When I started this blog my intention was to review lots and lots of monster movies of the 40s and 50s. how many have I actually reviewed so far? Not enough to consider this a monster blog, that's for sure.
So I just recently gave this 1956 sci fi adventure movie a re-watch. I'd previously seen it maybe 6 years ago. It actually held up much better than I was expecting. As a teenager who was just starting to watch B-movies I didn't realize that there was a difference between a GOOD monster movie and a REALLY REALLY BAD ONE. And this may not be a great monster flick like 'Creature from the Black Lagoon' but it's certainly a few notches above 'Plan 9 from Outer Space' or 'Robot Monster'.
So the movie actually starts in a library with a scientist explaining Hollow Earth theories to the audience. This doesn't really have anything to do with the story. It's just that the movie is begging you to take it seriously. Cut to an archeological expedition digging in the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range. They're searching for a mythical lost city. They keep name-dropping the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical Flood to further establish credibility. Unfortunately an earthquake disturbs the dig site. It also dislodges an oil lamp from one of the mountain peaks. The lamp is brought to the archeologists by a young shepherd boy.
The scientists study pictographs etched into the lamp. It tells of the Gilgamesh version of the flood and a temple built high in the mountains. Thinking this may just be the lost city they're looking for, the explorers set off to find the temple.
To further establish credibility the filmmakers show that they actually researched mountaineering. The explorers explain that they plan to set up multiple base camps on the side of the mountain. They show our heroes crossing portable aluminum bridges, close-up shots of their crampon clad feet, and of course, native Sherpas carrying their gear (I don't know if you can tell, but I was a bit of a mountaineering geek in my teenage years). I don't usually expect to see this much accuracy from a B-movie.
So they reach the top of the mountain and find the lost Sumerian temple. Unfortunately the ground crumbles under their feet and one of the members of the expedition falls into a seemingly bottomless chasm. Dr. Bentley - the leader of the expedition - establishes himself as the hero of the story when he immediately leads the way down the chasm after his comrade. Unfortunately a cave-in traps three members of the expedition - Dr. Bentley, Dr. Bellamin, and Dr. Lafarge - underground. They set off exploring the tunnels and trying to find another way out. They discover some of the tunnels are man-made. After stopping to rest they are attacked by the titular Mole People.
The Mole People are really cool. Nicely designed monster costumes. They claw their way up through loose dirt, and then grab you and pull you under. My only complaint is the way they have that hump on their backs, but they walk upright. Shouldn't they stoop over?
So our heroes are captured by the mole men but manage to escape. They find their way to an underground city populated by Albinos. Dr. Bentley theorizes that this is the rest of the lost Sumerian city buried underground centuries ago in one of the mountains many earthquakes. The Albinos aren't to keen on new arrivals. The natives have a strict population control policy due to the limited quantity of their mushroom food source. So they decide to sacrifice our heroes to the 'Fires of Ishtar'. Our heroes aren't to keen on the prospect of being scarified, so they put up a fight. They use a handy dandy flashlight to blind the Albinos and make a break for it. Unfortunately they get separated in the tunnels and Lafarge is killed by the Mole People.
Our heroes bury their fallen comrade, and head back to the city. They manage to convince the natives that they're 'messengers from the gods' because of their magic flashlight. They get a lot out of this deal. Not killed for one. Also they get their own slave girl as an added perk. The slave girl - named Adad - is a genetic throwback who is treated like dirt by the natives because she isn't an Albino. She's your typical empty headed native love interest from this type of movie.
Dr. Bentley: "You shouldn't have to be a slave. You should be free."
Adad: "What is free?"
Later in the movie:
Adad: 'What is love?"
I'm kind of surprised she never asks what breathing is.
It's revealed that the Mole People are mindless slaves of the Albinos. They are forced to work in the mines and harvest Mushrooms. Our heroes - being the square-jawed heroes that they are - oppose injustice of any kind, including this inhumane treatment of Mole People. They more or less try to run the underground city using the power of the magic flashlight.
The main villain of the story is the high priest who wants this magic flashlight for himself. He has been suspecting the divine status of our heroes for some time now, and the discovery of Dr. Lafarge's body confirms his theory. Fun fact, the high priest is played by Alan Napier, probably best know as Alfred from the 60s Batman TV series.
He hatches a plan to feed our heroes drugged mushrooms and then sacrifice them to the Fires of Ishtar. Previously to this point we've seen some native girls be sacrificed in part of an elaborate ceremony. Masked priests open a massive set of doors and a blinding light streams out. The sacrifices willingly enter the chamber and the doors are closed behind them. Later masked Albinos carry blackened corpses from the chamber.
Adad actually does something useful at this point. She gets help from the sympathetic Mole Men to stop Dr. Bentley and that-other-guy-she-doesn't-really-care-about from being sacrificed.
- If this is a movie you think sounds interesting, spoiler alert from this point on -
The high priest attempts to stop the Mole People revolution using the magic flashlight. Unbeknownst to him, the batteries had previously gone dead. Thanks to the enraged Mole People, the high priest also goes dead. Adad tries to get the massive door open, but her puny little 50's girl arms can't do it, so the Mole People smash the door in, causing the Fires of Ishtar to stream into the room. Adad, headless of the danger, rushes into the chamber to free Dr. Bentley and what-sis-name.
It is then revealed that the Fire of Ishtar is just sunlight. It burns the skin of the Albinos, but is harmless to Adad and our heroes.
So they decide to climb out of the light well to the surface world. And here comes the part that - in my opinion - prevents this from being a really good movie. Something movies of this era liked to do is tack on a tragic ending for no reason.
When they reach the surface there's another earthquake. Adad runs back towards the temple like the little idiot she is and is crushed by a collapsing pillar. This feels so pointless and tacked on that it kind of ruins an otherwise good movie at the last minute.
BUT if you are into lost world type stories, adventure movies, or classic monsters, you should definitely check this one out. True, it may take itself a little too seriously at first for as campy as the lost city actually is, but if you're already familiar with the clichés of the genre you should get a chuckle out of the power hungry high priest, the heroes pretending to be all powerful because they have access to 20th century technology, and the love story between the hero and the ditzy slave girl.