by Steve Habrat
Hot off the success of his iconic 1954 monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon and it’s middle-of-the-road sequel Revenge of the Creature, director Jack Arnold then turned to the wildly popular science fiction subgenre of giant creature features. It may surprise you that Arnold’s 1955 arachnid outing Tarantula is one of the best creature features that may ever have the pleasure of creep across your television. Boasting special effects that would stomp some CGI effects of today, unusually strong character development for a B-movie of this breed, a unexpectedly human plot, and some truly frightening images that will have anyone who suffers from arachnophobia hyperventilating, Tarantula is a smart and surprisingly consistent creature feature that is must-see viewing for anyone who claims to be a fan of 50s science fiction efforts. To make things more fascinating, Arnold and screenwriters Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley decide to turn their backs on the atom bomb willies of the Eisenhower era and instead focus on well-meaning science spinning wildly out of control. It is a nice change of pace and it allows Tarantula to stand out from the scores of giant bugs that were prowling the American countryside in the wake of the bomb. Get ready for your skin to crawl because it surely will while you take this puppy in.
Tarantula begins with the horribly deformed research scientist Eric Jacobs (played by Eddie Parker) wandering out into the Arizona desert and dropping dead. After local authorities find his body, a doctor by the name of Dr. Matt Hastings (played by John Agar) is called in to examine the disfigured corpse. Matt is baffled by the appearance of the corpse, but Matt believes that Jacobs may have been suffering from acromegaly. Matt also discovers that Jacobs was actually a colleague of Professor Gerald Deemer (played by Leo G. Carroll), a scientist that has locked himself away in a secluded mansion in the desert and has been working on creating a food nutrient that could feed the world’s rapidly growing population. It turns out that Deemer has been testing the nutrient on a variety of animals including a tarantula, which is ten times its normal size. While engulfed in his work, another colleague, Paul Lund (played also by Eddie Parker), who is suffering from the same disfigurement as Jacobs suddenly attacks Deemer. As the two men fight, they accidentally unleash the tarantula that wanders out into the desert. To make things worse, Lund injects Deemer with the nutrient, which rapidly begins to disfigure him too. As Deemer races to find a cure with his beautiful new assistant, Dr. Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (played by Mara Corday), Matt and Sheriff Jack Andrews (played by Nestor Paiva) are called to investigate bizarre skeletal remains that have been found at a local ranch. It doesn’t take long for Matt, Steve, and Sheriff Andrews to figure out that there is a giant tarantula prowling the desert.
Unlike most of the throwaway B-movies of this era, Tarantula takes its good old time crawling up to the action. For a while, you may even start to think that this movie isn’t even really about a giant tarantula attacking and destroying a small American town, but a scientist suffering from horrific mutations. Arnold spends quite a bit of time getting to know the characters, all of which are likeable enough even if they are a bunch of walking 50s clichés. When the giant abomination of science wanders out of the lab and starts creeping around the desert, Arnold generates some seriously effective suspense. He teases us with the beast’s massive legs appearing over jagged rock formations and he sends shivers as the spider’s silhouette slowly prowls the hills behind characters. There is even a wicked moment with the spider descending upon Professor Deemer’s mansion and then watching the oblivious Steve as she gets ready for bed. We only see the spider’s eyes through her window and then, in the blink of an eye, the mutant arachnid begins tearing the mansion to shreds. Arnold pulls back on the action to reveal an impressive outside shot of the spider’s silhouette reducing the mansion to splinters as Steve runs to Matt’s open arms. Tarantula’s suspense and action sequences really are top of the line for a low-budget 1955 effort.
Even though the characters are a bit clichéd and familiar for the 1950s, they are still played by the actors and actresses who are totally committed to their roles. Agar is the typical all-American hero who woos the girl and saves her from the clicking fangs of death. The poster hilariously advertised Agar holding a machine gun and firing it at the tarantula but there is never a moment like that in the film. Carroll’s Deemer is a tragic figure that is slowly succumbing to madness in his desperation to find a cure for himself. After a while, he starts to resemble the Hunchback of Notre Dame mixed with the Frankenstein monster, which is certainly a nightmarish combination. Corday is your typical damsel in distress, a pretty face who shrieks in terror when she comes face to face with the towering tarantula, however, her character is given a layer of intelligence, which is certainly a smart move on Arnold and the screenwriter’s part. Paiva is appropriately skeptical and spooked as Sherriff Andrews, who has to scramble his police force to fight back against the unstoppable monster. Film buffs should also keep their eyes peeled for a brief cameo by a very young Clint Eastwood, who shows up as a jet fighter pilot during the fiery climax of the film.
Perhaps the biggest flaw to be found in Tarantula is the rushed climax that features the tarantula barreling towards a small Arizona town. As the spider makes its way forward, jet fighters drop rockets and canisters of napalm down on the savage beast, all while the town’s citizens cheer on in support. It looks awesome but it seems cut short with “The End” plastered on the screen before we even have time to catch our breath. Mind you, there is plenty to marvel at during the final showdown, the neatest moment coming in a subtle tribute to Godzilla, which is up to you to find, but you are left wanting a bit more closure from the characters. Overall, even if it may not be dealing directly with radiation and nuclear weapons, Tarantula still cleverly captures a nation’s fears of science going horribly wrong. It may be B-movie material, but it is far from the construction paper and rubber mask approach that many of these films received. It is apparent that the filmmakers really took their time and created something they could be proud of. Tarantula is a true creature feature classic that will thrill and chill for many years to come.
