Thursday, January 3, 2013

Director Spotlight: Jack Arnold

Some of my favorite movies are from the 1950s, I have to admit. Of the films from that era, I have a handful of favorites—six to be exact—that have a couple of things in common. One item of note is that they are all Universal Studios films and the other is that they were all directed by Jack Arnold.
Now, I never noticed that these films were directed by him until I purchased the “Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection” a few years back and saw that three of his films were included on it. Also, when revisiting a few of the other ones, I couldn’t help but notice his name on those as well. That’s when I took a glance on IMDb and saw that he had quite a résumé listed.

At first, I was going to pick one of his films to review, but seeing that they’re all such excellent films from that time, I decided to talk about all of them. And although his list of films starts in 1947, I’m going to go ahead a few years and start with 1953.

1953’s It Came From Outer Space is a great film of the atomic age based on a Ray Bradbury story about an alien takeover of a small town in Arizona. The film stars Richard Carlson as John Putnam, who suspects aliens are affecting the people of the town after seeing a craft crashing to Earth. Nobody believes him as the aliens are able to easily take the identities of the townsfolk.

What’s notable about this film, and it’s commented on during a featurette on the DVD, is that it’s the first film to be shown in 3D. A couple of historians that spoke on the vignette said that it was one of the best presentations of 3D in any film of that time.

The special effects are cheesy, the design of the alien costume is a little laughable, the situations don’t seem dangerous, but that’s what makes an excellent 1950s sci-fi flick! This movie was released three years before the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it’s basically the same story—well-acted and a treat to watch.

Next, in Jack Arnold’s catalog of films is one we should all know. It’s probably the one that Jack Arnold is best known for and another 3D production that historians note as an excellent presentation of the gimmick that is currently overused by countless movies today. The film is 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Although another black & white film, this movie is handsomely captured, especially the underwater scenes showing the creature swimming. One scene to note is the scene where our leading lady, Kay (Julie Adams), is taking a swim in the river and, unbeknownst to her, the creature is swimming right underneath her, almost mimicking her strokes.

The film is the first in a trilogy and Jack Arnold returned the following year, in 1955, to once again take over the director’s chair for the sequel, Revenge of the Creature.

In this first sequel, the creature is captured and brought to Florida to be kept in captivity at a marine tourist park. Of course, the creature escapes and runs amok, causing terror to anyone who comes across it.

One thing to note is that the film was actually filmed in Florida and not in the back lot of Universal Studios...not even California. But it’s still an enjoyable film and interesting to see how they decided to go with the sequel. And although Jack Arnold didn’t direct the second sequel, The Creature Walks Among Us, it’s still worth a watch.

After directing a western and a few episodes of “Science Fiction Theatre,” Jack Arnold, again, returned to Universal to film another sci-fi thriller. This time around, he decided to go big…way big…and filmed a creature-feature that terrified audiences and still keeps me on the edge of my seat every time I watch this flick. The film is 1955’s Tarantula and it’s one of his best movies from this decade.

Although it’s the same old plot formula with a mad scientist making some sort of chemical concoction to make animals grow at an accelerated rate, it's still a blast to watch. When a human experiment fights back and destroys the scientist’s lab, one of his test subjects—a tarantula—is able to get out of its container and go out into the desert and nearby farming lands. As it eats animals, cattle and some humans, it’s able to keep growing until it seems as if it can never be stopped.

I love watching this movie, again to see the familiar facades of the Universal back lot, but just to take in the formulaic storylines of that era. I’d put this as number two out of Jack Arnold’s inventory of films. The special effects were so well done that I can’t believe this was accomplished in 1955. The animals—and tarantula—in their confines were a standout in the beginning as they appeared enormous in size. The scenes with the tarantula climbing over mountains and crawling up the highway were a stunning sight to see.

Now, what would I put as the number one film that I’ve seen from this director? What movie did he direct a mere two years later in 1957 which, again, used top notch special effects (for its time) for Universal Studios? Why, it’d have to be The Incredible Shrinking Man, of course!

Jack Arnold filmed this one after directing two movies in 1956. But, I must say, I love this movie…the cool acting of Grant Williams in the lead as the unlucky Scott Carey, the special effects, the set designs…just everything about it.

It’s pretty amazing how well of a job the special effects team was able to create sets to make it look like Grant Williams was shrinking. The oversized chairs, phone, pencil, furniture…it’s so cool to see this. And even though the editing of normal-sized characters next to Grant Williams’s shrunken self wasn’t top-notch, it still gave you the idea of what his character was going through. Especially the scenes involving the cat with the dollhouse and tarantula in the basement…wow…I can’t say enough about this film.

Being that it was adapted by a Richard Matheson story, I think that helped quite a bit. But it was well done and very entertaining.

Arnold filmed a few more films, and then returned to Universal once again to film a pretty cheesy monster movie. Even though it’s considered a B-movie at best, it’s still a favorite of mine to visit annually…1958’s Monster on the Campus.

Once again, cheesy effects really plague this film, to the point that you can’t help but laugh. The make-up work for the monster in this looks just like a loose-fitting mask you’d find at a costume shop during Halloween, there’s a flying giant dragonfly that you can clearly see strings attached to it, the main prop of a primitive fish looks cheap and obviously made of foam or plastic, yet I love this movie so much.

The main storyline is borrowed heavily from The Wolf Man as the main character changes to a caveman when he gets the plasma of the fish into his system, whether from a cut or…smoking it? But the flick is one of those films where you enjoy it for the tackiness it displays, so take it with a grain of salt.

So, there you have it…the six films of Jack Arnold that I really appreciate. Although, there was one film he wrote that I love as well, even though he didn’t direct it, was the film, The Monolith Monsters. Also worth a watch, it’s part of my “Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection,” so it’s always part of my 1950s movie marathon I watch annually.

One constant of most of the films from Jack Arnold is that most of these were filmed in the back lot of Universal Studios. If you’re a fan of the Back to the Future films, you’ll recognize the town area as Courthouse Square…there’s no mistaking it.

I don’t know what I like most about these films and why I love watching them so much. My wife pointed out about how she loves glancing at them every so often so she can get a look at the fashion the women wore during that time, and I get a kick out of that as well. I guess I like that too, how most of the men always wore a shirt and tie and how the women were always wearing dresses, the hair and faces made up, I get a kick out of checking out the 1950s cars, the ways of life during that time…I really can’t put my finger on it. Most people I know can’t stand watching anything in black & white, but I love it. Maybe it’s the historical value of the films and how it gives you a window to look into the past.

But, those six are my favorite films from the late, great Jack Arnold. He has a much larger summary of films and television shows, but I just wanted to go through the few films that I exceptionally appreciate. If you were to look at his list of films, he directed many westerns and crime dramas. As time went on, he directed episodes of “Rawhide”, “Perry Mason,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “The Brady Bunch,” and many other well-known television programs. Seems as if he had a great career following these films I’ve just reviewed, with many directing gigs in some of the most popular TV shows of our time. Sadly, he passed away in 1992 at the age of 75, but his movies and television programs will live in imfamy.

My final “bit” is for you to go look for the “Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection” on DVD. They are some of the best Universal has to offer in the 1950s era sci-fi flicks.  I highly recommend it.

Well, once again, thank you for reading and you can reach me on Twitter: @CinemaBits.