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Posts Tagged ‘Mara Corday’

Sometimes, it feels like once you start exploring the world of 1950s SF and monster movies, you can’t stop. Many of these films have a fairly cheesy reputation nowadays, but  looking at them now, some of them are genuinely well-made movies that stand up well, and some of them, though flawed, still have interesting things to say about culture and the preoccupations of society at the time.

Some of them, on the other hand, really are just utter cheese.

Ah, The Giant Claw, Fred F. Sears’ notorious contribution to the SF monster movie genre, which came out in 1957 and clearly shows an awareness of the classic tropes which had developed over the previous few years. Our hero is hunky, if possibly past his prime, boffin Mitch MacAfee (Jeff Morrow), a maverick electronics engineer (oh, heavens) engaged in radar calibration exercises in Alaska. Flying around and indulging in risque byplay with ground-based mathematician Sally (Mara Corday, who’s young enough to be his daughter but still old enough to be Playboy’s Playmate of the Month in October the following year) must come to an end when Mitch sights a UFO! When he radios this in to the army, a full-scale Stock Footage Alert is declared, but nothing comes to light.

Mitch is given a sound rollocking from the nearest general, who only casually mentions that one of the interceptors that were scrambled has inexplicably vanished. And then a polar passenger flight disappears. Gee, general, could it perhaps be that something is eating planes over the North Pole? The general is much more interested in giving MacAfee a hard time than in the wider ramifications of the situation. It’s a tough life as a maverick electronics engineer sometimes.

Mitch and Sally start flying back to New York but en route something tries to eat their plane in mid-air just after the pilot reports a UFO. (And still no-one stops to wonder whether a pattern may be developing.) Pausing only to get mildly trolleyed with a French Canadian who speaks fluent Franglais, Mitch and Sally hop on a commercial flight the rest of the way home. Here Mitch displays his unreconstructed manly values by slipping Sally some tongue while she’s actually asleep, and she displays the fundamental nature of the B-movie love interest by not screaming and actually being rather encouraging about the whole thing.

A film which has been amusingly silly until this point becomes exasperatingly dumb when Mitch grabs a map and plots all the locations at which UFOs have been sighted or planes eaten in mid-air. As Sally correctly points out, there is no discernible pattern to them. Aha! Mitch draws a spiral which intersects all the points neatly. Sally is dumbfounded. I couldn’t help thinking you could do the same thing with any collection of random dots, that’s sort of how spirals work. Nevertheless Mitch becomes convinced something is flying in a spiral pattern and eating every plane it passes – and, what’s more, it’s the size of a battleship! A flying battleship!

The scriptwriters of The Giant Claw, for the first part of the film at least, seem to have been sponsored by the Flying Battleship corporation, as the words ‘flying battleship’ appear much more often than the plot strictly demands, for no apparent reason. If you play the ‘flying battleship’ drinking game during this movie… actually, scratch that, just get sluiced before you start watching, the movie will slide by much more agreeably.

Oh well. Mitch’s silly spiral convinces everybody, somehow, along with a crash-investigation flight also being eaten. This time the menace is exposed – the terror of the air-lanes is a giant bird, the size of a… you can probably guess, actually. (It has to be said that compared to Godzilla, Gamera, Gorgo, Gyaos, Mothra, the Rhedosaurus, et al, ‘the giant bird’ is really a lousy monster name.) What’s more, the giant bird possesses an anti-matter shield which renders it immune to normal weapons and also radar-invisible – this is clearly an attempt to fix a couple of glaring plot holes in a vaguely scientific-sounding way, but the film’s a lost cause by this point anyway.

Yes, the moment the giant bird flaps into view, moving with all the speed and grace of Anne Widdicombe on the end of a rope, and we get the first glimpse of its head, the madly boggling eyes, absurdly over-extended neck and wildly tangled hair giving it something of the look of Uma Thurman trying to act – at this moment the film collapses as any kind of remotely serious drama. The monster puppet is ridiculous, like something a teenage Terry Gilliam would have drawn for a laugh, and scenes which require it to gobble up parachutists, carry off trains like a string of sausages, and – seemingly – dry-hump the Empire State building (see poster) don’t help much either. I was watching Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe again the other day and found myself contemplating that the effects there are starting to look a bit dated, particularly when it comes to the Gyaos bird puppets. Well, I know that nearly 40 years separates that Gamera from The Giant Claw, but even so the Gyaos effects are awesomely sophisticated and convincing compared to anything you’ll see here.

The utter awfulness of the monster is a shame as the rest of the film shows glimmers of promise. Okay, so a lot of the plot depends on anyone in a position of authority acting like a moron for the first half of the film, at which point the military’s utter contempt and disregard for Mitch and his ideas magically turns into enraptured, paternal devotion, and the decision to use a voiceover to narrate a number of key scenes rather than use dialogue is an odd and almost suspicious one. But some of the incidental dialogue between Morrow and Corday has a certain charged frisson to it – there’s an extended metaphor about baseball which is clearly meant to be racy stuff, but unfortunately the closest I’ve ever got to understanding baseball is playing rounders and that was in 1987. And, given the pseudoscientific bafflegab which makes up much of the plot – the writers seem to think that just talking about anti-matter and nu-mesons is enough to give the film credibility, regardless of whether they do so remotely accurately – there’s a performance from Edgar Barrier as a senior boffin which actually has vestiges of gravitas about it. He battles the cheese to a standstill before retiring with dignity.

Dignity and credibility are not much in evidence anywhere else in The Giant Claw. Jeff Morrow, in an oft-told anecdote, snuck out of the film’s premiere as soon as it became clear that gales of laughter would meet every appearance by the giant bird, fearing he might be recognised if he left with everyone else.  It was an understandable response – but then so is the laughter. The script is never consistently strong, but the death-blow for the whole undertaking is the airborne special-effects catastrophe The Giant Claw itself is attached to. The beast’s resemblance to a colossal turkey is eerily prophetic.

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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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