Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 6, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 6

The Mole People (1956)

In the fifties, Universal produced many sci-fi/horror flicks but few featured actual monsters. Those that did were rarely as developed as the Gillman. Despite their title billing, the Mole People play a small role in "The Mole People." Monster fans take what they can get. Like the Metaluna Mutant, the Mole Person frequently crops up in toys and collectables.

That’s because they’re the most interesting thing about an otherwise dull hidden civilization film. The introduction features a bizarrely sincere professor talking about various hollow Earth theories. Hollow Earth stories have long been a part of science fiction literature but I can’t imagine they’ve ever been taken seriously by science. The theories aren’t much related to the story either. A group of archeologists, on the trail of a lost ancient society, discovers an entrance into an underground world at the peak of a Himalayan volcano. The society of albinos alternate between being in awe of the surface dwellers and plotting to murder them. Oh yeah, they also have a slave race of humanoid mole creatures.

Despite only running 77 minute, “The Mole People” has to pad it’s runtime out with extensive footage of people walking up mountains and climbing down into caves. Once the scientists finally arrive at the underground city, things only marginally improve. You still get long scenes of people wandering underground tunnels, standing around and talking, not to mention a needlessly long belly-dancing sequence.

The pseudo-Sumerian society raises more questions then it answers. How could such a small population live underground for so long? Wouldn’t the tiny breeding pool lead to incest within a few generations? The underground dwellers developing albinism makes sense. Until you actually see the city, which is inexplicably brightly lit. Bright light burning the albinos to a crisp makes little sense too. Despite thousands of years passing, the people are still clinging to Sumerian ideas. Surely, after a while, they would have thought of other stuff. And how could a whole city, much less grazing animals like goats, survive on a diet of mushrooms? Don’t even get me started on the appropriately pigmented love interest that happens to exist as a genetic anomaly. Once again, I’m putting more thought into this then the screenwriters did.

If only gaping logic holes and a sleepy pacing were the only problems. The characters of “The Mole People” aren’t inspiring. John Agar is deeply boring as the hero who has to explain everything for the benefit of the audience. Hugh “Ward Cleaver” Beaumont, as Agar’s wimpier sidekick, is also a non-character. Despite being men of science, they still punch their problems away. Nestor Paiva’s character is notoriously useless. He slips down a tunnel. He falls to the floor while pursued by warriors. He runs away when frightened. When “The Mole People” was featured on “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” the Bots rightfully nicknamed Paiva's character “The Load.” Future Alfred Alan Napier is the scheming high priest. He could have been an interesting character, a man who learns that his religious convictions have all been a lie. Performing under powdery make-up, Napier plays it broad and flat. The villain’s plot to execute the outsiders ends up saving them. Cynthia Patrick looks nice enough as Adad, Agar’s conveniently colored love interest, but her character is wafer thin. The ending was changed at the last minute, killing her character, supposedly because “Ancient Sumerian but Super-White” was still too close to an interracial relationship for 1956 film producers. That Adad running back into harm’s way is completely in-character doesn’t speak well to the screenwriter’s skill.

Which brings me to the Mole People. They sure are weird looking, aren’t they? Their bumpy skin and shovel-clawed hands are distinctive, while the googly-eyed, tube-mouthed heads are unforgettably bizarre. Their rag-clothing and unconvincing hump seals the deal, making them the strangest of all the Universal Monsters. The Mole Men dragging people under the shifting dirt speaks to primal fears and might make your skin crawl. The heroes coming upon the foggy, hellish whipping fields is the film’s sole distinctive image. Their final revolt is more exciting then anything else in the movie. It’s no surprise the monsters are the only thing anyone remembers about “The Mole People.” The only time the movie stops being boring is when they’re on-screen. [5/10]


Tales from the Crypt: “Cutting Cards

 “Crypt” is frequently only as good as its stars. You’d be hard pressed to find better paired actors then Lance Henriksen and Kevin Tighe. The story is simplistic. Two high-stake gamblers, long time rivals, run into each other at a sleazy bar. The two begin to gamble against each other, the stakes continually rising. Practically a two-man show, Henriksen and Tighe play off of each other fantastically. While competing against the other at Russian Roulette, Lance rattles off an amazing monologue, trying to psych out his opponent. Tighe meets him, note for note, after beating fifty/fifty odds and gleefully passing the gun back. After their competition escalates to bodily dismemberment, the two again shine. Tighe’s delight when finally getting to turn the cleaver on Lance is hilarious, as is the other man’s reaction. The last scene plays out like a sick joke, both men too stubborn, too locked against each other to ever quit.

Walter Hill has made a career out of films that both subvert and play straight macho stereotypes. No wonder he’d be attracted this story, an extend, gruesome pissing match. His direction is highly stylish, the sound effect of shuffling cards growing funnier with each repetition. James Horner even contributes a lively score. Its witty script and strong direction is a factor but I think the performances are the real reason this frequently ranks as one of the best “Tales.” They’re not wrong either. “Cutting Cards” is fabulously entertaining. [8/10]


So Weird: “Angel

After the goofiness of “Simplicity,” “So Weird” swings back into darker territory with “Angel.’ While attempting to avoid a collision with a strange man, the Philips bus crashes into a front yard. Jack is immediately smitten with the teenage daughter of the man who lives there while Fi believes she knows something about the mysterious fellow who brought them there in the first place. The daughter tells Fiona the man is her “angel,” while a number of foreboding encounters convinces Fi that the mysterious entity is something else.

Fiona’s opening monologue reminds the viewer that not all encounters with angels are harps and wings. As the story develops we realize Jack’s new girlfriend is dying of leukemia, the strange visitor heavily implied to be the angel of death. This is fairly dark territory for the Disney Channel. The girl’s illness is revealed when a bookshelf of wigs is discovered, a sobering touch. Another emotionally raw moment is the father's confesison of grief, over loosing both his wife and his daughter. While some of the episode’s supernatural encounters are diluted by cheesy special effects, “Angel” builds towards an extraordinary moment. As Fiona walks into the light, the viewer is presented with images of the girl in a hospital bed, her father crying after hearing the news. The sequence is without dialogue and scored to ethereal choir music. It’s affecting and powerful without overdoing it.

The story has a happy ending but a well-earned one. Cara DeLizia shows her dramatic chops here and Jane McGregor is excellent in her guest role. The episode was directed by Paul Lynch, of “Prom Night” and “Humongous” fame. Perhaps contributing the strong atmosphere of “Angel” to its director isn’t fair, considering the amount of undistinguished television the director has done, but I’ll go ahead and give him this one. Episodes of this quality are what convinced me that “So Weird” is capable of more then your typical kid’s show. [8/10]

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