Sunday, October 30, 2011

X-Files Adjacent: The Mole People

Many months ago, I began this series of pieces that I described as a Trifecta on a group of 50s horror and science fiction flicks that shared similarities with The X-Files, or might have influenced the people involved with the show, or older generations who influenced the producers--a sort of six degrees of separation, if you will. I have often argued that when it comes to story-telling, there are no accidents; other material can have a direct or indirect influence on an artist.

In the case of this analysis, it might seem like the most unlikely candidate, as far as influences, and yet The Mole People sticks out like a sore thumb and seemed like a real anomaly for the period. Released in 1956, at the height of the Atomic-age era of mutated giant insects and reptiles, The Mole People seems like a film that should have been produced and released a decade earlier. There’s a nostalgic and retro aspect to the film. It plays like a tribute to the 1920’s pulps of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A. Merritt, and Robert E Howard, and yet there’s a social injustice theme about instutionalized slavery sewn into the tale that left me suspecting there was more to the film.

The Mole People is essentially a ‘B’ movie released by Universal International at the zenith of the Bud Westmore era of Universal’s horror and science fiction franchise. Where the infamous title characters, the creatures themselves, are not the villains, but mutant slaves of the underground Sumerian race who have been oppressed by their masters. Thematically, the film shares similarities to A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool and countless other sources, which we’ll get into later.

The Story

The film was produced by William Alland, who initially made his name as an actor before producing, appearing as the unidentified reporter in Citizen Kane (1941), written by Laszlo Gorog, and was one of the early directing assignments at Universal Studios for Virgil W. Vogel. It starred John Agar, Hugh Beaumont, Cynthia Patrick, and Alan Napier. The film opens with an introduction by USC Professor, Dr. Frank C. Baxter, who speaks about man’s interest in what is inside the Earth. He cites Gilgamesh, the Greeks, Dante, and explains about the Hollow Earth theories of John Cleves Symmes’ and Cyrus Reed Teed’s in the 19th Century. Then he advises that the following film is "a fable, beyond fiction." This kind of introduction was a common device during this period of genre pictures; an expert or criminologist will offer a reassurance to the viewers. The device was even used in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space.

We are introduced to Dr. Roger Bentley (John Agar), an archeologist who is working on an excavation is Asia. He is working closely with his partner Dr. Jed Bellamin (Hugh Beaumont), as well as Prof. Etienne Lafarge (Nestor Paiva), and Dr. Paul Stuart (Phil Chambers). They find a stone tablet embedded in rock, which they determine is 5,000 years old and the writing is Sumerian in origin, Just as Dr. Bentley reads a warning about removing the tablet, an earthquake sets their efforts back when the tablet falls, but the quake also dislodges an oil lamp brought to them by a native boy, with symbols and references identical to the tablet. They learn that the ancient Sumerians of the Sharu dynasty sought refuge from the great flood cited in the epic of Gilgamesh, at the top of the mountain overlooking their camp site, Kuitara. After climbing the mountain, they reach the surface ruins of a temple.

When another earthquake triggers the mountain side to crumble, they lose one of their team members, Dr. Stuart, and with a rope, follow the man into the split earth. They make their way to what turns out to be The Temple of Ishtar, without the slightest warning of what is to come.

After finding Dr. Stuart dead from the fall and reaching the bowels of the Earth, the group discover a chamber lit by some kind of phosphorescence--"chemicals in the rocks," as Dr. Bentley calls it. Before them is an underground lake and a city of large, stone buildings. There is a fallen stone head that is identical to a sculpture found in the plateau on the surface. The team realize this city must be the surviving descendants of the Sharu dynasty. They establish camp, and they are grabbed, with their heads covered in bags, by a group of mutant creatures: The Mole People.

