1/11/07

803 The Mole People

(1956, SciFi, b&w)

Down, down…

Rating: **1/2

In a nutshell:

Modern archaeologists accidentally destroy a subterranean race of albino Sumerians.

Summary:

Down, down...Before the film begins proper, Professor Frank Baxter of the University of Southern California treats us to a mini-lecture about subterranean civilizations. (Down, down…) It is worth noting that he relies wholly on crackpot theories invented by “scientists” of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Then the opening credits spew out of a volcano, and the movie is off and running…

…or lounging, I guess. Somewhere in Asia, a small team of archeologists sits around in deck chairs while a large team of workers attempts to uncover…something or other. I didn’t see any ruins, just a lot of native laborers. Someone uncovers an ancient tablet by accident, inspiring lead archaeologist Roger Bentley (John “Motormouth” Agar) to deliver a lengthy and vaguely expository speech. Fortunately, a well-timed earthquake cuts him off. Unfortunately, it shatters the tablet.

Fortunately, it also rolls an ancient oil lamp all the way down to the bottom of a nearby mountain, where it’s picked up and sold to them by a native kid. Hoping there’s more at the top, Roger and his cohorts make a long, uneventful climb through stock footage to find an ancient temple to the Sumerian goddess Ishtar. They poke around the ruins until the most expendable archeologist falls through a hole to his death. This leads to a longer and even more uneventful climb downwards to the body. Near the end, a rock fall kills the second most expendable member of the party.

By now the cast has been pared down to our lead Roger, his sidekick Jud (Hugh “Ward Cleaver” Beaumont), and the third most expendable archeologist Lafarge (Nestor “The Load” Paiva). The intrepid trio discovers a matte painting of an ancient civilization, so naturally they decide to take a nap. While they sleep, the eponymous, rubber-faced mole people abduct them for their pale, skirted masters. The pale high priest (Alan “Alfred the Butler” Napier) declares them blaspheming outsiders and tries to convince their rib roast-hatted king to have them sacrificed. Roger and Jud rebel, punching and stabbing their way to freedom with the blubbering Lafarge in tow. In the ensuing chase, Roger discovers his flashlight is a potent weapon against the pale ones, while Lafarge runs ahead to suffer a messy death by mole person.

The high priest declares the flashlight to be the “Fire of Ishtar” and hails Roger and Jud as gods from heaven. He gives them food, drink, and a blond girl named Adal. Adal is shunned as a “marked one,” meaning she’s not dark-haired and pale like other subterranean girls. Roger saves her from a beating with his magic flashlight, and then talks to her at length about whatever pops into his head. While searching for a way to escape, he and Jud discover some mistreated mole people slaves and free them as well.

Meanwhile, the king and the high priest have decreed that three of their number must be sacrificed to appease Ishtar and keep their population limits intact. (I’m not sure why. Roger and Jud killed three guards during their first encounter. Doesn’t that make up for their presence?) The priests send three naked dark-haired ladies through a bright door to be crisped.

Roger’s flashlight battery finally gives out around the same time the treacherous high priest discovers Lafarge’s body. Having determined their heavenly guests to be human, he drugs Roger for his flashlight, and sends him to be sacrificed in the bright doorway. Adal runs to rally the mole men, who slaughter their cruel masters and open the sacrificial door. Adal runs in to find Roger, who explains about sunlight. Apparently, this was the way out all along. They ascend to the surface world where Adal inexplicably runs away during an earthquake. A pillar falls on her, crushing her to death.

Introduction:

We'll be seeing this gag again.Mike tries to explain the premise of the show, but Crow shows up with glowing eyes and declares himself a Space Child, “sent by the supreme leader to enslave one and all.” The supreme leader speaks to him in his head, commanding him to kill Mike and Tom. Crow asks them to let Gypsy know while he runs off to clarify his orders.

Host Segment One:

Mike wrestles Crow to the desk and steals his all-seeing eyes. Turns out they were bought at a novelty shop for $1.98. Down on the planet, Professor Bobo bemoans the fact that it’s Lawgiver Daze, a celebration of their beloved lawgiver. Pearl comes by and catches him not having fun. He begs her to kill him. Up on the satellite, Tom and Crow have organized a Lawgiver Daze bake sale. Tom has a variety of pastries with complicated names. Mike touches each one. Crow has baked a mile-high meringue pie that’s actually a mile high. Mike makes him climb all the way to the top to cut him a slice. Naturally, Crow falls off.

