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Posts Tagged ‘Jack Arnold’

I was fortunate enough to spend a few days last year in the Grand Canyon state itself – Arizona, home of the Saguaro Cactus, the Apache trout, the two-tailed Swallowtail Butterfly and the Colt Single-action Army Revolver. (Don’t mock, these are all official state insignia of Arizona.) Phoenix, Sedona and Flagstaff were all beautiful, to say nothing of the Canyon itself.

Missing, however, from Arizona’s list of attractions are giant spiders the size of bus stations. Luckily, in 1955 this oversight was rectified in Jack Arnold’s Tarantula, the last of the SF B-movies I’ve been ploughing through recently. (Well – there’s still one film to come, but that doesn’t quite qualify.) Arnold’s films dominated this genre in the mid-50s and while it’s not really one of his best, it’s still massively and obviously influential.

It opens strikingly, with the corpse of a horribly deformed man being found in the desert. Local doctor Matt Hastings (John Agar) can’t explain what the cause of death is. Investigations reveal the dead man worked at the private lab of biologist Gerald Deemer (Leo G Carroll, who does indeed find himself over a barrel as the story progresses). Deemer claims the man, his co-researcher, suffered from acromegaly (a disorder affecting the body’s growth), which Hastings disputes but can’t prove.

But unbeknownst to Hastings and his friend the sherriff, there is trouble at t’lab. Deemer’s lab animals are noticeably big for their ages, including a tarantula which is the size of a large dog, but this does not worry the boffin too much. What does distress him is being attacked by another acromegaloid gentleman, who starts a fire, injects Deemer with Something Ominous, and allows the spider to make a discreet exit before expiring.

Things calm down a bit after this, with Hastings romancing Deemer’s new lab assistant (Mara Corday) and trying to figure out what Deemer’s up to (the audience is, of course, many steps ahead by this point). Eventually, Deemer himself starts showing signs of acromegaly (some relatively sophisticated make-up courtesy of Bud Westmore), while elsewhere in the area something starts eating cattle, their ranchers, and the ranchers’ pick-up trucks and leaving large pools of venom in its wake. Just how soon will Hastings figure out that two and two make four?

The main problem Tarantula has is that it’s called Tarantula. This may just tip the audience off to the possibility that the plot may revolve around a tarantula. (To be fair, neither script nor director try to be clever about this and the big spider turns up quite early on, though not as big as it will later become.) The giant spider plotline doesn’t really take centre stage until quite late on, though.

The film has a mildly peculiar and somewhat inelegant structure – it opens with one of the acromegaly sufferers keeling over in the desert, from which we transition to Dr Hastings examining the corpse and crossing swords with Deemer. And then from here we go into an odd sequence with Deemer returning to his lab. We see lots of things, including the giant animals and spider, none of which are explained to us. Then the plot proper kicks off with Deemer being attacked and the spider taking to the hills.

It would probably been hopelessly clumsy had all this been done through exposition or a flashback, but the problem remains: the title and this sequence make it quite clear that this is going to be a rampaging giant spider movie, but none of the characters are allowed to know that until the third act. This makes them all seem annoyingly dense in the sequences where they investigate the scenes of its attacks – unlike similar moments in, for example, Them! (a movie to which Tarantula clearly owes a tremendous narrative debt), there’s no sense of mystery or tension, just a vague awareness of plot cogs clicking over.

Most of the mid-section is preoccupied with the plight of Leo G Carroll’s character, anyway. As the movie isn’t called The Funny-headed Acromegaloid Man there is some genuine tension and horror here as he gradually becomes more and more deformed, and Carroll’s performance is accomplished. (All the main players in this movie are superior, compared to their counterparts in other Jack Arnold movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon and This Island Earth, which makes the clunkiness of the script all the more annoying.) Even so there’s a repeated trope where, while driving through the desert (Agar spends most of the movie driving back and forth between the sherriff’s office and the lab), Agar’s car zooms past the camera only for the arachnid colossus to scuttle out from behind some rocks seconds later. Presumably this was to remind the audience of what film they were watching, but it eventually becomes silly – does Hastings never look in his rear-view mirror? How come nobody else spots the damn thing? Is the state impediment of Arizona chronic tunnel vision?