Bentley, Bellamin, and LaFarge awake in another chamber, a cave that features some kind of manacles set into the wall. Bentley and Bellamin can’t recall anything, but LaFarge has some scars from the hands of something not human. Two albino men appear, both armed and sporting attire of an ancient culture. The team is marched back through another part of the large chamber and they are escorted into a ritual in progress. They appear to have entered some kind of temple structure with a symbol that adorns the complex--an arrow that is pointed at a sixty degree angle. The high priest, Elinu, conducts some kind of ritual, uttering that he holds the magic eye of Ishtar. The priest warns King Sharu that these outsiders are ‘evil ones’ who were captured by the 'beasts of the dark.'

After the team offers themselves as friends, a kind of inverse mythology is presented by the high priest. After warning that there is no world but theirs’ and the king adds, there is only heaven, where they lived a long time ago until they were expelled for their sins, the priest explains that this underground realm is the world and they are its people. Above is heaven where only the gods dwell.

After conferring with King Sharu, the high priest orders that these men be placed into the "Fire of Ishtar." Just as the guards move in to grab them, Bentley, Bellamin, and LaFarge fight to make their escape. A squad of guards give chase, and LaFarge is nearly killed by a guard. Bentley and Bellamin discover that the albino Sumerian guards and citizens are hypersensitive to light--even flashlights.

While examining one of the dead guards and wondering how these people have managed to survive, the body of the guard vanishes; something unseen has taken it. LaFarge panics and runs. After Bentley and Bellamin reach LaFarge, he argues that the three of them have to find a way out, and that heading back to the city isn’t an option. Bentley and Bellamin agree. The three of them move further through the tunnels, with the temperature rising. They follow a series of strange sounds with LaFarge staying behind. Then they split up. Bentley and Bellamin reach a chamber to find the creatures, the Mole people, doing slave labor for the Sumerian albinos. Alerted to the presence of the scientists, the guards prompt several of the Mole people to give chase. LaFarge, in another panic, splits up from the team and is killed by one of the mutant slaves and mauled.

Bentley argues that they should make their escape from the caverns by swimming the river, but Bellamin points out that it runs underground for miles. Bentley argues that there must be a way out, as there is a constant supply of fresh air. Then the high priest surfaces and asks the scientist not to use "the burning light." The priest is unaware that the flashlight’s battery is nearly gone.

They have proven to the priest that they possess the 'divine fire of Ishtar' and the king has decided they are holy messengers. They are invited to a royal feast. The priest notes the absence of LaFarge, and Bentley replies he was called back to heaven by Ishtar. They play up the ruse of being messengers for Ishtar, and are introduced to female slaves with plates of food, fish, and mushrooms. Three of the women are albinos. The fourth woman isn’t, and has the same pigmentation as Bentley and Bellamin. But her service is clumsy and the king punishes her until Bentley stops him, brandishing the flashlight to keep them in line. King Sharu takes note of Bentley’s interest and gives the girl, Adel, to him.

While Bentley argues that the gods do not favor the trading of human beings, the priest regards Adel as a 'marked one.' Bentley learns that there are other non-albinos in the kingdom, and the priest explains that the albinos number "twice-and-a-half times sixty." This is their sacred number and that this is the highest number their food supply can sustain. When that number is exceeded, they are killed and sacrificed to the fire of Ishtar. A guard informs the high priest and the king that one of the beasts of the dark (The Mole People) have desecrated their dead--one of the guards that the beast had the flesh stripped off of--but creatures have been caught and the king orders them killed.

After the feast, Bentley and Bellamin, in a private moment, both agree they need to find the passage back to the surface, but doubts that the albinos or the beast themselves will help. The blond servant, Adad, enters and offers them refreshment. When alone, Adad lulls Bentley to sleep with music. After learning that Adad is now Bentley’s servant, he tries to explain to her the meaning of freedom, and convinces her there is a world beyond what she has been told. The high priest from a distance, overhears their conversation. Later, Bentley learns about this culture--the type of clothes they make, the type of weapons they forge, etc...

