Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Directors: Jack Arnold. Monster on the Campus (1958)

Back at the beginning of the 2000's, AMC had a Saturday night section of programming called American Pop, where they would show old movies as well as clips from an old 60's, Ed Sullivan-like variety show called Hullabaloo. Each month, they would usually pick a theme and run with it. One month, they picked the theme of 1950's teenage exploitation films and Monster on the Campus was one of the films it showed. I knew nothing about this film when I first sat down and watched it, just that, judging from the trailer they showed, it looked like a fun, if silly, monster movie. I was even more surprised to see that it was directed by Jack Arnold, since I didn't think it looked like something he would do. This film is kind of the end of two eras: not only was it Arnold's last science fiction film but it was also the last in Universal's cycle of 1950's monster flicks.

Dr. Donald Blake, a professor of biology at Dunsfield University, receives a perfectly preserved coelacanth for study. However, the day that it arrives, the dog of the student who delivered it drinks some bloody water dripping from the thawing fish and suddenly turns vicious, forcing Blake to lock him in the kennel. Shortly afterward, Blake cuts his hand on the teeth of the primitive fish and accidentally dips the cut in the water. After he becomes ill and passes out, a nurse drives him back to his house and is killed by an unknown person. The police and Blake try to figure out who killed her, and Blake discovers that the coelacanth has bizarre properties, which could explain what happened to the dog... and expose Blake himself as the monster who killed the nurse.

By the late 1950's, the cycle of monster movies that had been popular throughout the decade was beginning to peter out (it would be pretty much over by the mid-1960's). Suffice to say, this movie was very low budget because of that and you can tell. The special effects and makeup designs aren't terrible but they are below most of the quality standards for Universal. Jack Arnold does work his magic, however, and manages to turn in an entertaining monster movie despite the lack of resources and silly premise. But inevitably, when compared to his past sci-fi flicks, this movie doesn't even compare and it's kind of sad that this was his last science fiction film.

Our lead, Dr. Donald Blake, is played by Arthur Franz. As with most scientists and doctors in Arnold's films, Blake is not a mad scientist but rather an inquisitive man interested in evolution. He's absolutely obsessed with the coelacanth that's been delivered to him as well as figuring out what caused the dog Sampson to go crazy for a brief period of time. When the possibility of a half-human throwback roaming the campus is presented, he's eager to prove that it exists and disprove old theories. Even though he often neglects her due to his work, he does clearly love his fiance, Madeline, and he's good enough to resist the advances of the school nurse. Eventually, he discovers that the coelacanth's blood can cause a reversion of the evolution process due to its being preserved with gamma radiation and that also leads him to discover that he is in reality the creature that killed the nurse after he became contaminated with the blood. Franz's performance may not be the absolute best but he does seem like he's trying. The only really problematic part is how dense Blake is about him being the monster. Even though he loses consciousness twice and wakes near each murder site with his clothes torn, it doesn't occur until very late in the game that he himself is the monster. Even most people who are werewolves in movies figure it out after the first transformation!

There's not much to Joanna Moore's role as Madeline Howard, Blake's fiance. She honestly doesn't know if she believes his theory about there being a prehistoric monster roaming around and even does suggest that he may be overworked. But other than her obvious caring for Blake, she doesn't do much and is the typical bland woman in these types of movies, ending up being carried off by the monster and screaming at him. Judson Pratt plays Lieutenant Mike Stevens, the head of the murder case. I don't know why but I just like this guy, even though his investigation doesn't turn up anything useful and his theories about the murder end up being completely wrong. I guess I like him because he does come across as a good cop determined to figure out what's going on, even if he has the completely wrong idea. There's also Troy Donahue as Jimmy, the student who delivers the coelacanth to Blake and whose dog becomes affected by the blood, as well as Nancy Walters as his girlfriend, Sylvia. Honestly, neither of these kids are that interesting, especially Donahue, whose performance is really monotone and bland. The other actors are okay but nothing special, with Helen Westcott as Molly Riordan, the nurse who tries to make a pass at Blake and is ultimately killed by his monster half; Alexander Lockwood as Prof. Gilbert Howard, head of the institute and Madeline's father; the ever reliable Whit Bissell as Dr. Oliver Cole, the campus' physician who's ever the skeptic; and Ross Elliott from Tarantula as a bodyguard signed to protect Blake.

There are actually three monsters in this movie. As I said, the first is Sampson, the German shepherd who becomes a throwback to an ancient species of wolf after drinking the coelacanth blood. What's weird about him is that, other than becoming extremely ferocious, the only thing that happens to him is that his canines become very long. After what Blake discovers about the coelacanth, you would think that Sampson would have actually turned into an ancient wolf. The second monster is a dragonfly that absorbs some of the coelacanth blood when it lands on it and shows back up after growing two feet across. The model they use for the giant dragonfly is not very convincing and you can clearly see the wires that are holding it up. Still, it is a bit more in line with the properties of the blood, unlike the dog's transformation.

Finally, there's the half-human, half-ape anthropoid that Blake becomes when he's contaminated with the blood. The first two times he changes, we don't see what the monster looks like. Also, both times are accidental; the first happens when he cuts his hand and puts it in the water surrounding the coelacanth and the second happens after he kills the dragonfly. Some of the dragonfly's contaminated blood accidentally drips into his pipe and he transforms when he later smokes it. After that, he discovers that the colecanth was preserved using gamma rays, which, through an arbitrary theory I can't even begin to comment on, cause whomever or whatever ingests the blood to devolve into a primitive form. It's not until Blake describes how someone could have become infected by cutting themselves on the coelacanth's scales or teeth that it hits him that he could be the monster. Franz does a great bit of acting when the realization hits him and he becomes momentarily calmed when he suggests it couldn't happen twice accidentally. That's when he looks at his pipe and remembers a foul smell coming from it right before blacking out the second time and realizes it's the smell of the coelacanth's blood. That's when he goes to Prof. Howard's summer cabin to try an experiment by injecting himself with the coelacanth blood and seeing if he changes. Needless to say, he does and this is when we finally get to see what the real monster looks like.

The monster is a bizarre looking half-man, half-ape creature played by stuntman Eddie Parker. His face is rather silly looking to be honest but I can't help but like watching this weird creature fumble around the cabin and run around attacking people. Some of the noises he makes are hilarious and sound like retarded speech, whereas most of it is yelling. When he first transforms, he curiously picks up an axe and starts swinging it around like a little kid who discovered something new. He also seems to still have feelings for Madeline because just when he's about to kill her, he stops when he sees her pretty face and instead tries to carry her off. He does brutally kill a forest ranger who tries to save her by hitting him right in the face with the axe. He's ultimately killed by the police and that's when everybody realizes that not only that there really was a monster but that it was Blake all along. To show Blake transforming into as well as back from the monster, they use the good old Wolf Man technique of lap dissolves, which always makes me smile just because it's so classic.

The clearest sign that this was a low budget, last minute cash-in on a dying trend is the music. There is not one bit of new music composed for this movie. It's all music from previous movies. Most notably, the music for the opening and ending credits are the same from Tarantula, as well as most of the music from that movie overall being used. You can also hear some music from The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Monolith Monsters, and even some music from horror films as far back as the 1940's. While it's all good music and used very well, it does make it even clearer that this was a really cheap movie.

All in all, Monster on the Campus is a fun, silly monster movie but it's hardly a classic. Most of the characters and actors are a bit bland, there's no original music, and the special effects, while not horrible, are awfully dated. There's no other way to view it other than as a movie that came near the end of the road for a beloved cycle of movies and was more than likely outdated even by that time. As I've said before, Jack Arnold kept on directing after this movie but never again returned to science fiction. While he himself never explained why, one can guess that, after The Incredible Shrinking Man, he probably had nothing else to give in that genre. Or since Monster on the Campus was when Universal decided to stop making sci-fi movies, he could never find another studio that was interested and he just stopped trying. Either way, it was the end of a really great era for monster movies, as well as that of a man who made sci-fi a great genre.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Directors: Jack Arnold. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

For many, this is Jack Arnold's best movie and it probably is. It is the film where everything he'd been working on came to a head and crystalized to a clear point. The book Monster Madness was where I first came upon this film. At first, I was a bit disappointed since there really isn't a monster in the movie but as I read the plot, I realized that this could be a very frightening scenario. I later saw some clips of the movie on an AMC documentary about 1950's sci-fi and was really intrigued by what I was seeing. I finally saw the movie when I bought a DVD collection of Universal's 50's sci-fi flicks when I was twenty. While this movie isn't my personal favorite of Arnold's (again, that's Creature from the Black Lagoon), I do think this has to be his crowning achievement in his filmmaking career.

