Archive for the Insect Horror Category

In The Spooklight: TARANTULA! (1955)

Posted in 1950s Horror, 2013, Atomic Accidents, Classic Films, Giant Spiders, In the Spooklight, Insect Horror, Mad Doctors!, Man vs. Nature, Medical Experiments!, Michael Arruda Reviews, Scares!, Science Fiction with tags , , , , , , on July 17, 2013 by knifefighter

NOTE: This is a reprint of a column which originally ran in the HWA NEWSLETTER in July 2012.  If you enjoy this column, feel free to check out my IN THE SPOOKLIGHT collection, available now as an EBook at www.neconebooks.com, and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038.  It contains 115 horror movie columns, covering movies from the silent era and 1930s to the movies of today.  Thanks! —Michael

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT
By Michael Arruda

tarantula_movie_poster_artDon’t you just love furry little critters like— tarantulas?  No?  Find them a bit scary and repulsive, do you?  Well, then you’ll just cringe at the colossal star of Universal’s TARANTULA (1955), a spider so big it can step on a house! 

TARANTULA is one of the best giant monster movies from the 1950s.  It’s certainly the finest one produced by Universal Studios.

Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar) is called to the coroner’s office in the small town of Desert Rock, Arizona, by his friend Sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva) to investigate the death of a man found in the desert.  The victim resembles a man they know, Eric Jacobs, but his facial features are swollen and contorted.  Hastings believes Jacobs’ symptoms resemble the disease acromegaly, a disorder of the pituitary gland, but this doesn’t make sense to Hastings since the disease takes years to develop and Jacobs wasn’t showing any symptoms just days before.

When Jacobs’ employer, the eminent Professor Gerald Deemer, (Leo G. Carroll), arrives, he insists that Jacobs was indeed suffering from acromegaly, and he refuses to allow an autopsy on the body.  This doesn’t sit well with Dr. Hastings, who finds the diagnosis wrong, and Deemer’s behavior baffling.

Yep, Deemer is the town’s resident mad scientist, and he lives just outside Desert Rock in a huge mansion, complete with a laboratory full of oversized animals in cages, including a tarantula the size of a dog.  When yet another malformed insane human attacks Professor Deemer, the laboratory is set on fire and destroyed, but not before the tarantula escapes from the house.  This hideous human also injects an unconscious Deemer with some unknown drug, before collapsing and dying himself.

Later, when a new assistant arrives in town to work for Professor Deemer, the beautiful Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (Mara Corday), Matt Hastings accompanies her to Deemer’s place, where he learns all about the professor’s research.  Professor Deemer is attempting to stamp out world hunger by using atomic energy to create a “super” food nutrient, which he has injected into various animals, and as a result they have grown in size.  Hmm.  Supersized fried chicken!  Yummy!

Deemer tells Steve and Matt that his lab was destroyed in an accidental fire, and he believes all his caged animals were killed.  He doesn’t realize that his tarantula is free in the desert growing bigger by the minute.  When next seen, the spider is gigantic, the size of a house, and it’s hungry, eating everything in its path, including horses, farms animals, and people.

Eventually, the giant tarantula sets its hairy sights on Desert Rock, and suddenly the town has to scramble to defend itself against the humongous marauding arachnid.

TARANTULA is one of my favorite giant monster movies.  First off, the screenplay by Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley presents a story that is more creative than most.  There’s more going on in TARANTULA than just the basic “giant bug on the loose” storyline.  There’s all the mystery surrounding Professor Deemer’s research, and the strange misshapen men lumbering in and around his property, which adds some genuine intrigue to the story.  Screenwriter Berkeley also penned the screenplay for two other Universal monster classics, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) and THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957).

Director Jack Arnold, who directed several genre movies, including CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), is at the top of his game with TARANTULA.  He creates some memorable scenes.  One of my favorites occurs at night at a farm, when suddenly a group of horses begins to grow very nervous.  In the distance we see a darkened hill, and very slowly, onto that hill from the other side, creeps the massive tarantula.  It’s one hair-raising scene!

Another effective scene has Steve walking back and forth in her bedroom, not noticing the enormous tarantula through her window as it makes its way towards the house.  She doesn’t notice until the beast is on top of the house, literally!

And the tarantula looks terrific, as it’s menacing and scary.  I’m sure the special effects team was helped by the black and white photography, because with shades of light and dark, the tarantula fits into its scenes naturally and realistically.  The special effects team did a phenomenal job in this one.

The make-up on the acromegaly victims was done by Bud Westmore, and it reminds me a lot of the work he did on ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1953) and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (1958), as his monstrous creations in both these movies resemble the folks in the desert in TARANTULA.

There’s also an effective music score by Herman Stein.