Oh, well. Given the subject matter the effects are decent enough, though there are inevitably a few issues with the background plates of the scenery not quite aligning with the inserted tarantula. For the vast majority of the movie Arnold opts for blown-up footage of a real spider, as opposed to the full-size puppets of Them!, which works fairly well considering.

Arnold directs with his usual energy and gives everything the slightly lurid tone common to his work (a definite contrast to the more naturalistic Them! – I’m sorry to keep going on about it, but the two movies are such close cousins in terms of setting and theme). He also inserts a dash of subtext, making it clear that there’s nothing wrong with being a spider per se, it’s just the disruptive influence of man (and particularly scientists) on the ecology that’s causing all the trouble. And even then there’s a touch of ambiguity, given that Carroll’s motives seem wholly pure – he’s trying to ensure there’ll be enough food to go around in the far-off year 2000, when the population will reach – gasp! – three and a half billion people!

A movie from a more innocent age and no mistake. As usual, the US armed forces come to the rescue, and one of the things that makes Tarantula notable is the fact that the spider is eventually killed by an uncredited Clint Eastwood, playing a jet pilot (shades of Lee van Cleef in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms). The fact that the plot is resolved by the characters essentially just ringing up the Air Force for help makes for a weak and rather abrupt ending, but there are enough incidental pleasures along the way to make Tarantula a fun if slightly exasperating watch.

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In the world of 50s SF movies there is usually a lot going on and a great deal at stake: alien vessels fall to Earth on a regular basis, planets detonate nearly as frequently, the survival of civilisation as we know it is under threat as the balance of nature is thrown horribly askew as a result of ignorance or hubris… Everyone is so busy with these things that they don’t have much time for introspection. Events, and the stories themselves, are almost always robustly external.

But there are always exceptions, and here is a film where the stakes at first seem much smaller – but one of the lessons the film has for us is that ‘small’ is a relative concept. It is, of course, Jack Arnold’s famous adaptation of Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. This is really just the story of the one man of the title, though no less involving and bizarre for all of that.

Grant Williams plays Scott Carey, very much an everyday guy as the film begins, and not an especially likable one. While on holiday with his wife (Randy Stuart) Carey is exposed to a strange glowing cloud. Somewhat contrary to our expectations, nothing happens as an immediate result, but six months later contact with insecticide catalyses an inexorable and deeply peculiar change in Carey’s situation: he starts shrinking.

The best efforts of scientists prove ineffectual. Carey’s condition proves more psychologically damaging than physically hazardous to begin with (the predations of a thrill-hungry media don’t help – some things never change), but as he dwindles to the size of a doll he finds himself increasingly at risk: his pet cat starts to view him in a whole new light. By chance he is presumed dead and finds himself struggling to survive in his own cellar, which has assumed the proportions of an immense wasteland…

Writing about these films recently I’ve often commented on how clever writers and directors were in keeping the expensive (and potentially risible) elements of the story off-screen as much as possible: the monsters get hardly any screen time in most of the films from the early 50s, for instance. The Incredible Shrinking Man, however, stands or falls by the quality of its special effects: and even by today’s standards it’s still an extremely accomplished film.

The shrinking process is sold by a combination of making Grant Williams work with oversized props, and using a matte process to insert him into other footage. There are a few issues with dodgy matte fringing and his turning transparent, but on the whole the effects are exceptional. There’s one moment which initially had me going ‘how the hell did they do that?’, which is the sign of a great effects trick, but by the climax of the film I was so engrossed I’d stopped even thinking in those terms, which is the sign of great storytelling.

The film really breaks down into two rough halves: Carey’s experiences before he becomes trapped in the cellar, and his ordeal from that point on. The first is less memorable but in some ways more interesting, mainly because he gets to interact with other people. Matheson’s script is never short of a good moment or line of dialogue: ‘as long as that wedding ring stays on your finger,’ says Carey’s wife, ‘we’re going to be together’ – at which point, inevitably, it slips off, too big for him.

