Multiple Legs and a Bad Attitude – By Philip Smolen

Most children are fascinated with insects, and I was no exception. My sister and I used to explore the undeveloped lots on our block looking for bugs. One of our favorite things to do was find a large rock and turn it over to see what life forms existed there. We were mesmerized by the myriad of crawling and burrowing fauna. We would marvel at them, point out different specimens to each other, and ask questions. If we didn’t know what the species was, we would put one in a jar, run home and ask our mother. If she didn’t know, we found ourselves going to the library to check out books that had photographs of insect life.

Probably because of this fascination, big bug movies became a logical obsession for me. There’s something innately creepy about seeing a creature that’s harmless in real life, enlarged to gargantuan proportions on the screen. The whole “what if” idea of insects bringing their ferocious (and instinct-driven) ways to the world of man and dominating him made them perfect villains for the atomic age. For Hollywood, the big bug craze started with Them. Although there were movies that featured giant insects before (usually a giant spider as in 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad and Mesa of Lost Women [see below]), Them was the first to present a horde of giant creatures as the main menace. Here was a film from a major Hollywood studio (Warner Brothers) that featured a clever script, superior acting and Oscar nominated special effects. Though studio head Jack Warner was furious that Them was produced, and did his best to hamper the production (he cut the color filming and the proposed 3D), the film was a monstrous hit becoming one of Warner’s highest grossing films of the year.

Them proved so popular that it was logical for other film makers to jump on the bandwagon and create more giant insect movies. However, with few exceptions, most were not as successful. As is the usual case in Hollywood, a trendsetting film inspires a host of inferior copies. While these movies may tweak the formula a bit, they can never emulate the success of the original.

These filmmakers did end up creating a sci-fi sub-genre. Even though big bug movies waned after the 1950s, they were still popular. During the 1960s, Topps (the company that produced baseball cards) produced their wild and weird Mars Attacks bubble gum cards that featured gory drawings of giant insects attacking humans. In the 1970s, there were many films that featured enlarged insects (usually created by toxic waste rather than radiation). In 1997 filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro released his excellent giant cockroach movie Mimic, while Paul Verhoeven gave us Starship Troopers.

Over the last 10 years I’ve lost count of how many dreadful movies about giant bugs the Sci-Fi (excuse me, the SyFy) channel has produced. So while there are not as many examples of the giant insect movie today, the genre still motors along. So let’s take a look at five early examples of giant bug movies from the 1950s. While none of them are as good as the original that inspired them, they did take a bite out of a burgeoning genre’s box office. Note: for a review of Them and some other major big bug movies, please see my earlier Rogue Cinema entry All Creatures Great and Tall (December 2009).

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1. MESA OF LOST WOMEN (Howco, 1953) – Directors: Herbert Tevos and Ron Ormand

A looney scientist (Harmon Stevens) escapes from a Mexican asylum, hijacks a plane full of lost souls and demands to be flown to Zarpa Mesa in the Mexican desert. You see he wants to get back there, so he can reacquaint himself with Dr. Araňa (Jackie Coogan) and his fiendish experiments. Dr. Araňa (Spanish for spider, oooh) has been developing a serum that simultaneously enlarges spiders, infuses women with the ferocity of spiders and turns men into dwarfs (that’s some serum!). However once back on the mesa, this whack-a-doodle remembers how evil Dr. Araňa is and promptly puts together some chemicals that will destroy his lab. The only two survivors (Richard Travis and Mary Hill) wander the desert until they are picked up by an oil company exploration team. No one, of course, believes their wild story except for local resident Pepé, who is well aware of the legend of Zarpa Mesa.

If there ever was a movie that made the big bug films of Bert I. Gordon (please see my June 2009 entry for a look at Bert’s movies) look like the collected works of David Lean, Mesa of Lost Women is it. The sheer ineptitude of this production is almost impossible to believe. The film stinks from its grating flamenco guitar score (which the government should use on Al Qaeda suspects to get them to talk), to its woeful acting and its non-direction (by two people!). But the film’s worst failure is its giant spider prop. The first time we see it, the spider sits lifelessly at the feet of Jackie Coogan like a pet puppy! Later when it attacks one of the of crash survivors, it sits motionless in its web, staring like a lawn decoration. It is one of the all time worst bug puppets ever created for a sci-fi movie. The only way to enjoy this mess is to marvel at it as a trash classic.

