In honour of John Landis’ Monsters in the Movies which, as mentioned in the previous post, I’ve been working my way through, on Saturday night I decided to sit myself down for a ‘creature feature’ double bill of DVDs, and immediately ran up against the fact that I don’t seem to have many creature features in my film collection. Yeah, I have giant leeches, huge pigs and snakes with anger management issues, but very little that I regard as suitably ‘monstrous’ (it’s got to be big). Eventually though, I ended up with…
It was made the year after I was born, and I still have fond memories of watching it on TV way back when, a film that plugs into our fears of men and women in white coats, our suspicion of what those scientists are getting up to in their laboratories. Leo G. Carroll as Prof Deemer is trying to solve world hunger by developing a serum that will sustain life, though there appear to be regrettable side effects, such as giantism in his animal test subjects and accelerated acromegaly in humans who inject themselves. And then there’s a fire at his laboratory and a tarantula escapes after getting sprayed with the serum. Oops! At first preying on livestock, as it grows ever bigger the tarantula knocks down a house and then squares up to tear the nearest town apart. It’s up to noble Dr Matt (John Agar) and love interest come lab assistant ‘Steve’ (Mara Corday) to save the day, with a little help from the USAF.
This all seems a little dated now, with the idea of scientists in private labs conducting research programmes that would probably cost billions a particular sticking point, while Deemer’s projections for world population growth have proved somewhat conservative. And, as a side issue, it’s interesting how in nearly all of these old SF movies the hero owns a plane. Yet for all that, there is still a hint of relevance, with GM foods an issue that hasn’t gone away, and if you ignore how ludicrous it all seems, the naff by modern standards sfx, then this is an enjoyable slice of hokum, with the giant spider a seriously unpleasant piece of work and a lot of ground covered in less than eighty minutes. The scene where ‘Steve’ is trapped in Deemer’s house was particularly effective, the lab assistant oblvious as the spider peers in the windows. One thing that occurred to me while watching this, you could never have made King Kong with a spider instead of a giant ape – with that movie it’s the common ground with humanity that makes it work, whereas the tarantula is totally alien, and that’s what makes it monstrous. I say that as somebody who is rather fond of spiders, albeit I’ve never encountered a tarantula, giant or otherwise.
I caught this at the cinema when it came out and thoroughly enjoyed it, a feeling that remains today (but the sequels I’ve seen are utter tosh). Worms are unpleasant squishy things, and giant worms even more so, though the ‘grabboids’ in this film aren’t exactly worms, with their impressively minatory mouthful of snake headed tentacles that bring to mind the hydra of mythology. No explanation, no rationale for what is taking place, just an isolated desert community where inexplicable and ominous things start to occur, culminating in an attack by four monstrous grabboids and a life or death struggle. Fortunately Kevin Bacon is on hand to save the day, and so too are a couple of survivalists who are all geared up for World War 3, with enough weaponry to equip a small army.
It’s great stuff, almost a textbook example of how to do a creature feature. Early on we get the human dimension, with the characters sketched out, especially Bacon and Fred Ward as the roguish jack of all trades partners, and Finn Carter’s seismology student. Next we get the first signs that something is wrong, with unexplained earth tremors, a man found dead up a ‘pole’, a road crew killed by something below the ground, the nature of the threat never fully revealed, though a scene in which a pneumatic drill moves away from a workman is highly suggestive (and odd enough to be memorable). And then it’s total war, with firepower and human ingenuity pitted against the elemental and vicious grabboids, who grow in cunning as the movie progresses. While the human victims are there to solicit viewer empathy, each grabboid kill is a set piece, with the final death a particular triumph, and as the story progresses the film capitalises on the way in which the character groundwork was laid, with Bacon and Ward’s actions entirely consistent with the people they’ve been portrayed as. A shout out to to the survivalists, gloriously over the top with their love of guns and all things military, but never to the point where they become caricatures, still with a ‘caring’ dimension to them so that they come across as eccentric rather than utterly bonkers. I loved it.
I’m now thinking about writing a story in which a giant teddy bear stomps on New York. Also pondering who’d win in a battle between grabboids and a giant tarantula. Anyone want to give me odds on the tarantula?