Consider this a follow-up to last week’s column. In my musings about the Big Bug movies, I mentioned that Tarantula had only just become available for the first time as part of a Best Buy-exclusive box set of Universal SF flicks. I’ve managed to lay my hands on this set (again, you can track it down through Amazon if you’re not having any luck with Best Buy itself – for Canadian readers, I should mention that my attempts to track the disc down through the Best Buy website proved fruitless), and for fans of 50’… SF, and particularly the work of Jack Arnold, this is Christmas come early.
Jarck Arnold directed many of the most important SF films of the 1950s. Two of his most beloved films – Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and It Came From Outer Space (1953) – have been out on disc for some time. Most of the other big titles associated with his name are finally available here. One stop shopping.
Tarantula (1955), as I said last week, is the best giant insect movie after Them!. Arnold regular John Agar is the local doctor of a small desert town (a recurring setting in Arnold’s SF films, beginning with It Came From Outer Space) who is suspicious when a man is found dead of acromegaly, a disease which should take years to develop, but has apparently struck this man almost overnight. His investigations lead him to discover that reclusive scientist Leo G. Carroll has been experimenting with a growth serum, and one of its subjects, a rapidly growing tarantula, has escaped. The setting is compellingly eerie, making for some very atmospheric night attacks by the tarantula, and the special effects are superb.
Arnold’s masterpiece is also present here: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). This film alone would be worth the price of the collection, and it is presented here at last in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Grant Williams, bathed in a mysterious radioactive cloud, begins to shrink. At first the primary effect is to put great strain on his marriage – as far as he is concerned, size does indeed matter, and the sexual implications of his condition are handled obliquely but are a clear undercurrent. But his problems continue to grow – soon he is living in a doll house, and the housecat is after him. Later, his nemesis is a spider. The special effects still hold up well today. Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay, adapting his own novel, and the result is one of the best SF movies of that decade.
Monster on the Campus (1958) is Arnold’s least significant SF entry, but for completion’s sake, it’s nice to see it here, and it remains entertaining. This one has Arthur Franz as the college professor who contracts an infection from a prehistoric fish, and regresses down the evolutionary scale, becoming a murderous ape man.
Arnold didn’t direct The Monolith Monsters (1957), but he did co-write the story, and the desert setting is classically Arnoldian. Here, crystals from a meteor grow to towering heights, shatter, multiply, and grow again when exposed to water. Anyone who touches one of these runs the risk of turning to stone (assuming they avoid being crushed). That’s right, it’s Magic Crystals From Hell. The premise is ludicrous, but it works spectacularly well. The rumbling sound as these killer dominoes march down the valley toward the tone is deeply ominous, and, the effects are outstanding. This is a movie that works so much better than it has any right to, and is one of the underrated gems of the period. Grant Williams is the geologist who races to solve the problem.
Finally, The Mole People (1956) sees John Agar and friends discovering an underground civilization where the titular creatures are the slaves. The make-up is interesting, and the film has a nostalgic appeal, but it is the most minor work in the collection. Again, fans of the period won’t want to pass it up regardless. It many not be an important work, but it has its place.
So there we go – most of Universal’s MIA SF films are now on disc. The collection is bare bones, but given that you’re getting five sought-after movies in one set, who’s complaining? I’m not.