Elinu, the high priest, warns his followers that these men, Bentley and Bellamin, are not to be trusted, arguing that they are human, and not divine as the king believes. Later, while Bentley and Bellamin are searching the tunnels, unaware that they are being followed, a guard has been ordered to grab their flashlight--"the burning light." The pair learn more about how the beasts are treated--how the Mole People are starved by the guards and ordered to continue the practice, when one of the beasts--out of starvation--attempts to eat one of the harvested mushrooms. It is savagely beaten with sixty lashes, but Bentley and Bellamin intervene. The captain of the guard gives the beast a chance, but is killed after being dragged down a hole.

Back in the city, Bentley teaches Adad more about his world, and why what she has been told is wrong. During a romantic interlude, Bentley rationalizes to Adad that she is human, after admitting to not being a god. He invites her to come to his world, the surface.

Once the King learns of the death of the captain, he appeals to Bentley and Bellamin to use their fire cylinder to keep the beasts in line, but the pair refuses and walks away. The high priest uses this opportunity to convince the king that the newcomers are not to be trusted, but to no avail. Bentley and Bellamin use their flashlight to stop some guards from torturing some beasts, just as the battery in their flashlight gives out, thereby losing their one bit of leverage. Still, Bentley hopes that the creatures can reason, and will remember their kindness.

The king believes that Ishtar is punishing them for some kind of sin, but the high priest argues that the outsiders are the sinners, and that Bentley and Bellamin encourage rebellion with the beasts, who in turn cannot produce enough food to feed everyone. The king then decides that a sacrifice is required to his god. Later, the same ritual is conducted that Bentley and Bellamin encountered. Three albino woman (one assumes of lower status), after a ritual dance, are lured through the door of a narrow chamber. When the sunlight shines from above the surface, all three are burnt beyond recognition from "the fire of Ishtar."

The new captain of the guard makes a discovery, which he reveals to the high priest. It is the hidden body of LaFarge, which proves that Bentley and Bellamin aren’t gods from the heavens. While caught off-guard, Bentley and Bellamin relax with Adad, when the high priest enters their chambers with the guards. While they are subdued, Adad manages to escape through a tunnel.

Adad makes her way to a slave encampment for the beasts, and is dragged into one of the holes of the beasts. Back at the temple, the high priest orders the intruders to be placed in the chamber, falsely believing they will be harmed by the "fire of Ishtar," but before anything can happen, a horde of Mole people rise up from the earth. The high priest assures King Sharu there is nothing to fear, as Mole people descend into the temple, but he realizes too late that the flashlight is of no use. The beasts kill the king and the high priest.

As the carnage continues, Adad appears. She tries to open the chamber door where Bentley and Bellamin are trapped, but she ends up needing the aid of the beasts, who pry it open. But the bright light drives the Mole people back into the caves, after the Sumerian populace has been killed. Realizing that the bright light is sun from the surface, they climb the ragged walls of the chamber towards the surface. They eventually reach the top to find themselves back at the ruins of the ancient temple of the plateau.

Soon after they reach the plateau, several earthquakes collapse and seal the chasm to the sacrificial chamber, and Adad is killed from a falling statue. Bentley and Bellamin are left without any proof of the adventure they experienced.


The Mole People isn’t a great film. The acting is fairly wooden and nowhere on par with the aforementioned Curse of The Demon. In fact, it’s more on par with War of the Satellites. Furthermore, the film has other deep flaws; the production and sets seem to have been cannibalized from other productions. For instance, the Mole People costumes seem to be hand-me-downs from the Metaluna Mutant costumes from 1955’s This Island Earth, Universal’s tent pole Sci-Fi production from that year. The Mole People suffered from false advertising, as it wasn’t a horror tale, but more of an adventure fantasy, as well as an admittedly awful title. A better title might have been "The Sumerians" or "The Unearthed." Nevertheless, it touched on a number of themes that struck my curiosity. The film touches on, in a select fashion, the mysteries behind Sumeria, a culture that was believed to have vanished. Let’s address some of the ideas thrown around.

