October 26, 1974 (Midnight): Tarantula (1955) / The Werewolf (1956)

Synopsis: Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar) practices medicine in the small town of Desert Rock. County sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva) calls and asks Hastings to come with him down to the town mortuary and help him identify a body.

The Sheriff believes the body is that of Eric Jacobs, a lab assistant of reclusive scientist Dr. Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) who works some distance outside of town. The body was found out in the desert, wearing pajamas — but the face and body are so disfigured that it’s hard to recognize. Hastings, after looking over the body, admits he doesn’t know what could have happened to Jacobs, but by all appearances it seems to be acromegalia, a glandular condition that causes grotesque deformities. But he adds that it would take many years for acromegalia to cause such changes in a human being, and Jacobs was known to be healthy when the sheriff saw him in town just a month before.

Dr. Deemer arrives and confirms the man is indeed Jacobs, and that acromegalia was the cause of death. When Hastings objects that there’s never been a recorded case of acromegalia developing that quickly, Deemer essentially pulls rank on him, saying that such cases do exist but are extremely rare.

When Deemer returns to his lab, we see what he’s working on: a radioactive nutrient that he injects into the animals in his lab, each of which has grown to super-size. A guinea pig, a rat and a tarantula have all grown to several times their normal size. But Paul Lund, Deemer’s other lab assistant, is waiting for him.

Like Jacobs, Lund has been hideously deformed by acromegalia, and he attacks Deemer in his lab, starting a fire. Lund injects Deemer with a dose of the nutrient, but in the ensuing fight is killed. Deemer buries the body near the lab. All of the test animals that Deemer had been working on were killed by the fire, except the five-foot-long tarantula, which escaped through a broken window — something that Deemer doesn’t know.

Later, Hastings meets Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (Mara Cordray) who has arrived in town to take a job as Dr. Deemer’s assistant. She has not heard that Jacobs, who offered the job to her, has died, and Hastings drives her out to Deemer’s lab.

Deemer proves to be helpful and congenial, showing them around the lab and talking about the inorganic nutrient he’s experimenting with which, if successful, will be able to feed millions of people. Unfortunately, he tells them, a recent lab fire has destroyed much of his recent work, and he will need to begin his crucial experiments from the beginning.

Clayton moves into the complex and she becomes adept at running the experiments with the nutrient, even though she seems unaware of the mutations that Deemer is seeking to trigger in the test animals.

But Clayton begins to notice that Deemer’s appearance and behavior is gradually changing. His features are becoming more coarse and exaggerated, and he is acting more abrupt and aggressive.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Andrews asks Matt to look at something he found in a nearby rancher’s field. A number of the rancher’s cattle are missing, and there are viscous pools of a white substance that, upon analysis, prove to be spider venom….

Comments: Tarantula has appeared on the noontime edition of Horror Incorporated before, but this is its first time playing in the midnight time slot. If the synopsis above seems a bit lengthy it’s because the story itself takes a while to get going. The mystery elements don’t provide a huge amount of suspense, but they do keep us guessing and provide needed expository information while the tarantula is busy growing to the size of a supermarket.

This thriller was directed by Jack Arnold, who had previously delivered the Universal hits It Came From Outer Space and Creature From the Black Lagoon. While not as well-written as those films, Tarantula is still fun and engaging, and Arnold uses many of his familiar tricks in this one, including the jump-scare gag of having a hand enter the frame from offscreen and clap down on a character’s shoulder — only to be revealed as belonging to a friend.

Clearly inspired by Them!, Warner’s biggest hit of 1954, Tarantula has some difficulty in balancing the giant monster scares with the human-sized story, and apparently adds the agromegalia subplot to increase the immediate risk associated with Deemer’s experiments, as though a 100-foot tall spider wasn’t enough of a threat for the characters to contend with. There actually might be some sense in this, as a spider this big can only reasonably threaten the main characters for a couple of scenes. But the two subplots don’t really mesh very well. It’s also never explained why, if lab animals grow to gigantic size after being injected with the nutrient, humans don’t.

One of the many interesting things about this picture is its ambivalence toward science. Dr. Hastings, like the protagonists of many sci-fi films of this era, is a respected professional, and his scientific knowledge is crucial in unraveling the mystery.

But Dr. Deemer is a character straight out of the mad scientist films of the 1930s: working furtively in a lab far outside of town, unethically using his lab assistants as guinea pigs and unleashing untold horrors into the community through his own careless acts. The mad scientist pedigree isn’t immediately obvious because Jack Arnold cleverly chose the dignified Leo G. Carroll for this role, rather than an overwrought actor of the John Carradine variety. Deemer doesn’t come across as a madman or a fanatic because Carroll plays him in such a reserved, matter-of-fact manner.

John Agar is better here than he was in Revenge of the Creature (1954), but his smarmy persona quickly gets tiresome; he’s a very difficult actor to warm up to. He did quite a lot of sci-fi in his career, appearing in Universal’s The Mole People (1956), as well as indie films such as Invisible Invaders (1959), The Brain From Planet Arous (1957), Sid Pink’s Journey to the Seventh Planet (1961) and the Larry Buchanan remake of It Conquered the World, the dismal Zontar: The Thing From Venus (1968).

