I am seeing a pattern. It has dawned on me that a disturbing number of films I review are films I’ve seen before as a small child. Why would I characterize that as disturbing? I probably watched hundreds of monster movies at least once before I was even seven or eight-years-old. The Mole People is one of them. I first saw this much maligned John Agar movie when I was five or six. It’s about people who have lived for generations without seeing the sun; instead their world is lit only by some sort of peculiar luminescence found in certain rocks. As a fair skinned kid who spent too much time watching old movies in a room dimly lit by an ancient black & white television, I could relate to that.
The Mole People opens with a little lecture by Frank C. Baxter, a noted English professor at the University of Southern California, who goes on about some the loonier hollow Earth cosmologies. Yes, he’s a real person. Yes, there are people out there who believe the Earth is hollow and filled with dinosaurs, alien lizard-men, flying saucers piloted by Nazis or anything else that tickles their fancy. What’s the purpose of this little talk by Dr. Baxter? I would guess that he is there to introduce us to some “theories” that will, by way of comparison, make the plot of this film seem reasonably sane. Dr. Baxter radiates academic credibility, some of which is likely intended to be reflected by the silly characters in the film, giving them a glow of their own, like way the moon reflects the light of the Sun.
After Dr. Baxter gives his spiel, we meet up with Dr. Roger Bentley (John Agar), Dr. Bellamin (Hugh Beaumont), and Dr. Lafarge (Nestor Paiva) who are digging around the foothills of the Himalayas looking for pieces to the McDonald’s® Monopoly® Game. They need to win some money in order to fund their archeological research. You see, their federal grants were cut. Apparently Congress, mystified at the black magic of parachutes, decided that John Agar’s digging around in the mountains of India with Ward Cleaver was a stupid way to spend money; feeling instead that Captain Bruce “300 Jumps” Hollister making it to four hundred jumps was a much better way to waste money. Are you confused by the parachute reference? That’s because you need to read The Midnight Monster Show’s groundbreaking article covering The Monster That Challenged the World!
Bentley, Bellamin, and Lafarge, while digging around, find a Sumerian tablet. “That’s impossible!” gasps a surprised Lafarge and I don’t blame him. Sumerian stone tablets are as common in the foothills of the Himalayas as swine farms are in Mecca. Bentley haughtily corrects him, “You mean it’s not probable, Lafarge. In archeology, all things are possible.” I think that is the state motto for Ohio. The motto for archeology is “Dig free or die.” Bentley has cruddy manners, clearly showing no respect for the older Lafarge. Wotta jerk!
In the comfort of their large tent, they set the impossible Sumerian tablet on the ricketiest table in all of Central Asia and begin to translate it. The tablet is a greeting from the long dead Sumerian King Sharu that threatens death and a low sperm count to anyone who screws with the tablet. Once Bentley is done reading to the class, an earthquake starts, causing the rickety table to collapse, breaking the tablet into chunks. Bentley feels a slight sting in his manbags.
Later, while drinking coffee and relaxing in Adirondack chairs, Bellamin, Lafarge and Bentley kibitz about how, because of the earthquake, extra work that will have to be done, new trenches will have to be dug, etc. I find this ironic because all the actual work going on around them in the camp is being by other, non-white, people. One of the workers approaches with a nervous young boy carrying something wrapped in cloth. The boy sells the dirt-encrusted object to Bentley for some Chuck E Cheese tokens. Now it’s Bentley’s turn to be surprised. This object also has Sumerian cuneiform scratched in it. The boy tells him that he found it high up on the side the neighboring mountain. What is this amazing object? It’s a lamp and it’s crudded up with mud and specked with a species of moss that only grows very high up on Mt. Kuitara, far higher than where the boy found it. Bentley believes that the earthquake must have dislodged it from wherever it was buried and sent it rolling down the mountain. Yeah. Okay. Right. Whatever.
So what’s a saucy little lamp like that doing on a high mountain peak like this? The writing on the lamp talks about Sharu’s boat, on which he put his family, friends, servants and animals, in order to escape a great world drowning flood. Dr. Stuart, whom I’ve not bothered to introduce earlier because this is one of only a few times I’ll mention him, squeaks, “A Sumerian version of Noah’s ark?” Gasp! Yeah, the story of the great flood is from a famous Sumerian poem: The Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s kind of a big deal and an archeologist should know that.
Bentley, believes that there were two arks, one built by Noah at the behest of the one true God, saving the chosen people plus two of every animal (which would include at least 250,000 species of beetles. God apparently has a thing for beetles). The second ark, according to the exposition written on the side of the lamp, was built by Sharu at the behest of their nonexistent heathen goddess Ishtar, saving the Sumerian royal family, their servants and pets. Noah’s boat landed on Mt. Ararat, and his descendants became Americans and shopped at Walmart. Sharu’s boat landed high in the Himalayas and his decedents became Mole People and they shopped at nowhere. It totally sucks to be a devotee of Ishtar.
Bentley decides to set forth and climb Mt. Kuitara and see if there are any more Sumerian objects d’art. He’s planning to sell them to Denholm Eliot (who’ll put them in a display case next the Cross of Coronado) because they’ve not found a solitary McDonald’s® Monopoly® Game piece and things are starting to look desperate.
