Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Jack Arnold Double Feature: Tarantula/Monster on the Campus
[This is a contribution to the Spirit Of Ed Wood Blog-a-Thon currently running at Cinema Styles from July 6 to July 12. Greg at Cinema Styles has opened up this week-long event to posts about legendary B-movie maker Ed Wood, as well as any likeminded examples of low-budget sci-fi and horror filmmaking. I'll be following his lead this week with a series of posts about 50s sci-fi.]
Oh those crazy Hollywood scientists. They always mean well. They want to save the world, to end world hunger, to improve the human condition, imagining a future where everyone is healthy and well-fed. To do this, of course, their research requires that they create tremendous tarantulas, grown to massive size with a radioactive nutrient formula. It's only logical, right? Professor Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) is the mad scientist of Jack Arnold's sci-fi classic Tarantula. Deemer's a well-meaning soul, with a real vision for the future. But the problem of his escaped giant tarantula, which menaces a small desert community, sort of overshadows his plans for ending world hunger. It hurts his Nobel Prize chances, too, I'd imagine. Deemer's research suffers its setback when two of his colleagues, impatient with the slow progress of their work, decide to overlook the side effects of their nutrient and inject themselves with the formula as the first human test subjects. One of these men goes dramatically stumbling through the desert in the film's stark, powerful pre-credits sequence — a deformed and twisted man, his body contorted and bulging out as though subjected to tremendous internal pressures, staggering as the vast white sand of the desert and the big open expanse of the sky stretch off for miles all around him. Not long after, Deemer's other colleague, driven mad by the injection, assaults Deemer, injects him as well, and destroys their lab before dying. In the commotion, the spider, then "only" the size of a small dog, makes its creeping, crawling getaway.
Although this opening sets up the tarantula's triumphant return, the bulk of the film keeps the focus off of the titular arachnid. Instead, the story turns to the local doctor, Matt Hastings (John Agar), who is investigating the death of Deemer's colleague along with local sheriff Andrews (Nestor Paiva). Hastings is suspicious about what's going on out at the professor's lab, and when Deemer gets a pretty research assistant with the un-feminine nickname of Steve (Mara Corday), Hastings takes a renewed interest in the professor's mysterious research. Throughout all this, the tarantula is lurking in the background, just off-screen, a conceit that grows more and more comical and ridiculous the bigger the spider gets. I suppose it's possible that a giant tarantula could hide in the desert for a while, but once it gets to be the size where it dwarfs a large mansion, it's hard to figure out exactly why nobody ever sees the thing. At one point, it actually hides behind a big rock formation, playfully sticking up one of its hairy legs so we know it's there, even as the protagonists manage to miss it. One wonders what would happen if someone looked at the mountain from the other side: would they see the spider ducking down there, playing hide and seek? Or would it scurry quickly around to the other side of the rock pile?
At times, Arnold seems to be getting a kick out of this game of hide the spider as well, and there's something amusing about the way the tarantula's appearances become ever more outrageous as the film goes on. The thing is apparently skulking around in the night, killing cattle, picking them to their bare bones with its venom and powerful jaws. But no one sees it as it prowls the flat, open land, except a few unfortunate victims who get devoured as well. Perhaps the funniest moment is when Hastings and Andrews come across a car that was turned upside down off the road, with a pile of bones from the two passengers strewn around at the scene. "So do you think it was an accident?" Hastings deadpans, and the funny thing is that they seem to consider it a possibility.
Through optical printing, Arnold gets fairly realistic effects from the juxtaposition of a real spider, greatly enlarged, onto various landscapes. The spider's distinctive scrambling, eight-legged walk is eerie at such a scale, as it lumbers over the top of a hill or creeps up next to a country house. Arnold's style is blunt and efficient, and he interweaves the tarantula's increasing destructiveness with the story of Hastings and Deemer, as the former slowly uncovers the truth behind the latter's reclusive experiments. The pace is slow and deliberate, with much time given over to the development of a relationship between Hastings and Steve — not that either progresses beyond the level of the typical B-movie cardboard cutouts, but their relationship nevertheless has a cheery and natural camaraderie that lends some heft to the human element in this story of science gone awry.
