This past Saturday night, Red Molly and I settled in for a double feature of 1950’s sci-fi. The first feature of the night was Tarantula, and my original intention was that that would be the movie I reviewed. Or rather, that it would be the movie to go into my already-too-long queue of movies to be reviewed. Then we watched the second feature, The Mole People, and my reaction was so strong, so visceral, that The Mole People just had to jump to the front of the line.
That reaction? Fuck this movie. Fuck it sideways with a rusty chainsaw. Fuck it straight to hell.
To elaborate: for seventy-six minutes of its seventy-seven minute running time, The Mole People is just another goofy, ill-researched Fifties sci-fi movie, fully deserving of the MST3K treatment (which it has apparently received), but not especially terrible. Then, right at the end, there’s a moment of pure poison.
The movie begins with – well, the movie begins with padding, which is never a good sign. Frank Baxter, a real-world professor and TV educator, gives us an overview of real-world Hollow Earth theories, including the surprising number that posit that we live on the inside.
I have no idea why the tried to make a no-budget sci-fi film look like an educational film, but that’s the Fifties for you.
The film actually starts at an archaeological dig in “Asia”. No, there is no indication where in the largest continent on Earth this dig is located. If I had to guess, based on the locals, the scenery, and their findings, I’d say the Middle East.
Oh, yes. Their findings. You see, below the Great Flood layer, they find –
Wait. The Great Flood layer? You mean…?
Oh, yes. A scene later, they come out and baldly state that Noah’s Flood is a scientifically-confirmed historical event. Not only is this really untrue, but they knew it perfectly well in 1956. One of the great disappointments faced by 19th century geologists was discovering that there was no single worldwide, uniform layer of flood gravel. So what you see here, as in The War of the Worlds, The Day of The Triffids, and numerous other movies of the time, is simply pandering to the vaguely Protestant Christianity that permeated U.S. culture at the time. Only unlike those other movies, it’s a major plot point.
Anyway. They dig up a stone tablet with Cuneiform writing, which they date as being more than 5,000 years old, since it was found below the Great Flood layer. The tablet tells the story of Sharu, a Sumerian king who loaded his people and animals on an Ark, then founded a city on “Mount Kaitaru”, above the flood waters (I thought there was no above the flood waters!).
The tablet invokes a curse in the name of Ishtar on anyone who should remove it maliciously, but the archaeologists don’t believe that applies to them.
(Note: “Ishtar” is also wrong, but not as much. Ishtar is the Babylonian name for the Sumerian goddess Inanna, goddess of sex and war.)
The archaeologists organize an expedition to find the city on Kaitaru. And a few minutes’ worth of stock footage of mountain climbers later, they do. Or rather, they find the temple to Ishtar that would have served as the center of town. They’re puzzled by the lack of an actual city, but don’t have much time to worry about it before one of their number falls into a deep cave.
Now, I’m no spelunker, but for them all to follow him down into the cave seems like a bad idea. And indeed, it does go wrong, though not quite in the way I expected. Regardless, at the end of the scene, we’re down to three team members – Dr. Roger Bentley, Our Hero, Dr. Jud Bellamin, Our Sidekick, and Dr. Etienne LaFarge, Our Burden On The Competent Ones – all of whom are trapped in the caves, cut off from the surface by a cave-in. Armed with a single flashlight, they go deeper into the cave, hoping to find a way out.
Instead, they find the rest of the Sumerian city that should have surrounded the temple on the surface. Apparently, the city was built on a solidified lava bubble that was strong enough to support it at first, but which collapsed at the first earthquake.
“The children of Noah lived, and the children of Ishtar died,” Bentley muses. Now that’s just petty. And more pandering.
During this whole time, LaFarge has been showing symptoms. I’m not quite sure if he’s having a heart attack or a panic attack. Either way, not good. Still, Bentley and Billamin manage to talk him down, and they lay down on the sand to rest for the night.
At which point they are immediately set upon by the titular mole people.
Contrary to what the poster may have led you to believe, the Mole People aren’t the primary threat. Instead, they are a slave race who serve the descendants of that Sumerian city that was swallowed by the Earth. Our heroes are taken to the king –
Wait. Why does a Sumerian city have Egyptian hieroglyphics all over the walls?
Never mind. Our heroes are brought before the king and his court, including the chief priest. All of the people are albino, as might be expected after thousands of years underground. The chief priest has a Fu Manchu moustache and long thin beard that makes him look like a racist parody of a Chinese Mandarin, as if to remind us that even though these people are all as pale as the driven snow, they are most definitely Not White. And never you mind that “Chinese” is a completely different kind of Not White than Sumerian.
