January 23rd, 2011

He has the Fire of Ishtar! Looks like a flashlight, to be honest


Here's a solid little 1950s Drive-In Classic. Somewhere in the middle of the genre as far as quality goes, it's not THEM! or THE THING but it's not THE CREEPING TERROR or KILLERS FROM SPACE either. John Agar, Hugh Beaumont and Nestor Paiva are an archaeological party who find a lost Sumerian civilization deep beneath a mountain in the Middle East. The Sumerians have mutated over thousands of years into a chalk-white scrawny bunch sort of like Edgar Winter (but some with black hair, so they're not really albinos). I missed the part that explains where light and heat come from, but the Sumies live mostly on mushrooms (makes sense). Helping them survive are the enslaved Mole People. Called "Beasts of the Dark," these goons are an iconic image of 1950s movie sci-fi, same as the Metaluna Mutant or the Saucermen.

Well, things go about as well as you can expect. The Sumerians are intimidated because the surface men carry a big ol' flashlight and it's glare is too much for them to handle. ("He has the Fire of Ishtar!") Making the situation touchy is that the Sumerians are religious fundamentalists without much tolerance for new ideas. The thought that there is a bigger civilization above them just rubs them the wrong way ("There is no world beyond ours"), and the typical scheming sneaky High Priest (Alan Napier, oh Alfred how could you?) is immediately suspicious and plots to snuff these intruders and claim that flashlight for himself. Our heroes meanwhile are offended and angered at the way the Sumies treat the Mole People... they beat the speechless critters heartlessly, keep them half-starved and cowed and in general act how a ruling class abuses the serfs everywhere in history.

You could certainly regard the way the white-white Sumerians enslave the dark Mole People as a comment on American history, and I suppose the screenwriters may have had that in mind. But they don't belabor the point, and the parallels are not close. I'm also reminded of HG Well's THE TIME MACHINE with the tables turned... this is what would happen if the Eloi got the upper hand on the Morlocks.

One more ingredient in the stew is Cynthia Patrick as Adal. (The credits list her as "Adad", but that's not what everyone pronounces). She is a throwback and has normal coloring. Well, if you consider being a peachy blonde "normal." So the other Sumerians treat her like the way a kid born with a projecting brow ledge and arms that reach the ground would be treated.

There's a lot to like about THE MOLE PEOPLE. It's competent, for one thing. Okay, the writing and directing and production values are not top-notch but they are professional. The acting is okay. If you've sat through some drive-in flicks where it sounds like the actors are reading an article out of a newspaper, you know what I mean. And I like the score, it's that bombastic full-bore epic sort of music that adds to the feel.


One bit that a lot of people find unsettling is the abrupt ending. The Mole Men are freed by the surface dudes and stage a rebellion that involves a big smackdown on the Sumerians. (Those claws are useful for more than digging, eh?) In the massteria (mass hysteria), Adal and the two surviving archeologists make their way back up to the surface. It looks like everything turned out okay. But there's a small earthquake and Adal freaks the freak out. She runs back and forth like a chicken with its head cut off and seems to deliberately get under some falling rubble as if committing suicide.

As I understand it, this final scene was shot after the movie was completed. The story goes that the studio was worried about audiences objecting to a regular American citizen bringing a foreigner home as a bride. This seems way bizarre today, especially when you take a look at Cynthia Patrick.. she'd be a hit at the PTA meetings. But 1956 was a different planet. Misgenation laws existed and were enforced, and mixed couples faced everything from snubs to violence. So Adal had to die tragically. It's too bad. I think the film would play a lot better if the movie ended before she gets squished.

Oh, and I have to mention the ten minute prologue! Dr Frank C Baxter, professor of English at the University of Southern California gets up from his desk and fills us in on various theories of how the Earth might be hollow and inhabited. He seems to have done a little brushing up before hand-- the charts and references show a little preparation-- but I think he improvised most of the speech as he went along, and he looks relieved when it's over. More 1950s sci-fi flicks would benefit from having Frank introduce them ("Can a tree walk around and kill people...?")

Surprise Package

This is the equivalent of opening a mysterious parcel that was left on a bench at Grand Central and unclaimed. You never know, could be something to cheer your heart and make you glad to be alive. Or it could be an atrocity to make you lose your appetite and walk with despair for days. Only one way to find out.

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