The story of this film is interesting because it has different phases and sections. It begins with the main character, Robert Scott Carey, enjoying a vacation with his wife Louise. While sunbathing on a small boat in the middle of the ocean, Carey comes into contact with a strange cloud (Louise was below deck at the time, so she wasn't affected). Six months pass without incident but one morning, Carey notices that his clothes don't seem to fit. He visits a doctor, who dismisses his initial fears that he's getting smaller but one night when he kisses his wife and sees that he's not taller than her anymore, he realizes that he's shrinking. Eventually, he becomes too small to drive, has to quit his job, and, desperate for money, has to let the press know about his condition. When he's just three feet tall, the doctors find an antidote to what's causing him to shrink but he's stuck at three feet. He meets up with a small woman who works as a sideshow attraction and she inspires him to accept his fate at being stuck at that height. That's when the antidote stops working and he begins shrinking again, eventually becoming small enough to be seen as food by his pet cat and becomes trapped in the cellar by the cat. Now, with his family believing that he was killed by the cat, he must try to survive in the cellar, as he continues to shrink.

My synopses of movies usually aren't that long and detailed but I felt I had to write that in order to get across the various "chapters" of the film's story. It's an interesting idea when you think about it. At that time, sci-fi movies were all about animals turning into giant monsters after being exposed to radiation so Richard Matheson came up with the idea of it having the opposite effect on humans! (The radiation itself doesn't cause him to shrink, actually. It's the combination of it along with some pesticides he accidentally got sprayed with.) I also find it frightening because of how gradual the man's shrinking is. First his clothes simply seem not to fit, then he notices people he used to be taller than are now of equal height with him, his wedding ring slips off his finger, etc. He eventually becomes like a dwarf and later is small enough to be menaced both by his cat and a spider. When something like this is a slow-burn that builds and builds instead of it being instant, I feel that it's much scarier because you become apprehensive about what's going to happen next.

Grant Williams plays the title character, Robert Scott Carey. This had to be a real challenge for him as an actor because he has so many different ranges of emotions he had to go through in this film. He starts out enjoying his vacation with his loving wife but his world is turned upside down when he begins shrinking. I've felt that the only flaw in his performance is when he discovers that he's shrinking. While he is scared, he's just not as freaked out as I think I would be if that was happening to me. I'm not saying he should be on the floor, kicking his heels but I do think he should play it a bit more scared instead of being a little monotone about it. Other than that, his performance is great throughout. When he's down to just three feet tall, he becomes angry with all the attention given to him by the media and he feels like a freak. He takes it out on his poor wife and while he does apologize, he does realize he's losing her. When he meets the young dwarf woman who works at a circus, she gives him the confidence to accept his being stuck at three feet and for a brief period, he's content. But that doesn't last long when he starts shrinking again.

By the time he's small enough to live inside a dollhouse, he's become very tyrannical towards Louise, yelling at her when she rattles the inside of the dollhouse by simply walking. He also becomes paranoid of her leaving him, asking her where she's going and if she'll be right back. That's when their cat gets into the house and begins chasing him, wanting to make a meal out of him. He ends up trapped in the basement and becomes determined to survive, to conquer this strange new world. At one point, he laughs in hysterics, which then turns to frustrated sobbing when he can't get out through the grating of the basement window. He's a prisoner, as he himself narrates, as he's done throughout the entire film. That's another layer of his performance. He tells us what he was going through emotionally during the entirety of the film, adding to what we were already seeing. His feelings are so complex that I guess we needed this narration to fully understand what was going on, especially the ending, which I'll comment on shortly.

The only other important character in the film is Scott's wife, Louise, played by Randy Stuart. She's a very loving and devoted wife, despite what begins happening to her husband and how he lashes out at her. She's determined to stick with him, no matter what happens. The key moment is when she tells Scott that as long as he has his wedding ring, he still has her. As soon as she gets through saying that, the ring slips off his finger: not so subtle foreshadowing of what will eventually happen. When she believes that Scott has been killed by the cat, she mourns him and becomes very depressed, feeling like he needed her and she wasn't there. She's convinced by Scott's brother to leave the house forever and forget what's happened. It's ironic because when she and Charlie, the brother, go downstairs so she can get one last thing, Scott is literally right under their noses but they can't hear him because he's so small. After that, Louise leaves the house and we never see her again. She never found out that Scott was still alive. (Richard Matheson did write a screenplay for a sequel where Louise begins shrinking but the movie was never made.)

Even though she's only in the movie for a very brief period, I did like Clarie, the dwarfed woman played by April Kent. She's the one who's sympathetic to Scott's problem and does give him some hope for the future. She encourages him to continue writing his book chronicling his shrinking and she says that it's well done. In the original novel, their relationship became romantic but in the movie, it's treated as simply a friendship. It's too bad Scott started shrinking again. If he had stayed at three feet, maybe he could have had a happy life with her.

The very visual design of this movie is quite an accomplishment. It's obvious that they just built ordinary objects and furniture larger than normal to make Williams look small but after a while, you spend so much time with him that you forget about it and totally buy it. The most impressive production design is when Scott becomes trapped in the basement and has to use everything at his disposal to survive: nails and threading needles become weapons, a matchbox becomes a shelter, drops of water from a radiator become a fountain for him, pieces of cheese and cake become a buffet, a match becomes a torch, etc. It's all very well done and totally believable. There are some scenes where the effects are a bit obvious, like an actor being in front of a screen to make something look smaller or gigantic but, on the other hand, there are some scenes, like when the three foot Scott is walking among normal sized people, where I have no clue how they did it. They had to have used a real dwarf for the shots where you can't see Williams' face. That's all I can think of.

While there are no monsters in this movie per se, the family cat and a spider do become monstrous to Scott when he becomes the size of an insect. The aforementioned cat, which had been portrayed as a loving pet with a sweet meow, becomes a very threatening creature when he attacks Scott in the dollhouse, snarling really loud as he does so. The facial expressions that the cat gives as he menaces Scott are quite alarming, even more so when you realize this used to be a cat that loved him. And when Scott becomes trapped in the basement, he has a hungry spider as an enemy. The spider is menacing whenever it appears, always accompanied by a threatening music theme. At one point, it chases Scott into his matchbox shelter and frantically tries to get inside to eat him. Scott realizes that he has to kill the spider because its web is around a piece of cake that he needs for nourishment. The final battle between the two of them is exciting. Scott's initial plan to hook the spider to a thread tied to a pair of scissors and send them both falling off the box when he pushes them goes awry when the thread gets snagged on the way down. The spider is particularly threatening here because it starts growling and roaring as it attacks. You can't help but think of Arnold's Tarantula when you watch this section. Scott eventually kills the spider when it's on top of him by stabbing it with a nail.

The ending of this film is not your typical ending. It's not sad or tragic or even happy but just ambiguous. After killing the spider, Scott is so weak that he collapses and when he wakes up, he's now small enough to slip through the window grating he couldn't get through earlier. According to a soliloquy in his narration which closes the film, he realizes that no longer how tiny he gets, he'll still matter in the scope of the universe and accepts his fate. He's now curious about what lies ahead of him in this vast new world. And with that, the film ends. I had to sum up what I believe the ending means because I'm sure some people would watch the movie and wonder about the ending. From what I can gather, that's what the ending is supposed to mean.

The music for this movie, by the usual team of Irving Getz, Hans Salter, and Herman Stein, is also well done. It starts with an interesting, trumpet solo for the opening credits and ranges from shocking, to sympathetic, and full of wonder. The theme for the spider is very threatening, as it should be. (That theme was reused for Monster on the Campus when the aforementioned monster is finally seen in all of his glory.) My favorite piece of the score is at the end, when he journeys into the vast new universe before him and the music is not somber but full of wonder at the adventure that lies before him.

Undoubtedly, The Incredible Shrinking Man has to be Jack Arnold's greatest work. The acting, writing, and effects are all so well done that it's quite remarkable. It's also a shame because after this film, it seemed like Arnold felt he had done the best he could do with the genre and his last sci-fi flick, while enjoyable, was very typical and didn't come close to being this profound.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Directors: Jack Arnold. Tarantula (1955)

The trailer for this movie was one of many that I saw on that classic video compilation, Fantastic Dinosaurs of the Movies. The trailer for Earth vs. The Spider (which was just called The Spider in the trailer) was also on that compilation and of the two, I took to Tarantula more simply because it looked cooler and the tarantula wasn't constantly screeching like the giant spider in that other trailer. I finally saw the movie when I was twelve when I bought many classic monster movies on VHS. When I watched it, I did enjoy it but it wasn't quite what I was expecting. While I do consider this film to be one of the best giant bug movies that was made in the 1950's, it's obvious that Jack Arnold wasn't content with just doing that type of film.

