Saturday, April 23, 1977: Tarantula (1955) / The Thing That Couldn’t Die (1958)

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 acromegaly, a glandular condition that causes grotesque deformities. But he adds that it would take many years for acromegaly 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 acromegaly was the cause of death. When Hastings objects that there’s never been a recorded case of acromegaly 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 acromegaly, 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: If the synopsis for Tarantula 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 agromegaly subplot to increase the immediate risk associated with Deemer’s experiments — apparently deciding that 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.

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 kook 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, and 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 Thing That Couldn’t Die

Synopsis: At a California dude ranch, owner Flavia McIntyre (Peggy Converse) and her ranch hands watch as niece Jessica (Carolyn Kearney) searches with a divining rod for water on the property. Three of the ranch guests, Gordon (William Reynolds), Linda (Andra Martin) and Hank (Jeffrey Stone) arrive on horseback and watch as Jessica walks around with the divining rod. Gordon expresses the opinion that water witching is just a lot of superstition, but Flavia vouches for Jessica’s ability; she can even find lost objects, having once found one of her own missing rings.

Jessica is briefly nettled by the appearance of the three skeptics but continues her search. Near a large tree she indicates that she has found water, but just as quickly declares that there is something evil below the tree and no one should dig there.

Ignoring her protests, Flavia’s hired hands Boyd and Mike begin to dig a well, but soon hit a strange object instead: a chest with words carved into it that indicate it dates from 1579. Believing it might be a significant archeological find — and perhaps might even have been left by Francis Drake’s expedition — Gordon goes into town to fetch Dr. Julian Ash (Forrest Lewis) who can help verify what they have found.

But Boyd, convinced the chest is filled with treasure, decides to open it. He convinces the strong but simple-minded Mike to break the lock. But when Mike opens it, he finds not treasure, but a human head that stares into his eyes and mouths words we can’t hear. This, we learn, is the head of Gideon Drew, a devil worshipper executed by the Francis Drake expedition. Now freed from the chest, the head uses its hypnotic power to force a reunion with Drew’s body, which is buried nearby….

Comments: The Thing that Couldn’t Die was paired in cinemas with Hammer’s The Horror of Dracula, and it didn’t have much of a reputation even before it got the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment in the 1990s. MST3K fans enjoy kicking around movies featured on the show by giving them one-star ratings on IMDB (they seem to believe this makes the jokes funnier, for some reason), and this has a lot to do with why the movie currently scores a lowly 3.8.

The MST3K bludgeoning set aside, this isn’t a great movie; it’s slow and talky for the first couple of reels. But things liven up considerably when we get to the buried treasure chest containing the severed head of Gideon Drew, a 16th-century Satan worshiper. The scenes of Drew’s head staring balefully at its victims, mouthing silent instructions, is pretty creepy, as is a scene where a hypnotized Linda places the head in a hatbox and places it on a closet shelf for its next victim. The juxtaposition of gothic elements with ordinary midcentury vacation cabins is surprisingly effective. And there’s a surreal bit near the end where the body gets up out of its casket and walks around. The movie ends somewhat abruptly, unfortunately, and the monster disposed of all too easily; but it does have its moments.

William Reynolds was one of the demobilized soldiers terrorized by a mysterious snake woman in Cult of the Cobra; his performance in that 1955 thriller made me wonder why he didn’t have more of a career (Arbogast, in his review of that film, compared Reynolds to a young Johnny Depp, and I can kinda see it) so it’s nice to see him get a shot at a starting role. But any screen presence he had in Cult of the Cobra has drained away here, and he’s quite forgettable. In his defense none of the characters in the film are very well-drawn.

Overall, this one has second-feature written all over it, but it’s worth a watch if you happen upon it.

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