Saturday, June 10, 1978: The Mole People (1956) / The Cat Creeps (1946)

Synopsis: On an expedition to ancient Mesopotamia, a team led by archeologist Dr. Roger Bentley (John Agar) discovers a tablet describing a lost society. Later they come across an ancient bowl depicting a massive flood and resulting diaspora of the Sumerian people. Bentley theorizes that the flood referenced might be the same referred to in the Book of Genesis; after all, he says, many cultures seem to allude to this same event.

The bowl had been found at an unusually high elevation. Dr. Jud Bellamin (Hugh Marlowe) hypothesizes that the bowl had originally been even higher on the mountain but was carried down over the centuries by shifting snows.

Bentley, Bellamin, Prof. Etienne Lafarge (Nestor Paiva) and Dr. Paul Stewart (Phil Chambers) make their way up the mountain to try to find where the bowl came from. Near the summit they are surprised to discover the ruins of an ancient Sumerian village.

In investigating the ruins, Dr. Stewart falls down what appears to be a bottomless pit. The others begin climbing down to rescue him. They find his body more than a hundred feet below, but quickly realize that they are in a system of artificially-created tunnels.

A rock slide prevents them from climbing back the way they came and they must press on through the tunnels. Before they find themselves in a huge cavern dimly illuminated with phosphorescent material. Below them, in a sort of underground valley, is what appears to be Mesopotamian village.

Exhausted, they make camp and fall asleep, but are soon captured by hideous mutants with large hands and animal-like faces who burrow up out of the sand. They are dragged underground by the mutants and are brought to the albino leaders of the lost city. King Sharu (Arthur Gilmour) is not entirely hostile to the newcomers, but the real power behind the throne, the sinister minister Elinu (Alan Napier) convinces him that no good can come from these newcomers.

The elites attempt to capture the surface-dwellers, but are thwarted when it turns out that light from their flashlights blinds the albinos.

The surface-dwellers view a sacrifice in which a number of Sumerian women are sacrificed in the “Eye of Ishtar”, a chamber in which they are exposed to direct sunlight coming down from the surface; the women are promptly burned to a crisp.

It turns out that this Sumerian society has three distinct classes: the cultured albinos form the upper class; the Mole People who are used as slave laborers; and a third, much smaller group called “marked ones”, non-albino throwbacks to the days when their people lived on the surface. King Sharu, convinced by the flashlight that the men are protected by the god Ishtar, gives Bentley his “marked one” slave Adad (Cynthia Patrick). This angers Elinu, who decides the weak king must be pushed aside and the surface-dwellers exposed as the threat they are….

Comments: An uneasy hybrid of Lost Horizon and The Time Machine, this film must have seemed fairly ambitious on paper: we have the ruins of a Mesopotamian city, archeologists spelunking to dangerous depths, the discovery of a lost world, sword fights, palace intrigue, class warfare between effete albinos and mutant humanoids, and a beautiful, innocent woman only too willing to be rescued by the heroes and brought up to live on the Earth’s surface, a place that she has always believed was only a myth.

But The Mole People doesn’t live up to its swashbuckling premise. It has a script that is too fearful to take chances, and is also hobbled by an inadequate budget. The movie’s sets, costume design and cinematography suggest a film that was made very quickly. Hammer Studios probably could have done a better job with the concept, skilled as they were at making their movies look more lavish than the money would allow; and one can imagine that with better sets, costumes and matte paintings (as well as a bit of Technicolor sheen) the movie would be better remembered today.

The main selling point of the film is, of course, the ghoulish mutants (they’re featured quite prominently in the the posters) who are this movie’s version of the Morlocks, with the albino upper class standing in as the Eloi. Like the Morlocks, it’s hinted that the mole people consume the dead bodies of the elites, though like everyone else they eat a lot of mushrooms. But unlike the predatory Morlocks, the mole men are a slave caste who eventually turn against their masters. Having the monsters we fear in the beginning of the film turn out to be the good guys is a nice touch, but like most other aspects of the film it isn’t handled too well.