A horribly deformed man is found dead outside the small desert town of Desert Rock and when he's brought in, he's identified as Eric Jacobs, a scientist working with Prof. Gerald Deemer in a house outside of town. He seems to have died from acromegaly but Dr. Matt Hastings, the town's local physician, isn't so sure because of how quickly he became deformed. Unbeknown to him and the rest of the townspeople, Deemer and his assistants have been working on a powerful nutrient to end the world's food shortage problem and have tested it on several lab animals, causing them to grow to enormous sizes. When Deemer's other assistant, who has also become afflicted with acromegaly, goes crazy and attacks him, an enormous tarantula is set free from the lab and begins stalking the countryside, eventually growing to be as big as a house. The tarantula begins eating livestock and humans, and now Hastings must find a way to help destroy the monster before it destroys the town.

This movie doesn't start at all as you would expect it to. When the Universal-International logo comes up, you hear a slightly sped up version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon main title and then you see the desert. The deformed Eric Jacobs then appears and eventually dies in the hot sun. Until the title Tarantula came up, I thought I'd gotten the wrong movie and thought it was like The Creature Walks Among Us! Like I said, I don't think Arnold was satisfied with just doing a typical giant bug movie. The first half of the movie involves Dr. Hastings and the local sheriff trying to solve the mystery of how Jacobs' acromegaly came up so quickly and what Deemer is working on at his laboratory. Hastings then becomes involved Stephanie "Steve" Clayton, a lab student who's aiming to work with the professor and he learns through her more of what Deemer is doing. There's also a subplot with Deemer having been injected with the nutrient by Paul, his other deformed assistant, while he was unconscious and slowly begins to develop acromegaly as well. With all of this, if it weren't for the constant glimpses of the ever-growing tarantula, you'd forget that it was even part of the movie. The tarantula doesn't even begin to make an impact on the plot until the second half of the film, when it grows big enough to kill livestock and people. Even then, it's kind of superfluous to the overall story. The main plot is about Deemer's experiments and the tarantula is just one part of it that's gotten out of hand. The main characters don't even see it until the movie's almost over.

If you're thinking that I was complaining about the film, you're wrong. I was just noting how odd it was for a giant bug movie to render the actual monster secondary to the plot. I actually think that's kind of smart, to be honest. Since the movie's called Tarantula, you know you're going to see a giant spider but the movie slowly builds up to when you finally see it in all its glory and by that point, you're ready for it and it doesn't disappoint. You might think the movie might be boring since you don't see the tarantula actually cause destruction until fairly late in the movie but Arnold's direction is good enough to keep you interested the whole time.

John Agar returns from Revenge of the Creature to play the lead in this film, Dr. Matt Hastings. As I said in my review of that film, I don't think Agar was the best actor in the world but in this movie, he's actually quite good. As Hastings, he's a charming, likable physician who's dedicated to his work and is determined to solve something that he knows doesn't add up. He does seem to become a bit distracted with courting Steve, the lovely assistant to Prof. Deemer, but he's always on call whenever he's needed. He's also good enough to warn the sheriff when he discovers that there's a giant spider loose in the countryside and tells him to get the state police as well. It's also his idea to get the local air force to drop napalm on the tarantula, which ultimately kills it.

Stephanie "Steve" Clayton, the assistant to Prof. Deemer, is played by the incredibly beautiful Mara Corday. She's different than most women in sci-fi movies around this time because she's an educated science student who's come out to the professor's lab to earn her master's degree. There's even a bit of commentary on the women rights issue that was going at that time, with Hastings jokingly saying, "I knew it. Give women the vote and what do you get? Lady scientists." There's also a statement made because her nickname is a man's name. Other than that, there's not much to say about Steve. She's kind and very curious about the professor's work but by the end of the movie, she is running and screaming from the tarantula, albeit briefly.

The most interesting character in the film, and the best acting job by far, is Prof. Deemer, played by Leo G. Carroll, who also appeared in many Alfred Hitchcock movies. Deemer is a mysterious person, charming but has an aura about him that makes people realize there's something he doesn't want them to know. Although he's conducting dangerous experiments, he's not a mad scientist at all. He intends to help people by finding an end to world hunger. He's well aware of how dangerous his experiments have become but he hides it from the authorities so he can eventually overcome the problem. Unfortunately for him, one of his crazed, acromegaly-stricken assistants injects him with the nutrient, causing him to slowly develop the disease as well. He eventually confesses to Hastings and Steve that the isotope he used to bond the nutrient caused the acromegaly in his assistants when they injected themselves (and is what caused the animals, including the tarantula, to grow to enormous size). Deemer eventually becomes horrifically deformed by the disease but is killed by the tarantula.

Good old Nestor Paiva plays Sheriff Jack Andrews, who enlists Hastings to help him when Jacobs' deformed body is discovered at the beginning of the movie. He's not quite as jokey and is a bit more serious than Lucas in Creature from the Black Lagoon but he does have a sense of humor about him. Even though he asks Hastings to help him, he doesn't like all the inferences he makes toward Deemer lying about what happened and becomes more than a little peeved when Hastings performs an autopsy on Jacobs' body and finds that it was simply acromegaly. However, he's good enough not to hold a grudge and enlists his help again when livestock and people start turning up dead. The only other noteworthy cast member is Ross Elliot as Joe Burch, the high-strung head of the local newspaper. He's not too happy when the sheriff forgets to tell him about Jacobs' death, although he doesn't come across as an asshole. He's actually kind of funny, especially when he hears Hastings suggest that there's a giant spider roaming the countryside (until he sees it for himself, of course). And as he did in Revenge of the Creature the same year, Clint Eastwood has an early, uncredited role as the leader of the jet squadron that ultimately brings the tarantula down. He's wearing a pilot mask so you can't see his face but trust me, it's him.

After dealing with water environments for his two Creature movies, Arnold decided to go back to the desert setting he'd used in It Came from Outer Space. I find the desert used in this movie to be much more spectacular and well-photographed than the one in that film. The atmosphere may not be quite as creepy as that film but there are some great moments. In one scene, Hastings and Steve are enjoying the scenery by a large rock formation when a rockslide suddenly occurs. After they leave, it's revealed that the slide was caused by the tarantula but later, Hastings come back to find out what caused it. As brief as that scene is, the music does help give it an air of mystery as he searches for something strange around the formation. Before that when he and Steve are driving away, he tells her that there are many times in the desert where rocks just move for no reason. (I can vouch for that. I've been in the wilderness in areas where things just move for no reason.) There's another great moment at night when this rancher's horses are in their corral when they suddenly sense the tarantula and become panicked when it appears on a nearby hill.

The special effects used to create the tarantula are actually very well done. Even though it's obvious how it was done, with a real tarantula being matted into the shots to make it look gigantic, it's done with skill and there are only a few instances where you can see a mistake. They also use some well designed models for closeups of the tarantula's face and they even have it let out a loud growl when it attacks. (Honestly, even though I think Them! is a better film overall, I think the actual monster here is pulled off much better than the giant ants in that film.) My favorite scene involving the tarantula is near the end of the film where it slowly approaches the Deemer house and Steve continues working in her bedroom, unaware of what's going on. The music starts off simple enough and builds and builds as the tarantula gets closer to the house, becoming very frantic when its head appears right outside the window. Steve doesn't see it until it's practically on top of the house and it tears it to pieces. Steve manages to get out but Deemer, who's become hideously deformed by this point, is devoured by the tarantula and you actually see its huge fang get him. I also have to mention the makeup effects used to create the acromegaly deformities. They're quite impressive, especially the way Deemer looks before he gets killed. The same guy plays both Eric Jacobs and Paul Lund when they appear deformed at the beginning of the film, which made me think it was the same character the first couple of times I saw the movie. Like Deemer, really good makeup jobs on both of those.

The music by Herman Stein also adds a lot to the movie. I'm not sure how much of it was composed specifically for this movie and how much of it is previously recorded but either way, it all fits together very well. The opening credits music is one of my favorites as well as the ending music (both of which were used again for Arnold's final monster flick, Monster on the Campus), and the music used for the action scenes, including the attacks by the tarantula, all work very well. I already described how suspenseful and tense the music made that scene with the tarantula getting closer and closer to Deemer's house. I'll even say it: this music in this movie is some of my favorites ever used in a 50's sci-fi movie. Very skillfully composed and orchestrated.

