Saturday, November 4, 1978: Tarantula (1955) / The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942)

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.

The Mad Doctor of Market Street

Synopsis: Dr. Ralph Benson (Lionel Atwill) is an unorthodox scientist experimenting with suspended animation. Because his experiments are dangerous, he must keep them secret, run out of the back room of his office on Market Street.

He meets with a financially desperate family man who is willing to be paid $600 to be Benson’s latest guinea pig. Benson explains to the man that he will be placed into a death-like coma, which will quickly be reversed.

But when the man cannot be revived, and the police raid his office, Benson is forced to flee.

Soon he is on an ocean liner headed for New Zealand. But he isn’t out of the woods yet: a detective is looking for him, and the passengers are advised that the Mad Doctor of Market Street himself is on board, presumably under an alias. Confronted by the detective in a passageway, Benson kills him and throws his body overboard. But there is a witness to this act, which turns out not to matter, because at this moment the ocean liner conveniently decides to catch fire and the order is given to abandon ship.

The lifeboat he shares with a half-dozen other passengers and crew ends up on an island in the south seas. They are captured by natives of the island, and told by chief Elan (Noble Johnson) that they will be slaves. But when Benson brings Elan’s wife Tanaa back to life (with adrenaline and smelling salts, suggesting that she wasn’t actually dead but, conveniently, in a death-like coma) he reveals himself to his fellow castaways as the mad doctor who the authorities were looking for, and the natives decide that he is a god with the power of life and death. As often happens in these sort of movies, they make him their king.

The natives offer Benson the most beautiful of the island women to choose from as his new wife. Instead, Benson gets the idea of making young Patricia Wentworth his “white bride”, and using the other castaways as guinea pigs for his further experiments. This doesn’t go down well with the other shipwreck survivors — Patricia’s new love interest Jim, her comedy-relief aunt Margaret (Una Merkel) and comedy-relief palooka Nat Pendleton — and they devise a plan to discredit him among the natives and make it possible to escape.

Comments: This clunker hasn’t appeared very often on Horror Incorporated, a fact for which we should all be grateful. It’s a mess of a film, wasting the considerable talents of star Lionel Atwill. The production values are meager, though that’s not a huge concern; you could have said the same for many Universal programmers of the time. All the fatal flaws in this misbegotten film can be traced back to the screenplay.

Judging from its title, you might imagine The Mad Doctor of Market Street would be a Victorian thriller, taking place on the foggy streets of London, featuring stylized laboratories, dogged police detectives and secret passages, but the Market Street locale is abandoned five minutes into the picture. In its place we get a lazy cinematic caricature of the South Pacific, which screenwriter Al Martin has evoked with the authenticity of a can of Hawaiian Punch and all the rich characterization found in an episode of Gilligan’s Island.

Martin, in fact, is such an inept screenwriter that he apparently forgot to provide us with a protagonist; Benson is far too unsympathetic to serve as an antihero, and his fellow castaways are so bland that we have no interest in what happens to them whatsoever. And when the mad doctor gets his inevitable comeuppance, it’s a letdown, because he was bested by such a gaggle of idiots.

In fact, The Mad Doctor of Market Street presents us with such lousy specimens of the human animal, I am tempted to think that Martin’s script was trying to sneak in an existentialist subtext. Certainly, life couldn’t seem more absurd or meaningless than it does at the end of The Mad Doctor of Market Street. Only Martin’s colossal incompetence at every other facet of screenwriting keep me from taking such an idea seriously.

Alas, Atwill’s long service to Universal studios was nearly over by this time. Atwill was well-known for throwing wild parties — orgies, actually — and after one particular gathering ended with a visit from the police, Lionel’s film career turned sour. Bounced out of Universal in 1943, he wound up doing Poverty Row cheapies until his death in 1946.

As to Una Merkel, Nat Pendleton and the rest of the cast of this dreary production, all I can express is gratitude that they will not be pestering us on the Horror Incorporated screen in future weeks. None of them worked extensively in genre films, and none of them appeared in other films included in the original Shock! package.

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