The Mole People isn’t helped either by the lackluster casting. John Agar, never more than an adequate leading man, clearly struggles playing Roger Bentley, who as written is little more than a cipher. Bentley is a humorless know-it-all who never seems surprised by anything, even when he and his colleagues stumble onto a lost underground civilization and are beset by mole men. This was John Agar’s third outing for Universal; he’s previously appeared in Tarantula (1955) and Revenge of the Creature (1955).

Alan Napier was a busy Universal contract player in the 1940s, appearing in lots of movies that turned up on our show, including House of Horrors, The Invisible Man Returns and Three Strangers. His performance here isn’t more than competent — not a surprise since Napier was never more than a competent actor — but even Laurence Olivier would have found it difficult to inject life into such a stock character.

Similarly, the talented Nestor Paiva doesn’t have much to work with here; he is the appointed worrier of the group, but doesn’t have much more to do than complain before getting eaten by the mole men.

Universal contract player Cynthia Patrick plays the typical love interest for this sort of film, and while she’s attractive, she has no discernable talent as an actress. Patrick had an extremely brief career, appearing in just a few feature films before moving over to doing TV guest shots; even so her career fizzled out pretty quickly.

There’s one performer in the movie who doesn’t venture into the subterranean world, and modern viewers might well ask: why does The Mole People begin with an odd, halting introduction from some doughy professor of English at USC? You’d be forgiven for thinking that Frank C. Baxter was a friend of the producer, or was maybe added at the insistence of some studio bigwig. But in the context of 1956, his presence would have made sense, and it’s likely that at least some of the kids buying tickets to see The Mole People would have recognized Dr. Baxter right away.

Baxter was a popularizer of science in the early days of television, appearing in a number of productions explaining difficult concepts to the layman with a warm, avuncular style. He won a Peabody award for the series Shakespeare on TV in 1955, and largely on the strength of this was chosen to portray the character of “Dr. Research” in Frank Capra’s Technicolor shorts for TV, The Bell System Science Series which ran from 1956 to 1962. The first two films in the series paired Baxter with Eddie Albert; in three more he appeared with It Came from Outer Space star Richard Carlson.

(By the way, this episode of The Bell System Science Series from 1958 might seem a bit clunky to your 21st century eyes, but you should still watch it, sad sack: it contains a nice explainer about the Coriolis effect, and at about 50 minutes in, you will see a very early warning about climate change caused by a rise in CO2 levels. Why didn’t you listen to Baxter and Carlson, America?)

Baxter certainly wasn’t polished in these productions, but by modern standards few people were. While the camera clearly didn’t love the guy, he evidently came across as warm and reassuring to viewers, and that was enough.

So it shouldn’t be a big surprise that Baxter turns up in the intro to The Mole People. Universal had used the gimmick of a scientific intro to a sci-fi movie before, most notably in Creature from the Black Lagoon, and it would do so again in The Monolith Monsters with its tedious explainer about meteors.

Baxter’s intro doesn’t really add anything here, and would have been better left on the cutting-room floor (and in fact it was excised from the TV prints). But it seems to have been kept in place to extend the running time of the theatrical version of the movie, which is just shy of 80 minutes.

The Cat Creeps

Synopsis: Newspaper reporter Terry Nichols (Fred Brady) is given an assignment to look into a 15-year-old cold case, which may implicate senatorial candidate Walter Elliot (Jonathan Hale) shortly before election day. Nichols knows that the publisher’s brother-in-law is the incumbent senator and is in danger of losing the election to Elliot, so he’s suspicious of the motives behind the assignment. Nevertheless, the tip the newspaper has received from the elderly Cora Williams, while flaky, might just be legitimate: she claims that the supposed suicide of bootlegger Eric Goran was in fact a murder; that $200,000 was the motive and that Williams — and her black cat — have discovered the whereabouts of the money.

