1956 marked the beginning of the downhill slope for the '50s monster boom at Universal. William Alland was still tasked with putting exciting sci-fi fantasy fare on the screen, but was expected to cut costs. Jack Arnold tells everybody he got sick of sci-fi, but it's more likely that Alland either couldn't afford him or didn't want to fight with him for credit for everything: we don't know if Arnold turned down the Technicolor This Island Earth (1955), or if Alland pushed him aside in favor of Joseph Newman. Veteran assistant director John Sherwood and the much younger editor Virgil Vogel stepped up to the director's chair; Universal's The Mole People was Vogel's first directing credit in a career that lasted 'til his death in 1996.
The Mole People hasn't much of a reputation among Uni's latter-day Alland-produced sci-fi pix. Its tiny budget is simply inadequate for its ambitious story, a return to the 'lost civilization' genre dominated by memories of the well-remembered She (1935), the semi-classic Lost Horizon (1937), and 1949's Siren of Atlantis. Producer Seymour Nebenzal was likely able to get that Atlantis going only because he could re-use spectacular scenes from his classic 1932 German movie by G.W. Pabst, Die Herrin von Atlantis. William Alland surely looked for stock footage solutions, but found no appropriate Universal movie with scenes set in a fantastic underground 'Sumerian' city. For his mountain climbing scenes, he was able to source a nonfiction show from the early 1950s that documented the conquest of Mount Everest. As Tom Weaver points out in his commentary, for a later show Alland went 'full Sam Katzman,' building The Deadly Mantis around large quantities of overly-familiar stock footage.
To star in Mole People Alland once again tapped the easy-going John Agar, and plucked the amiable Cynthia Patrick from the contract player list. Nestor Paiva was a 'regular' with Alland, and Alan Napier was a 'regular' in everything, industry-wide. The equally ubiquitous Hugh Beaumont gets almost as much screen time as Agar. The Mole People finds a quartet of archaeologists discovering Sumerian ruins in some high 'Asian' mountains. When they descend into a cave, they stumble into a Lost Civilization of albinos living entirely underground. Having deciphered Sumerian tablets, Dr. Bellamin (Hugh Beaumont) immediately converses in ancient Sumerian (ask a Linguist friend how silly that is) but it doesn't matter, for the language spoken soon switches to English anyway. Neither Dr. Stuart nor the likable Professor Lafarge (Phil Chambers & Nestor Paiva) last very long, but handsome, charismatic Dr. Roger Bentley (John Agar) hits it off with a normal-complected slave girl, Adad (Cynthia Patrick). problem facing our heroes is political: some locals want the heretic outsiders executed, and others don't.
Some Spoilers follow: Screenwriter László Görög brings some good thinking to this hoary setup, combining older ideas with nifty twists of his own. Sort of like H.G. Wells' Morlocks, the Sumerians have been underground so long that they've become pale, mushroom-like albinos. They're highly sensitive to light, even the light from the scientists' flashlights. As they think all light comes from the God Ishtar, they assume that their visitors are messengers from the gods. This gives our heroes a reprieve, at least until their batteries run out. When one of the foreigners is found dead. The illusion of their immortality is spoiled, as in Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King.
The Sumerians also worship a light in a sacred chamber that's so bright, it burns them to death; Sumerian priest Elinu (Alan Napier) calls this light 'the Fire of Ishtar.' It comes in handy for that practice favored by all Lost Civilizations, human sacrifice. For a sacred ritual, a trio of maidens willingly walk into the blazing-bright death chamber OF DOOM.
Spoiler: The death ray turns out to be ordinary sunlight, and therefore only burns the hereditary albino Sumerians. This leads to a clever surprise, when the Sumerian priests sentence the surviving scientists to death. Just like a character in Lost Horizon, Adad comes from outside Sumeria, and is therefore immune as well. That would be very convenient in the romance department, except that the old, racist Production Code office still considered Adad to be non-white. As in Bird of Paradise and Broken Arrow, some arbitrary calamity must occur to keep the races separate. In this film the rule seems a ridiculous technicality. The light-skinned Adad looks more Caucasian than do our smug American heroes.
Let's not forget the film's memorable monsters. The Sumerian city has supply and demand issues. Their limited production capacity of edible mushrooms (their only diet?) drastically limits the population. To grow and harvest the mushrooms they have somehow created a race of Mole-Men, big hulking scaly (not hairy) creatures with giant mole-claws. Since Universal no longer wanted to pay for expensive full-body monster makeups, the Mole Men wear burlap gunny-sack clothing, with only their heads and claws sticking out. Key Mole Men have strange moving mouth pieces more suited for an insect than a mole, otherwise their faces do not change expression. For crowd scenes, less fancy, mass-produced masks appear to be employed.
