August 23, 2012
Science fiction films, particularly those creature features from the 1950s, usually dealt with aliens from another world traveling through space in an attempt to invade or colonize Earth. But what about the beings who have always been here, hiding just out of sight? Prolific television Western director Virgil W. Vogel (“Wagon Train” and “The Big Valley”) asked that same question in 1956 when he made The Mole People, creating one of the most unique sci-fi monster movies ever made.
The Mole People begins with a lengthy – almost 5 minutes of the film’s short 77 minute running time – explanation of a far-fetched scientific hypothesis called the hollow earth theory by a very real scientist named Dr. Frank C. Baxter. After Dr. Baxter warns the viewer that the movie they are about to see is a fictionalized representation of these theories, the film starts in Asia, where Dr. Roger Bentley (Universal sci-fi stalwart John Agar from Tarantula and Revenge of the Creature), Dr. Jud Bellamin (Hugh Beaumont, Beaver’s dad on “Leave it to Beaver”), Dr. Paul Stuart (Phil Chambers from “The Gray Ghost”) and Professor Etienne LaFarge (Creature from the Black Lagoon’s Nestor Paiva) have just discovered an ancient stone tablet. The writing on the tablet is Sumerian cuneiform that dates back thousands of years. Before the archeologists can get too excited about their find, an earthquake hits and covers up much of the digging they have accomplished. The earthquake also uncovers an old lamp that contains similar writing to that which is on the tablet.
The group learns from the lamp’s markings that an ancient Sumerian civilization moved to the top of a nearby mountain to escape a great flood. Of course, the doctors set out for the mountain’s plateau, and when they arrive they are greeted by the ruins of a Sumerian temple. When the ground opens up and swallows up Dr. Stuart, the rest of the men repel down into the mountain in an attempt to rescue him. When they reach the bottom, they are greeted by two types of beings: a race of mole-like men who work non-stop and the Sumerian albinos who enslave them. The archeologists are taken to meet King Sharu (The FBI Story’s Arthur D. Gilmour), leader of the Sumerians, and his High Priest, Elinu (Alan Napier, better known as Alfred the butler on “Batman”), who initially believe they are gods because of their flashlight that “harnesses the power of Ishtar’s Fire,” but soon become suspicious of the strangers. The scientists are tasked with finding their way back to the surface, but tensions are running high between the Sumerians and the mole Slaves, and the men have to escape before they find themselves in the middle of a full-blown slave revolt.
The Mole People is a Universal Studios sci-fi film from back when Universal Studios was pumping them out left and right. What makes it stand apart from the rest is its unique story; written by Laszlo Gorog (Earth vs. the Spider), The Mole People boats a fairly ingenious premise of a long-though extinct civilization finding a way to evolve and thrive, avoiding detection by the outside world. The inclusion of grey area when it comes to protagonists and antagonists adds freshness to the film, too – the frightening mole men seem to be misunderstood and oppressed while the friendly Sumerians are suspicious and conniving. The plot feels a little padded at times, and much of the dialogue borders on silly but, in the grand scheme of 50s science fiction, The Mole People delivers exactly what is expected of it – chills, thrills and a lot of monsters.
Another aspect that sets The Mole People apart from other Universal sci-fi films of the time is the low reliance on special effects. The few visual effects in the film are used sparsely, reinforcing the idea with the viewer that the entire film is taking place on Earth and in the present day. The actual mole men are par for the course as far as Universal sci-fi creatures go; they’re a group of extras and stuntmen roaming around in big-eyed, hunchbacked rubber monster suits, and they’re perfectly eerie that way. One of the more fun effects involves the mole men abducting their unsuspecting victims. These scenes are shot on a set with holes cut into the sand covered floor, and the mole men pop out of the loose sand, grab a person, and drag them back down with them. The simple technique leads to some of the creepier moments in the film, and it’s all done extremely easily and effectively.
The Universal Studios creature features were made so quickly and cheaply that most of them used more than their share of stock footage and sound, and The Mole People is no exception. For example, in scenes that show the group ascending the mountain to the Sumerian temple, the footage that was used is actually film of Sir Edmund Hillary scaling Mount Everest. For the music, producers pulled contracted music from other Universal scores by Heinz Roemheld (The Black Cat), Hans J. Salter (Creature from the Black Lagoon) and Herman Stein (It Came from Outer Space), giving the film a perfect if a little generic soundtrack. These borrowed elements never let the audience forget that they are watching a Universal Studios production.
Of all the out of this world ways that science fiction movies have to amaze and frighten viewers, some of the most interesting and scary don’t come from outer space; they come from the ground below. The Mole People is a fun creature feature romp that reminds audiences that, even while looking up, they should still keep an eye on the ground.