Monday 29 July 2013

The Mole People [1956]

THE MOLE PEOPLE is an American sci-fi adventure film that was directed by Virgil Vogel and originally released by Universal in December 1956.  It stars B-movie legend John Agar with Hugh Beaumont, Nestor Paiva, Alan Napier and Cynthia Patrick.  The story concerns a group of intrepid archaeologists who penetrate the Earth's crust and discover a lost tribe of albinos who keep as slaves a race of vicious mutant mole-like humanoids.

A good few years ago there was a website called Dave's Funky Premise Generator (don't look for it; it's not there any more) the purpose of which to produce gloriously high-concept plots for bizarre movies.  A typical example would be something like "Shape-shifting monks struggle to repopulate the Earth in the ruins of post-apocalypse Miami" or "Dwarven heroes fight for gender equality on the high seas".  I flatter myself to think that my summary of the plot for THE MOLE PEOPLE would have fitted right into Dave's generator.

Dr Baxter, walking us through Symmes' 1818 Hollow Earth theory (no really)
Amazingly for a film with such a ridiculous title THE MOLE PEOPLE takes itself wholly seriously, to the extent that it even starts with an introductory lecture (by "Dr Frank C. Baxter - Professor of English, University of Southern California") on man's fascination with what lies beneath his feet.  Citing figures as diverse as Gilgamesh and Dante, Dr Baxter actually delivers a rather good little presentation although he clearly can't quite bring himself to mention the film's title - although it's entirely possible that Universal didn't have the balls to tell him what it was.

From there we are transported to "Asia", which isn't enormously helpful but was presumably sufficient to convince drive-in patrons that these events were talking place somewhere other than Pig's Knuckle, Arkansas, where Dr Roger Bentley has discovered a sort of Sumerian Rosetta Stone which hints at the fate of an ancient tribe that vanished off the face of the Earth several thousand years before.

Then, following an earthquake, a local yokel finds a second artefact - an oil lamp inscribed with further hints about the lost tribe. Apparently they took to an enormous ark to survive a catastrophic flood and came to rest on top of an enormous mountain, Kui Tara.  Never one to miss an obvious sign like that, Bentley packs up his team and sets off to scale the mountain and find the lost tribe.

From L to R: Hugh Beaumont, Phil Chambers, John Agar and Nestor Paiva
Great stuff no?  Indiana Jones-esque you might think, and you'd be right.  Unfortunately, unlike the good Dr Jones, Dr Bentley has a tiny budget and, behind the camera, a timid field-mouse in comparison to the planet-dominating colossus that is Steven Spielberg.  What it does have though is a terrific enthusiasm and a script that isn't afraid to go large on the historical / anthropological references.  Even better, it has a splendidly liberal attitude - slavery bad, theocracy bad, science good, multiculturalism good - which really sets it apart from a lot of other red-baiting, reactionary 50s movies.  Indeed, the original ending which hinted at the likelihood of harmonious mixed race marriage was kyboshed by Universal in favour of a meaningless bittersweet finale.

The summit of Kui Tara (NB some of this is painted in)
John Agar, who looks disconcertingly like a young Orson Welles, is suitably lantern-jawed as the hero and Alan Napier, familiar to millions as Alfred to Adam West's Batman, is great as Elinu the Machiavellian High Priest albino.  Agar had a career not unlike that of Tim Holt, in that they both started at the top and slowly dropped down the pecking order to the point where all they got were leads in cheapo genre movies like this one.  However, one man's cheapo genre movie is another man's ticket to immortality and Agar is remembered fondly for his starring roles in some of the best known sci-fi and horror flicks of the golden age, such as REVENGE OF THE CREATURE [1955] (the first sequel to THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON [1954]), TARANTULA [1955] and THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS [1957]. It is a measure of the goodwill toward Agar from within the trash cinema community that he was still being cast in genre efforts into the 21st century.  He died in 2002, aged 81.

Roger Bentley (2nd left) and Jud Bellamin (2nd right) with the grievously wounded LaFarge (centre) under armed guard

Alan Napier as Elinu
The rest of the cast don't make much of an impression, least of all Cynthia Patrick as the dolly bird slave girl. It's just about worth noting Nestor Paiva, who plays the cowardly LaFarge; surely one of the most prolific character actors of all time, Paiva racked up a scarcely believable 298 acting credits in a 30-year career, many of them in B-movie gems like this one.  Director Virgil Vogel (wonderful name!) evidently wasn't cut out for motion pictures but had a prolific career directing TV movies and episodes including, remarkably, MIAMI VICE.

Attack of the Mole People!
When I've made it big in Hollywood I'm going to remake THE MOLE PEOPLE as a $250M blockbuster and finally give it the treatment it deserves.  The title will probably have to go but, on second thought, maybe I do something with that too...

THE MOLE PEOPLE (Main Title) (m. John Barry / l. Cinema Delirium)

(to be sung to the tune of Goldfinger)

"Mole People! (BAH-DAH-DAH-DAH)
They are moles
But they are people too...
Just like you!"

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