Monday, September 9, 2013

DVD Review: Tarantula (1955)

DVD Review: Tarantula (1955)
Another Looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

Tarantula”, as reviewed here, is not actually on a DVD of its own, but leads off a collection that is a literal treasure trove of Universal International Pictures ‘50s Sci-Fi films – called “The Classic Sci-Fi Collection: Volumes One & Two”, released in 2008. 

Tarantula” is one of several Universal ‘50s “fear-fests” to be directed by the legendary Jack Arnold.  More on him later!  Now, on with the show…

The suspicious death, in the Arizona desert, of an associate of eccentric scientist Professor Gerald Deemer from sudden acromegaly arouses the curiosity of Jack Andrews the local sheriff and dashing young Doctor Matt Hastings.   (In ‘50s Sci-Fi, weren’t ALL doctors dashing and young?  …Except the old and stuffy ones, who never got the lead roles, anyway!) 

"Dashing", "Stuffy", and "Pretty" - -The Three "Fifties Food Groups"!
Though the initial questioning leads nowhere, Prof. Deemer is indeed up to something.   Employing nutrient formulas of his own design, Deemer has created huge rats, guinea pigs, and even the titular tarantula, all for the purpose of meeting the ever-growing demand for food in the future years of 1975 and 2000. (He mentions those particular years by name.)

Hmmm... Guess it worked TOO well!
…Now, I’ve lived through 1975 and 2000 (and suspect many of you have as well), and never once do I recall being famished enough to consider trying rat, guinea pig, or spider meat!   Though “spider meat” DOES have some potential as a vocal…  
(Sing the theme-song with me!  “Spider-meat!  Spider-meat!  …Beats annn-eeee-thing that you could eat!”)  

Look-out... Here comes the Spider-meeeat!
At least, in THIS similarly-themed Carl Barks-written JUNIOR WOODCHUCKS story, it was the more logical choice of TURKEYS that were grown large for food.  That, I could go for!  The …um, “big birds” (and an accidentally injected dog) also panicked the countryside, leading me to wonder if the movie “Tarantula” ever crossed the path of Carl Barks.

Another associate, doomed to acromegaly by Deemer’s formula, attacks Deemer before dying, with the expected lab fires and explosions resulting from the struggle.  In the chaos, the experimental tarantula escapes Deemer’s lab (though it is presumed lost in the fires, as were his other subjects), and grows to gigantic proportions!  

Did you REALLY think it would remain in its cage?!  ...REALLY?!
Stephanie (“Steve”) Clayton comes to join the Deemer Project as yet another assistant (Gulp!), and she has the expected ‘50s Sci-Fi sort of romance with (dashing young) Dr. Hastings.  (Double Gulp!)

Ah, the FIFTIES!  We thought they'd never end!
Eventually, they encounter the giant tarantula on the desert, feeding on whatever life it can find (animal or human) and the behemoth begins its slow crawl toward the town!   Along the way, it stops to demolish Deemer’s desert compound – offing Deemer  who, in accordance with the Laws of Poetic Justice, has contracted acromegaly himself as a result of his struggle with his now-dead second associate.  

The Ending Sequence Unfolds!
Hastings and the Sheriff fail to stop the advancing arachnid with a truckload of dynamite, but their back-up plan – a napalm strike, courtesy of a conveniently nearby Air Force base – succeeds in killing the tarantula at what appears to be mere yards from the town. 

Yaayyyy!   Got 'im!
Indeed, as we abruptly fade out with the words “THE END” superimposed over the blazing tarantula corpse, the FIRE would seem to pose a greater danger than the monster – and is poised to consume the town, though the residents (cheering the “success” of the napalm strike) scarcely seem to notice it.  

Shouldn't somebody put that FIRE out? 
As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS. 


Assuming you are capable of enjoying a ‘50s Sci-Fi film about a giant spider running amok, there are no CONS to speak of. 

You got a PROBLEM with this?  ...Didn't THINK SO!


It’s ‘50s Sci-Fi:  That means you’re in for a wild ride (often – but not always – in Black and White), with stalwart heroes facing down monsters, aliens, bizarre mutations, and any other strange phenomena the screenwriters could come up with.  The general feeling is not unlike that freewheeling Sci-Fi / Adventure period for television during the early to mid-sixties.  The rules, such as they were, were being made up before your eyes – and what a glorious sight it was. 

Yaaaaah!  It's the Black and White FIFTIES!
Jack Arnold:  This legendary director of ‘50s Sci-Fi films for Universal was the unique talent behind some of the best-known genre films of the decade:  “It Came From Outer Space” (1953), “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” (1954), its first sequel “Revenge of the Creature” (1955), “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (1957), and much more… including “Tarantula”.   On TV, he was best known for directing GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, among many other shows.

What Jack Arnold did for the ‘50s Big Screen certainly appears to have influenced what Irwin Allen later did for the ‘60s Small Screen in more ways than I can count.  Needless to say, both men hold a special place in my personal Hall of Fame! 

Arnold: The Incredible Shrinking Man
Allen: Land of the Giants

Arnold: Creature from the Black Lagoon

Allen: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: "The Thing from Inner Space"

The Cast: 

John Agar as “Doctor Matt Hastings”.
Mara Corday as “Stephanie (‘Steve’) Clayton”.

Leo G. Carroll (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) as “Professor Gerald Deemer”. 
Nestor Paiva as “Sheriff Jack Andrews”.

John Agar made his film debut in the John Wayne / John Ford film “Fort Apache” (1948).  After more such work, Agar later reinvented himself as one of ‘50s Sci-Fi’s prototypical leading men – a class that would also include actors like Richard Carlson, Kenneth Toby, Grant Williams, Jeff Morrow, Rex and Rhodes Reason, David Hedison, and others.  
He’d eventually return to Wayne pictures with minor roles in such later films as “The Undefeated” (1969), “Chisum” (1970), and “Big Jake” (1971).  Along the way, he was married to Shirley Temple, who he presumably met while filming “Fort Apache”.