Tarantula is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
We have arrived at our final classic Universal Movie Monster and we end this series with a true legend. The Creature from the Black Lagoon moves away from the supernatural flavor that was favored by Universal Studios and embraced a scientific fear that was popular after World War II. He may not emerge from a coffin at night and he may not be a walking corpse but Gill-man is certainly a monster that will continue to haunt our dreams for years. Without further ado, here is the final installment in Anti-Film School’s Universal Movie Monster series. Read on if you dare…
The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Of all the classic monsters in the Universal horror line, one of the most iconic is Gill-man, the underwater terror from Jack Arnold’s classic horror adventure The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Made in 1954 and originally released in 3D, The Creature from the Black Lagoon was Universal’s attempt at trying to remain in the horror loop. After World War II, the genre had moved away from the supernatural beasts like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf-Man, and the Mummy and embraced more of a fear of science, atomic age mutants, and extraterrestrials. Born out of the movement, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is one of the finest creature features from the golden age of drive-in spectacle, an A-list horror movie that steps out of B-movie assembly line. With a timeless creature that refuses to show his age and a rollicking adventure with plenty of brains to spare, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a film that you just can’t pull yourself away from. And then there is Gill-man himself, a sympathetic specimen who was simply minding his own business when the men in the safari hats dropped in on his beloved lagoon and began desecrating it. In my humble opinion, he remains one of the most sympathetic of all the classic monsters that made their way out of Universal Studios.
After a geology expedition in the Amazon uncovers the skeletal remains of a link between land and sea creatures, a team of scientists is quickly put together and sent into the thick jungle to examine the remains. The team consists of leader Dr. Carl Maia (Played by Antonio Moreno), ichthyologist Dr. David Reed (Played by Richard Carlson), financial backer Dr. Mark Williams (Played by Richard Denning), Kay Lawrence (Played by Julia Adams), and grizzled captain Lucas (Played by Nestor Paiva). Once they arrive in the jungle, the team that originally made the discovery is discovered dead near the remains. As the new team tries to figure out the cause of the death, they come face to face with Gill-man (Played by Ricou Browning and Ben Chapman), an amphibious creature that is extremely territorial. Having made the discovery of a lifetime, the group grapples with how to capture the Gill-man but the creature plans on putting up a hell of a fight. But after Gill-man lays eyes on Kay and falls in love with her, he begins plotting a way to abduct her from the group.
Featuring a number of jaw-dropping underwater sequences, The Creature from the Black Lagoon becomes a must see for these scenes, which I’m sure just astonish in 3D. The most beautiful of the scenes is when Kay decides to take a dip in the lagoon, only to be stalked by Gill-man, who swims just underneath her. When your eyes aren’t glued to Kay’s iconic bathing suit, you will marvel at the precise choreography of the scene, especially how Gill-man manages to mirror all of Kay’s movements. While the scene may make you swoon, there are plenty of suspenseful moments in that murky water that will have you holding your breath. David and Mark relentlessly hunt the poor Gill-man, who hides among the rocks and seaweed that cakes the bottom of the eerie lagoon. These scenes are given a shock from a hair-raising blast of horns that announce the Gill-man when we catch a brief glimpse of him. Arnold also allows his camera to take a plunge when the scientists use various methods to try to drug Gill-man. The camera lingers underwater as an array of chemicals trail down to the bottom of the lagoon, our monster hidden among the rocks and staring up in horror. It is scenes like this that make us feel for the slimy guy.
Then there are the colorful performances from the cast, who all do a bang up job with the characters they are given. Carlson’s David is the typical all-American hero who questions whether they are doing the right thing by capturing the Gill-man. His confliction makes him easily the most likable character next to Kay. While she is mostly asked to scream when she sees the Gill-man, Kay still is a stunner in that white one piece. In a way, it is tragic the way she fears the creature as he just has misunderstood feelings for Kay and no way to confess those feelings. The most monstrous of the human characters is Denning’s Williams, who is so desperate to capture the creature that it borders on obsessive. He is constantly at odds with David and he usually is the one who resorts to violence to solve their differences. Then there is Gill-man himself, who remains largely unseen for part of the movie. Still packing a mean visual punch, the Gill-man’s desperation to stay in his swamp and rid it of these human terrors is what ultimately tugs at your heartstrings. For a while, he just stays submerged and watches, reading the actions of these intruders. The creature does pop more underwater (when underwater, he is played by Browning and when on land, he is played by Chapman) as he glides around David and Mark. On land, he shuffles like the Frankenstein Monster, emitting guttural growls that sound vaguely like demonic pigs. He can truly be a frightening force, especially to those who have never been exposed to him.
