FTP: The Mole People (1956)

FEBRUARY 3, 2020


It's always strange to watch an MST3k'd movie for the first time without the wisecracks, as it leaves me with a conflicting "I've seen this movie a million times/I've never seen it before" feeling, making it interesting and somewhat boring at the same time. Such was the case with The Mole People, an episode I've seen far more than average since it was one of the first I had on tape (as previously explained, I never had Comedy Central until long after the show switched to "Sci-Fi" (now Syfy), so season 8 was my first real trip to the Satellite of Love); there were obviously lines and plot points that I never quite heard before as my focus was on the jokes, but there were just as many lines of dialogue where it felt odd not to hear the response that had burned into my memory ("a total load..." in particular, for those familiar with the episode).

But to be fair, it's not exactly a great movie. As explained on the accompanying retrospective piece on Scream Factory's blu (which includes the MST3k episode for good measure), this was one of the first movies to be made under Universal's new initiative to save money on the (already lower budget!) horror and sci-fi films by using stock footage whenever possible, and... well, oof. The plot concerns an expedition and a mountain climb, and pretty much every exterior shot is noticeably taken from something else before cutting to John Agar and the others on the tighter, not very convincing sets. And all of this stuff is in the first 20-25 minutes, before they enter the underground city (where there are no exteriors, obviously), so it kind of starts the movie off on the wrong foot, looking like the exact kind of movie that should be lampooned by a pair of talking robots.

It does improve from there, thankfully, once Agar and his buddies (well, fellow humans - he never seems to care when one of them dies) find the superior race of albino Sumerians as well as the titular Mole People, who are the monsters that would scare kids and would ultimately be turned into model kits and Halloween costumes. Naturally, he gets caught in the middle of their ongoing war, but while there's an Eloi/Morlock kind of thing going on, in this version the "Morlocks" (the Mole People) are more sympathetic, as they're beaten and starved as slaves by the dickish Sumerians. This, naturally, diminishes the "horror" aspect of the movie, but since it's all so goofy it doesn't quite land as proper sci-fi either, making it an OK enough timekiller but not much more.

Its biggest crime, however, is reminding me of Battlefield Earth, as both films opt to make their villains look hilariously stupid and in turn severely reduce any menace they post. In BE it was the notorious "they must love to eat rats" nonsense, here it's that they put all of their stock in Agar's flashlight, believing it to be fire from the gods and more powerful than any of them (the mole people and Sumerians alike, having lived in darkness for their entire lives, are basically blinded by the thing). So their plan is to steal the flashlight then have Agar killed, only for things to go awry because a. the flashlight died before they even got it and b. they didn't bother to check it prior to it being needed. It's one thing when one of the umpteen victims in a slasher movie point a gun at the killer and fire only to realize it's empty before they die - turning the basic scenario around on the villain and staging the entire climax around it is just laughable.

Also, it has a bit of a bummer ending, which I thought was rather ballsy of them, only to discover that (spoiler for 65 year old movie ahead!) the reason they killed off Agar's love interest was because, as a "Sumerian" (played by a blonde American woman), Universal feared audiences would be upset about the idea of an interracial relationship. So that's icky (not to mention harsh - why couldn't they - gasp! - simply be friends?), and doesn't help the movie's modern appeal any. The MST3k gang certainly watched worse movies over the years, but I wouldn't exactly say this one didn't deserve the treatment; it's got some old Saturday matinee charms for sure, but there are far better 1950s horror/sci-fi blends to choose from even in the relatively limited Scream Factory library of such things (The Fly and, fittingly, This Island Earth among them). Stick with those, or watch this one with the 'bots to increase your entertainment value. "Down, down..."

What say you?

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, this movie is pretty shitty, and fully deserved to make it onto the show. I was kind of impressed by the ending too, once, and now I can only say "Big yike".

    Side note, have you seen Monster on the Campus? I think of it when I think of the few '50s monster movies SF has done. It's a cool flick, with a surprisingly brutal-for-the-era kill involving a woodworking tool...


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