In this Lost Civilization epic wanna-be, the Mole Men stand in for the native slaves that eventually revolt against their tyrant masters. The monsters harvest the mushrooms in pits that resemble a scaled-down setting from Dante's Inferno, with charcoal Earth and eerie smoke. When miffed, they can drag victims right down into the ground. Yet they're entirely sympathetic underdogs. They even rescue / aid our heroine, Adad.
Virgil Vogel directs as well as could be expected under the circumstances. A ritual dance is dashed off without a single interesting angle, showing how rushed things must have been. But there aren't too many unintentional laughs and we get enough key monster action to make kids happy. With no effects budget, the show is afforded just a handful of matte shots to represent giant ruins and the underground city in its enormous cavern. The design of the paintings is sub-par, while the optical work is not bad. After far too much walking around in pitch-black tunnels, these inadequate effects shots are are not the breathtaking 'reveals' that the movie needs. Fortunately, Vogel does work up a reasonably exciting climax. The lumbering slaves emerge from the ground, attack various victims and stage a fairly good palace coup.
The Mole People is a mole-hill attempt at a Lost Civilization epic, but its engaged performances (minus the low-energy Hugh Beaumont, perhaps) and interesting story twists make up for some slow sequences. I rate the show just below Universal's best '50s offerings, just for its ambition and optimism. Better effects and color might improve it, but then the whole show would have to be upgraded, and who wants to see Jeff Chandler and Dorothy Malone play in a movie like this?
Scream Factory's Blu-ray of The Mole People should be exactly what monster fans want, an improved transfer at a proper aspect ratio with a fine audio commentary. I compared the new scan to the widescreen copy on Universal's 2006 five-title Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection, and it's appreciably wider, especially on the left. The cropping of the original full-frame cinematography is 'racked upward' a bit more than the older transfer, with less foot room and more head room -- Dr. Baxter's bald dome is no longer bisected.
As ace commentator Tom Weaver points out, the widescreen scan removes a couple of bloopers intended to be lopped off by widescreen cropping -- which is what it is supposed to do. I personally see no reason to include a second aspect ratio scan, but since Scream felt the need, a full-frame copy would have been the way to go -- fans like Tom prefer to watch these shows the same way they saw them on TV long ago. The extra 2:1 scan simply trims a hair off the top and bottom of the 1:85 frame. By 1956 Universal's standard aspect ratio had been established at 1:85 for over a year, with the stipulation that the camera department should 'protect' the image all the way to full frame by keeping microphones and cables out of sight. This was done to not ruin things for the many non-standard projection situations out in the sticks; the full frame may have been protected in anticipation of TV use as well. It's true that some Universal pub materials call out 2:1 for some movies, and I'm not sure why -- unless a projection booth came equipped with five lenses and aperture plates, nobody could project it.
Tom Weaver picks fun at The Mole People in his commentary, and so do his voice associates Jan Alan Henderson and David Schecter. But Weaver has been lovingly documenting the picture for decades. He fills us in on a number of filming details, aided by access to Universal's original production paperwork. Weaver also interviewed more than a few of the cast and crew, so he has additional input, mostly from contractees that wished they were working on something else. John Agar recalled when Rock Hudson, who was by this time a big star in top-of-the-line 'A' pix, visited the set. He felt humiliated when Rock un-graciously asked, "How'd you get stuck in this thing?"
Guest commentator Jan Alan Henderson recounts his relationship with actor John Agar, especially at the end. He refers to the famed 'fan' gathering in Agar's honor, to see a then-rare VHS of the actor's Hand of Death. Also claiming a chunk of commentary time is music expert David Schecter, who goes through every cue in detail. Unlike other budget Universal productions, most of the (rather good) music for Mole People was composed just for this particular film. Without a wall-to-wall underscore, audiences might grow impatient watching the explorers take those long walks through featureless cave tunnels.
Tom goes pretty easy on Dr. Baxter's phony 'science' prologue, which might be the sleaziest sequence of its kind in 1950s movies. English professor Baxter promoted himself as a 'science guy' celebrity spokesman, but not a genuine scientist. Baxter appears to have generated the speech himself, as a fan of fantastic hollow Earth theories popularized by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Although he doesn't say that they're scientific fact, his show'n'tell session would certainly have given impressionable kids that notion.
Scream's fun extras continue with an MST3K episode for this title. The scan is full frame, which leaves the top of the screen mostly empty. Since the 'protected' lower part of the frame is equally empty, the robot hecklers covering the bottom doesn't block any essential content.
For a making-of docu by Ballyhoo, Daniel Griffith taps expert Bob Burns and several fan spokes-folk to gab about the movie, illustrating the speeches with sharp, flashy graphics and whatever PD images seemed appropriate. A fairly exciting trailer (using several alternate takes) is included, along with a still gallery. We really liked looking at some of these stills in old issues of Famous Monsters; I remember buying a photo-comic of the movie, too. Both of Shout's reversible covers appear to be from good original art by Reynold Brown.
The Mole People
Text (c) Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson