Tarantula

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Shout! Factory;
Horror;
$29.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll.

My ex-wife says that 1955’s Tarantula is the ’50s mutation pic that most freaked her out as a child, and I suspect that my reaction would have been the same had I been able to catch it in in early ’56. That’s when it played my main neighborhood theater following a downtown run that had paired this desert chiller with the William Campbell-Mamie Van Doren-Keenan Wynn biker pic Running Wild, a double bill that appeals to me more than anything I’ve seen on my local multiplex marquee this year. (For one thing, I never miss any Keenan Wynn movie about hot wheels.) Unfortunately, my parents wanted me to do something comparably dull instead — I think it was something really unreasonable like eating Sunday dinner with the family — and the huge argument that ensued means that I didn’t catch one of the most essential creature features until college.

And more than a decade after its first release, Tarantula was still very good of its kind, as Parents magazine used to say in its monthly movie guide: compact (though even at 80 minutes, there’s a little too much yakking); helped by a casting mix that works; and the visual advantage of watching the jumbo title “thing” stalking the wide-open desert (I don’t think the clutter of a metropolitan setting would have worked as well). And, let’s face it: On a warm-and-fuzzy level, tarantulas may well have the “fuzzy” part covered — but in my experience, the only guys who have tarantulas as pets are pot dealers who also have 500 pet mice in their apartments when someone goes over to buy a lid. In other words, it’s not like 1957’s The Deadly Mantis, in which you can say: “everyone loves praying mantes — most of the time.” Conversely, nobody’s going to lobby against dead tarantulas, even though they’re generally harmless to humans unless agitated.

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But not this one. Baby boomer favorite Leo G. Carroll, who in ’55 had just completed his network run with the title role in TV’s “Topper” before years of syndication, plays a scientist who works in secrecy way out in Nowhere, Ariz. In a large isolated home that Universal-International recycled from 1948’s Tap Roots and other studio predecessors, caged creatures lounge around behind glass enclosures between injections of serum that Professor Carroll is guinea-pigging them with; it’s part of an experiment he hopes will cure world food shortages. As a result, these animals grow at an amazing rate, with the bunnies evolving on a dime from teensy little things into a casting call for Night of the Lepus. So you can imagine the terror that ensues (to say nothing of the amount of livestock remains on the ground) once a similarly affected tarantula skedaddles — the damned thing moves surprisingly fast — out of the lab.

This escape occurs due to an unfortunate side effect when the serum is injected into humans: acromegaly (which the script manages to call by a slightly different name) — a distorter of hands, feet and sometimes facial features. One of these victims — and as with a similarly afflicted and similarly dying colleague we see in the first scene, he’s now uuuuuuuggggg-ly — decides as a final gesture to attack Carroll in the lab and inject him with the same stuff, which results in a physical altercation that busts open cages and, well, you get the idea. I have to believe that for 1955 Baby Boomers, the continuing sight of Cosmo Topper with his face falling off (with each shot of him worse than the last) was as scary as the giant tarantula, which, make no mistake, is imposing.

Clint Eastwood had four big-screen bit parts in his ’55 debut year (including one in Lady Godiva, which my prurient 8-year-old side really wanted to see at the time, and not because Grant Withers was also in it). In this case, Clint’s face is obscured behind Air Force goggles once the nearly-beaten desert authorities have no other recourse other than to say, “Bring on the napalm.” But the main leads are (as a local doc) John Agar, whose earnestness I always found appealing — plus U-I contract babe and future lifelong Eastwood pal Mara Corday as another ’50s scientist’s assistant who could just as well be one of that decade’s Playboy Playmates, which, matter of fact, Corday was in real life. According to the bonus commentary by Tom Weaver, who wrote the sci-fi movie book (actually, he wrote many more than one), poor Agar signed with the studio in hopes of getting more substantial parts than playing opposite Cleo Moore in Bait over at Columbia for Hugo Haas. Whereupon, U-I put Agar in Revenge of the Creature (coincidentally Eastwood’s debut), then let him sit around for a year before putting him in Tarantula. (As for The Mole People, which followed later, I didn’t even like that one when I was a kid.)

The commentary, which can be funny and is shared with David Schecter and Robert J. Kiss, is a new one on me: actors are utilized to deliver quotes from Weaver’s many interviews of sci-fi movie principals, including some of the talents here. Schecter does a riff of 10 or 11 minutes on how Tarantula’s effective score here was largely patched together from previous pictures, while Weaver offers persuasive evidence that the movie’s cult director, Jack Arnold, was apparently one of those guys who claimed credit for everything (though if I’d been Jack, I’d have blamed Bob Hope’s A Global Affair on someone else).

The estimable Gary Tooze of DVD Beaver recently knocked this Blu-ray’s look on the website, and anyone hoping that the movie will look as sharp as the recent Val Lewton RKO’s from Scream Factory should forget it. My own view is that the 1.33:1 copy on Koch Media’s Reg. B import looks the best (but that means 1.33 for a December 1955 release) and that the 1.78 alternative on the same disc is too grainy for my eye. That leaves this new 1.85 Scream Factory version somewhere in the middle — a nice width-to-height rendering but otherwise only on the high side of just OK.

And speaking of Inside Baseball (or maybe Inside Insects), the movie’s title appears as Tarantula on the screen — sans exclamation point — but as Tarantula! nearly everywhere else these days, including on the package art and menu here. As one who assisted Leonard Maltin on his Movie Guide dating back to when The Osmonds were charting, I can tell you that Len spent half of his adult life trying to sort out this kind of twisted arcania, which more than once must have made him ask, “I went to NYU for this?” It’s the kind of thing that makes you wish you’d pursued a more reputable profession in life — like, say, mad scientist. Though truth to tell, Carroll’s character really isn’t mad here but one who simply fell in with the wrong crowd, as in once diminutive tarantulas who eventually necessitate the employment of bombing crews.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Face in the Crowd’ and ‘Tarantula’

Scream Factory Releasing ‘Universal Horror Collection Vol. 1’ Blu-ray June 18

Scream Factory, the horror imprint of multi-platform distributor Shout! Factory, will release Universal Horror Collection Vol. 1 on Blu-ray June 18. Celebrating the legacy of horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, the collection includes their collaborations in the films The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936) and Black Friday (1940).

The Black Cat will include new commentaries from film historians Gregory William Mank and Steve Haberman, the documentary “Dreams Within a Dream: The Classic Cinema of Edgar Allan Poe” narrated by Doug Bradley, the featurette “A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal Part One — The Black Cat,” and vintage footage of “The Black Cat Contest.”

The Raven comes with a new 2K scan of the original film elements, plus a commentary with Haberman, another commentary with Gary D. Rhodes, the featurette “A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal Part Two — The Raven,” and an audio recording of Lugosi reading Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.

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The Invisible Ray features a new 2K scan of the original film elements, a commentary with film historians Tom Weaver and Randall Larson, the featurette “A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal Part Three — The Invisible Ray,” and a Re-Release theatrical trailer.

Black Friday comes with a new 2K scan of the original film elements, a commentary with film historian Constantine Nasr, the featurette “A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal Part Four — Black Friday,” an “Inner Sanctum Mystery Radio Show” performances of The Tell-Tale Heart starring Boris Karloff, and the theatrical trailer.

All films will also include still galleries.

‘Bojack Horseman’ Seasons One and Two on Blu-ray July 31

Multi-platform media distributor Shout! Factory will release BoJack Horseman: Seasons One & Two on Blu-ray July 31.

The animated Netflix comedy series centers on the title character (voiced by Will Arnett), an anthropomorphized horse who is a troubled former sitcom star struggling through life with whisky and failed relationships. Now, in the presence of his human sidekick Todd (Aaron Paul) and his feline agent and ex-paramour Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), BoJack is primed for his comeback. The series also stars Alison Brie and Paul F. Tompkins.

Bonus features have yet to be announced.

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Fans who order directly from Shout! Factory (www.shoutfactory.com/shop) can purchase a limited collector’s edition that includes a set of six laminated cork-base coasters featuring the lead characters.

‘Bojack Horseman’ Blu-ray with Shout! Factory online-exclusive coaster set

Shout! Factory Announces Blu-ray Slate for Pride Month

Shout! Factory is preparing to release the Blu-ray debuts of Boom!, Jeffrey, Can’t Stop the Music and To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar.

May 28 sees the Blu-ray release of To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar, starring Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, John Leguizamo, Stockard Channing, Blythe Danner, Arliss Howard and Chris Penn. Extras inclue deleted scenes, trailers and TV spots, and the new retrospective “Easy Rider in Dresses: A Look Back at the Making of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” featuring actor Leguizamo, Director Beeban Kidron and screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane.

Also due May 28 is the Blu-ray of Boom!, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Noel Coward. Extras include vintage photo galleries, the original theatrical trailer, a new commentary with filmmaker John Waters, and the new featurette “The Sound of a Bomb: Contextualizing Boom!” with film critic/author Alonso Duralde.

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Arriving June 11 is the Blu-ray for Jeffrey, starring Steven Weber, Patrick Stewart, Michael T. Weiss, Bryan Batt and Sigourney Weaver. Extras include the original theatrical trailer, a still gallery, a new commentary with Weber and Duralde, and new interviews with Weber and producer Mark Balsam.

Also releasing June 11 is the Blu-ray of the 1980 musical Can’t Stop the Music, starring the Village People, Valerie Perrine, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Sand. Extras include image galleries, original trailers and TV spots, a new interview with the Village People’s Randy Jones, and a new commentary with The Fabulous Allan Carr producer/director Jeffrey Schwarz and comedy writer Bruce Vilanch.

 

Shout! Factory Releasing Complete ‘Space: 1999’ Series on Blu-ray

Martin Landau in “Space: 1999”

Shout! Factory will release Space: 1999 — The Complete Series on Blu-ray and DVD July 16.

The set will include all 48 episodes of the 1975-77 sci-fi series, plus a disc of bonus material.

Barbara Bain and Martin Landau in “Space: 1999”

The show focuses on the adventures of the team at Moonbase Alpha after a nuclear waste explosion pushes the moon out of Earth’s orbit and hurtling through space. Martin Landau stars as base commander John Koenig. The cast also includes Barbara Bain, Barry Morse and Catherine Schell.

“Space: 1999” Eagle Transporters

The complete-series release marks the first time the second season will be available on Blu-ray in the United States. The first season was released on a now out-of-print Blu-ray set by A&E in 2010. Both seasons have been available on Blu-ray overseas for years.

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ShoutFactory.com is taking preorders on a limited-edition set that comes with a four-inch snowglobe featuring an Eagle Transporter landing on the Moon.

Shout! Factory Releasing ‘Valentine: The Dark Avenger’ May 14

Shout! Factory will release the Indonesian actioner Valentine: The Dark Avenger on Blu-ray, DVD, digital and major VOD platforms May 14.

The film focuses on a waitress named Srimaya (Estelle Linden), who lives in the crime-infested city of Batavia. Her dreams of becoming an actress are given a boost by a chance meeting with a film director that leads to her transformation as the costumed superhero Valentine. But as she emerges as a role model for the people, a new villain emerges that will put her resolve to the test.

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Mike’s Picks: ‘The Body Snatcher’ and ‘Road to Utopia’

The Body Snatcher

Shout! Factory, Horror, $29.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Russell Wade.
1945.
The Body Snatcher finds the young Robert Wise in his career breakout (or something close), adapting a Robert Louis Stevenson story into a 77-minute fan favorite that goes against certain expectations.
Extras: Beyond 4K scanning, the Blu-ray is a nice mix between the recycled and new, starting with a shared commentary between Wise (who died in 2005) and Steve Haberman. There’s also the 2005 doc Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy, plus the new featurette You’ll Never Get Rid of Me: Resurrecting The Body Snatcher.
Read the Full Review 

Road to Utopia

Kino Lorber; Comedy; $24.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, Douglass Dumbrille.
1945.
The fourth of the “Road” pictures hinges on a stolen map to an Alaskan gold mine.
Extras: In addition to recycling a long-ago featurette on the series, there’s a new joint commentary by producer/historian Greg Ford and music historian Will Friedwald. We also get the 1945 short subject Hollywood Victory Caravan.
Read the Full Review

The Body Snatcher

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Shout! Factory;
Horror;
$29.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Russell Wade.

The Body Snatcher from 1945 finds the young Robert Wise in his career breakout (or something close), adapting a Robert Louis Stevenson story that does not have celestial seed pods nor Dana Wynter in a cocktail dress as standout components. The result is a 77-minute fan favorite that goes against certain expectations, though most would venture a good (and also correct) guess that Val Lewton produced it. Lewton’s onetime boss David O. Selznick may have had Dom Perignon budgets at his disposal, but Lewton had to do it the hard way. His touch remains as unmistakable here in terms of mood, atmospherics and tight storytelling — except that he had to produce quality on bankrolls, which, by comparison to the wallet marked DOS, conceivably might have floated a six-pack of Nehi’s.

The mild surprises I noted come in the casting. Here’s a Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi pairing filmed not at those horror titans’ standard homestead Universal but at RKO — though, yes, 1940’s You’ll Find Out had been at RKO as well. Of course, that one was primarily a Kay Kyser musical, which tends to take it out of this discussion — though I suppose one can make a case that Ish Kabibble (who was popular band leader Kyser’s house lunatic) was as scary as either. The other surprise here has to do with some misleading hype: against Lewton’s wishes, a second-billed Lugosi was added to the cast as an afterthought for some added box office clout — and yet it’s a surprisingly small role even if Lugosi does totally nail it in one his big scene here of note.

In truth, all three principals nail what primarily turns out to be a heavyweight acting duel between Karloff and Henry Daniell, as the former finesses a characterization fully equatable with his career meal-ticket Frankenstein — while Daniell carries a huge chunk of the story’s dramatic load playing a med-school proprietor and potentially brilliant surgeon who’s also become a borderline dissipated sot. The latter’s fall from grace is due to the Daniell character’s sanctioning of grave-robbing from a nearby cemetery in 1831 Edinburgh to make it possible for his students to have hands-on experience, which is probably not the way to get invited to all the best parties. Karloff is the actual robber who graduates to the deal-breaking practice of murder, and their unholy alliance extends way back into their younger days — leading to a kind of blackmail situation that pretty well guaranteed that Karloff would become a lifelong leech.

A master at projecting constipated villainy often accompanied by a mean streak, Daniell had been unforgettable not long before his turn as boarding school proprietor Reverend Brocklehurst in the 20th Century-Fox version of Jane Eyre — the one whose sadistic severity leads to little Elizabeth Taylor’s death from pneumonia. In Body Snatchers, his character is rigid as well, yet with a sympathetic streak that suggests a potentially good man, at least at the beginning, who never had a chance to relax. It takes nearly a movie’s length of prodding even to get him to consider operating on a little girl (RKO’s resident femme child Sharyn Moffett) whose paralysis he might cure.

As the editor of Citizen Kane, the young Wise had wanted to direct, and he got his chance for at least a shared on-screen credit when initially hired Gunther V. Fritsch fell behind schedule on Lewton’s The Curse of the Cat People and had to be replaced mid-production. Wise’s work pleased the studio, and his work was seamless with Fritsch’s — something you can easily see in People’s earlier Scream Factory Blu-ray release. That one was more visually stunning (particularly in the Simone Simon apparition scenes) than this heavily nocturnal Stevenson yarn, but this Body Snatchers Blu-ray is a big leap over the old DVD. Beyond that, it rarely lets up in the character dynamics, and even the comparably bland Russell Wade as a med school student/assistant projects the naive sincerity his role demands.