There’s a bit of a sexual subtext going on there which I understand is considerably stronger in Matheson’s novel. Not entirely surprisingly, Carey’s insecurities as he shrinks to the size of a child and beyond are presented in rather more delicate terms, but the subtext’s still there if you look for it. His initial recovery from despair comes about only when he meets a female carnival midget who’s even smaller than he is – if the intended implication is that men only feel a sense of self-worth when there’s a physically-lesser woman around, it’s a rather bleak one but the kind of thing you almost expect from an Arnold movie.

The film’s interest in masculine self-worth continues into the cellar section of the film, in terms which are less sexual but still not especially flattering. Thrown back on his own resourcefulness, Carey sets about, in his own words, dominating the new world he finds himself in. Here things are at once mundane and epic, the contrast almost becoming surreal: a primal, desperate existence where mousetraps and leaky plumbing become lethal hazards. The perils of this new mode of existence are memorably embodied by a spider he finds he’s sharing the cellar with.

Well, I’ll be honest, folks, I’ve had a phobia about giant spiders for a quarter of a century now (possibly the reason why Tarantula! keeps getting put to the bottom of the DVD pile), and the first time I saw this film, particularly the sequence in which Carey sets out to slay his enemy, I was in full on twitch-and-gibber mode. The effects are at their best here, the spider seems exceedingly well-trained, and of all cinema’s excursions into this kind of territory only the fight between Sam and Shelob in Return of the King is its better in terms of storytelling.

Even here, though, the film virtually comes out and states that Carey is only doing this to assert his manhood. Assembling a motley collection of pins and needles he’s using as lances and spears, Carey is defiant – ‘with my weapons I was a man again!’ Hmm.

One of the things about The Incredible Shrinking Man one has to acknowledge is that the climax is, er, metaphysical to the point of vagueness. Having reaffirmed that his masculinity (and thus his value as a person) endures, no matter what size he dwindles to, Carey makes an exultant speech about the link between the infinite and the infinitesmal, that the two ultimately loop round and join together… To be honest this is the only part of the film that doesn’t ring true for me (Matheson claims Arnold wrote it). It sounds like a load of old bibble-bobble, and worse than that it’s rather hackneyed bibble-bobble tonally adrift from the rest of the film. Still, if you’ve got a film which effectively concludes with the protagonist vanishing up his own profundity, I suppose you have to find your sense of closure where you can.

It seems to me that The Incredible Shrinking Man is amongst the most psychological and mature of the great 50s SF movies, to say nothing of being one of the most bleak (in its view of men, at least). That it couples this to production values that are amongst the best in the genre only adds to the impression it gives of being a genuine classic, a film that will surely endure. Its stature has grown with time, and will probably continue to do so: an irony that Arnold and Matheson would surely appreciate.

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If you spend any time at all reading about American SF movies from the 50s, particularly the B movie end of the genre, you will almost certainly find yourself beaten over the head by the assertion that these films were all made as a response to, and are thus in some sense about, one of two things: disquiet over atomic energy, or the threat of Communist takeover, either clandestinely or by an invasion. So, when you come across a film which is quite clearly indifferent to either of these issues you’re almost a little startled by it.

 

Just such a movie is Jack Arnold’s famous 1954 picture Creature from the Black Lagoon. This was made as a follow-up to It Came From Outer Space with many of the same personnel, and was also designed to capitalise on the 50s fad for 3-D. (The DVD ‘making of’ documentary – made only a few years ago – takes an amused and indulgent ‘ho-ho-ho, isn’t the idea of 3-D movies quaint and cheesy?’ attitude to this, which I suppose just goes to show you never can tell.) On the face of it this is a very straightforward monster movie with no frills (but a few gills) – not that it’s totally lacking in subtext.

