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Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Tarantula (1955)

Director: Jack Arnold
Stars: John Agar, Mara Corday and Leo G Carroll

Having Jack Arnold's name on a creature feature in the fifties meant that it was going to be a cut above the rest. He'd made It Came fom Outer Space in 1953, which was an above average alien movie for the time, followed it up with Creature from the Black Lagoon and its first sequel, and then, if any doubt still remained as to his credentials, hammered the point home with Tarantula and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Just as you think he'd be stuck in monster movies, he proved a versatility to be admired by making notable film noir with Man in the Shadow, comedy with The Mouse That Roared and even bad seed material like High School Confidential! It would seem that he could do no wrong, but he did that too with Monster on the Campus. Even the best had a bad day once in a while, but with the record he had he could have made a dozen flops and still be a legendary director of pictures that looked bigger and more expensive than they were.

We begin with a man staggering out of the desert in striped pyjamas and what looks like an ape mask to die in front of the camera. It's either the sort of reality show I might actually watch or it's a fifties sci-fi B movie. He made it near enough to the highway for folks to find him. He might be biologist Eric Jacobs but he's not quite recognisable, so Sheriff Jack Andrews wants Doc Hastings to take a look at him to see. Hastings says it isn't. Prof Gerald Deemer disagrees, explaining that it's the disease Hastings thinks it is, but also that it ran its course in days instead of years, unlike any other known case in history. The doc doesn't buy it and so we're set for our story. Well, that and the animals we see in Deemer's lab. He's been injecting them with Nutrient Type 3Y which is making them grow: he has a guinea pig the size of a large dog and a tarantula that's larger still. He also has a deformed assistant who attacks him and inadvertently sets the creature free.

Well, what more do you need to know? We have a mad scientist with a pet monkey who thinks it might be a bright idea to turn tarantulas into giant monsters. He's already lost his assistant to a mysterious disease. A second man with the same disease tries to murder him and manages to wreck half the lab in the process, injecting him with his own formula too. With its tank smashed, the giant spider moseys on out into the Arizona desert to terrorise the local community, or what little of it there is: Deemer's lab is twenty miles out into nowhere for a reason. To save the day we have a clean cut small town doc and a beautiful biologist who arrives a little late to be the lab assistant of Dr Jacobs, late himself in a different sense of the word. There's a sheriff and a small town reporter. All the usual ingredients are here, but this is a Universal picture, the studio that invented the monster movie. They knew their formula well.
They cast their movie well too. Leo G Carroll lends a capable air to his mad scientist, making Prof Deemer less clich├ęd and less mad than expected. He has a valid aim, to head off food shortages he sees as imminent given the growing population of the planet. There are two billion already, he tells us, and that's going to climb, all the way to three and a half by the year 2000. It's scary when a mad scientist in a fifties B movie makes predictions that hindsight shows were notably underestimated. There were two billion people in 1920, reaching six by the turn of the century. Carroll was a major character actor for decades before he made this film and he'd go on to further successes, both in film and on television, such as The Man from UNCLE, which is where I first saw him. Whether you know him best as Alexander Waverly or for his roles in six Hitchcock films, this is certainly a change of pace for him. He gets some cool facial make up too.

As Dr Matt Hastings, John Agar is the epitome of the clean cut heroic lead of the fifties, following on from his lead role in Jack Arnold's Revenge of the Creature, earlier the same year, which set him on a firm career path. When this film was made, leading men needed to be level headed in every situation, calm and polite beyond all recognition, the imaginary sort who you would allow to take your daughter to the drive in and trust not to misbehave. Agar looks the part, sounds the part and that's why he ended up playing such characters for years. Unfortunately once Arnold wasn't helming his films, their quality sank quickly: 1956 saw him in The Mole People, 1957 in The Brain from Planet Arous, 1958 in Attack of the Puppet People. Perhaps his worst was 1959's Invisible Invaders, but there are quite a few to fight out that battle. This thankfully sits at the other end of his filmography, with the John Ford westerns he started out in.
Leading lady Mara Corday doesn't get much to do here except look pretty, which was hardly a stretch for her, a Playboy Playmate of the Month. She was a busy girl in the fifties, appearing in no less than 27 pictures in a mere eight years, but she'd retire in 1958 to raise a family. While Agar was emphasising his career path here, Corday was finding hers. Having been tormented by a giant tarantula, she would go on to face other huge creatures in The Giant Claw and The Black Scorpion, though the humungous flying turkey puppet in The Giant Claw can't remotely compare with the real tarantula Arnold put to use here. She returned to the screen decades later to play small roles in Clint Eastwood movies, just as he had played a small part in one of hers, this one. Here he leads a squadron of jets from Sands Air Force Base loaded up with rockets and napalm. Does he fire six rockets or only five? Let's just say he literally gets the last word.

Tarantula is a solid B movie throughout, simple but definitive, helping to establish a template for the hundreds more that followed in its wake over the next few years as a new wave of monster movies took the industry by storm. There's little to complain about, beyond the size of the role Mara Corday is given, but then this was 1955, when a woman's place was emphatically in the home, so she did well to be a capable and professional scientist. Prof Deemer doesn't protest the way a similar boss did three years later in The Strange World of Planet X. Of course the biggest star is the tarantula itself, not just in size but in presence, realistic because it was a real spider, guided over the landscape with air jets and shot with trick photography, effects that hold their own against similar creature features of the day. To see a better use of a giant spider, you could only go to The Incredible Shrinking Man, another Jack Arnold picture. He was that definitive.

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