Arnold also inserts some appealingly low-key character humor in the form of the hotel manager Josh (Hank Patterson), who noses his way into the town's business any chance he gets, listening in on Hastings' calls and asking prying questions of everyone he meets. His counterpart is the reporter Burch (Ross Elliott), another comic figure who does much the same things as Josh, except in a more official capacity. These touches of character humor — along with the rapport between Agar and Paiva's grizzled sheriff — help invest the film with some life and emotion, raising the stakes as the tarantula slowly grows and becomes more active, more deadly, its rampage developing mostly off-screen, waiting patiently for its eventual final showdown. The film is sometimes crude in its effects, particularly during the conclusion, when the tarantula is often transparent, as though already a ghost, anticipating its imminent demise. But on the whole the film is a raw, compelling piece of science-gone-mad sci-fi, as tough and direct as its central monster.
Jack Arnold's Monster on the Campus is a weird, unintentionally goofy bit of horror/sci-fi camp, saddled with one of the most inane, scientifically implausible, outright ludicrous plots in a genre not exactly renowned for its level-headedness or scientific acuity. College professor Donald Blake (Arthur Franz) is a scientist fascinated with the study of the primeval roots of things, with those creatures who have resisted the progress of evolution. So he acquires for his university the remains of a coelacanth, the prehistoric fish originally believed to be long extinct until living specimens were unexpectedly discovered in 1938. What he doesn't realize is that this fish had been treated with gamma rays during shipment — of course! — and so contact with the fish's corpse has the unfortunate and unlikely effect of reverting other creatures back to a primitive state. The fish's blood transforms a tranquil, friendly dog into a vicious wolf-like creature, attacking everyone he sees. When a dragonfly alights on the fish and bites it, it returns as a two-foot-long insect, buzzing with a sound like an airplane. Most notably, the fish regresses Blake himself, turning him into a Neanderthal monster, a hairy ape-like creature with a murderous temper.
What's interesting about the film isn't its premise, but what's left unsaid in between the lines. There's a sense in which the film isn't really about what it seems to be about on the surface — or maybe that's just what I'm hoping, since what is there on the surface is frankly pretty lousy. But there's something appealingly seedy about the way the film sets up Blake's regression as a descent into an alternative lifestyle. When he first transforms, he's in the company of the young research assistant Molly (Helen Westcott), and despite the fact that he's happily engaged to the equally pretty Madeline (Joanna Moore), his interactions with Molly are flirtatious and sexually charged. This is the beginning of his downfall, his illicit thoughts about another woman, who obviously stirs him up; she "scares" him, he says, but it's obviously more than that. Things really get bad when Blake, woozy and destabilized — by Molly or the poisoning of the coelacanth? — has her drive him home. Hours later, he wakes up in his backyard. His house has been destroyed (and his photo of his fiancée notably torn in two), his clothes are tattered, and in a grotesque, startling image, Molly is hanging by her hair from a tree in the backyard, her eyes glazed.
So begins Blake's regression to the form of an inhuman monster, a transformation characterized not just by his ape-like appearance, but by the increasing strangeness and distance of his behavior in his ordinary life. He is cool with Madeline, ignoring and neglecting her, even as he draws further and further into his obsessions with the coelacanth. He's convinced that something about this fish is causing regression and creating an ape-like murderer on the campus — he just doesn't realize that he's the killer. The film is strikingly similar in its themes to Paul Landres' The Vampire from the year before, another film that used such violent regression as a metaphor for the degradation of a good man's lifestyle. Blake is just a decent guy, an eager scientist, seemingly very much in love with the perky Madeline, but his one little moment of innocent flirtation ends horribly: he takes a female student home with him and she winds up dead, hanging from a tree, while he remembers nothing. Later, Blake's increasing exposure to the coelacanth's blood plasma begins to resemble a drug addict's desire for a fix. He prepares a syringe of the stuff, injecting himself in the name of science, rationalizing his behavior as a desire to learn if the blood is really making him a killer or not.
The undercurrents of sexuality and drug abuse buried within the film are undoubtedly interesting, but such threads can hardly distract from the basic clumsiness and silliness of the film. The makeup that transforms Blake into a monster is laughable, a cheap rubber monkey mask that is way funnier than it is scary. The film's one real creepy shot is, notably, one achieved entirely through shadows, a shot of the monster's shadow stretching across the pavement as it shuffles threateningly towards a man at a phone box. Whenever the monster must emerge into the light, the film's cruddy effects can't bear the weight of the horror premise. Landres' The Vampire survived a similarly silly monster with the strength of its lead performance, by John Beal, but Arnold's film has only bland, occasionally awkward acting to distract from its low-budget effects. It's a strange film, interesting for its confrontation with the darkness within ordinary men, but only fitfully translating this theme into actual compelling cinema.