Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Cardboard Science: Still fearing the spider



Directed by Jack Arnold

Written by Martin Berkeley, Robert M. Fresco, and Jack Arnold
With John Agar (Dr. Matt Hastings), Mara Corday (Stephanie "Steve" Clayton), Leo Carroll (Prof. Gerald Deemer), Nestor Paiva (Sheriff Jack Andrews), and Tamara (herself)

Spoiler alert: severe

Science fiction is like a Mandelbrot set, spawning subgenres on its edges, and sub-subgenres upon those edges, and sub-sub-subgenres upon them, to infinity.  Take the giant bug movie.  One part atomic age allegory, one part observation that arthropods are fucking terrifying, and one part easy-to-follow formulaand one that's specific as hell, in both senses of the termthe things became a legitimate artistic movement in the 1950s, to the point where you could subdivide them further, into what type of bug was irradiated and grew to enormous size.  In this scheme, Jack Arnold's Tarantula is no rip-off of Them!; it's an original, the first-of-its-kind giant arachnid movie.

But of course, Tarantula is sort of a rip-off of Them!, at least in an attenuated sense, such as one might claim The Terminator is a rip-off of Westworld, because Westworld and things like Westworld made other robot rampages possible.  Certainly, the success of Them! demanded imitators to fill the market.  Tarantula is one of the better ones, maybe the single best of its progenitor's many-legged, disgusting children.  In many respects, however, Tarantula really is its own beast.

Most obviously, Tarantula substitutes a single, truly giant monster, in the place of a colony of elephant-sized ants, but perhaps this is a distinction without too much difference.  More importantly, the mighty invertebrate's realization is achieved through wholly different means.  In most scenes, the titular tarantulaa Brachypelma or Aphonopelma, I think, but I'm no entomologistis, well, an actual tarantula, controlled by harmless bursts of air.  Her name was Tamara and she would work with Arnold again.

This fact is good to know, since it makes the ending palatable rather than kind of morally abhorrent.

Tarantula's photographic effects were overseen by the oft-mentioned Clifford Stine and his sometimes-collaborator, David Horsley, and they range all over the damned place, from the unfathomably, stunning realisticwhen the scene makes a traveling matte feasibleto the occasionally distractingwhen a matte was, apparently, not possible, or otherwise the effect didn't come off, incompletely superimposing the spider upon the landscape.  Mistakes are hard to spot and harder to care about in the night scenes, but in the black-and-white starkness of the desert there are moments, and whole shots, where you can see right through Tamara's intangible legs.

There's a dissonance between the ultra-real giant monster in some sequences and the chintz of a phantom tarantula in others, and in full franknessno, it's never not an issue.  But in the end, it is minor, and anyone with even the rudiments of a soul would leap at the chance to forgive it, for there are sequences in Tarantula that look uncannily great, and as convincing as films made todayoften more.

Then there's the tarantula puppet, which is used to interact with the actors, and whichfor 1955ain't bad.  The puppet lends the film its one truly creepy scene, when Steve Clayton walks past a window oblivious to the spider watching her from outsideright before it crushes the house with her in it.  There's also an extremely bitchin' car crash caused by the tarantula, and I can't say exactly how it was filmed, because it looks exactly like what it represents: a truck dropped from out the damned sky.

There's certainly a story in Tarantula, too, and it departs wildly from the tease-it/discover-it/track-it/kill-it paradigm of Them!  But the openings have a more than passing resemblance.

We begin Tarantula with a mutilated, mutated man, wandering in the desert, only to die moments inand the mystery hangs over the endless expanse of sand and rubble.  (Arnold makes more of the enigma of the desert than most, even in a desert-centric genre.)

Dr. Matt Hastings is called in to determine the cause of death, and he declares it to be the fatal end of a struggle with acromegaliayet he cannot believe his own diagnosis when he's told the man had been hale and hearty no more than four days ago.  His suspicions are intensified when he learns that the victim was the lab assistant to the local shady professor, experimenting with unknowable super-science at a compound out in the badlands...

The part of the movie where you might have cause to wonder if you put in the right disc.

Long story shortand Tarantula has a perhaps-surprising amount of character and incidentProfessor Deemer is a mad scientist, but in keeping with the 50s' idealism, he is not evil or even hubristic in any special sense.  He's invented a type of radioactive nutrient, that he hopes may feed the billions on Earth now and the billions more to come, at a fraction of the cost of conventional food, saving however many millions of lives from famine and disease.  It makes rabbits and guinea pigsand other things besidesgrow to tremendous size, and at tremendous rates.  On humans, though, the results are not pretty; but he never meant to study it on humans yet.  It was his partner who made that amoral leap.

The insinuations the sheriff makesthat Hastings, the young turk M.D., is simply professionally jealous of the distinguished professorhave a ring of truth to them, but (of course) Hastings' suspicions that the prof ain't quite right are soon confirmed totally, when a lab accident releases one of Deemer's test subjects, specifically the eight-legged one, and macabre skeletons cleaned of flesh by digestive acid begin to appear.