From what I can gather, the general opinion on Tarantula is split: some like it, others don't. While it may be one of the most unusual 1950's monster movies and not Arnold's best film, I do think it's one of his finest. The acting is good, the effects are well done, the setting is utilized very well, and the music, especially, is superb. If you like these kinds of movies and haven't seen this one, I'd advise checking it out; just be prepared for a not so typical monster movie.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Directors: Jack Arnold. It Came from Outer Space (1953)

Funny thing about this movie. Back when I was a little kid and reading those Crestwood House books about classic monster movies, I would read the list of books on the back of each. It Came from Outer Space was listed right below The Deadly Mantis and I thought that was all one movie: The Deadly Mantis: It Came from Outer Space. It took me a while to figure out that those were two separate movies. (Again, I was a moron when I was a kid.) Another ironic thing about this movie was that it was the first sci-fi movie Jack Arnold directed and yet it was the last one I ever saw: as late as when I was twenty-two. I'd heard a lot about it and read up on it, so I was intrigued. While it's not my favorite of Arnold's movies, I do think it's worthy of being regarded as a science fiction classic.

One quiet night in a small desert town called Sand Rock, Arizona, a mysterious object violent crashes in the near an old mine in the desert. John Putnam, an amateur astronomer, and his girlfriend go to investigate the crater and when John walks down into the center of it, he comes across an enormous spaceship. However, the ship is buried by a rock-slide and John's story is ridiculed by the townspeople, including the sheriff. But his story gains credibility when strange things begin happening in and around the town, including bizarre creatures appearing briefly in the night and people disappearing only to return acting strange and distant. John, being a firm believer, comes in contact with the aliens who tell him to warn the townspeople to stay away while they repair their spaceship. But the hotheaded sheriff's inability to wait may end up dooming the town.

This movie wastes no time in establishing a mood. When you see the familiar Universal-International logo, you're immediately hit by the eerie, theramin-heavy score and the first thing you see is the spaceship flying through the night sky, coming straight at the camera and exploding, revealing the title It Came from Outer Space. As this was Universal's first 3-D film, that must have been a jolting way to start it off. It's not even the actual scene, just a way to introduce the 3-D. The movie also starts right then and there, with no other credits. It's only at the end of the film that you get the credits you expect in a 50's film. That's commonplace nowadays but being a movie from the 50's, that really surprised me about this flick.

One thing this movie does incredibly well is creating an eerie atmosphere. The desert setting is used very well, with many camera pans across it that give you the feeling that something's out there (and, of course, we know something's out there). In one scene, John Putnam describes how, even though the desert looks barren and dead, it's really alive, waiting to swallow you up. In another scene where he joins an electrician who's listening to strange sounds in the telephone wires, John is told that when you work in the desert for very long, you hear and see strange things, like the wind whistling to you and such. Both of these scenes contribute to the atmosphere of the location. The desert has always been a strange place, according to them, but it's now even creepier because we know there's something roaming around out there that shouldn't be there.

The aliens themselves and the effects that come with them are also effectively created. We get many looks at the aliens as they really are: they basically look like walking masses of flesh with one enormous eye in the center. They do have arms, although you can't see them in the DVD release because of the aspect ratio. In addition to their looks, they have rather ghostly properties. They're apparently able to glide around, sometimes fast enough to get in front of moving cars, and when they abduct people, they surround them in mist. They're able to take the form of the people they kidnap, which looks particularly bizarre in one moment when you see the mist one alien creates form into a human hand. However, as would be repeated in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the aliens are not very good at seeming normal when they take human form, talking in robotic, echoing voices and seeming emotionally attached. Another precursor to Body Snatchers is when two women who have romantic attachments to two impersonated men notice how odd their lovers are acting and know something's wrong.

The most unusual effects in the film are the POV shots from the aliens that we often see. It looks downright bizarre, like a pulsating form of tunnel-vision with bubble-like characteristics on either side. (Apparently, this technique was created by blowing a specialized type of bubble around the camera lens.) The aliens also leave glowing, phosphorus-like trails that eventually fade out. So, all in all, the aliens in this film are very bizarre and downright creepy for sure.

The lead character, John Putnam, is played Richard Carlson, who, of course, would also star in Creature from the Black Lagoon the following year. Putnam is portrayed a curious amateur astronomer whose need to discover new and unusual things is piqued to the maximum when the spaceship crashes. Of course, no one believes him when he says he saw a spaceship in the crater, even a scientist whom he studied with. That's when we find out that Putnam has always been treated as an outsider by most of the townspeople because of his radical ideas and this alien business doesn't help his reputation with them. There's also a lot of friction between him and the sheriff, who is very protective of Putnam's girlfriend Ellen, and he doesn't want Putnam to drag her down with him in this alien craziness. But Putnam is undeterred. He knows what he saw and wants desperately to find out what the aliens are and what they want. He eventually does come into contact with them and even though they're wary, they trust him enough to tell him to warn the townspeople to stay away while they repair their ship. He also convinces the aliens to show him their true form and when the eventually do, he's horrified by their hideous look. Now he knows why the aliens won't show themselves and he's determined to not only help them get away but also to save the town from the destruction the aliens will cause if they're attacked.

Putnam is also good enough to enter the mineshaft where the aliens are hiding and try to warn them of the mob that's now coming for them. At first, the aliens feel that they have been betrayed and decide to destroy the town with a powerful weapon they possess. Putnam reasons with them and tells them that if they'll release the people they've taken prisoner, it'll show the mob that they mean no harm. The aliens do so and with that, the mob is stalled, the aliens are able to repair their ship, and leave just as swiftly as they came. The movie ends with Putnamsaying that they're not gone for good; it just wasn't time for mankind and their race to meet. To the very end, Putnam knows that the aliens never meant any harm.

Ellen Fields, Putnam's girlfriend, is played by the lovely Barbara Rush. Even though she, like many of the townspeople, doesn't necessarily believe Putnam when he says that he saw a spaceship in the crater, she does stick by him. She's even a lot braver than most women in these types of movies because when Putnam first goes down into the crater, she tries to follow him but he immediately nixes the idea. She also risks losing her job as a schoolteacher by running around with Putnam, looking for aliens. Eventually, she's captured by the aliens and is imitated by one of them (while wearing a rather sexy dress, I might add). That particular alien actually tries to trick Putnam into falling to his death in a pit in the mine when the aliens believe that he has sent a mob after them. Putnam is forced to kill that alien and she, along with the one imitating Frank, one of the telephone line repairmen, are the only two characters in the film who are killed. The real Ellen is eventually released by the aliens along with the other captured townspeople and rejoins her lover.

Charles Drake plays Sheriff Matt Warren. As previously stated, he's one of the many townspeople who thinks Putnam is crazy when he says he saw an alien spacecraft and doesn't like Ellen being involved with him. Warren does say that he used to know Ellen really well but it's never made clear if they ever had a relationship. Either way, he's very protective over her and doesn't want her to be ridiculed as well. But when strange things start happening that he can't explain, Warren has to face facts that there are aliens roaming around the desert. Unlike Putnam, he doesn't trust the aliens at all and fears that they may be lying, that they're actually planning some sort of attack. Their kidnapping Ellen further complicates things and Warren finally snaps, leading a mob to raid the mine the aliens are hiding in. Even though the mob does kill one of the aliens, they let them leave when their ship is finally repaired.

One thing that's unique about this movie is that the aliens are not evil creatures who've come to conquer the Earth. In fact, they never intended to land here in the first place. Their ship has been damaged, forcing them to make an emergency crash-landing and use their powers of imitation to get the necessary parts to repair it. They know full well that humans would be horrified by the way they look and would undoubtedly try to destroy them. Even Putnam, who is sympathetic to them, is revolted when one of the aliens shows itself to him. After that scene, Putnam has a conversation with Warren that drives home the main theme of the movie: tolerance. Whenever we come across something that we don't understand, we react with fear and destroy it. Putnam points to a spider crawling across the ground and asks Warren why he fears. Then he asks what he would do if it came too close to him. Warren proves Putnam's point by going over and stomping it. He tells him that's why the aliens are doing everything to stay away from the townspeople while they repair their ship. Later when Putnam confronts the aliens in the mine, one alien that has turned itself into him decides to destroy the town because he feels they've been betrayed. He says, "All we needed was time!" and apparently, these fearful humans couldn't even give them that. However, Putnam manages to make the aliens understand that they need to prove that they mean no harm and that's when they set their captives free. The aliens needed to trust one human as much as they needed him to trust them.

This was based on a story by the legendary Ray Bradbury and even though Harry Essex is credited with writing the screenplay, Bradbury's original treatment was actually kept with little changes here and there, while Essex took the credit. He has said that it was always his intent to write a story where the aliens weren't evil but he did give the studio a choice by writing an outline with evil aliens as well as what the final film became. Needless to say, Universal decided to go the more interesting route. Whether or not this was also Bradbury's intent, one who knows film history can't help but derive Cold War paranoia and xenophobia from the movie's story as well. Of course, as I said, three years later Invasion of the Body Snatchers would take the concept and really hammer it home.

