Saturday, February 6, 2010

"Tarantula" and the crow-killing tension

Title: Tarantula
Released: 1955
Genre: Giant-insect terror
Notable because: Clint never again appears in a science fiction film
Clint's subliminal message: "Here I come to save the day!"

Yet another uncredited bit role for Clint this time has the added indignity of almost completely obscuring his face for the few seconds he appears onscreen. But at least he played a hero for the first time in his meager career.

By all rights, this film should have had no chance to impress us. As we sat down with Hungry Howie's pizza and hit the "play" button, tension filled the room. To shorten a long story of guns and family control, Andrew made plans to hunt crows (or "sky rats" as he so elegantly calls them) with a friend over Brad's profane objection.

"Bullshit," Brad said. "You mean you want to murder crows. I am not letting you hunt anything we don't eat. And we are not going to eat crows."

Andrew rolled his eyes and explained his justification as if his father is mentally retarded. His friend, Andrew claims, traps fur-bearing animals (did I mention we live in the land political correctness forgot?) and uses crows for bait. He supposedly calls crows into shooting range like real hunting, as opposed to blasting them off dead raccoons at the side of the road.

Brad has no idea if this could be true if he is being played for a sucker. Either way, parental authority is slipping away forever.

To our great surprise, we liked "Tarantula" enough to forget about the crows. We liked it right up to the very end.

The plot revolves around a mad scientist who develops a nutrition formula that makes animals huge. Naturally, one of his huge animals is a tarantula spider, which, naturally, escapes and, naturally, terrorizes a small desert town.

The "science" part of the science fiction is sometimes so lame it is amusing. Once a character pointed at a beaker of liquid and said, "Say, is that an isotope?"

Special effects are predictably primitive. Close-up footage of a real tarantula is superimposed in the background of exterior scenes. This makes the relative size of the spider change from scene to scene. Sometimes he looks big as a house and sometimes big as a cruise ship.

A shotgun, machine guns (which we are to believe were part of the standard arsenal of sheriffs in rural Arizona during the 1950s) and dynamite all do no good to kill the spider. Click here for a video clip.

Faced with an insect too powerful to be killed by conventional weapons, the townsfolk call in the Air Force. This is where Clint finally comes into the picture. Sort of.

Playing the leader of an Air Force jet squadron, Clint's face is almost completely covered by an oxygen mask.

"Alright, men, fire two rockets on this first pass," he says.

The rockets blast into the spider and -- nothing. The tarantula does not flinch.

An astute viewer then assumes there must be some secret to kill the tarantula. Maybe a formula to reverse the giantism. Maybe he cannot stand cold, like The Blob. Who knows?

Then Clint and the boys make another pass and drop napalm. The spider burns and the closing credits roll.

"That's it?" Brad and Andrew said in unison. "Napalm does the trick?"

It was an unsatisfactory conclusion but at least Clint, as a representative of American military might, was the guy who saved the town.

He was more successful than Brad's effort to save the crows.

Next up: "Never Say Goodbye."

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