No smart-assed remarks, John?  Really?  (Just kidding.  He has a few.)

I was pretty hard on John Agar in Revenge of the Creature, and while Jack Arnold must have liked him enough to bring him back, you get the distinct feeling he was just as displeased with Agar's trademark smuggery in that film as I was.  In Tarantula, while the aggressive elements that make Agar Agar remain, they're more subdued, more natural, and far more palatable.  Arnold hammers him into the shape of his own preferred hero, and the result is a John Agar performance that is as thoughtful and poetic as, perhaps, anything the man ever did.  There is, likewise, a cute but unobtrusive romance that blossoms in Tarantula, amidst its smattering of local color, genuinely enjoyable in its own right.  Agar, Mara Corday, Nestor Paiva, and the rest serve to ground this fantastic tale of an enlightened Frankenstein, eventually brought low by his own serum.  They help create a setting only slightly heightened from the real worldbasically the exact kind of real world you want to see when you watch any movie, in fact.

Indeed, it's almost too real in the end, because if there is a problem with Tarantula, it's that its finer qualities practically demand a scope that it constitutionally lacks.  Tamara, other than a biologically-incorrect roar, lacks the outsized personality to go with her newly massive bodythis isn't her fault, obviously, since she's a spider, but she is used to such great effect, you almost think there should be more in Tarantula than just a tarantula.  You begin to see it as a genuine kaiju film, and you begin to treat it by the rules of that formula, not those of the giant bug film.

As a kaiju film, though, Tarantula's missing a whole third act.  The tarantula is deadly and beyond the means of a county sheriff's department to deal with, sure; she shrugs off dynamite and doesn't even notice bullets.  But the film resolves in a kind of anticlimax, seemingly deliberately; the United States Air Force is notified, responds, and, in a matter of moments, Tamara's papier-mache stand-in is reduced to a flaming hulk beneath a tide of napalm.  And that really is that.

Scratch one flattop, I guess.

But to say that a film is so spectacular that it raises exponentially-increasing expectations of more and more spectacle, forever, must be seen more as a compliment than a complaint.  And there's value to the abruptness of Tarantula's finale, leaving the viewer unrelieved and a little unnerved, as if to emphasize the pointlessness of the death and mayhem that came before.  There is a certain sadness there too: if it is never as melancholy, indeed outright tear-jerking, as the sudden reversal of sympathies at the end of next year's Rodan, you still feel bad for the poor tarantula.  After all, she was just trying to live.  You wonder more, though, what forms the trauma experienced by Matt Hastings and his friends will take in the years to come.

Tarantula is not quite a great film, but a film eminently worthy of the man who crafted It Came From Outer Space, The Glass Web, and The Creature From the Black Lagoon; considering the participation of Universal's sci-fi chieftain, producer William Alland, it's a redemption for both the men who failed to render Revenge of the Creature anything more than an execrable slog.  In terms of pure visuals, Tarantula is often exquisite, an example of 1950s sci-fi doing things that we don't do today, and maybe can't, with techniques that once worked so well neglected for so long.  As an entertainment, Tarantula is simply beyond reproach.

Score:  7/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • The square/cube problem inherent to giant arthropods, and giant anything really, is well-known, and it has been thoroughly discussed in many venues, from TVTropes to the very edges of the Internet, so there's no need to belabor it, just to point out: Tamara's lungs wouldn't even work, let alone her legs, and her exoskeleton would crack under its own weight.  Really, she'd have died at around two or three feet in legspan, let alone eighty or a hundred.  The square/cube problem is lame and is best ignored.
  • Napalm, as noted, makes a visually distinct but conceptually unsatisfactory "final weapon"certainly it's no oxygen destroyer, or even the H-bomb over Chicago threatened and the trick sounds eventually used in the otherwise inferior fellow bug picture, The Beginning of the End.  And why does it work, anyway, when high-explosive rockets were ineffective?  Is it simply an accuracy issue?
  • Professor Deemer's nutrient is extraordinarily stupid and violates the thermodynamic prohibition upon the creation of mass.  But dumber still are the verbal contortions Hastings makes when he tries to pretend he knows what an "isotope" is.  Deemer is polite enough not to chastise him in front of his girlfriend.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • Steve Clayton's a decent enough character, but unlike Dr. Adams, she can't have her doctorate yet, and is heavily subordinated to the fully-degreed males.
  • The idea that just because enough food is made people won't starve sure is quaint, isn't it?
  • Dr. Hastings demonstrates his bedside manner when discussing the case of the acromegalian lab assistant: "Freaks of any kind give me the willies."  Classic Agar.
  • Hastings' musings on the landscape all qualify, but I particularly love "You can't second guess the desert."

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