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The Mole People

by Glenn Erickson Feb 26, 2019

Not enough love is set aside for this ambitious, under-budgeted Lost Civilization epic. John Agar and Cynthia Patrick find love in an ancient albino race that worships a Death Ray and enslaves a race of Subterranean Humanoid Underground Dwellers — Mole Men, what else?   It’s unconvincing and the production lacks polish, but it’s also got clever story gimmicks and sympathetic monsters, so it gets a warm reception at CineSavant Central.


The Mole People
Blu-ray
Scream Factory
1956 / B&W / 1.85:1 + 2:1 widescreen / 77 min. / Street Date February 26, 2019 / 27.99
Starring: John Agar, Cynthia Patrick, Hugh Beaumont, Alan Napier, Nestor Paiva, Phil Chambers, Rodd Redwing, Robin Hughes, Frank Baxter, Eddie Parker.
Cinematography: Ellis W. Carter
Film Editor: Irving Birnbaum
Mask Maker: Jack Kevan
Special Photography: Clifford Stine
Written by László Görög
Produced by William Alland
Directed by
Virgil Vogel

 

“Mole Hole, Mole Hole — A land of renown!
Iraq is Up and Sumeria’s down!
And the Mole Men go to work in a hole in the ground!”
————————–old Arabian proverb

 

I seem to have a lot to say about this modest monster picture…

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 over 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. Alland skewed his budget dollars toward the promising The Land Unknown (1957), leaving John Sherwood’s The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), Nathan Juran’s The Deadly Mantis (1957) and The Mole People to be produced with table scraps. They were all eclipsed by producer Albert Zugsmith’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), a reasonably-budgeted masterpiece that threw a dark shadow over most of William Alland’s accomplishments.

 

As Alland backed away from the field Universal went even cheaper, and the movies became more desperate. Some appear to have been made as filler to be double-billed with newly-imported Hammer films. Uni had already resorted to Curt Siodmak to produce and direct Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956), and The Thing that Couldn’t Die (1958) was produced and directed by Will Cowan, previously a specialist in short subjects. The more experienced Howard Christie produced director Sherwood’s relatively impressive The Monolith Monsters (1957). Joseph Gershenson took hundreds of music ‘supervision’ credits but was really a producer; he finished off the 1950s sci-fi/fantasy programmers — and his own producing career — with Monster on the Campus (Jack Arnold, 1958), Curse of the Undead (Edward Dein, 1958) and the rather nifty The Leech Woman (also Edward Dein, 1960).

For all its corner cutting, The Mole People is an overachiever. 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). As in most Lost Civilizations, whether on Earth today, Earth in the past, Earth in the Future, the Moon, Venus, Mars or a moon of Jupiter, the main 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. While we’re realizing that the producers have muffed a really good product tie-in opportunity with Eveready, 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 also immune to the death light. That would be very convenient in the romance department, except that the Production Code requires Adad  to be treated as a non-white ‘other.’ As in Bird of Paradise and Broken Arrow, some arbitrary calamity must occur to keep the races separate. The odd thing is that in this case the racist Code rule seems a ridiculous technicality: the light-skinned Adad looks more Caucasian than do our smug American heroes.

Sidebar: the Sumerian city is supposed to be thousands of feet deep in the mountain, so it seems likely that the light would strike the bottom of the vertical shaft less often than your average planetary alignment or ‘magic hour’ sunbeam convergence in an Indiana Jones movie. But Elinu is able to call upon a good blast of high-noon light at most any time, day or night. This revelation doesn’t undo the essential brilliance of writer Görög’s story inventions: little kids follow and understand.

 

Enough with the sociology, what about the 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.

Improving on the mostly decorative Metaluna Mutant, the Mole Men have an important role to play in the plot — they stand in for the native slaves that revolt against tyrant masters in other lost civilization movies. The monsters harvest the mushrooms in charcoal pits blanketed with eerie smoke, a budget version of Dante’s Inferno. When miffed, they can drag victims right down into the ground. Yet they remain sympathetic underdogs. They even come to the aid of 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 Vogel’s dialogue scenes have a good pace, 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. Many more shots appear to place the actors in front of rear-projected stills (I’m pretty sure). The design of the paintings are sub-par, while the optical work is not bad. But 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 it just below Universal’s best ’50s offerings, for its ambition and optimism. Better effects and color might improve it, but then the whole show would have to be upgraded, and how could they get Jeff Chandler and Dorothy Malone to play in a movie like this? We certainly don’t need a trendy ‘meaningful’ screenplay with a political edge — it wouldn’t be pleasant to see John Agar chastise the barbaric Sumerians with socially conscious patronizing:

“Elinu, your cruelty and human sacrifices are shameful, deplorable. ‘Mole People’ are fools that hide from the truth, that won’t learn or change their ways. No, those gentle creatures who feed you aren’t the Mole People — YOU are the Mole People.”