Next we see a lot of footage from The Conquest of Everest (1953), first showing the preparation of a Sir Edmund Hillary’s massive climb to the top of the world, then the actual climb crosscut with scenes of Bentley and company walking around a studio set. The Conquest of Everest footage is really famous, and that the filmmakers decided to use it here, in spite of that fact, suggests a very low budget and little time to shoot. When you have limited resources, you have to play the Ed Wood card.
Eventually, Bentley, Bellamin, Lafarge, Stuart and a guide find the snow dusted ruins of a Sumerian temple, which by look of it was built by Greek contractors as it has a more Hellenistic look to it than Mesopotamian. The combination of matte painting and full scale set looks every bit as believable to me as the CGI in contemporary movies, which, to me, look mostly like 90 minute long video game cut scenes. Yeah. I’m badmouthing CGI again. I’m not catering to Big Hollywood and the pro-CGI slant of Big Hollywood’s media cronies here at the Midnight Monster Show, folks. They can take their pro-CGI agenda back to the Skywalker Ranch and snuggle up with it next to Jar Jar Binks.
Bentley and company start wandering around the ruins. Stuart fulfills his destiny by stepping on shaky bit of ground that crumbles under his feet revealing a huge cavern; which Stuart explores as fast as gravity can pull him to the bottom.
The rest of the party repels down the wall of the cavern in an attempt to rescue Stuart. Bentley, Bellamin and Lafarge find Stuart’s corpse. They also find an opening into another passage. Suddenly there is a tremor which kills their guide, who was still on his way down the cavern wall, and buries their way out.
Lafarge looks like he’s having a heart attack. They press on through the dark, scary, narrow cave until it opens into a huge glowing cavern that contains the set from the ruined temple we saw earlier and a bigger, more fake looking matte painting, this time of a city. Bentley offers us some exposition about an earthquake swallowing the city whole and encasing it in a volcanic bubble. Bellamin finds an inscription on a stone that says, “The temple of Ishtar have I built with the stones of the mountain. Use Burma Shave – Sharu.”
“So that’s how the Sharu dynasty ended. They ran away from a flood, right into an earthquake. The children of Noah survived and the children of Ishtar died.” waxes Bentley.
Excited by their find, Bentley, Bellamin and Lafarge decide to take a nap. Bentley, a tough son-of-gun, uses a rock for a pillow. On one hand, that would be very uncomfortable, but on the other hand, you’d never have to flip it over again and again in a vain attempt to find the cool spot.
As soon as they nod off, large gnarly claws burrow up from under the ground, a Mole-Man peers over the sandy surface, his eyes slightly aglow. Later, the Mole-Man reappears with some Mole-Friends. They pull bags over the heads of the still sleeping Bentley, Bellamin and Lafarge and drag them into the very earth they were just sleeping on. The sight of someone buried face down up to their waist, legs flailing madly as they disappear under the earth is just ghastly. I love this idea. It totally makes my skin crawl.
Bentley, Bellamin and Lafarge are left by their abductors in a cave decorated in early Torture Chamber complete with wall shackles and Mole-Man skeletons. The cave looks like a set from Lost in Space and the Mole-Man skeletons, with their odd shaped skulls and large claw-like hands are nice touch. Bentley and his mates get to look around a bit, make a few pithy comments, and indulge in some brief exposition before the wall opens up revealing two sword wielding albinos in identical Christmas elf garb, who take them to the throne room of Sharu, the Sumerian albino king. In addition to meeting Sharu (Arthur D. Gilmour), we also meet Elinu, the High Priest (Alan Napier) and a whole bunch of albinos that are descended from the Sumerians who settled the mountain five thousand years ago.
Bentley immediately whips out the “We come in peace, offering friendship.” line that has served American diplomacy so well since the Mayflower landed. Elinu succinctly lays it out for Bentley and his pals. There are three possibilities: Bentley is a god, Bentley is a mortal man, Bentley is a creature of evil. Clearly Bentley isn’t god, leaving only the other two options. If they are creatures of evil, then Bentley has to be fed to the Fire of Ishtar. If they’re mortal, they’ll need to eat and there just isn’t enough to go around, so again, we’re back to the Fire of Ishtar.
Spurred on by the threat of immolation, Bentley and Bellamin sucker punch the guards nearest to them, grab their swords and run for it back into the cave, Lafarge and a six or seven albino guards hard on their heels. Lafarge trips and falls. An albino guard stops and draws a large dagger. Bentley stops and points a beam of light at the guards from the huge flashlight he’s been carrying. The guards, blinded and surprised, beat a very hasty retreat back to the throne room.
Bentley, with glowing weapon in hand and Bellamin and Lafarge in tow, returns to the throne room and gives the King and the High Priest a little bright light in the face, sending everyone scurrying off except for a dead guard that Bellamin stabbed during the escape a few minutes ago.
Bentley examines the guard and launches into a little more exposition about how the locals are all albinos with great big pupils, making them sensitive to light. Bentley wonders what they eat and wonders how they could survive in a dimly lit, sunless world. He then goes on to stare meaningfully into the non-horizon wondering out loud “What happened to the mind? The memories of the past in the world of light? So many questions . . . So many questions.” Oh, god! I hope he doesn’t break into song! You can just imagine – The Mole People: a Musical.