Lewton produced 11 low-budget movies at RKO from 1942 to 1946 (two of them unsuccessful non-horror entries) after his Cat People debut became one of the biggest box office sleepers of the war years. Body Snatchers came late in the horror cycle (seventh of the nine) after a multi-picture contract with Karloff pushed the series into a slightly higher production bracket. Though their choice of material couldn’t have been more different, Lewton’s success was eerily reminiscent of Preston Sturges’; both filmmakers were like comets who had an amazing but brief run of movies that are as good now as when they were made. Oddly, Lewton’s slide began when he left RKO for Paramount after a contract skirmish, while Sturges lost his touch after leaving Paramount for — talk about a fool’s errand — a typically pipe dream deal with mercurial Howard Hughes.

Beyond 4K scanning, the Blu-ray is a nice mix between the recycled and new, starting with a shared commentary between Wise (who died in 2005) and Steve Haberman, whose credits include the screenplay for Mel Brooks’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It, whose stake-through-the-heart scene got the single hardest guffaws I ever heard at a New York press screening. Both voiceovers are self-contained, with Haberman taking over after Wise’s personal reminisces (i.e. they’re not scene-specific) about what was for him a pleasant experience. There’s also the 2005 doc Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy, plus a new featurette (You’ll Never Get Rid of Me: Resurrecting The Body Snatcher) that in part tries making the quite defensible case that this was the best horror film of the ‘40s.

When all was said and done, Wise also rated Body Snatchers as a personal career favorite, along with The Set-Up, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Sand Pebbles, to name three for which he had significant fondness. I’m assuming he had considerable affection for West Side Story and The Sound of Music as well, both Oscar winners that were a long way from the Lewton pictures, Wise had his share of clunkers to go along the films of his that are still beloved, but there weren’t too many directors whose careers had as many dimensions.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Body Snatcher’ and ‘Road to Utopia’

Anime Anthology ‘Modest Heroes’ Due June 18

Shout! Factory and animation distributor GKIDS will release the animated anthology Modest Heroes: Ponoc Short Films Theatre Vol. 1 digitally and as a Blu-ray/DVD combo June 18.

From the Studio Ponoc, creators of Mary and The Witch’s Flower, Modest Heroes offers three tales crafted by some of the top talent working in Japanese animation today.

“Kanini & Kanino” was directed by Academy Award-nominee Hiromasa Yonebayashi; “Life Ain’t Gonna Lose” features the voice of Maggie Q and was helmed by Yoshiyuki Momose, who was a key animator at Studio Ghibli; and “Invisible” director Akihiko Yamashita was a key animator on many of Hayao Miyazaki’s best-known films. Each is produced by Studio Ponoc founder Yoshiaki Nishimura.

Extras include the featurette “Modest Heroes of Studio Ponoc, the film completion press conference, interviews with the Japanese voice cast, art galleries, trailers and TV spots.

‘Tito and the Birds’ Flying to Home Video April 23

Shout! Factory’s Shout! Studios will release the animated Tito and the Birds digitally and as a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack April 23.

Mixing expressionist influences with a vibrant palette, the film tells the story of a shy 10-year-old boy living in a world gripped with fears over a pandemic. He learns from his father’s past research that there may be a way to utilize the local pigeon population and their songs to create a cure for the disease.

Tito and the Birds premiered in competition at the 2018 Annecy International Animated Film Festival, and won the Best Feature for Children at Anima Mundi 2018. It was nominated for an Annie Award for Best Animated Feature — Independent.

Extras include the theatrical trailer and an interview with filmmaker Gustavo Steinberg and director Gabriel Bitar.