Model-turned-actress Mara Cordray was a beautiful Universal contract player who appeared in a lot of westerns, though she occasionally turned up in sci-fi and horror programmers such as The Black Scorpion (1957) and The Giant Claw (1957). She’s perfectly capable as an actress, but she never seems to make an impression in her roles, either good or bad; unlike previous Jack Arnold leading ladies Barbara Rush and Julie Adams, you don’t really remember anything about her performance after the movie’s over.

Nestor Paiva, who played Lucas in Creature From the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature, plays the sheriff of Desert Rock County, and he’s quite good in the part, adding a good deal of personality to a stock character.

Clint Eastwood has a blink-and-you’ll -miss-it appearance as the squadron leader swooping in to napalm the renegade arachnid in the final scene. He’s only on screen for a few seconds and is wearing a helmet and pilot’s oxygen mask the whole time, which is probably why some people assume it was his first role. But in fact, he had already appeared (in a walk-on, but a more substantial one) in Revenge of the Creature, released six months earlier.

The Werewolf

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Synopsis: A man (Steven Ritch) stumbles along down the chilly main street of the small town of Mountain Crest. He’s wearing a shabby suit and tie but no hat or overcoat. He goes into a bar and has a drink. He seems confused, and is unable to remember if he’s a resident of the town or if he’s just passing through.

The man pays for his drink with a $20 bill — a fairly large amount in 1956 — and as he gets up to leave, the bartender has to remind him to take his change. This catches the interest of the barfly on the next stool, who follows the man out.

On the street the barfly tries to rob the stranger, and pushes him into an alley. A struggle ensues, but it ends with the barfly dead, his throat ripped out, and the stranger vanished. A woman passing on the street saw the stranger for a moment, and she swore the man’s face looked like that of an animal.

Sheriff Jack Haines (Don Megowan) leads a posse into the woods but the human tracks they follow turn inexplicably into those of a wolf — even though there are no wolves in Mountain Crest.

Meanwhile, in a nearby town, Drs. Forrest and Chambers are visited by the wife of Duncan Marsh. Marsh had been in a minor automobile accident and had banged his head against the steering wheel and the doctors treated him. But as the doctors talk to one another it’s clear they did more than put a bandage on his head. They had injected Marsh with an experimental serum that is designed to turn the man into a primitive beast. They feel such a serum will be necessary soon, as mankind is on the brink of a nuclear war. Only such a throwback creature, they reason, will be able to survive in a post-apocalyptic environment.

Marsh’s wife (Joyce Holden) goes to visit Haines and is stunned to learn that her husband might be implicated in a murder. She assures Haines that her husband is a gentle man and would never harm anyone.

Bear traps are set out at the edge of the woods, with raw meat put out as bait. Eventually Marsh is captured by the posse and kept in a cell in town. But Chambers and Forrest have arrived, ostensibly to help in the search, and they have a plan to get into the cell and whisk their reluctant test subject away….

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Comments: This clever little sci-fi / horror pic has never gotten a lot of love from critics, perhaps because it started out life on the bottom of a double bill with another Columbia outing by Fred F. Sears, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

On paper, this movie seems like it’d be a throwback to the mad scientist flicks of the 1930s and 40s, with the two amoral doctors exploiting a nice guy who never hurt anybody. They feel their experiments are justified, because they’re expanding the frontiers of knowledge, etc., etc. We could easily imagine John Carradine or George Zucco sleepwalking through it.

And had the movie been made 15 years earlier, the scientists would have been at the center of the story. But here they are pushed into the background. It’s all for the best, really — their plan doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Believing that nuclear war is inevitable, Drs. Forrest and Chambers have decided that the only way for humanity to survive is to be turned into werewolves. They don’t seem to have given their plan enough thought, but who am I to judge?

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You might think that Duncan Marsh would be the protagonist of the picture, but he’s far too sick and agitated for that. Nope, it’s Sheriff Jack Haines, as played by an excellent Don Megowan, an actor with an Old West sensibility that greatly benefits the production. As you might expect, Megowan appeared in a lot of westerns, and he has a no-nonsense look to him that suggests the frontier. Much of the movie functions as a police procedural, as the cops track down the mysterious Duncan Marsh and find out what caused his plight.

For a low-budget picture, The Werewolf has an unexpectedly lush look, with the main street of Big Bear Lake, California standing in for the fictional town of Mountain Crest. Director Sears wisely opts for location shooting over soundstages for his exteriors, which lends a great deal of verisimillitude; and cinematographer Edward Linden (who photographed King Kong and Son of Kong, as well as countless westerns) makes the most of the mountain scenery at hand. He makes the midcentury town look quite beautiful; and if the tourist board of Big Bear Lake is able to transport me to that city in 1956, I’ll gladly check into the lodge and spend a week or two trying out the towns cross-country ski trails, taking photographs, wandering through its shops and purchasing souvenirs. I could use a vacation.

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