Release Date(s)1956 (February 26, 2019)
Studio(s)Universal-International/Universal Pictures (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: D+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B+
Mostly kept in the eyes of movie fans thanks to its appearance on Mystery Science Theater 3000, The Mole People from 1956 was released on a double bill with Curucu, Beast of the Amazon by Universal-International, and later re-issued in 1964. Often compared to Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, it tells the story of archaeologists who discover a hidden group of Sumerian albinos deep beneath the Earth’s surface who have managed to survive extinction by living off of mushrooms and use monstrous-looking mole men to do their bidding.
Although The Mole People managed to return an initial profit, it wasn’t exactly a groundbreaking film by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it’s quite cheap-looking, as were a number of other Universal science fiction and horror titles from that time period, including The Deadly Mantis and The Thing That Couldn’t Die. The mole men themselves are fairly unique-looking, and were probably frightening to 10-year-olds at the time of the film’s release, but unfortunately, they’re not the main focus of the story – and with a running time of 77 minutes, the film feels interminably long, particularly during the mountain climbing and hole descent sequences.
The cast is comprised of sci-fi/horror regular John Agar as the lead archaeologist, as well as Hugh Beaumont (of Leave it to Beaver fame), Alan Napier (Alfred from the original Batman TV series), and Cynthia Patrick, who quit show business not long after and focused on her family life. The film is also infamous for its frequent use of poorly-presented stock footage, which was taken from the nature documentary The Conquest of Everest (purportedly with a price tag of $12 per feet of film). The documentary was originally shot in color on 16mm film, but since The Mole People is black and white, the footage was desaturated and blown up to 35mm, only further enhancing any and all of its visual flaws.
Despite its obvious shortcomings, including the aforementioned mind-numbingly boring climbing sequences, appalling matte paintings, and derivative storyline, The Mole People actually offers some worthy movie monsters who dig their way up and sink into the ground (which looks more like coffee grounds than dirt) with relative ease. The God-worshipping albinos hell-bent on slavery and destroying interlopers and scapegoats isn’t exactly riveting cinema, but their eventual demise is ultimately justified. It’s not really a great film, but it has interesting elements.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release of The Mole People is presented in two separate aspect ratios: 1.85:1 and 2.00:1. The transfer for both is sourced from an older master (which itself was originally sourced from a print), and despite its age, it holds up fairly well. Its weakest points are the inclusion of the soft, grainy stock footage, which is marred with frequent damage. The rest of the presentation also shows signs of speckling and scratches (and occasional cue markers), but is obviously much sharper and clearer. Stabilization is never a problem but grain levels are often coarse. Black-and-white delineation is mostly good, although some of the darker scenes lack strong detail. Overall, it’s a bump up in quality over previous standard definition presentations, and likely the best there is to offer outside of new transfer from any surviving original elements.
The audio is presented in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD with optional subtitles in English SDH. The single-channel source is surprisingly not as narrow as I expected. There’s not an abundant fullness to it, but it’s certainly not constricted. Dialogue is always discernable while the score has some decent life to it. Sound effects aren’t all that impressive and are more thin than the other elements, but the overall presentation is clean and clear, lacking distortion, hiss, and crackle.
The extras for this release include a new audio commentary with film historian Tom Weaver and occasional contributions by author Jan Alan Henderson and music author David Schecter (as well as actor recreation comments made by director Virgil Vogel, John Agar, and Cynthia Patrick), all of whom go into extreme detail about many of the film’s production, cast, crew, and their own personal feelings about the film. Also included is Of Mushrooms and Madmen: Making The Mole People, a new 19-minute featurette from Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, which features narration by Randy Turnbull and interviews with author C. Courtney Joyner, film historian Bob Burns, and author Tom Weaver, who discuss producer William Alland and the low budget films that were produced at Universal during the 1950s, including an in-depth look at The Mole People itself. In addition, there’s also the aforementioned Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode in standard definition, a posters and lobby cards still gallery featuring 47 images, a behind-the-scenes and promotional still gallery featuring 44 images, and the original theatrical trailer, which features some alternate footage that didn’t make it into the final version of the film.
It’s tough to defend The Mole People to modern horror fans, but for those who enjoy old-fashioned monster movies regardless of the quality, Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray release of the film will certainly be up your alley. If nothing else, it makes for a laid-back, rainy day movie experience which doesn’t require much from you. Overall, it’s a recommended release.
– Tim Salmons