The film's eerie music score was composed Herman Stein, Irving Getz, and Henry Mancini, who did many scores for sci-fi movies at that time. As Dimitri Tiomkin had done in The Thing from Another World as well as Bernard Herrmann in The Day The Earth Stood Still, the composers for this movie made extensive use of the theramin, mainly to signal the aliens' presence, even when you don't get the POV shots. There's also a lot of music in this film that you would hear in future Universal sci-fi flicks, like the threatening music that plays when the alien reveals itself to Putnam, the music that plays when the aliens finally leave at the end, and what plays over the ending credits. I'm not sure if any of that music was originally composed for this movie but this is the earliest film I can think of hearing it.

It Came from Outer Space may not have quite the amount of fame and critical acclaim as Creature from the Black Lagoon or The Incredible Shrinking Man but there's no denying that it's an effectively simple sci-fi movie. The characters are likable, the atmosphere is eerie and moody, the alien effects are quite chilling, and there's a great message of tolerance in the movie as well. Not my absolute favorite that Jack Arnold did (that would be Creature from the Black Lagoon) but I think it was definitely good enough for him to establish himself as a great sci-fi director.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Directors: Jack Arnold. Introduction

Here's my first entry in a series I'm going to call The Directors, where I look through the filmography of a filmmaker I greatly admire. Here's how this series works: I will review many films in a director's track record but, with few exceptions, I usually won't talk about every single, solitary film the person has ever made. This could be because either every single film the person has made isn't available to the public; some of the films are part of a franchise and I've already discussed it; some of the films don't stand out and are rather forgettable; or simply because I just don't like those particular films. That may disappoint some of you but, hey, it's my blog so deal with it! (I hope you know that last part was sarcasm.)

Anyway, let's talk about our first subject in the series: Jack Arnold. While you may not recognize the guy's name, if you're a fan of 1950's sci-fi, you should know his films. He practically invented the genre the way it was during that time period, with classics like It Came from Outer Space, his most well known film, Creature from the Black Lagoon and its first sequel, Revenge of the Creature (which I've already reviewed), Tarantula, one of the best giant bug movies of the time, and The Incredible Shrinking Man, which many consider to be his best film. He was a science fiction fan when he was growing up and his love of the genre comes through in his films. He also tended to inject his films with subtle social commentary, some of which was unheard of at the time (like the subtle environmental message in Creature from the Black Lagoon). Interestingly, Arnold's technique of inserting the commentary into these sci-fi flicks was easy to do because, according to the man himself, William Alland, the producer of many science fiction movies at Universal in the 1950's, was only interested in special effects and whether the movie would sell. (Alland, at the same time, said he liked Arnold because he "never got original ideas"!)

Even before his groundbreaking science fiction, Arnold was already an up-and-coming filmmaker; his first film, the documentary With These Hands, was nominated for an Oscar in 1951 for Best Documentary. in 1959, he directed The Mouse That Roared, one of the earliest films to feature Peter Sellers as well as one of the first to make him popular (Sellers, not surprisingly, played multiple roles in the film). Arnold was also a prolific TV director, helming episodes of such popular shows like Perry Mason, Peter Gunn, Gilligan's Island, and The Brady Bunch. His entire filmography in general is interesting. Besides his sci-fi films, he did a teen exploitation film High School Confidential; No Name on the Bullet, a Western with Audie Murphy; a soft-core sex romp, Sex Play; and even some blaxploitation flicks in the 70's (one of which has a title so outrageous that I don't think I can write it!).

As with most people, I first came to know Arnold when I saw Creature from the Black Lagoon and as I watched more 50's sci-fi flicks, I kept seeing his name pop up. After researching about him, that's when I discovered what an influential and, sadly, vastly underrated director he was. For some reason, after he made Monster on the Campus and The Space Children (both in 1958), he never returned to the genre he excelled in. He never said why. His last feature film was The Wackiest Wagon Train in the West in 1976 and he continued working in television until he retired in the early 80's (he was offered a remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon around 1982 by John Landis but the film was never made). He died in 1992 from arteriosclerosis at the age of 75.

My main interest in Jack Arnold is his science fiction from the 1950's and that's what we'll discuss here. Since I've already reviewed the two Creature from the Black Lagoon movies he directed, we'll go through It Came from Outer Space, Tarantula, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and finish up with Monster on the Campus. If you know who Jack Arnold is, I hope you enjoy my personal feelings toward his best films or if you're just getting to know the guy, I hope this will inspire you to find these movies if you've never seen them before. Either way, hope you enjoy this first entry in my Directors series.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Franchises: Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)

When I read it in my book Monster Madness, the synopsis for this third and final film in the Creature series sounded particularly intriguing: after a freak accident, the creature becomes an air-breathing, much more human-like being. It also sounded like a sad ending to the series, where the creature tries to return to the sea and drowns (although, the actual ending to the film doesn't show it but strongly implies it). And as I've said many time before for many other films, I didn't see the movie until many years later. In fact, I may have seen this before I saw Revenge of the Creature but I'm not entirely sure. I thought it was cool when I first saw it and now that I look back on it, I believe that, while not on the level of the original, The Creature Walks Among Us is superior to its predecessor.

As he did after the ending of the original, the creature survived being riddled with bullets after escaping from Ocean Harbor at the end of Revenge of the Creature and is now in the Everglades. A wealthy scientist and his wife join a team of scientists in order to try to capture the creature. Eventually, they do encounter the creature but during the attempt to capture him, he's set on fire and lapses into a coma with severe burns. As they try to save his life, the scientists discover that the creature has a set of lungs under his gills, similar to a lungfish; the fire also burned away the scales to reveal tissue beneath them that resembles human skin. But even though his life is saved, the creature is clearly not happy about having lost his ability to live in the water and while the scientists try to make him comfortable, circumstance makes it seem like he's still a violent beast.

Jack Arnold did not return for this installment and he was replaced by John Sherwood. Sherwood was mainly an assistant director and only directed three films in his lifetime. He directed a film called Raw Edge before this movie and after this movie, he directed a pretty good sci-fi flick called The Monolith Monsters (whose story was partly written by Jack Arnold). He died of pneumonia in 1959 while doing second unit work for a film called Pillow Talk; he was just 55 years old. Generally speaking, I thought Sherwood did a pretty good job directing this film. It's very well made technically, the acting is above average, there's some interesting questions posed about how civilized man can be, and this film contains the most compassion for the poor creature. All in all, not bad for a guy was mainly an assistant director.

The film's lead, Dr. William Barton, is played by Jeff Morrow. Barton is actually both the protagonist and antagonist of the film. He's portrayed as brilliant but also quite mad. He's pretty abusive towards his wife, Marcia, telling her what she can and can't do, and becomes paranoid and jealous when he sees other men around her. He's also very staunch in his theories about evolution and the ability to make the creature civilized, becoming very angry whenever anyone questions them. Ultimately, his jealousy and madness get him killed when he accidentally kills a man who's been hitting on his wife and tries to blame it on the creature. Morrow did a particularly good job with this role, sometimes being sympathetic but always coming across as very cold and abusive.

Rex Reason plays Dr. Thomas Morgan, one of the scientists along for the trip to capture the creature. Unlike Barton, Morgan is not so eager to warp nature and questions Barton's evolutionary theories, causing some tension between the two. He's also acutely aware that Barton is very disturbed and does what he can to help Barton's abused wife, Marcia, cope with it. It's clear that he's the one Marcia looks to for companionship more than her husband or the lustful Jed Grant. And when it seems like the creature is still a violent monster, he's the one to theorize that he didn't kill out of bloodlust but because he was threatened. Definitely a much more representable doctor than Barton could ever hope to be.

Marcia Barton, Barton's battered wife, is played by Leigh Snowden. She comes across as a very gun-ho person who loves adventure. During the expedition to find the creature, she disregards her husband's stern determination to keep her from going scuba-diving with Morgan and Grant. When she dives down to the bottom, she apparently becomes so enamored by the sea that she foolishly takes off her scuba equipment and has to be rescued by Morgan and Grant. Besides being abused by her husband, she also has to fight off Grant, who is determined to get her, even if he has to resort to sexual assault. By the end of the movie, Marcia is rid of both her psychotic husband and her unwanted admirer, and it's suggested that she and Morgan may get together one day.

Jed Grant is played by Gregg Palmer. He was hired to be a guide for the expedition into the Everglades but after seeing how abusive Marica's husband is to her, becomes determined to have an affair with her, even if he has to force her to do so. His interest in Marcia makes Barton hate him from the beginning but he doesn't find out until near the end of the film just how far he had gone. He tries force himself on Marcia on the ship and he later tries to take a swim with her but both times, he's stopped, directly or indirectly, by the actions of the creature. Barton ultimately realizes how far he's been going with his interests in Marcia when he seems them both in swimming gear and tries to get him to leave. But when Grant tells Barton that Marcia hates him, Barton hits Grant in the back of the head with a pistol, accidentally killing him.