Let’s address Professor Baxter’s explanations about Hollow Earth Theory, which was popular in the late 18th Century. The hypothesis proposed that the planet earth was entirely hollow or otherwise contained a substantial interior space. The concept of subterranean lands inside the Earth is popular in folklore, mythology, legends, and various religions including elements of Christianity, Judaism, Greek, the Nordic svartalfheim, and with Tibetan Buddhism (Shamballa). Edmond Halley proposed the idea in 1692 that the Earth was composed of several hollow shells, two inner concentric shells (to explain the rotations of Mercury, Venus, and Mars,) and that each shell had it’s own atmosphere and magnetic pole, which he used to explain the Aurora Borealis. Leonhard Euler proposed a similar theory, but minus the shells, and proposed an inner sun with openings at the Poles. Around 1818 John Cleves Symmes Jr. and eventually Cyrus Reed Teed's in 1869, furthered their own variations of the theory, Teed became the founder of Koreshanity. William Reed wrote Phantom of the Poles in 1906, and he supported the idea of a hollow earth, but without interior shells, or an inner sun.

Map of the interior world, from the Goddess of Atvatabar (1892)

During the Nazi era of the 30s and 40s, The Thune society reported at great length about Tibetan myths of openings in the Earth. Yet conventional science argues that due to gravity, the theory would be improbable once you consider that massive objects tend to clump together gravitationally, creating non-hollow spherical objects that we know to be stars and planets. Visual evidence to support this can be found with the deepest hole drilled to date, the SG-3 borehole, which is 12.3 km (7.6 mi) deep, and part of the Soviet Kola Superdeep Borehole project. Nevertheless, considering the volcanic caverns that are known, the idea of life existing below the Earth, however improbable, can’t be fully ruled out when you consider that Marine Biologists have discovered species in the deep oceans in areas where the pressure was thought to be too great for anything to survive.

One of the first plot elements that struck me was the premise that the Sumerians sole food sources were fish, goats, and mushrooms, which, in some cases are known hallucinogens that have been used in rituals to invoke spirits, and while it might have been a convenient plot device of Lazlo Gorgo’s to explain how they survived, it seemed a telling choice to include mushrooms, when you consider how they have been used in ritual magic.

Then there is “The Fire of Ishtar,” represented as an arrowhead symbol that is used to depict the shaft of light. But, there’s another way at looking at the symbol. Could it represent a triangle space craft? Could these Sumerian albinos be the descendants of an alien race? When you consider their hypersensitivity to sunlight, could they have come from a planet where life adapted to a distant sun?

Who was Ishtar? In Sumerian mythology / theology, Ishtar was one of the seven gods who decreed the fates. Ishtar / Inanna was a goddess of love and war, and like the Greek god of the Underworld, Hades, who allowed his beloved Persephone to return to the surface in order to create spring, Inanna was the creator of seasons. Ishtar, as a goddess of sex, was a force that would bring mates together. One of Ishtar’s lovers was the grain-god, Tammuz, who died young, and some have implied that Ishtar had a hand in Tammuz’s death. Nevertheless, Ishtar was inconsolable and was determined to fetch Tammuz back from the Underworld. In the process of Ishtar’s efforts, she was imprisoned by her sister, Queen Ereshkigal, and her father, Sin the Moon god, sent an envoy with powerful magic to successfully free Ishtar, and return Tammuz back to the living. The decent of Ishtar was celebrated annually in Babylonian lands. So, elements of the film, The Mole People, such as the ritual sacrifice for the sake of a food supply, shares similarities to the far superior The Wicker Man (1973), written by Anthony Shaffer.