Nichols has reason to resent the assignment, aside from his distaste in doing someone else’s dirty work: his girlfriend Gay is Walter Elliot’s daughter. Nichol’s first stop is the Elliot household, where he tells both Elliot and Gay the situation. Walter is not upset at the news, and understands the position Nichol’s been put in; but Gay is angered by his actions.

Nichols leaves, but with photographer Pidge Laurie (Noah Beery, Jr) follows Elliot to the waterfront; the latter has secured a boat to take him, Gay, attorney Tom McGalvey (Douglas Dumbrille), his secretary Connie Palmer (Rose Hobart) and private detective Ken Grady (Paul Kelly) to the island where Cora Williams lives. Nichols and Pidge cadge a ride with Elliot’s party.

As they approach the island they see a light on in the house, but it is out when they reach the shore and the house is locked; Nichols reasons that Williams saw the party approaching and is pretending to not be home. But as it turns out Elliot has a key to the house and lets himself in, while Grady gains entry through the cellar.

Once inside the house, the party splits up and looks around. They hear a scream from upstairs and find Cora Williams has been attacked and is unconscious. Gay goes to the boat to get help, only to discover that it has been set on fire and the party is trapped on the island.

Grady pulls Palmer aside and tells her to listen for anything Williams might say while she is unconscious, and it becomes clear the two are secretly working together. Pidge, gathering firewood outside, hears someone moving in the servant’s quarters near the shore, but he is kicked in the face by an unseen assailant when he investigates.

Soon Williams is dead — Nichols believes whoever attacked her has finished the job. Unexpectedly someone new appears on the island — Kyara Goran (Iris Lancaster), the daughter of the possibly-murdered Eric Goran. She claims that even though Williams is dead, her soul has been reincarnated into the body of her black cat…

Comments: Universal released two different films with the title The Cat Creeps; the first, from 1930, was based on the stage play The Cat and the Canary and has long been presumed lost. It spawned a well-known remake (The Cat and the Canary) starring Bob Hope in 1939 (though it was released by Paramount, not Universal). Tonight’s movie from 1946 has no connection with either film, but is a completely independent story that seems to have simply used the title The Cat Creeps as a starting point.

The movie was the last gasp of Universal’s golden age of horror. It was released on a double bill with She-Wolf of London in 1946 and shares that film’s disheartening cheapness.

In spite of a brisk running time (57 minutes), the plot is unnecessarily complicated, apparently for no other reason than to hide the fact that not much is going on. Red herrings are trotted out and forgotten, plot points are introduced and abandoned, and horror elements are hinted at and never realized. Like She-Wolf of London, it assumes the trappings of a horror movie (there’s an Old Dark House to wander around in, and a black cat that we’re told contains the soul of a dead woman) but it ultimately reveals itself to be a standard mystery story.

While the dialogue is a bit snappier than some of the B-pictures of this era, the script seems to have been written very quickly, and neither the characters nor the plot are very well thought-out. The liveliest actor in the cast is Noah Beery, Jr. as Pidge Laurie, the sidekick of the reporter protagonist. Normally this kind of character is relegated to comic relief duties (as was Donald Kerr’s odious “One Shot” McGuire in The Devil Bat), but Pidge is more of an equal to Nichols in this one, and even gets some good lines of his own.

Frederick Brady was an undistinguished actor who appeared only in B-films; he later found some success as a writer in the early days of television, penning scripts for 77 Sunset Strip and Cheyenne, as well as anthology programs like Alcoa Theater, Jane Wyman Presents and Studio 57. He’s a somewhat unconventional lead and I rather liked him for that, but he doesn’t really command the screen as a lead actor should, and it’s not a surprise that he didn’t find more success in front of the camera.

Lois Collier was a radio-actor-turned-Universal-player who seemed to spend most of her seven years under contract marking time on the studio lot; she had a pretty face but not much else to recommend her. Like Brady, she moved over to television in the early 1950s, appearing as a regular on the Boston Blackie TV series before disappearing from the business.

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