Once again, Ricou Browning plays the creature during the first quarter of the film when he's still a sea animal. A lot of it is reused footage from the original Creature from the Black Lagoon but there is some new footage as well (you can tell which is which because the suit changes). While you don't get a good look at the regular creature costume in this film, I do like it from what little you can see of the face (much better than the idiotic face in the previous film). The creature definitely hates humans now, stalking and hiding from the three divers in one scene, and subtly forcing the boat into a narrow river, where he eventually attacks.

After being burned, the creature sheds his gills and scales, becoming more human-like in appearance. Strangely, he also becomes bigger and clumsier, instead of thin and athletic like he was before. (I'd heard the design for this new form was from a scrapped concept for a female creature but I'm not entirely sure.) Don Megowan plays the new human creature and his performance is quite sympathetic. You can tell that the creature misses the freedom of the water, as he mournfully stares at it from the enclosure they give him to live in. Also, he's not as violent as he once was but sadly, circumstance causes everyone to think he still is. A mountain lion enters the area and jumps into a nearby enclosure with sheep. The creature actually comes to the sheep's rescue and kills the mountain lion but everyone thinks it's a sign that he's still violent. And after Barton accidentally kills Grant, he tries to make it look like the creature did it. The creature understands what happens and becomes enraged; he also apparently realizes that Barton is going to try to pin it on him and that makes him even angrier. He goes on a rampage, chasing Barton throughout the house but spares Marcia and Morgan after he corners them. He kills Barton and stomps off into the night.

The ending shows the creature reach the ocean and it ends with him stumbling towards it. Since he doesn't have gills anymore, you realize that there's a good chance that he drowned. It brings the sympathy for the creature full-circle in a way. First, humans invaded his home and attacked him, causing him to grow a hatred for them. Then, they took him away from his home and poked and prodded him in a tank, eventually forcing him to once again resort to violence and escape to the sea. And finally, humans have stripped him of his freedom being in the water, causing him to become a clumsy, ungraceful being, which probably led to his eventual demise given the ending of this film. If you look at it in this respect, this trilogy of films can be seen as one long, tragic story for the creature who just wanted to be left alone and live peacefully in his lagoon.

The underwater photography for this film is very impressive. I think they filmed it in the same area where they filmed the scenes for the original movie. The scene where Morgan, Grant, and Marcia go scuba diving to test the equipment but end up being stalked by the creature is a very well made sequence and uses the beautiful location to its advantage. Also well made is the scene when the now air-breathing creature jumps off the ship and Morgan has to dive down to give him air before he drowns. What else can I say other than the scenes are well done by Sherwood?

The music in this film is also pretty good. The theme is back, of course, but there's a lot more music that wasn't in the previous films. One that's quite somber is the scene where the air-breathing creature is shown to the enclosed area where he is now to live. I don't know if it was intended or not, but the music that plays as the confused creature looks around his new setting, unsure of what to make of all of it, has a sad sound to it, echoing that he can never be in the water again. The music that plays during the aforementioned scuba diving scene is also well done. Finally, the music that plays during the creature's rampage through the house is very exciting and chaotic, like the scene that it goes along with.

The Creature Walks Among Us, to me, is a very enjoyable and satisfying conclusion to a fine series of films. The characters are much more interesting than the bland ones in the previous film, the sense of compassion for the creature is more present here than ever (like I said, it feels like it's been brought full-circle), the underwater scenes are competently filmed, and the design for the new air-breathing creature is pretty cool. For years, there's been talk of a possible remake of the original Creature from the Black Lagoon (at one point, it was believed that John Landis would direct it with Rick Baker designing the creature). There are still plans for it to this day but whether or not it ever comes about remains to be seen. Personally, I wouldn't seeing an updated version of the story but, as I always say when it comes to remakes, whether it's good or bad, we'll always have this great classic sci-fi trilogy to entertain and make us wonder what's lurking beneath the water!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Franchises: Creature from the Black Lagoon. Revenge of the Creature (1955)

Until I got this book called Monster Madness, I had no idea that there was a sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon, let alone two. Needless to say, when I read the plots for both movies, I was eager to see them. I first saw Revenge of the Creature on AMC one Saturday (exactly what year I'm not sure). I knew the basic plot and that Clint Eastwood made his film debut in it but other than that, I had no idea what to expect. After I saw it, my initial opinion was, "That was okay. Not the best sequel but it was enjoyable." And my opinion has remained the same to this day. Revenge of the Creature is nothing more than what it was always meant to be: a cash-in on the original. It's fun but is nowhere near the classic status of its parent.

A year after the events of the first movie, two men from an aquarium in Florida travel to the Amazon to capture the supposed Gill-Man. Needless to say, they find him alive and well (no explanation is given for how he survived being riddled with bullets at the end of the original film). After one attempt to capture him fails and leaves one of the men injured, they dynamite the lagoon, which stuns the creature and puts him into a comatose state. He's then transported to the aforementioned aquarium where he's eventually revived and put on display for the public. Two scientists study the creature but the creature becomes attached to one of them, since she's a beautiful woman. Eventually, the creature escapes but he stalks the two scientists, determined to capture the woman for himself.

Jack Arnold returns as director but I once heard that his heart was quite into this film as it was the original (though I can't confirm it). If that was true, that could explain why this film so much weaker than its parent. Most of what made Creature from the Black Lagoon such a memorable film is missing here. The characters are not nearly as interesting; the underwater photography, while still well done, has lost some of its luster because most of it takes place in a bland tank instead of the Black Lagoon; and the plot, as sequels tend to go, is kind of weak. Arnold does do what he can with the plot and, like I said, despite the less than stellar final product, this is a fun monster movie nonetheless. Also, it's notable that this is the only sequel to a 3-D film that was in 3-D as well. The gimmick was pretty much dead by this point, though, and the third and final Creature movie was not filmed in 3-D.

As I said, the characters in this film are not as interesting as those in the original. The lead, Prof. Clete Ferguson, is played by John Agar, who's another familiar face to 50's sci-fi fans. Unfortunately, Agar wasn't the best actor and while does seem likable, he's just plain bland, with none of the charisma of Richard Carlson. Clete is interested in studying the creature at first but when he meets the beautiful Helen Dobson, he becomes much more interested in her, although they both do study the creature. Speaking of Helen, she's played by Lori Nelson, who does what she can and she does have a bit of backstory to her. She does at one point tell Clete how being a scientist has caused her to pass up chances to be married and not have family. She also admits that she pities the creature since he's absolutely alone. But, it doesn't go much farther than that. Not only that but the romance between her and Clete is really rushed and clumsy (which is common in these monster movies, since the filmmakers knew why people were coming to see these films). The way they meet even feels awkward and when they're trying to have romantic moments, it just makes me cringe (mostly because of Agar's lack of acting talent).

There are few other memorable characters in this film. Joe Hayes and George Johnson (John Bromfield and Robert Williams), the two men who captured the creature, are as bland as you can get. Hayes is presented as a potential rival for Helen's affections but it doesn't go anywhere and he has nothing to do except revive the creature the same way they do sharks and ultimately get killed when the creature escapes. In the beginning of the film in the Amazon, Nestor Paiva repeats his role as Lucas, and he's just as funny and salty as he was before. And since he's encountered the creature before, he's much more wary of entering the Black Lagoon and also gives his own theory about what the creature is and why he hasn't changed for millions of years (it's a supernatural reason, by the way). I really wish Lucas was in the film more but his last line, when they've stunned the creature and ask him to help get him on the boat, is a funny one: "Always, I have the bad luck!" Of course, I have to mention Clint Eastwood's brief, uncredited role as a lab assistant, who thinks a cat has eaten one of four mice in a cage in an experiment... and discovers that the missing mouse was in his pocket the whole time. Yeah, other than it's his film debut, there's not much to say about him. He would make another brief, uncredited role the same year in another Jack Arnold monster movie, Tarantula.

The creature himself is actually the most interesting character in the film and for good reason. You honestly feel even more sympathy for him here than you did in the original. Interestingly, the plots of the original and this film put together feel like the first and second half of King Kong if you think about it: the first movie was about scientists encountering the creature in his natural habitat, and this one is about him being captured, brought to civilization, held for public viewing, and ultimately escaping and going on a rampage. I don't understand why this movie is called Revenge of the Creature, because he doesn't get revenge on anything. You feel really bad for him because not only is he yanked from his natural habitat, they perform tests on him where they offer him food and when he tries to take it, they shock him with a cattle-prod to make him understand what the word "stop" means. At one point, they give him drugged food so they can hook him up to a machine in order to study his brain patterns and to take blood samples. When he ultimately gets loose and goes on a rampage, you cheer for him because now he's getting his revenge.