 

Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of The Mole People should be exactly what can’t-wait-to-get-it monster fans want, an improved transfer at its 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 scan removes a couple of bloopers intended to be lopped off by widescreen cropping — which is what it is supposed to do. So we don’t see Weaver’s human-faced Mole Man that’s revealed in a full-frame screen grab pictured here to the right.  Just as with the Black Lagoon telephone pole meant not to be seen in the first Creature movie, things that show up in full frame versions of widescreen movies are just that, things not meant to be seen.

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 — there are fans like Tom that prefer to watch these shows the same way they saw them on TV long ago. The extra 2-1 scan that was likely offered by Universal 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: theaters that couldn’t or wouldn’t convert to widescreen. 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 your projection booth happens to be equipped with five lenses and aperture plates, nobody could project it.

 

Weaver laments the loss of the upper and lower extremes of the frame in the two or three minutes of footage he identifies as sourced in an early- 1950s flat-frame docu about climbing Mount Everest. My response is that the editor cut in the flat stock shots knowing full well what would be cropped. But hey, older fans do remember these things flat on old B&W TV tubes. If Scream wanted to give fans a second scan, why not make folks like Jeffrey Wells happy?

Whack – A – Mole?

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 numerous filming details, aided by access to Universal’s production paperwork. He knows how many takes were required for some shots and can identify which stunt man is working in which scene. He can even second-guess Cynthia Patrick’s claim that she didn’t know that a stunt man would be pulling her down a canvas Mole Hole in the middle of the set — a stuntman wearing a mask that barely lets him see what he’s doing. Weaver 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 is an acquaintance from way back, through editor friend Steve Nielson. He 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. I would think that Mole People received extra music attention because it was lacking in excitement. They had to use every bit of footage to get the film up to minimal theatrical length. Without a wall-to-wall underscore, audiences might grow impatient watching the explorers take those long walks through featureless cave tunnels.

 

Weaver doesn’t mind mildly slamming the producer William Alland, which seems fair enough. The commentary quotes me to diss the film’s not-so-hot matte shots, which are … not so hot. They are as rough as preliminary charcoal sketches, and the pointy Sumerian Royal symbol looks distractingly like a browser cursor: You Are Here.  Mole People’s vista of a wholly unlikely cavern suffers from the same screwy perspective issues in some of the matte paintings of Metaluna in This Island Earth. It’s as if Universal’s effects experts were saving their quality brainpower for the next year’s The Land Unknown. Granted, it’s not easy to design a pleasing underground fantasy world — Journey to the Center of the Earth should have won an Oscar for its inspired parade of colorful subterranean grottoes.

Pellucidar My A — Elbow.

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. Did nobody at USC think his appearance an embarrassment?  That college wouldn’t go near the kind of ‘alternative science’ curriculum found in some schools and colleges now. 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.  It’s dishonest.

 

Scream’s fun extras continue with an MST3K episode for this title, in which the robots really have to stretch to come up with the occasional funny joke. 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.

A making-of docu by Ballyhoo has a new date, but has been revised (I think) from a piece that accompanied an earlier Shout! release of the MST3K Mole People episode. Daniel Griffith taps expert Bob Burns and several fan spokes-folk to gab about the movie, illustrating the speeches with Ballyhoo’s sharp, flashy graphics and whatever PD images seemed appropriate.

Not on the disc but mentioned in Tom’s commentary is a genuine Jay Livingston / Ray Evans song The Mole People. (The red title is a link, like all red text in CineSavant reviews.) It’s a not-bad novelty song, you know, For Kids. The front page of the Livingston & Evans website is Here.

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.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Mole People
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good for monster fans, so what else matters?
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with Tom Weaver, with David Schecter and Jan Alan Henderson; MST3K comedy version, featurette, Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 23, 2019
(5942mole)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.