Furthermore the plot of the film reminded me of the Sumerian legend of the Anunnaki:

Who were the Anunnaki? There have been differing interpretations. The conventional thinking about the Anunnaki is that they represent the seven “nether Spheres” and guardians of the “Seven gates” through which the “Sun of God” passes into the netherworld of darkness. They were thought to be the “Tutelary spirits of the Earth.” One other theory was the following: According to Zecharia Sitchin, the Anunnaki were extra-terrestrials who came to Earth in antiquity and created or tampered with the genetic make-up of primitive man. The Anunnaki were related to the Nephilim from the Bible. These beings were from an alleged 12th planet of our solar system called Nibiru. Zecharia has proposed that the Sumerian capital of Ur was destroyed in 2000 BCE by an evil wind, the fallout from nuclear weapons, and recorded in the Lament for Ur. But here’s where it gets interesting, as cited below:

According to Sitchin, the "gods” of the Anunnaki were the rank and file workers of the colonial expedition to earth from the 12th planet, also known later, through the Babylonians, as Marduk. The Nephilim "gods” were the commanders of the operation. The Anunnaki performed the menial labor, mining ores and building bases, while the Nephilim issued the orders, setting these tasks into motion. It was only due to an uprising by the Anunnaki against the Nephilim in protest of these conditions that the Anunnaki 'workers’ revolted against their overseers. Because of this, the Nephilim and Anunnaki came together in a project to blend the DNA of Homo erectus with that of their own, thus giving rise to the Homo sapiens.

What is interesting to note is the narrative similarities between the final act of The Mole People and the alleged conflict between the Anunnaki and the Nephilim. Of course Sitchin’s work was not made popular until the mid seventies, so could screenwriter Laszlo Gorog have gleaned inspiration from other elements of the Sumerian Anunnaki mythos? Bear in mind that Leonard Wolley’s discovery of the Cemetery of Ur in 1927, opened up a lot of information about Sumer, that Gorgo probably had access to.

Regarding Elinu, the high priest, the meme of a religious leader creating a narrative to mask the reality, has remained popular subject in film and television. This plot element reminded me of a Star Trek episode from 1968, "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky," which dealt with the Enterprise intercepting an artificial asteroid, on course with a planet it would collide with. When the crew disembark into the interior of Yonada, where there is a breathable atmosphere, they find in fact that it is a ship, designed to appear as a planet. Its inhabitants are unaware of this. Their religious leader, Natira consults an oracle, which is a computer under the guise of a deity. This race is the last of the Fabrini, a civilization that was wiped out 10,000 years ago. Those citizens who discover that Yonada isn’t a planet are punished by death. The oracle has promised its people they will reach a new destination that is lush and green, for which the computer has created a narrative construct.

The theme of secret subterranean civilizations has remained so potent, even H.G. Welles mired the idea within plot elements for The Time Machine, with the Morlock beasts who controlled the peaceful Eloi, all the way through to the ending of Clive Barker’s tale, The Midnight Meat Train. The subject has carried over in real world speculation within certain circles of ufology. Then there is "The Shaver Mystery," a series of stories published by Amazing Stories, starting in 1947, by an author named Richard Sharpe Shaver.

In 1943, Shaver began to send letters to the magazine claiming to have discovered an ancient language called "Mantong." When the editor, Ray Palmer, inquired, Shaver sent a manifesto titled, "A Warning to Future Man" that told the story of an ancient civilization that had been forced underground by the damaging rays of the sun, where they built vast underground cities. Due to growing radiation, they fled Earth for another planet, but would return. Yet some of the members of this race remained, called "Teros," who were benevolent beings, and other malevolent beings who degenerated, called "Deros," that would cause havoc on Earth and humans. These "Deros" had savage, robotic-like behavior. They would abduct humans for food or sport, and would use ancient technology on them, including a ray that could project thoughts into humans. The "Deros" would travel to other planets, as well. Shaver claimed that he had communicated with the "Deros" through a welding gun (somehow due to the attunements of its coil field) and then had been abducted by them and had been their prisoner in their subterranean cities. It should be noted Shaver was hospitalized for psychiatric problems in 1934, and the stories could have been a byproduct of mental illness. Nevertheless, Ray Palmer capitalized on the tales, even admitting to Harlan Ellison, when pressed, that the tales were "publicity grabbers" by the early fifties.

Ray Palmer even had connections to another name within ufologist circles, Fred Crisman, known for his role in the Murray Island incident. Crisman claimed to have encountered "Deros" during World War II.