The creature's design is changed slightly in this film and while I can live it, I do believe they made a mistake. The most obvious change is in his head and face. He now has big, bulging ping-pong ball-like eyes and in his face, he's always like, "Duh!" It just makes him laughable instead of cool like he was before. While his cool growl and roar is retained, they also give him a weird, loud grunt that I never liked the sound of and it makes him seem even dumber when you hear it. And yet, despite these design flaws, the creature has a bit more character than he did before. Ricou Browning returns to play him in the water and he's able to act a little more, turning his head in an inquisitive way like what dogs do when he hears or sees something strange; showing how the creature quickly learns not to approach a cattle-prod; and swiping at fish when he's eating so they won't steal his food. (One thing he does that I don't like, however, is when one of the first times you see him and he seems to be waving, no doubt to take advantage of 3-D and make people think he's waving at them. Still, it's ridiculous when taken out of context.) This time, Tom Hennesy plays the creature out of the water and I think he has more scenes than Ben Chapman did before him. He runs rampant through the aquarium when he escapes, stalks Clete and Helen when they're staying at a hotel and kills Helen's dog in the process, and invade a nightclub where he finally abducts Helen. I can't compare performances between Hennesy and Chapman because, other than the amount of screentime, they both play the creature the same to me.

You find out a lot more about the creature's biology when his blood is tested and he seems to be more human than fish. Significantly, the creature has a lot more rage in him this time because after the first movie, he now definitely perceives humans as a threat. The minute he sees another diver in his lagoon, he stalks him and attacks, obviously not wanting to go through the crap he went through before again. And when he's captured and ultimately escapes from the aquarium, he takes his built up rage out on anyone that moves. He brutally attacks Joe Hayes and suffocates him under the water before jumping out of the tank and attacking anyone who gets too close. Other than that, he doesn't intentionally seek out people to kill and heads for the ocean, angrily turning over a car in his escape. Bottom line, he's pissed! He may not intentionally kill anyone unless provoked but he probably hates humans now more than ever, other than Helen. And as before, his affections for her ultimately leads to his downfall.

Speaking of his affection, there's an interesting scene where, while waiting for their boat to be repaired, she and Clete go for a swim in the river, not knowing that the creature is nearby and stalking them. As they swim and play, the creature swims parallel to them, trying to grab Helen's feet. This is clearly meant to be a repeat of the ballet between Julia Adams and the creature in the previous film. While interesting, it ultimately doesn't have the same power that that original scene held and comes off as just another example of this movie's being a cash-in for the original. (What's weird is that I keep saying that and yet I think a sequel was planned even before the original was released. Still, there's no denying that when finally developed, this film did come across as a cash-in nonetheless.)

The music in the film is acceptable but underwhelming. I don't think there were any new themes created and it was all just music from the original, albeit played in different ways. The creature's unmistakable theme is back, although it's not as intrusive and grating as it was before, so there's one improvement. Other than that, the music is nothing special, even though it is still as exciting as ever.

Finally, the climax of this movie is pretty lame when compared to that of the original. After the creature kidnaps Helen, he lays her on the beach each time he has to swim around in nearby water for a bit, since he can't stay dry long. Clete and the police finally find them and just as the creature is about to take her off into the ocean, he stops and turns when Clete yells at him through a megaphone. As soon as he lets Helen go and she gets to shore, the police riddle the creature with bullets and he sinks to the bottom (the scene from the original of him sinking is reused). And that's it. It's not as exciting as the climax in the cave from the original and feels rushed, like they just wanted to end the movie by that point and get it over with. Even though it's basically the same scenario with the lead trying to save his lover, it just doesn't have the same sense of urgency either.

All in all, Revenge of the Creature is not a horrible sequel and, in the end, is a fun monster movie. However, it's just not a classic like its parent. The characters are bland, the story is pretty weak, and the underwater photography doesn't feel as inspired. But I think the biggest problem is that, instead of taking place in the exotic locale of the Black Lagoon, the movie takes place in modern civilization. While it is cool at first to see the creature in a civilized area, it does wear out its welcome. It's like what would happen later in Predator 2. While that movie is still a fun sequel, the location of the city isn't as inspiring as the jungle in the original. That's the same thing here. Still, while definitely not one of Jack Arnold's best films, I do recommend it for fans of the creature and 1950's monster movies in general.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Franchises: Creature from the Black Lagoon. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

As a little kid who was fascinated with monsters, I remember being particularly intrigued by the Creature from the Black Lagoon, a.k.a. the Gill-Man. Back when you could get little animatronic models of the classic Universal monsters as Halloween decorations, I would go into Wal-Mart and look at the models of the creature, thinking he was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. I also found one of those Crestwood House books about monster movies and read up on the creature, being amazed by the pictures they would show of him. I was just dying to see the actual movie but like most of these movies I'd read about, I didn't actually see it until many years later when I was twelve. And I tell you one thing, this movie did not disappoint either.

The story is pretty basic: a scientist finds the fossilized hand of an ancient, amphibious creature in the Amazon and organizes an expedition to find the rest of the fossil. Eventually, their journey leads them to the mysterious Black Lagoon, where they believe the rest of the skeleton may be. But they soon encounter a living descendant of the fossilized creature, who isn't at all happy about them being there and becomes intrigued by the lone woman of the group.

Creature from the Black Lagoon was directed by Jack Arnold, probably the best director of 1950's sci-fi. As with all his science fiction films, Arnold takes the subject matter completely seriously, as do the actors, which gives the film itself an air of believability. He also possibly injected the film with a very subtle social commentary that was years ahead of its time and shows how on the ball he was as a director.

The film's lead, David Reed, is played by Richard Carlson, who also starred in Jack Arnold's It Came from Outer Space the year before and is a familiar face for 1950's sci-fi fans. He plays Reed as a brilliant and enthusiastic ichthyologist, eager to discover new animals. Money means little to him in the way of knowledge. When the first encounter the creature, he's determined to take him alive, whereas his boss, Mark Williams, simply wants to kill him. David, at one point when they've actually captured the creature, puts his foot down when Mark insists that they can now leave. David wants to continue researching the area and he eventually states, "Mark, we're not going anywhere until we've finished our work!" But despite his enthusiasm and dedication to science, David knows well enough that it's not worth putting people in danger and when it becomes clear that they're not going to be able to capture the creature without risking more people getting killed, he decides to abandon the expedition altogether. (This leads to a rather funny line, for me. When Mark suggests that they're leaving without getting what they came for, David says, "We didn't come here to fight with monsters. We're not equipped for it." So, what, he expects some people are equipped to fight with monsters? He even suggests that they could come back with a more qualified team, which says to me that that's exactly what he means. I'm not making fun of it but I can't help but smirk at that line.)

Mark Williams is played by another familiar face for sci-fi fans: Richard Denning. Unlike David, Mark is more interested in the practical side of science, enthusiastic about publicity and money. Even though, as stated, it does take money to run a scientific institute, Mark is a little too preoccupied with monetary gain, causing a lot of friction between him and David. David at one point says that Mark has taken credit for some important findings, suggesting that he may have stolen some of that credit from David, causing even more tension. When the two of them decide to look for the creature, David accuses Mark of being a hunter out for the kill instead of a scientist because his intention to shoot the creature with a harpoon gun. Mark sternly says to him, "We many not be back home, David, but you're still working for me." There's also tension between them because of Kay Lawrence, David's lover. Kay knew Mark long before David and he grew feelings for her, which haven't diminished even though she's moved onto David. Mark clearly hates seeing them together. At one point when they're heading to the Black Lagoon, he sees the two of them making it out near the back of the boat and Lucas asks him about his spear gun, he explains its usefulness while giving them both stern looks. And after their first diving exploration of the lagoon, David brings Kay an underwater plant from the bottom as a present, which Mark resents. He even rubs it in David's face when he sees Kay helping him off with his diving gear, saying, "Come on, David, you can play "house" later." It eventually comes to blows between the two of them when they're trying to clear the blocked entrance of the lagoon and Mark is still obsessed with capturing the creature. Ultimately, Mark's ambitions get him killed by the creature when he tries to catch him while David tries to clear the entrance to the lagoon.

