January 18, 2009

Classic "Big Bug" from the Atomic Age!

TARANTULA (1955)
Directed by Jack Arnold
Starring:
John Agar – Dr. Matt Hastings
Mara Corday – Stephanie (Steve) Canyon
Leo G. Carroll – Prof. Gerald Deemer
Nestor Paiva - Sheriff Jack Andrews

This is another “big bug” classic, directed by Jack Arnold at the very summit of atomic-age sci-fi; and the great director wastes no time establishing a nature-run-amok theme: In the opening shot we see the desert; harsh, hard, and threatening in its isolation. The camera pans slowly as if time is never rushed out here. Wind is making a high, parched howl and stirs the dead clumps of sage.

A man is seen from a distance stumbling around the rocky landscape. He is shuffling so noticeably we hear his foot falls mixing with the sound of wind. He staggers, pauses, continues as if blinded, clearly in trouble. And we see, even from a distance, something is wrong with him. He appears swollen, oddly shaped. The camera comes in close and we see the extent of the dehumanizing grotesqueries : His chest and shoulders are covered with bulbous growths, his face and hands, all outsized, are blackened and deformed. His brow is so overhung his eyes are black pits, and his teeth and jaw jut out just beyond his thick lips. He pauses, looks sky ward, and falls over with a thump onto the parched ground. We see now another oddity: He’s wearing slippers and pajamas.

He paws at the rocky earth once with his bloated, veined claw and stops moving. We see a sky filling with vultures.

Lab Assistant #1
What makes this classic Jack Arnold is the gripping sense of dialogue-free drama, and more, the imaginative and unique way the director builds tension (always within the confines of a cripplingly lean budget). Consider: Throughout this odd beginning, there is no music; no swelling strings to illicit our sympathy, no thumping bass or otherworld Theremin warble (so prevalent in vintage sci-fi) to let us know how odd this is, or sad, or frightening. Nothing. Just the wind and the shuffling slippers, and the awful suffering and lonely death under the sun. Perhaps this rough scene is normal in some depraved, new, and dying world. Even the vultures make a sound like wind. The silence and empty air, more than the terrific makeup or snappy words, have wound the tension. Finally the camera pans back to the bleak land, a timpani roll gathers like thunder, and dramatic horns blast theme music over the title credits. “Tarantula!

Tarantula? Judging by the opening, it might be assumed we had ventured into a Beast of Yucca Flats type picture (except for the already evident skillful film making), or maybe The Hideous Sun Demon. Hang tough, dear viewer; all things will be made clear by Arnold’s wonderful storytelling style.

I’ll cut to the chase. The lowdown is: a scientist, Professor Gerald Deemer (played with regal nonchalance by Leo G. Carroll), is working feverishly in his isolated, desert laboratory on a “non-organic food concentrate.” The professor has developed a cheap, man-made food source using a “radioactive isotope” as a binding agent. With this food source, the professor hopes to feed the world’s future population. No more hunger! The benevolent professor has a few kinks to work out first, however. First, the stuff is so toxic it has to be handled in a small radiation chamber with fireman’s gloves, tongs, and face shields; and second, it makes rats grow to the size of pigs or sometimes just kills them outright. Deemer’s lab is lousy with cages of experimental animals, some of them already made gigantic: guinea-pigs, rabbits, monkeys, rats, and (ahem) tarantulas. Once Professor Deemer irons out these troublesome wrinkles, it’s the Nobel Prize for sure.

Leo G. Carroll
Well, there is a third side effect that will require a bit more study: When a human is used for experimentation, it results in a rampaging, greatly accelerated case of acromegaly (a condition involving the pituitary gland and overgrowth and swelling of bones and soft tissue) resulting in death within days. This explains the unfortunate we saw stumbling and dying under the sun in the opening shots – he was one of the professor’s lab assistants, Eric Jacobs, that tested the stuff on himself (anything for science). Okay, three hurdles; the good professor has three hurdles to clear before he puts that Nobel on his mantelpiece.

A bloated, hairy, misshapen corpse dressed in pajamas and house slippers found dead in the middle of nowhere raises a few eyebrows in this sleepy, desert town; and local sheriff Andrews (character actor Nestor Paiva uses a dry twang and a stiff-legged strut for the roll. Paiva was a reliable regular in B movies, usually playing ethnic parts) calls in the local doc just to be on the safe side. Enter Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar – ever smooth and B movie handsome). In prepping him about the case, Sherriff Andrews has explained that “there is something about the face” that possibly suggests the corpse is Eric Jacobs. What do you mean “suggests” Dr. Hastings wants to know. Well, um, I can show you better than I can tell you; and the two stroll on over the funeral parlor.