In terms of how The Mole People shares similarities with The X-Files, the comparisons are tenuous. The most common similarity being the theme of scientists discovering something astonishing, only to end up with no proof for the outside world, a common issue with Mulder and Scully. Some peripheral similarities could be made with such X-Files episodes as "Teso Dos Bichos" or the volcanic subterranean caverns from "Firewalker," or the on-going themes of Ancient Astronaut theories explored on the series.

What is interesting to note is just how prevalent the subject of subterranean civilizations and Hollow Earth theories occur within myths and fiction. Does all of this have to do with man’s fascination with caves and caverns, or does it speak to a kind of collective DNA sense memory about our earliest Earthly histories?

It’s something to ponder.

This is the last of the ‘Adjacent’ series, but the intent has been to illustrate how nothing really works in a creative vacuum, and to demonstrate the cycle with past work having a direct / indirect influence on contemporary fiction, even when the connections seem remote. These exercises can be applied to countless other films. I welcome you to make your own connections.

Special thank you to XScribe for editorial work.


Raj said...

Hey Matt,

Another great post. Sorry it took me so long to comment. I've always been fascinated by the mythology of subterranean civilisations, and I love movies that delve into these topics. My own take on it is fairly broad.

I see these myths as being closely correlated to to the concepts of the Underworld. Many cultures have their version of the World Below the World. And being someone who uses the realm of psyche as his main interpretive strategy, I can't help but see these things as models of consciousness. The tip of the iceberg - our conscious awareness, and then the huge mass beneath the surface - our sub or unconscious awareness.

However we interpret the finer details and mechanics of these ideas, I think there is a lot of resonance and applicability to these models. Like Atlantis, I tend to view stories of subterranean civilisations as expressions of the sunken realm of the imagination. Realms of magic and ancient knowledge that were forced into a psychological underworld.

This is not to dismiss the idea of some of these places actually, physically existing far beneath our feet. Far from it. I suspect that, as Shakespeare said, 'There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies'. Or to put it into a more modern context, 'There are more things occurring in both the imaginal and material realms than we can rationally express'.

I take such an idea extremely seriously - which is why I don't dismiss the paranormal, ufo's or cryptozoology out of hand. I think it's entirely possible that we are literally living in an X Files universe, populated by monsters, demons, aliens, angels and all manner of freaks. Here is my caveat though: we process things through our storytelling modalities, as X Files so elegantly shows us, and so we reduce things into narratives we can understand.

But the 'actuality' of these things might not so easily fit into our storytelling habits or our paranormal categories. Most of us assume that monsters are rich metaphors for our fears and desires, and this assumptions makes a lot of good, hard sense. But a monster might be also be horribly literal, depending on your experience and context. A vampire might very well exist in literal terms, for example. And it might very well conform some of our expectations of what a vampire might be. But here's the crux; it might also overturn many of our expectations, so that the term 'vampire' is simply the most suitable shorthand for describing it. The same goes with all manner of high strangeness and possible cryptozoological creatures.

There are elements to the entire field of the paranormal that have disturbingly material, literal aspects; and yet there also many aspects that seem frustratingly imaginal and psychic. So, then, where does material reality end and symbolic reality begin? As the X Files so often shows us, they are intimately interwoven. Something can be undeniably and shockingly 'literal' as well as imaginal.

So, are there actual lost civilisations hidden in recesses of the Earth? Are stories of this kind a metaphor for levels and layers of the human psyche? Quite possibly, to both perspectives. I hope you understand the finer points of what I'm trying to convey here.

Thanks for the great work!

The X-Files Lexicon Blog said...

Hey Raj, thank you for your great insight, your parallel's between myths, the unconscious, and the underworld is a fascinating train of thought. Love it!

Eva said...

The Sumerians originated/used a Sexagesimal (base 60) so it's interesting to see that usage apparently reflected in this movie. (sixty lashes) (and "their "most sacred number being two and one half times 60," which we would just call 150) Good article.

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