The cast is decent enough.  Though I’m not a huge fan of John Agar, his performance in TARANTULA is one of his best. He makes his Dr. Matt Hastings a very likeable fellow, and rarely has he seemed more natural in front of the camera.  I just want to know what he keeps inside his briefcase.  It must be valuable, because young dashing Dr. Hastings doesn’t go anywhere without it, even grabbing it before he runs out the door!

Playing Sheriff Andrews is character actor Nestor Paiva, who appeared in a ton of movies and TV shows over the years.  I’ll always remember him as Lucas, the captain of the Rita in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) and REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955).

Leo G. Carroll, another veteran of movies and television, is also very good as Professor Deemer.  Carroll appeared in many Alfred Hitchcock movies, including NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) and SPELLBOUND (1945), and he played Alexander Waverly on the 1960s secret agent show THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968).

And for added fun, Clint Eastwood appears unbilled in one of his first roles as an air force pilot leading the attack on the tarantula, arriving just in time to save the folks of Desert Rock from the deadly arachnid.

Do you feel lucky, tarantula?”

—END—

© Copyright 2013 by Michael Arruda

Bill’s Bizarre Bijou: SHE DEVIL (1957)

Posted in 1950s Sci-Fi Films, 2013, 50s Horror, Bill's Bizarre Bijou, Femme Fatales, Insect Horror, Lost Films, Mad Doctors!, Mutants! with tags , , , , , , , on April 11, 2013 by knifefighter

Bill’s Bizarre Bijou

William D. Carl

This week’s feature presentation:

SHE DEVIL (1957)

shedevilposter

Welcome to Bill’s Bizarre Bijou, where you’ll discover the strangest films ever made.  If there are alien women with too much eye-shadow and miniskirts, if papier-mâché monsters are involved, if your local drive-in insisted this be the last show in their dusk till dawn extravaganza, or if it’s just plain unclassifiable – then I’ve seen it and probably loved it.   Now, I’m here to share these little gems with you, so you too can stare in disbelief at your television with your mouth dangling open.  Trust me, with these flicks, you won’t believe your eyes.

Kurt Neumann is the well-known director of one of the greatest mad scientist/monster movies of all time, THE FLY (1958).  We’ve all seen it, and we’ve all quoted the infamous “Help meeee!” line in a falsetto voice.  Neumann, however, was quite a prolific filmmaker, with many terrific little movies under his belt, including KRONOS (1957), CARNIVAL STORY (1954), ROCKETSHIP X-M (1950), and numerous Tarzan titles.  Yet, everyone remembers him for his creation of a bulbous, fly-headed human.  Far less known, is Kurt Neumann’s other insect/mad scientist horror movie, SHE DEVIL (1957), which he also wrote.  No, this isn’t the Rosanne atrocity, but a full-blooded, low-budget shocker that surely freaked out the drive-in crowds.

The film opens in glorious black and white – A Regal Film (a company that went bust just after the release of SHE DEVIL, which explains the obscurity of the title…also, the movie was shot in Cinemascope, and most theaters weren’t able to handle the technology).  We see a view through a microscope of an obviously hand-drawn fruitfly, which is what Dr. Scott (Jack Kelly of CULT OF THE COBRA, 1955 and FORBIDDEN PLANET, 1956,) is looking at when he gets a visit from his colleague, Dr. Bach, played by stalwart character actor Albert Dekker (who was in THE KILLERS,1946, THE FURIES, 1950, EAST OF EDEN, 1955 and THE WILD BUNCH, 1969, but who is probably best known to genre fans for his portrayal of DR. CYCLOPS, 1940,).  They discuss Scott’s new research, in which he is using the invulnerability of the fruitfly, which can heal itself through adaptation to its environment.  Since fruitflies are the most adaptive of all insects and produce the most neutons (?), he creates a serum that has worked wonders on lab animals.  “These guinea pigs were tubercular, and the serum cured them in three days!”  His leopard turns from spotted to black after taking the drug, and it grows very aggressive (uh-oh!).  He needs a human test subject, but, darn it, nobody wants to volunteer to ingest the serum during their final days.

Enter gorgeous Kyra Zelas, a dying woman in the final stages of tuberculosis, played by the lovely Mari Blanchard (ABBOT AND COSTELLO GO TO MARS, 1953 and DESTRY, 1954).  She has no relatives or friends or money, and no hope of surviving.  The perfect subject for Scott’s serum!  They inject her, and in just six hours, she is doing much better.  In another day, she is fully recovered and admiring herself in a mirror.  Her hair was never so lustrous!  Dr. Scott starts to fall for Kyra, even after he can barely get a needle through her newly-strengthened skin.  Luckily, it seems it has also given her a Max Factor makeover that is permanently beautifying her face.

Dr. Bach (Albert Dekker) operates on Kyra.