Kay Lawrence is played by Julia Adams, making this the most well-known film of her career. As I said before, she's David's girlfriend and the creature becomes intrigued by her. She's also drop-dead gorgeous, especially in her white bathing suit, so it's easy to see why every male around has interests in her. Character-wise, though, she's a bit bland. She seems to be a scientist as well and knows a lot about ichthyology but she honestly doesn't do much when they reach the Black Lagoon other than scream whenever the creature tries to abduct her and run to David for comfort. You can't really fault Adams for that since that was how women were constantly portrayed at that time but it does get grating after a while. Also, in the tradition of women always falling down in horror movies whenever the monster is after them, Kay has one of the most pathetic. When the creature tries to abduct her at one, she immediately falls when she tries to run, not even getting a step. Both then and now, I'm like, "Oh, come on!" There is one point where she seems to realize that the creature won't hurt her. When they capture him, Mark tells Kay that the creature could have killed her just as easily as he did one of Lucas' men. Kay says, "But he didn't." It doesn't go any farther than that though. She does try to keep the peace between David and Mark though and does seem conflicted about her feelings for Mark. Naturally, being a monster movie, this subplot takes a backseat to the actual story. So, all in all, Kay's not a bad character but I do think she's kind of bland like most women in these movies.

The funniest character in the film is the old codger captain of the barge the Rita, Lucas, played by Nestor Paiva. He's a jolly man who knows how dangerous a river the Amazon is and while he doesn't understand the scientists' way of going about things, he goes along with it since he's being paid. However, he does grow close enough to the expedition to defend them from the creature whenever he has to, sometimes going out of his way to help them. It's his idea to put a drug in the water to help them capture the creature and he, along with Maia, save David and Kay from the creature at the end of the film. He's also the one who relates to them a legend about a fish-man he heard from an old native a long time ago (possibly a reference to how producer William Alland came up with the idea for the film). But he admits that the native was crazy. I just can't help but like characters like him. Dr. Carl Maia, the scientist who finds the fossil, is played by Antonio Moreno. Other than being the catalyst for the film's plot, he doesn't have much of a role when they get to the actual lagoon and encounter the creature. But like David, he doesn't let his enthusiasm for science overrule his judgment about how dangerous things can get. Finally, there's Dr. Edwin Thompson, played by another sci-fi favorite, Whit Bissell. He has nothing to do here really other than be a voice of reason every now and again. His best scene by far is when he's guarding the captured creature and Kay comes up to talk to him. He tries to help her sort out what's going between David and Mark, telling her that she's more than repaid Mark many times over. However, before he can go any further, the creature bursts out of the holding tank he's in and brutally maims Thompson before escaping. For the rest of the film, his face is bandaged up and he's bedridden below deck. There is a great moment near the end of the movie where the creature sticks his hand through a porthole and Thompson, unable to speak because of the bandages, has to frantically grunt to get everyone's attention. I've always found that situation to be scary if you think about it.

This movie is well known for two technical aspects that were unique for its time. First, it was filmed in 3-D, following the success of the aforementioned It Came from Outer Space and Warner Bros.'s House of Wax with Vincent Price. It's among the most well-known 3-D films of the 1950's and I wish I could see it that way because it must be awesome, especially given the underwater sequences. (Unlike all the 3-D crap you get nowadays, though, Jack Arnold was a good enough director to make the movie entertaining even if you can't see it in 3-D.) The other lauded aspect of the film is the amazing underwater photography. It'd be even better if the movie were in color but even in black and white, it looks gorgeous. Some may feel that the underwater sequences in this film go on a bit too long and it's hard to tell who's who but that honestly never bothered me. The action scenes underwater are also very exciting, especially the battle between Mark and the creature as well as when David has to try keep the creature away while he tries to clear the entrance to the lagoon.

I also like the actual location of the Black Lagoon. These scenes were filmed at various locations in Florida and the place lends itself to the story. The surrounding forest and animals really do make you feel like you're in the Amazon jungle, along with all the animal noises on the soundtrack. The place is never quiet. Even when nobody's talking, you can hear birds chirping, monkeys hooting and howling, frogs croaking, and so forth, just like you would in a real jungle. You can also tell that it's hot and humid there just by looking at it, which I think makes this movie a great one to watch in summer.

The creature himself is an interesting movie monster not just in his look but in the fact that he's present as a natural part of evolution. There's nothing supernatural about him like Dracula, the wolf man, or the mummy, he wasn't created by a scientist like the Frankenstein monster, he's not from outer space, and he's not a mutation caused by radiation like Godzilla, the giant ants in Them!, or most of the movie monsters around that time. He's simply the end result of the natural process of evolution, no matter how strange he looks. As a kid, I was just amazed by everything about him: his scaly skin, his webbed hands and feet, fish-like face and eyes, and so on. He was, and still is, as cool as they come to me and one of the best man-in-suit monsters ever created. Another reason why I wish there was a color version of the film is because I've seen color photos of the suit and it was a very cool, mossy green color, not the bright green with red lips you tend to run into. I would have loved to have seen color moving footage of that suit. As for the suit itself, it was designed by Millicent Patrick, who actually worked for Disney at one point. Bud Westmore is often credited with creating the suit but I found out he actually did very little and often tried to take credit for stuff he didn't do. (In this film, anyway. I don't know about other movies he work on.) One other interesting note: in the prologue of the film where a narrator talks about the beginning of life on Earth, you see footprints leading from the ocean which I guess were supposed to be made by the creature's ancestor. I would have liked to have seen what that looked like, since judging from the footprints, it had to hop like a frog.

The creature also has a few things in common with King Kong. The most obvious aspect is his attraction to Kay and the lengths he goes to capture and take her back to his lair. Probably the most famous scene in the film is the underwater ballet between him and Kay, where she's swimming on the surface of the lagoon and unbeknown to her, he's swimming parallel to her. Many have interpreted this as having sexual undertones, given the position of the two of them and the fact that when Kay is back-lit, you could believe that she's actually naked. While I usually think that stuff like this is people trying to look too deep into something, Jack Arnold himself supposedly confirmed it. Well, if it came from the director, I'm not going to argue with it then.

The other aspect the creature shares with King Kong, as well as the Frankenstein monster, is that he's not an evil creature by nature and he only kills after he himself is attacked. Even though the first thing he does is wander into Maia's camp and kill his two men he left to guard it, I always figured that he was simply curious and he only attacked after one of the frightened men threw an oil-lantern at him. The same thing happens when the expedition first enters the lagoon. When David and Mark are scuba-diving and investigating the lagoon, he simply hides and watches them. However, after Mark shoots him with a harpoon, that's when he begins attacking members of the expedition because he now undoubtedly sees humans as a threat; case in point, the first thing he does afterward is board the boat and kill one of Lucas' men. He's simply defending himself and doesn't like seeing all these strangers intruding into his domain.

There's also a possible environmental undertone to the film. Some believe it comes when the expedition members begin putting drugs in the water to catch the creature and there's a shot where you can see many drugged fish floating on the surface. At one point, Kay flicks a cigarette into the water and the camera pans down to show the creature looking up at the surface. It's more than likely meant to convey that he's watching her and film historian Paul M. Jensen suggests that he could also be looking at what they're doing to his home. From what I could gather, Jack Arnold was a very bright man so he may have been well ahead of his time in his thinking and that could have been a conscious decision on his part.

We can't mention the creature without briefly mentioning the two men who played him. There's Ricou Browning, the talented diver who played the creature in all the underwater scenes and would do so for the two sequels. The guy was able to hold his breath underwater for five full minutes, which is amazing. This was done since Arnold didn't want to see air bubbles coming from the creature's head, which would have happened had they used a scuba tank beneath the suit (although they apparently did so for the sequels). On land, Ben Chapman took over the role. He's not very graceful when he moves but they may have been the point, that the creature wasn't that agile on land since he spent most of the time in the water. Nevertheless, I do think both men did an admirable job of playing the creature.

The music by Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter, and Herman Stein is as classic as the film itself. You can't walk away from this movie without remembering the creature's theme. I don't know how you can forget it, since you can't get a glimpse at him without being blasted by that music. That could be my only real problem with the film. As cool as that theme is, it's a little imposing because you hear it so much and can get a bit redundant after a while. For instance, I'm a James Bond fan, but I would get sick of hearing his theme if I heard it every single time he was onscreen. Bottom line: great theme, but used way too much. I also like the suspenseful music that plays during Mark's battle with the creature, the subsequent one between him and David afterward, and the music that plays when Maia and Lucas save David and Kay from the creature, who staggers out of the cave, into the lagoon, and sinks to the bottom.

Creature from the Black Lagoon is truly a classic of 1950's monster movies. While many may argue that The Incredible Shrinking Man may be Jack Arnold's best film (and it probably is), this is undoubtedly his most famous and was actually the one he liked talking about the best from what I hear. And that's for good reason as well because whether or not you like the characters, there's no denying the technical achievements of the underwater photography and, of course, the creature himself. Many nowadays may roll their eyes at this film but I, along with others lovers of this genre, adore it and will continue to for years to come.