Host Segment Two:

Mike does an impression of “Gesture Professor” Baxter, punctuating each sentence with “down, down…” Tom and Crow are not amused, and have a little talk with him about his unfunny shenanigans. They leave him alone to think about what he’s done.

Host Segment Three:

Tom dons a goatee and sailor’s cap to sing a folk ballad about his days in space, but he can’t get his guitar in tune. One of the strings breaks, smacking Mike in the eye. Quoth Crow, “You couldn’t tune a kazoo.”

Host Segment Four:

Crow delves behind the desk, searching for evidence of an earlier him. He finds a Polaroid of himself, several nut wrappers, and a fertility symbol before he finally remembers Mike, and his previous days trapped in orbit on the Satellite of Love. Mike asks him about the fertility symbol. Quoth Crow, “Apparently I couldn’t conceive at some point.”

Host Segment Five:

Crow goads Mike into testing his theory about a series of civilizations on the Satellite of Love, each one living under the other. Mike pulls up a floorboard and finds a pair of pale Sumerians. They immediately declare him an infidel. Mike shoos them away with a flashlight and says, “Time to call Orkin.” Down on the planet, the apes conclude Lawgiver Daze by presenting Pearl with mute, well-muscled hunk named Howard.

Stinger:

“The Load” Lafarge falls down.

Thoughts:

I'm not sure what that is, but I'll speak at length about it anyway.John Agar’s performance as the unendingly pompous Roger Bentley earns him third place on the “Most Unappealing Protagonists Featured On MST3K” list. I know I already covered it in my review for Revenge of the Creature, but it ought to be noted now as well.

I’m curious about “Gesture Professor” Dr. Frank Baxter at the beginning of the film. Is he supposed to lend the film an air of credibility? Are we supposed to believe that a race of rubber-faced mole men in sweaters and slacks might really live beneath the surface of the earth, enslaved by pale men in rib roast hats? (A bit of research reveals he’s not an archaeologist, but an English Professor. I’d already heard most of those ideas in one form or another. Dr. Baxter fails to mention that the “scientific theories” he cites weren’t taken very seriously even at the times they were espoused.) I’m tempted to write the whole thing off as a stunt. You know, the way campy horror flicks used to offer to pay funeral costs for people who died of fright during the viewing. On the other hand, the professor (and by extension, John Agar) goes on a little too long about it, as if they’re really trying to make us think about the possibility of an underground society. Both of them know just enough about the subject to sound vaguely credible, but not nearly enough for anything they say to stand up under scrutiny. In the end, I guess it doesn’t matter whether it’s a botched publicity stunt or a botched attempt to legitimize junk science. It’s botched either way.

I enjoyed the host segments a great deal. Crow makes an excellent Space Child, and Tom’s failed Burl Ives impression is great. Crow’s archaeological dig (and the fertility symbol in particular) is funny, and I was very ready for him to remember Mike. Considering the source material, Mike’s fairly accurate portrayal of the Gesture Professor could have been lame at worst or unspectacular at best. Fortunately the Best Brains people realized this, and turned it into a hilarious parental discussion about Mike’s misbehavior, making it the best host segment in the episode. Robert Smith (former running back for the Minnesota Vikings) shows up as Howard the Mute Hunk, the first of two celebrity guests to appear on the show.

The film segments are rather uneven, due to the intermittent action and score. As Dr. Baxter gestures to yet another nonsensical chart with a tiny circle at the center (down, down), Tom calls it, “The very nipple of the world.” As the exterior climbing sequences drag on, Crow says, “Maybe we climbed right past the summit.” When Roger declares he is tired and in need of rest, Mike says, “I’ve been wildly speculating all day!” Of note, this movie contains the second-longest rock climbing sequence in the MST3K canon (Lost Continent has the longest), much of it silent, leading to numerous impatient sighs and comments about the various actors’ backsides. The sequences that do feature mockable content work well, though, making this episode worth at least one viewing.