Dr. Bach (Albert Dekker) operates on Kyra.

Dr. Scott decides she should be kept under observation in case there are any side effects, so when she is released, she will be living with the good doctor so he can, ahem, keep an eye on her.  When she heads to his house, she informs the men that “From now on, I’m going to do only what I want…everything I want.  I’m going to get everything I can out of life.  Everything I always wanted.”  She starts by going to an expensive boutique where she observes a sugar daddy buying stuff for his woman and flashing a lot of cash around.  She grabs the money, bashes the man over the head with an ashtray, and heads for a dressing room.  By shaking her hair out, shampoo-commercial style, she changes from brunette to blond, a really cool special effect for the time.  After changing into another dress, she fools everyone, even the police, and uses the stolen money to buy a new wardrobe.

Dr. Scott is easily fooled by the beauty, but Dr. Bach sees her for the conniving little tramp she is.  He discovers she hasn’t dyed her hair blonde; she is mutating!  His warnings fall on deaf ears as Scott throws a sort of coming out party for her.  This is where she meets insanely wealthy no-goodnik Barton Kendell (John Archer of DESTINATION MOON, 1950 and BLUE HAWAII, 1961) and his shrewish wife Evelyn (Fay Baker of NOTORIOUS, 1946 and THE STAR, 1952).  “Now, Evelyn, you know we never quarrel till our third drink.”

Barton flirts shamelessly with Kyra, who encourages his attentions, but when Evelyn says she wants to leave the party, Kyra does her head-shake again, turning her blond hair brown (there’s a Crystal Gayle song in there somewhere.)  Then, she kills Evelyn in the garden by using her super-strength to strangle the older woman.  She’s spotted, but everyone is looking for a brunette, and she’s reverted back to blond again!

Scott and Bach decide to create an anti-serum in case Kyra gets out of hand.  They are too late, however, and she’s had a taste of freedom.  She allows the black leopard in the lab to claw her, and the bloody wound heals in seconds.  She can’t be injured, no matter how badly she is attacked.  They try to drug her, but she wakes up and threatens them before departing for richer shores.

She marries the smitten millionaire Barton Kendell, but she grows bored with him quickly and their marriage turns sour.  “Stop pawing me!” she cries out.  On a drive, she spins the car’s wheel, sending the car over the cliff with Barton and herself inside.  “Stop it, Kyra, you’ll kill us!”  “Not US, Bart.  Not US!” (The car crash footage is from a Robert Mitchum movie, ANGEL FACE, 1952).  At the bottom of the cliff, she emerges unscathed from the wreckage and walks back to Dr. Scott, who welcomes her with open arms, even though he knows how evil she is!

She devil Kyra meets the leopard.

Blonde she-devil Kyra meets the leopard.

Will Dr. Bach convince Scott of what a monster Kyra has become?  Will she succeed in taking out Bach and living with the man who loves her?  Can they operate on her to restore Kyra to normalcy (in other words, not a murderous, thieving witch with fabulous hair)?

SHE DEVIL is loaded with bitchy, fun dialogue (“I’m not creating a scene.  You are.”  “Oh yeah?  I’m not the one necking with this trollop!”  SLAP!  “You don’t want a divorce; you might actually have to marry one of your girls.”).  Sometimes, the script gets a bit too talky for its own good, but when the words coming out of the characters’ mouths are so tasty, who cares?  The crisp cinematography is by the great Karl Struss, who worked on SUNRISE (1927), Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940), and ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932), before moving on to trashy greats like THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE (1959) and Neumann’s own THE FLY.  The acting is fine, if a bit over the top, with Mari Blanchard standing out as the murderous, monstrous, indestructible femme fatale.  She gyrates and whispers and is sex personified.  Plus, that hair trick is awfully cool.

On a side-note, co-star Albert Dekker, the star of so many terrific, Oscar-nominated films, is also the victim in one of Hollywood’s most notorious death scenes.  In May of 1968, he was discovered on his knees, dead in a bathtub with a noose around his neck, hand-cuffed, a ball gag in his mouth, blindfolded, with sexual words written on his body in lipstick!  The coroner declared the death was “accidental”, and he was cremated.  Today, he is remembered more for his sexually kinky death than his body of work, and that’s a sad thing.  We at Bill’s Bizarre Bijou loved the guy’s over the top performance in SHE DEVIL, as well as his nuanced portrayals in other, more mainstream films.

Kyra as a brunette.

Kyra as a brunette.

SHE DEVIL is a fun sci-fi/horror hybrid with an unforgettable female lead and more than a few memorable moments.  Plus, Olive Films has released a stunning Blu-Ray of the film which looks absolutely beautiful.

I give SHE DEVIL three fruitflies out of four.

© Copyright 2013 by William D. Carl