Hastings looks over the body with the sheriff and the local undertaker, Barney, who is completely out of his league on this one and man enough to admit it. Agar does a nice bit of underplayed acting as he pulls back the sheet, letting Arnold’s masterful staging and pace carry the scene’s horror. That can’t be Jacobs, he concludes, his face grim. The features suggest acromegaly, but this kind of distortion and death takes years. Jacobs was just seen last month and he was fine. The sheriff and doctor are allowed only a moment of two of confusion before the professor, who is clearly the established medical/scientific authority in town, breezes into the parlor and puts them right (Doctor Hastings, handsome and friendly, is clearly the young Turk in town, running his new practice from a hotel room; while the professor is set up in a huge, rambling colonial and has the added plus of a light, British accent).

John Agar and Leo G. Carroll
Yes, says Professor Deemer, that’s Jacobs. No ifs ands or buts. “He was my dear friend for thirty years,” concludes Deemer, ending the discussion despite Hastings clearly trouble stare. The principals exit viewing room to talk a bit out in the main parlor. The sheriff comes on tough. “Professor,” he says, “I’m going to have to know all about it.” The sheriff wants to know what the hell happened to Jacobs’ face, assuming it is Jacobs. How the heck did he wind up in the middle of the desert? In pajamas? Dead?

“Sherriff,” answers the Professor in dignified exhaustion, plopping into on of the parlor’s overstuffed chairs, “have you ever watched a friend dying before your eyes and not been able to help? That’s the worst of it. Being helpless” The professor continues on for a bit, delivering an effective and classy snow job which the Sherriff is only to happy to play along with. After all, a local sheriff that bucks the wrong people in this tiny, isolated community could be sweeping out the barber shop after the fall elections. Dr. Hastings, not able to sink much lower that a hotel store front, presses the case a bit further: How could it be Jacobs? It looks like acromegaly, but that’s impossible. “It is acromegaly,” clarifies the doctor. The disease completely overtook him in four days. Any more questions? What about an autopsy, inquires the sheriff politely. No need, I’m a medical doctor (and an established one unlike snot-nosed young Hastings here) and I’ll sign the death certificate. A good day to you, Sir.

After the professor’s exit, Dr. Hastings and the sheriff spend an embarrassing moment trying to reestablish some dignity. Sheriff Andrews, who has just been all but bitch-slapped by the professor for his impertinence, decides on a little payback with the young sprat doctor (the open contempt these two characters develop for one another is one of the hidden pleasures of the movie): “Well, you heard the man,” snaps the Sheriff, puffing himself up. “A young fella like you can’t stack what he knows against the professor! The trouble is, Doc, you hate to admit your wrong!”

John Agar and Nester Pavia
Following his trip to town, the professor returns home, slips on his lab apron, and gets back to work. But trouble is waiting. A second overly-dedicated but terribly misshapen lab assistant, Paul Lund, has taken the stuff as well. Lund lurches into the laboratory, (how many assistants do isolated desert crackpots get?) goes berserk, and tries to kill the professor who he blames for his lumpy fate. He manages to set the professor’s lab on fire and knocks Deemer cold. While the old fellow lies unconscious, Lund injects the professor with some of the “nutrient” and then dies. When the professor wakes up, his lab is on fire but he manages to save the lab with a fire extinguisher. He doesn’t notice it, but one of his test specimens has escaped via a broken cage. Yep, the tarantula made his extremely slow exit from the lab during the battle royal. If the giant bunny had escaped, we would have had an entirely different picture.

At this point in the movie, two significant things happen: first, biologist Stephanie (Steve) Canyon comes to town to work for the professor, arriving by bus from Phoenix. The part of Steve Canyon is played by the Mara Corday, a legend of Radiation Cinema as well as being one of the few humans who ever lived that can make bus travel look glamorous. The other crucial plot development is that several of the locals begin to report livestock trouble; as in dead-and-eaten-livestock-reduced-to-skeletal-remains-soaked-in-an-odd-slime-that-turns-out-to-be-venom trouble. It’s the escaped Tarantula, all right, growing by leaps and bounds.

Things progress and local ranchers are soon found dead along with more livestock remians; until finally a car is found, destroyed (not exactly “crashed” but more torn up and ripped apart) with piles of human bones and bloody gore found near patches of the same white slime that has turned up at all the killings. The viewer’s imagination is led expertly by the director in this scene to thought pictures of the creature cracking the car open like a walnut, mandibles clacking to get at the soft stuff inside. When Dr. Hastings shows up at this scene, he looks around and says, “anyone survive?” “Are you kidding?” answers the local newsman stonily.

