MOLE PEOPLE, 1956
Starring: John Agar, Cynthia Patrick, Alan Napier, Phil Chambers, Nestor Paiva, Rodd Redwing, Robin Hughes
An archeological investigation through Sumerian ruins leads a team of scientists into an long-forgotten, underground civilization of light-averse natives, and their monstrous slave-creatures.
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The iconoclastic B-film and conspiracy-theory-punchline The Mole People is both harrowing and frustrating, a film that manages to set the right moods and nail the right beats, only to ruin them with awkward dialog (even for a 50s sci-fi film) and uneven padding. Itís not-so-subtle commentary on the nature of civilization, religion, and control is ultimately marred by the very means in which the film expresses that commentary.
Itís hard to tell if Virgil himself possessed his own doubts about the audienceís ability to accept the events throughout, or if he was genuinely interested in letting his audience think outside the geological box. The Mole People begins with a ďprofessorĒ who preaches to the viewers of the potential of hidden worlds inside the earth, as hypothesized by various philosophers and theoretical archeologists. Itís simultaneously amusing and fascinating, mainly because of its absurdity (Iím pretty sure people in the 50s were aware of what the inside of the earth looked like), but at the very least it may opened a few minds.
But itís irrelevant; having a professor attempt to instill the suspension of disbelief into the audience doesnít bode too well for the film itself. Luckily, The Mole People does a fairly decent job, emphasis on fairly. During an archeological dig, John Ager and his fellow archeologists find Sumerian pottery, which leads them to a rigorous trek up a mountain to some long-lost Sumerian ruins. But thatís not all! An inadvertent cave-in leads our team to a hidden, underground civilization of religious albinos who worship a symbol called the eye of Ishtar, whip monstrous-looking creatures into slave-submission, and maintain their small population by killing, er, sacrificing their members.
The Mole Peopleís biggest issue is how much it pads itself with filler. Sometimes this is done well: the scenes of the scientists wandering around the dark caves creates a moody, disorienting effect, and having one member of the team suffer from the fatigue and heat raises the tension a little. But most of the padding is useless. The trek to the mountain, for example, just goes on and on and on Ė and then they arrive. A ritualistic dance from an ambiguously gendered person has no visual charm or seems meaningful in any way. Ager and his partnerís walking commentary of the mole peopleís lifestyle reeks of ethnocentric snide. Not very objective.
I was intrigued how our usual female lead would be introduced, and not seeing her as part of the original archeological team gave me pause. Would she parachute in randomly? Would one of the monsters transform into a beautiful gal? Would she just materialize? All of that would be hilarious, but no: instead, one of the mole peopleís slave girls is Ďmarkedí, which means sheís not albino but pure-skin Caucasian. Which works for me; what didnít work was the casual, pretty-much exploitative manner in which Agarís character is linked to her. Agarís archeological partner just leaves without any scientific protest, leaving him and Cynthia Patrickís character gushing over each other, without any of the awkward tension that would really arise from such a scenario. It may have been imperative to link the leads, but the method in which this happens is just too forced for comfort.
To make matters more complicated, according to IMDB, the ending was retooled since the filmmakers didnít want to imply an interracial relationship. So even the marked female, as pretty and as Caucasian as Agar, had to be killed off instead of maybe creating controversy. Again, anachronistically speaking, itís understandable, being the 50s and all, but I canít help but think itís an extreme reaction. After all, youíre not making a high-budget hit here.
But to the filmís credit, there is a lot of good stuff. I enjoyed the suspicious high priest, whose disbelief of the scientists as Ishtarís prophets combined with his paranoia over his loss of power seethes with conflict potential. In addition, have the king of the Mole People a staunch believer added an extra layer that made me wish we focused on them. Iím not sure how I felt about their treatment of the creatures Ė Iím not sure if it was effective or not Ė but it created an endearing moment when Agar treats them as human, giving them enough chutzpah to fight back against the albino people and rebel. It ends with a pretty nifty battle scene.
The Mole People is equal parts iconic classicism with equal parts cinematic failure. But the overall effect is as least interesting and telling. One canít help but truly admire what the filmmakers were trying to, even if they stumbled so often along the way.