There are points in The Creature from the Black Lagoon where the film ceases to be a great horror movie and becomes a great adventure into the unknown with plenty of action that will be enjoyed for many more years to come. It introduces us to a creature that will continue to grab our imagination and haunt our dreams. Over the years, many audiences and even critics (!) have been calling for a remake of the movie and there have even been rumors that Universal has been considering giving Gill-man a face lift. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen and that the studio leaves the film alone. I fear that they will resort to senseless bloodletting, a CGI makeover for the green guy, and a slew of disposable pretty faces that can barely act their way out of a paper bag let alone the Black Lagoon. No, Jack Arnold’s film is perfect as is, one that still can pack a mean spook and white knuckle action scene with the best of them.
Revenge of the Creature (1955)
Apparently having survived the events of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Gill-man (Played by Ricou Browning and Tom Hennesy) is once again preyed upon by nosy scientists eager to study him. This time, animal psychologist Clete Ferguson (Played by John Agar) and ichthyology student Helen Dobson (Played by Lori Nelson) capture him and have him transported to the Ocean Harbor Oceanarium in Florida. Soon, the Gill-man falls in love with Helen and he begins trying to escape from his tank. Naturally, he manages to free himself and he sets out to find his true love, killing anyone who gets in his way.
Lazily made and devoid of any suspense or atmosphere, Revenge of the Creature is a massive step down from the original Creature from the Black Lagoon, which happened to be one of the finest films in the Universal library. Originally released in 3D, it is fun to see the Gill-man terrorizing swarming masses of innocent civilians but yanking him out of his legendary lagoon may not have been the smartest idea out there. I found myself longing for the confrontations in the Black Lagoon and almost bored with the tedious scenes of Clete and Helen trying to communicate with the angry creature. Gill-man certainly does win our sympathy, maybe even more here than he did in the original film. The first time around, we saw his beautiful swamp desecrated by careless humans but this time, he is chained and forced to sit still as curious citizens swarm to his tank to point and gasp. Poor guy! No wonder he is angry when he breaks out of those chains.
The acting of Revenge of the Creature is certainly nothing to write home about, although do make sure you keep your eyes peeled for a cameo from a young Clint Eastwood. As the story plays out before us, it is easy to assume that the film is going nowhere fast. We are subjected to one bloated conversation after another as the Gill-man bobs around in the background. Director Jack Arnold seems to realize this and he frantically tries to make up for it in the final twenty minutes of the film with an extended chase. Basically, all he does is hit the lights and let the Gill-man wander the dark as police try desperately to prevent him from escaping with Helen in his slimy arms. Trust me, you’ve seen this sequence before in countless other Universal monster films. Overall, there was plenty of potential here but the lack of enthusiasm with the material hurts the final product. It’s obvious this was made simply to make money for the studio and it is a shame because Gill-man deserves better than what he gets. This film drowns right before our very eyes. Someone grab the life preserver! Grade: C
The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
Somehow surviving the hail of gunfire at the end of Revenge of the Creature, the Gill-man (Played by Ricou Browning and Don Megowan) is once again hunted down by a team of scientists led by the deranged Dr. William Barton (Played by Jeff Marrow). After a lengthy search, the Gill-man is discovered and captured in the Everglades. During the capture, the Gill-man is seriously wounded, which forces the scientists to race to save his life. He undergoes a procedure that radically alters his appearance and has him using his lungs to breathe rather than his gills.
An even bigger dud than Revenge of the Creature, The Creature Walks Among Us finds the franchise sinking fast under a bizarre premise that has Gill-man evolving into a towering human being with vaguely human features. The beginning of the film finds some of that effective atmosphere from the first film creeping in but things go south quick when the film sails out of the swamp and arrives at a sprawling mansion compound where the Gill-man is forced to live behind an electric fence. Riddled with plot holes, The Creature Walks Among Us finds the human beings acting more monstrous than the Gill-man, who once again nabs our sympathy in his electric prison. Tour guide Jed Grant (Played by Gregg Palmer) lusts after William’s wife, Marcia (Played by Leigh Snowden), and he makes a very half-assed attempt to hide it. William relentlessly accuses poor Marcia of seducing every man she comes across, something completely untrue. The savage bickering and arguing finally ends with one of the men killing the other and then trying to blame it on the Gill-man.
Clunky and bogged down by a slew of rotten humans doing terrible things to each other, The Creature Walks Among Us is a messy and overwhelmingly bleak conclusion to the Creature franchise. What hurts the worst is seeing Gill-man edged off the A-list of horror icons and relegated to B-squad of atomic age abominations with very little intellectual purpose. Halfway through the film, Gill-man is stripped of his original trim appearance and morphed into a hulking brute in a Halloween mask that just stands around and stares at everyone. While it can be argued that there are minor traces of what once was here and there, the film wouldn’t scare even the jumpiest horror fan. Overall, I wish I could say it wraps everything up in a satisfying manner, but there is no muggy or buggy inspiration or creativity on the filmmaker’s part. I’m afraid that the Black Lagoon is all dried up. Grade: D+
The Creature from the Black Lagoon is available on Blu-ray and DVD. Revenge of the Creature, and The Creature Walks Among Us are available on DVD.