Yes, SIR!
Agar’s ‘50s Sci-Fi credits include:  Jack Arnold’s “Revenge of the Creature” (1955), “The Mole People” (1956, marking at least the third time Agar worked with Nestor Paiva), and the unforgettable “The Brain from Planet Arous” (1957). 

His good looks and easy-going manner make him, perhaps, my favorite of the (dashing young) ‘50s Sci-Fi male lead actors.  (…That’s assuming you count David Hedison as more of a “television actor”.

TV or not TV?   Whadda you think? 
I’ll also throw a shout-out to Nestor Paiva for some extremely diverse character acting.  In “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and its sequel “Revenge of the Creature”, Paiva was delightfully over the top as the Latin American skipper of the boats “RITA” and “RITA II” that traveled the Amazon in search of the Creature.  
Nestor Pavia (Top, and right with John Agar)

In “The Mole People”, he was an aging and emotional scientist.  And, in “Tarantula”, he was a perfectly white-bread, middle-aged sheriff.   Better range than you’d expect by looking at him.  Indeed, you’d probably never associate his “Creature” roles with “Tarantula”! 
I'd a NEVER THOUGHT it was the same guy! Fancy that! ...Blub!
Extra Features:  As part of a ten-movie set, you’d expect Extras to be few and far between, but we do have a…

Theatrical Trailer for “Tarantula” (01:53)

Close-up on Stephanie (“Steve”) Clayton screaming!  Cue the large on-screen TEXT: 

More TERRIFYING than any horror known to man, comes a CREEPING CRAWLING MONSTER whose TOWERING FURY no one can escape –
“TARANTULA”… Science Fiction’s most TERRIFYING THRILL! 

DIALOGUE: John Agar’s “Doctor Matt Hastings” and another scientist:
But, what if circumstances were to magnify one of them… it’s size and strength… took it out of its primitive world, and turned it loose in ours?
Then, expect something that’s fiercer, more cruel and deadly, than anything that ever walked the Earth!”

VOICE OVER by Dick Tufeld  (Beloved to us as the voice of the Robot on LOST IN SPACE): 
Long BEFORE Will Robinson, I was warning of "Danger!"

Even science was stunned!  The new atomic miracle should have been mankind’s greatest boon.  Instead, when such power to cause phenomenal growth proved dangerously unstable, man was confronted with his most shocking blunder…
“...A blunder that transformed a tiny insect into the hundred-foot spider that was now ravaging the panic stricken countryside!”

TEXT resumes:  “BULLETS can’t stop it… DYNAMITE can’t kill it…  

Dynamite ain't "Dy-No-Mite!" when it comes to killing Tarantulas.
John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll in “TARANTULA” from Universal International. 

General Oddities: 

According to the DVD commentary track on “The Creature Walks Among Us” (1956, the only “Black Lagoon Creature” film Jack Arnold didn’t direct) Professor Deemer’s house and grounds were the same house and grounds on which Jeff Morrow imprisoned the captive, now-air-breathing creature. 

Feelin' LUCKY, Spider-Punk?!
A young and uncredited Clint Eastwood led the Air Force napalm strike on the spider.  He must have enjoyed bringing about all that fiery death!  An also-uncredited Eastwood appeared in Jack Arnold’s “Revenge of the Creature” (1955), as a lab assistant.   “Revenge of the Creature”, as noted above, starred John Agar and featured Nestor Paiva.  …Small world! 


Tarantula” may not be the best ‘50s Sci-Fi film (my nomination is “Forbidden Planet”, 1956), but it is far from the worst.  And, as I suspect most of you know, even the “worst” of ‘50s Sci-Fi is something to behold!  I’d call it an enjoyable “upper-middling-effort”, and be satisfied with that. 

Its director, Jack Arnold, was one of the best and most imaginative of the period – not to mention hugely influential on Sci-Fi television series in the decade to come.

Its star, John Agar, was a likable, solid staple of the genre. 
And its monster, despite what we’d likely view today as laughable filming techniques, elicited that special sort of ‘50s Sci-Fi chills of fun! 

From a film about a giant rampaging spider, you can’t ask for more than that! 

Not only “Tarantula”, but the ENTIRE PACKAGE assembled by Universal Home Entertainment, called “The Classic Sci-Fi Collection: Volumes One & Two”, is highly recommended for sci-fi fans wise and discerning enough to accept a dash of fun with their entertainment. 


Anonymous said...

Maybe they should have called in the Junior Woodchucks instead of the Air Force. Huey, Dewey, and Louie might have used a tranquilizer dart (it worked on the Hound of the Moaning Hills) instead of napalm, thus stopping the monster without starting a wildfire. And whoever wrote the voice over for the trailer could have consulted the Woodchucks' guidebook. It would have explained that a spider is an arachnid, not an insect. Oh well. BTW, while watching "Mr. Waverly" and "Mr. Shirley Temple" and "Dirty Harry," one might overlook Mr. Drysdale. That's Raymond Bailey as the scientist with whom Agar consults about the possibility of a giant spider. Bailey also had a small part in "The Incredible Shrinking Man" as an MD who examines Scott Carey. -TC

Joe Torcivia said...

My bad on “Mr. Drysdale”, Anon / TC! …Consider me banished from the “cee-ment pond” for my omission.

And, despite delivering some questionable information (probably programmed into him by Doctor Smith), The Robot should probably have partnered with The Junior Woodchucks and made short work of that “…CREEPING CRAWLING MONSTER whose TOWERING FURY no one can escape”.