John Agar and Mara Corday
While the tarantula plot thickens, Steve Canyon has gone to work for the Professor while in her spare time developing a pleasant flirtation with Dr. Hastings (Actress Mara Corday could develop a pleasant, believable chemistry with any male actor cast opposite her without a hint of falseness. Even mono-browed Jeff Marrow, clearly several rungs beneath her station and who flirted like a caveman when cast opposite Corday in The Giant Claw, was handled with cordial interest). The effects of the nutrient injection are starting to take effect, though, and his features are becoming progressively distorted (tremendous makeup!). At first a sort of heaviness can be detected, as though perhaps the professor were very tired; until finally, he is a distorted atrocity. Canyon in one scene calls for Dr. Hastings help, as the professor’s acromegaly has progressed to an advanced stage and he is having trouble breathing. Once Hastings arrives, a much disfigured professor spills the beans first about his assistants; how they both became impatient with animal testing and injected themselves with the radiation rich nutrient.; and then the professor describes his own injection at the hands of the deranged and dying Lund, and how all his test animals all burned to death in the lab fire. Oh, how beautiful they were, says the professor, all of them living on nothing but his super food, growing so huge; rats, rabbits, tarantulas . . . Dr. Hastings suddenly snaps to attention. Hey, what a minute. did you say tarantulas?

Hastings has begun to put the pieces together, and he dashes off with a slime sample to the Arizona Agricultural Institute where it’s confirmed that the slime is indeed tarantula venom. The doctor in this scene is played by Raymond Bailey who is best remembered as Mr. Drysdale in the television’s The Beverly Hillbillies. During the 1950’s, though, he was often cast as the medical lab coat in any film requiring a scene of medical explanation (Jack Arnold liked him so much in this roll, he used him again similarly a couple of years later in The Incredible Shrinking Man). Also typical of this era, the scientist in a lab coat always seems to have a reel of footage handy and all cued up to accompany any needed scientific exposition, be the subject slugs, ants, spiders – what-have-you. After Dr. Townsend’s summery, Hastings is certain a huge, very huge, tarantula is liquefying his neighbors (the way that a tarantula eats, Dr. Townsend has helpfully explained, is by the injection of the slime/venom into its victims, which liquefies the tissue for an easy slurp and quick digestion. “That explains the piles of bones!” says Hastings somewhat obviously, just in case we haven’t got the revolting image front and center).

Dr. Hastings is eager to call back to Desert Rock with his discovery, but Townsend’s secretary explains that all lines are down between phoenix and Desert Rock. “How did that happen?” snaps Hasting at the harassed secretary, though it’s clear with all his new information about a tarantula big enough to secret gallons of venom, he has a good guess. He dashes out of the scene in a hurry.

Cut to the reason all communications are down as we get our first view of the tarantula. The hairy thing is seen lumbering through the desert night, plowing over telephone and electrical lines with accompanying fireworks. The beast comes quickly to it’s next meal, two hobos/prospectors sitting around a campfire. One of the two can’t run worth a damn, stumbling repeatedly (I’m sorry, I might have gone back to help once, but twice as the incredibly brave partner did here? I don’t know. I might have just considered it fate and kept running for all I was worth).

The effects in this movie are all very good, and the tarantula, who will dominate the remainder of the film, is beautiful. It makes the kind of high-pitched, electrical chattering all huge movie insects make, established in the earlier Them!. The creation does indeed seem huge and powerful – believably scary, particularly when joined in memory with the brutal realism depicted at the earlier scenes of carnage (the piles of bones, it bares repeating, are not of the dried variety, as seen in Them! No, these scatterings of skeleton are covered in bloody carrion).

Next the huge beast makes a b-line for the professor’s house and smashes it to rubble, eating the enormously deformed (the final stage of great makeup!) and near-dead professor into the bargain. Assistant Steve tries to save him, bravely making her way to his room through the rocking floor and tumbling debris of a collapsing house, but manages to make it to his room just in time to see the mammoth mandibles smash through the roof and take him. She issues a great scream and makes her escape running down the long driveway as the house is crushed flat behind her. This is the best scene in the movie and probably ate up half the meager budget, but it was worth it. The giant arachnid has to work for this one, it’s legs actually spinning like the tires of a monster truck as it works through the house; while the main timbers and foundations of the building grind and crack under its force. What a scene!

Leo G. Carroll
Dr. Hastings arrives at the scene in time to whisk her away in his car, but the thing lurches rather quickly after them. They are met by the sheriff and state police (Hastings meets them, leaps out of his car, and begs them to turn around but is too panicked to explain why and half-crying only manages, “I’ll tell you later!”). All concerned are frozen in terror as the thing crawls over a hill into view, long legs eating up ground. It is very, very quickly decided to run like hell and make a last stand near town. The insect, now big as a three story building, has caught the scent of the main entrĂ©e, Desert Rock, and is headed down the highway straight for it. In a perfect Radiation Cinema moment, the chief of the state police orders two of his officers to stay behind with machine guns in an effort to “slow it down,” despite the fact that only moments earlier the sheriff has shouted in hysteria that their weapons won’t stop it. Yessir, yessir, snap the two obviously doomed policemen and hop to. As their fellow officers, Dr. Hastings, and Steve burn rubber fleeing, the two gallant, overly dedicated cops manage to squeeze off a short burst each before the thing overtakes and devours them. Personally, I would have put the chief before a board of inquire on this one.

