none of that. No abetting slavery for them. Several beasts are chained and ordered to be whipped to death, quite brutally, and Agar & Beaumont intervene. The batteries in their light die out, but not before they have driven the guards away. They free the beasts, who walk away gratefully, and one turns around to express thanks. Scientists 1, Ishtar 0, in the war for the Mole monsters hearts.
Next there’s a strange ritual — a crazy (and quite long!) dance by a temple maiden, kind of like the B-movie version of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” number from The King and I — while other gals kneel, dark robes around them. What’s up? The priest puts on a dark hood, opens the door to a chamber with blinding sunlight from above, and the girls walk forward. Uh oh…the first girl drops her robe (discreetly for the kiddie matinée crowd, but titillating nonetheless) and walks into the flesh-searing light. The other two follow, sacrificing themselves, nekkid as jaybirds, for the good of their civilization. It’s disturbing and fascinating. We next see the door being opened to a now-dark chamber, and soon the poor burnt-up girls are brought out on stretchers, their duty done. This part really got to me as a kid. Yikes!
The High Priests has had all he can take. He shows the dead body of the third scientist to the ruler — “Mortal!” and so everybody agrees the intruders must be destroyed. They’re not gods, just a couple of guys who are going to ruin everything for Ishtar if they get out alive and tell others about this little piece of heaven down under. Beaumont and Agar are fed drugged mushrooms, fall asleep and are captured, and the priest gets the dead-battery flashlight, thinking it’s full power. Adad runs through the sinkhole fields where the beasts grow the mushrooms, and is pulled — or dives — below to hide. Agar and Beaumont are put into the sun chamber, the beasts made a raid on the temple, coming forward en masse to assault the pale ones. “We’ve nothing to fear, I have the burning light” the priest assures, but it’s useless and he’s clobbered and out.
Adad returns to try to free the men from the chamber, only to be helped by a cadre of beasts who break down the door to help their friends. Adad looks up and sees the sun — The Eye of Ishtar — and she and Agar are reunited. “It’s warm, it’s beautiful” she says. “You will take me with you.” Is that a statement or a question? The trio climb out, finally reaching the surface. “Welcome to our world,” offers Beaumont, and they change into hiking gear. There’s a huge earthquake, Adad runs in fear and is crushed beneath a huge pillar, and dies, as does her whole underground civilization.
Kind of a mean trick to play on Adad, I’d say, and not very nice for Agar, either. But I guess there couldn’t be any traces of Ishtar left — except for a bunch of dead bodies — so maybe she had to die. Too bad, though!
The Mole People was mercilessly mocked by Mystery Science Theatre on Episode 803, and their version is on YouTube, starting here, but I would recommend a watch of the whole movie, which is available on GoogleVideo, here. Look, it’s not the best, but it’s a neat little tale with some effective SF elements and some good monsters who turn out to have a genuine beef. These days I’m all for audiences seeing anybody at all rebelling against evil powers that be. See, it can be done — maybe by the mole beasts by storming Ishtar, and maybe by us at the ballot box in our fight against the takeover of America by corporations. That’s our scary battle, and I sure wish we could find a magic flashlight to make it all better!
There are some great sites with additional information on The Mole People, should you be sufficiently intriguied to seek them out. I highly recommend Shadow’s B-Movie Graveyard and the insanely detailed review on his site — it’s incredible! — as well as a good assessment on the MonsterHunter Dynamic Film Criticism site. The Sci-Fi Block has a good write-up on their site, and there’s another long and snarkybut funny account on The Monster Shack. The completely awesome Monstrous Movie Music Site has a selection of music from The Mole People available for purchase, and also a wonderful article detailing the score’s composition and content. Good lobby art here on the Coming Attractions of the Past blog, and even more at Wrong Side of the Art blog, where some of the images in this post came from. There is a recent new DVD release with The Mole People along with several other Universal science fictions films of the 1950s, and Robert Siegel from Digital Bits reviews the release there. Gary Tooze’s always interesting DVD Beaver website also reviewed the collection.
It does my heart good to know that I’m not the only one remembering The Mole People. Some out there aren’t as unconditional in their love as I am, but that’s okay. I really dig The Mole People anyway!
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