Saturday, March 18, 1978: Tarantula (1955) / She-Wolf of London (1946)

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.

She-Wolf of London

Synopsis: Young Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) is preparing for her marriage to attorney Barry Lanfield (Don Porter). Barry is the perfect candidate for marriage: handsome, patient, understanding, and (last but not least) wealthy. But Phyllis is deeply troubled, because a bizarre series of murders has been taking place in the park near the Allenby estate. The method of the killings suggest an animal attack, and Phyllis mutters fearfully about a return of the “Allenby Curse”.

Meanwhile, Phyllis’ cousin Carol Winthrop (Jan Wiley) is caught by her mother, Martha Winthrop (Sara Haden) trying to send a letter to a boyfriend across town. Martha warns Carol that she can never have anything to do with young Dwight Severn (Martin Kosleck), reminding her that Dwight is penniless. She reveals something that no one else seems to know — that neither she nor Carol is related by blood to Phyllis Allenby. Martha has been the family housekeeper for decades and it is now taken on faith that she and Carol are members of the family.

Now that Phyllis is the sole remaining heir of the Allenby estate, Martha and Carol are in a precarious position, at risk of losing everything — if Phyllis marries. But if Carol were to marry Lanfield instead, matters would improve considerably for both Carol and Martha.

Unorthodox Detective Latham of Scotland Yard is convinced that the park murders are the work of a werewolf, a theory rejected by hidebound Inspector Pierce (Dennis Hoey). In fact, the only person who seems to buy into the werewolf theory is Phyllis herself, who explains to Aunt Martha that the Allenby Curse dooms members of her family to turn into ravenous wolves, an affliction for which there is no cure.

Aunt Martha tries to convince Phyllis that it’s all in her head, but Phyllis knows that each morning her slippers are caked with mud, her dress sodden and torn, and her hands covered with blood.

Fearful of the creature that she has become, she breaks off her engagement with Barry. But Barry refuses to believe in the curse, or in Phyllis’ guilt, and he is determined to unmask the real she-wolf of London….

Comments: In my previous write-up of She-Wolf of London I noted that the film was an amalgamation of two popular suspense pictures of the early 1940s: Cat People and Gaslight. On subsequent viewings, She-Wolf of London might best be described as Cat People‘s premise melded with Gaslight‘s ending. As in Cat People, Phyllis is worried about her impending marriage to Barry because she is convinced she turns into a vicious animal, as predicted by her family’s curse. But, like Gaslight, it turns out that this is all a set-up, perpetrated by her closest confidante.

This isn’t a bad idea, actually, but She-Wolf of London falls apart on execution, for three critical reasons.

The first, and most egregious, is the that the screenplay cheats the audience. When you promise a she-wolf (in the title, no less) you’d damned well better come up with a she-wolf, either literally (woman turns into ravenous wolf) or figuratively (woman is predatory in her behavior, demeanor or appetites).

I asked my friend Shakira to throw a video together demonstrating this second definition of she-wolfery, and she kindly agreed:

Second, the Allenby curse is repeatedly invoked, and evidence is given for us to believe it (the crazed way dogs react to Phyllis, for example); but once Aunt Martha is identified as the killer, everyone agrees that the Allenby curse was just a lot of superstitious nonsense. Some of Phyllis’ evidence for the curse is explained away by Martha’s actions (the muddy boots and blood-stained hands), but everything else is conveniently forgotten.

The third problem that undercuts She-Wolf of London is its dreadful cheapness. The C-list cast is clearly racing through the shooting schedule, and there is no time to build atmosphere, suspense, or even convincing English accents. A very young June Lockhart has neither the screen presence nor the acting chops to carry the movie effectively, and she isn’t aided by the colorless studio contract players surrounding her. Martin Kosleck, who is always interesting to watch, has little more than a cameo here.

Castle Films, it should be noted, apparently didn’t think She-Wolf of London warranted an 8-minute version. I can’t say I’m surprised.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.