‘In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth,’ booms the narrator at the start of the movie. It’s striking how many films of this period contain religious or Biblical references of some kind – I suspect this is largely an exercise in tone-setting, as well as establishing an appropriate moral framework. It would, after all, be very easy for a rubber monster movie to come across as frivolously silly or morally dubious. Anyway this stuff doesn’t last long as the movie quickly moves on to establish that, in the Devonian period, the first large animals ventured out of the sea and onto the land (which is basically true) and that 15 million years later, the human race is studying their fossil remains (which absolutely isn’t: we’re firmly in ‘shaky grasp of science’ territory here, geologically. That said, the ’15 million year’ figure may be a goof as later on the Devonian is described as being ‘150 million years ago’ – this is still about 200 million years out, but a step in the right direction).

Geez, how pedantic… back to the plot. Up the Amazon, a paleontologist discovers a remarkable fossil: the skeletal hand of an amphibious Devonian hominid! He hustles off back to civilisation to show everyone, but while he’s away a living specimen of this gill-man crawls out of the local river and kills both his assistants. (The fossil is a fake McGuffin and plays no real part in the story other than to kick off the plot – as a result it seems a phenomenal coincidence that the creature shows up straight after the bony hand is uncovered.)

The boffin returns with a proper expedition, which includes amongst its members David Reed (Richard Carlson) and his girlfriend Kay (Julie Adams). As you would expect, the men are all wearing pith helmets while Adams seems to be dressed for a day at Malibu beach. After a detailed examination of the fossil site (indicated by a montage of the men bashing the cliff-face with pickaxes) produces no results, they realise the rest of the skeleton they’re looking for may have been swept off down river, to a local lagoon of a distinctly murky hue. Where, of course, more than a fossil is waiting for them…

Well, the rest of the plot is driven by the ambitions of certain expedition members to capture or kill the gill-man, and the gill-man’s rather more obscure interest in getting its webbed hands on Adams. (Clearly the creature’s not fazed by the idea of an age-gap relationship – that’s age as in ‘geological age’, obviously.) Carlsen is an oddly nondescript hero and there’s a lot of hokey dialogue. The gill-man suit still looks pretty good given the age of this film – spectacularly so given the number of underwater sequences it appears in – but on the surface this isn’t much more than a cheesy, silly monster movie.

Under the surface, though, there are interesting things going on. Some have argued that this is a film with an environmentalist sensibility: the gill-man isn’t a mutant, but a creature living in his natural habitat, which the humans violate and pollute, and this explains why he’s almost sympathetic. Well, maybe. My own vote goes towards the idea that this movie is more about another issue: the conflict between civilisation and sexual urges!

No, really, come back. The film’s most striking and charged sequence is one in which Adams (or her swimming double) takes a relaxing dip in the lagoon, while the creature (Ricou Browning in all the underwater footage) shadows her from below. There’s something very odd going on here: the camera dwells almost voyeuristically on Adams’ body, silhouetted in the water, and we’re looking through the creature’s eyes for some of this sequence. (I think the influence of Creature from the Black Lagoon on the style and structure of Jaws – which rips this sequence off for its opener – is pretty obvious.) And for the rest of the movie, as I say, the gill-man’s obsessed with getting to grips with her.

Added to this is the general air of sexual tension prevailing within the expedition – Carlsen’s boss has also come along and is clearly jealous of his relationship with Adams. There’s a good deal of alpha-male jockeying between the two, which inevitably gets in the way of a properly detached approach to the various problems they face. The message of the movie is, I think, pretty clear: for the advancement and success of society in general (symbolised by the expedition), brute sexual desire (the creature) must be controlled, or – better yet – banished back to the primeval world which spawned it (the lagoon).

Well, it’s a reading of the movie, which – well-directed though it is – surely wouldn’t have endured as it has if there hadn’t been something more to it than just the surface detail. It’s entirely enjoyable in those terms, of course – the acting is a bit wooden and the script falls down in a couple of places, but it hits all the right monster movie marks. I suppose I have to agree with the consensus that Creature from the Black Lagoon is a classic – I’m just not entirely sure just what it’s a classic example of.