The chief priest (who seems to be the effective power behind the throne) announces that since there is no world beyond their caves, the archaeologists must be either gods or evil spirits…and they really don’t look like gods. And even if they are human, the city can’t support even three more mouths to feed, so they must die in “the fires of Ishtar”.
It’s odd that they’re still worshipping Ishtar after all this time down in a dark underworld. You’d think they’d have switched to Ereskigal by now. And neither goddess has “fires”. If you want a fire god, you want Nergal.
Our heroes take exception to this, of course, and fight their way free. Apparently, after thousands of years in the caves with no one to fight, the guards are pretty much ceremonial. During the fighting, our heroes discover that the Sumerians, their eyes adapted to the dim light of their city, are blinded by the somewhat-brighter-than-they’re-used-to light of the flashlight.
Of course, escaping the caves is considerably harder than escaping the Sumerians. Our heroes wander around a bit, but find nothing more than the pits where the Mole People are kept. The Sumerians send the Mole People after our heroes, who would have gotten away clean except Lafarge freaks out and flees from a position of safety to attack a Mole Man head on. This does not end well for him.
The archaeologists’ wanderings take them back to the city, but they get a much better greeting this time: in their absence, the king and the chief priest have decided that their flashlight is actually an implement of divine power that burns with “the fires of Ishtar”.
Our heroes claim to be messengers of the gods (their friend has supposedly returned to Heaven with a report), and are given the best luxury the city can provide. This includes a serving girl named Adad, who has “the mark of darkness” – that is to say, a healthy, if surely pale, amount of skin pigmentation.
She also has Caucasian features and blond hair, despite being of Sumerian stock, but we’ll come back to that later.
Our heroes spend their time looking for a way out, and while doing so they witness the terrible treatment of the Mole People. In fact, it seems that their Sumerian masters are straight up not feeding them, which seems like a counterproductive way to treat slaves, until we learn that the city is at the very limit of its food supply. In fact, they have to send several of their number to die in the “fires of Ishtar” to relieve the pressure. This solemn sacrifice is carried out with an elaborate ceremony that involves several minutes of a girl dancing.
A movie seventy-seven minutes long shouldn’t need padding. Seriously.
Also, if I was going to sacrifice members of the community to preserve food, the young women would be the last to go. You need to rebuild the population from something, after all.
But I digress.
To his credit, the chief priest seems deeply saddened by this dreadful necessity. Not enough to volunteer himself, of course.
To his further credit, he’s not as gullible as most characters like him are in this type of picture. He’s not fooled by this “divine messenger” nonsense. These “messengers” got scared when threatened with death. Angels don’t do that. No, as far as he’s concerned, the only divine power they have is in that object they carry, which he would dearly love to have. The king, not eager to get his pasty ass smote, refuses to approve the chief priest’s plan until presented with the body of the messenger who “returned to Heaven”.
Unfortunately for the priest, by the time he gets ahold of the flashlight, its batteries are dead, which is a serious problem, because our heroes have, mostly accidentally, managed to lead a slave revolt by the Mole People. However, before the priest is brought down, Our Heroes are put into the Fires of Ishtar.
…which, when the doors are broken down by the Mole People out to rescue them, turn out to be ordinary sunlight. Apparently, the people of the city are vulnerable to sunlight to a degree that’s more on par with vampires than humans with albinism.
(Note: Actual Sumerian sun god = Utu)
Our Heroes and Adad make their way to the surface, get Adad into some warm clothes from their base camp, and start to head out.
…at which point, another earthquake strikes, collapsing one of the columns of the temple, killing Adad.
That’s…really out of place. Movies of this era are a lot more likely to end on a saccharine note than this out-of-nowhere diabolus ex makhina. Even horror and science fiction. What’s going on here?
I do a bit of poking around, and it turns out that, despite Adad’s blondness, the producers hadn’t forgotten that she wasn’t white. That would mean that if she returned to civilization with Bentley, he would then be in an interracial relationship, so she had to die.
Which is why fuck this movie. And fuck the Fifties. Our Dashing Hero could return to America with a fucking alien as long as she looked like a white woman, but if she’s a woman from a non-white ethnic group (and never mind that she’s being played by a blond actress), it can’t be allowed.
Red Molly and I watched this movie because it was the second feature on a dvd that included Tarantula, which will be the next movie I review. That’s the only reason I would allow it into my living space again. It can be argued that some movies are worth putting up with the prejudices of the time they were made for the quality of the movie itself, but this piece of directionless, ill-researched (or rather just-didn’t-give-a-shit-researched), over-padded crap is not one of them.