The rest of the picture is about killing the spider before it reaches town and is as sturdy a piece of Radiation Cinema as you will ever see. The town has been evacuated of citizens. Every stick of dynamite is loaded into a truck and the highway approaching the town is mined. The creature doesn’t even break stride as it crawls through the blast. Finally, the air force is called in just as the thing is in view of the town, and a cheer goes up as the fighter jets scream overhead (the military was nearly always the saving, heroic force in 1950’s sci-fi, and why not? We had just won WWII in grand fashion. Hell, we even elected a general for president!). The first missiles fired from the fighters are ineffective, as the mammoth insect crawls through these strikes as it did the dynamite. Finally the squadron leader (played with increasing concern nicely by a very young Clint Eastwood) calls in the big guns: Napalm. Finally, at the very border of Desert Rock, the thing is roasted alive as napalm engulfs it. Here, as in many other sci-fi movies from this era, the world must be cleansed with a purifying fire. The final shot is the tarantula being reduced to ashes as all concerned watch with a mixture of horror and perhaps sympathy on their faces.

Cleansed by Fire!
This film, along with Them!, represent the best of the big bug films. In fact, this film was made in the wake of the unexpected success of Them! and was the best of the breed. Several things make this so; first and foremost the craft and care that director Jack Arnold took with the picture. Arnold knew that drama came from a sense of reality, and reality was built detail by realistic detail. It is the small strokes, like having the ravishing Mara Corday look distinctly un-ravishing from the house destroying scene until the end of the picture. Her face is pale and dirty for the remainder of the picture, and her hair never again is in place. The town of Desert Rock feels like a real town, with store windows painted with appropriate names and occupations. The small town doctor who runs his practice from a hotel room is a nice touch, and the local sheriff, though not particularly likeable, is not a complete boob either. Sets, people, local (goodness, how Arnold loved the desert) – all seem cut from real life – thus, when the spider comes, it is given a realism by proxy. Classic Arnold.

Also, the cast is excellent throughout. Agar, who could go a little over-smooth on you if you weren’t careful, seems well focused here and very involved. Leo G, Carroll, an Alfred Hitchcock favorite, gives a very measured and sympathetic performance, providing the movie with a solid, professional center. And then, of course, there is Mara Corday.

John Agar and Mara Corday
If Carroll gives Tarantula the stamp of an old pro, Corday gives the movie its emotional resonance. Corday, who starred in three of the classic big bug movies of the era (this one plus The Black Scorpion and The Giant Claw), was always, at the least, very sympathetic and natural in front of a camera. This was her best movie because Arnold recognized better than any other director her strengths as an actress. Despite a beauty that never failed to impress (she was, among other accomplishments, a model and a playmate of the month in October, 1958), Corday was able to project a lively intelligence and a gentle kindness into a part, as she did here. When she assists Professor Deemer in the lab, clearly enjoying the scientific work, we believe it. When she struggles valiantly in this movie to save the doomed professor, risking her own life, we believe it as well. She never looked stiff or bored at any time in her film career, and always brought a certain depth and commitment to a roll. Everyone saw her beauty. Google her image now and you will be flooded with examples of prime, 1950 cheesecake; but Arnold was one of the few directors in her career that saw the actress underneath.

This is film to be loved and one that holds up well to repeated viewings. How’s the popcorn holding up? Can I get you a soda? Let’s watch another.

7 comments:

  1. Agar & Arnold were a hell of a team. "Revenge of the Creature" is my all-time favorite movie...but I love this one, too! Your site is FANTASTIC!
    -Billy

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  2. Billy: of all the films I have reviewed, this one might be my favorite. I love the makeup done for Carroll, and the direction of Arnold are enough to make it a classic; but to top it off you have John Agar (who clearly is in the 1950 B Hall of fame), and the ultimate fox of B, Mara Corday! Man, I have a crush on her, pure and simple! Thanks for commenting! -- Mykal

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  3. Billy: PS - Revenge of the Creature is without question in my "To Do List." I'll take that as a request. --Mykal

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  4. Wonderful movie ! and good review for a nice blog !

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  5. CAMIF: Thanks for the kind words - I checked out your blog and thought it very fine (even with the far-from-perfect Blogger French-to-English translation). -- Mykal

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  6. I think we're on the same wavelength...

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  7. Igloo Keeper: Indeed. Thanks for becoming a beloved reader! -- Mykal

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