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Contemplating this current run of classic 50s B-movie reviews, I became aware of the odd continuity of personnel between many of them: some actors, directors and writers appear to have made quite a good living out of this sort of thing. Kenneth Tobey pops up in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and The Thing From Another World, James Arness is the bad guy in The Thing and the good guy in Them!, William Alland and Jack Arnold produced and directed a whole slew of them, and so on. I actually considered linking the reviews this way, but there are just a few too many blind alleys, and the odd really good film with no connection to any of the others.

Having said that, sometimes these things occur without you even planning them. Last time’s movie was The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, based on a story by Ray Bradbury – and so is the film under consideration on this occasion, Jack Arnold’s 1953 film It Came From Outer Space.

This movie seems relatively obscure and rather less celebrated than some of its contemporaries, which strikes me as a little odd as it could almost be the type-specimen of a certain type of vintage SF film: alien visitors in the desert, an oooo-eeee-oooo-ing soundtrack, robotic I’ve-been-replaced-by-an-alien acting, and so on.

Anyway, it all takes place in the Arizona desert, where we find freelance astronomer (hmmm) Johnny Putnam (Richard Carlson) relaxing with his girlfriend (Barbara Rush), indulging in a little light romantic chit-chat, and trying to ignore some ropey visual continuity (director Arnold brazenly crosses the 180-degree line for no apparent reason – this is technical movie stuff, sorry). All this is put on hold when they spy what looks like a meteorite falling to Earth out in the desert.

Quickly leasing an open-topped helicopter (a vehicle unlikely to win many safety awards, I suspect) they head out to the site, unaware of what lies within: an alien vessel, from which something has already emerged… but when Putnam descends into the crater and glimpses the craft, the other occupants quickly seal it and trigger a landslide, burying it under tons of rock. The other townsfolk are, of course, scornful of Putnam’s story of what he’s seen, but something is out in the desert, and making its plans for certain of the local inhabitants…

This is a thoughtful and atmospheric tale of an encounter between everyday American folks and shapeshifting otherworldly blobs, with the script let down only by a few dubious elements – it’s apparently of great significance that the aliens are stealing people’s clothes, presumably so they have something to wear when they adopt human form, but the film makes it pretty clear they can fabricate clothing as part of their disguise anyway. Also, the alien starship, supposedly the result of a thousand years of effort and research, is eventually repaired using equipment from the back of a phone company truck and the local hardware store. Yes, well.

And once Arnold hits his stride the direction is actually pretty good: there’s heavy use of shots where the camera becomes the alien’s point-of-view, which I don’t recall seeing used in many earlier films, and the special effects aren’t bad either (in hindsight it’s obvious this film was made in 3D – ray guns get shot at the camera, etc).

What makes this movie slightly unusual and difficult to categorise is the fact that it doesn’t scream subtext at the viewer. The aliens here are, well, alien, mostly. They’re not proxy-Communists and they’re not especially interested in human beings, they’ve just had the alien equivalent of a puncture and have stopped on Earth to fix it. This isn’t a red-scare movie or an atom-scare movie, and it’s not unthinkingly cheery about the human characters, either, who are mostly shown to be xenophobic and automatically hostile to the unknown and to outsiders.

This seems to me to be what this film is about: being an alien in human terms, particularly an outsider in a small town. Putnam, it’s made clear, is new to the area, and still treated with some caution by his new neighbours – ‘a lonely man,’ one of them says. The sheriff (Charles Drake) is particularly resentful of his relationship with Rush. And our sympathies are with him when he tries to convince everyone of what he’s seen, and they reject him flatly.

The whole film operates insularly, on a defiantly local scale: no-one even thinks of calling in the FBI or the army when they finally discover aliens really are in their midst. The climax is ultimately the townspeople versus the aliens, with Putnam caught in between. Both sides are depicted as scared and quite possibly overreacting: there certainly aren’t any bad guys.

So it’s thoughtful, on a number of levels, but somehow it doesn’t quite pack the visceral thrills of many of the other films of the same period. For this review I watched it for the first time since the early 1980s, without especially high expectations, and was moderately impressed by the movie’s technical proficiency and the intelligence of (most of) the script. It Came From Outer Space is certainly not the most mindlessly enjoyable of the 50s Bs, but it has a definite quality of its own that’s rather pleasing.

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