Quotable Movie Line: “Giant spiders on a desert mesa? Fantastic! Pepé is just a superstitious native. True, no one’s ever been on Zarpa Mesa. But it’s just like any other bit of land. Not a thing different about it. Or is there?”

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2. TARANTULA (Universal, 1955) – Director: Jack Arnold

Local doctor Matt Hastings (John Agar) has a real puzzle on his hands. He’s done an autopsy on a deformed body that was found in the nearby desert. He believes the cause of death is acromegaly. However, esteemed research scientist Dr. Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) informs him that he must be mistaken. You see the dead body is Dr. Deemer’s assistant, and he isn’t too happy about Matt’s intrusion into his world. Matt gets miffed and decides to snoop around Dr. Deemer’s lab to see what he’s up to. He cozies up to Deemer’s new assistant “Steve” Clayton (the beautiful Mara Corday) to see what he can learn about Deemer’s research. Seems the doc is involved with developing a radioactive nutrient that will help stamp out world hunger. But there was a fire recently at Deemer’s, and all of his experimental animals (including a tarantula) were destroyed. Matt is further puzzled when shriveled corpses of animals and men start to turn up. Could it be that Deemer’s experiments have also produced a monster?

Tarantula is a good example of a giant bug movie. It’s simple monster entertainment. It follows the basic structure established by Them (including mysterious disappearances, strange goings on in the desert and lack of eyewitnesses) and tries to expand on the formula as well. The acromegaly angle isn’t all that successful, but it does allow for some pretty cool make up on Leo G. Carroll. This is probably John Agar’s best performance in a sci-fi movie. He’s honest, caring and comes off like a truly concerned doctor. Mara Corday is beautiful, but has little to do except scream when something jumps out at her. Director Jack Arnold uses the desert effectively here, giving it a real creepy and eerie feel (much like in his classic It Came from Outer Space). It does seem like a really big spider could be lurking behind the next rock. And while the spider itself is pretty cool (a real tarantula was used and controlled with jets of air), it seems to me that the creature just gets too large. By the time it’s leering at Mara Corday through her bedroom window, it’s so big that a human being wouldn’t make much of a meal. But I’m nitpicking. Tarantula is a fun big bug movie that still holds up well. It’s one of the few examples of the genre that I’m not embarrassed to admit I like.

Quotable Movie Line:

Matt: “But what if circumstances magnified one of them in size and strength? Took it out of its primitive world and let it loose in ours?”
Dr. Townsend:
“Then expect something that’s fiercer, more cruel and deadly than anything that’s ever walked the Earth.”

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3. THE BLACK SCORPION (Warner Brothers, 1957) – Director: Edward Ludwig

Geologists Hank Scott (Richard Denning) and Artur Ramos (Carlos Rivas) are exploring the Mexican countryside during a major volcanic eruption. They stop at a local residence to get water for their jeep, but are horrified to find the house destroyed, an abandoned infant and a dead local policeman. After reporting the incident, our heroes enter the village of San Lorenzo where the local priest tells them of recent disappearances and the myth of the “demon bull.” Later they rescue ranch owner Teresa Alvarez (lovely Mara Corday again) after an accident. While staying at her ranch (which is also the home of obnoxious brat Juanito [Mario Navarro]) the group at last identifies the cause of the disappearances. Gigantic prehistoric scorpions have been set free from the earth due to the volcanic activity. Hank and Artur descend into the scorpion’s lair to see how many of the creatures exist. The team manages to seal up the entrance to the nest, but the creatures escape and lay waste to the Mexican countryside. The scorpion’s blood lust gets the better of them, and after destroying a train, they turn against each other until only one gigantic monster remains. It heads to Mexico City where Hank and Artur are waiting with a specially prepared weapon.

While some elements of The Black Scorpion are marginal at best (specifically the script which steals liberally from Them and the acting of Mario Navarro who is absolutely horrible), the film excels in the area of special effects. Having experienced the benefits of stop motion (courtesy of Ray Harryhausen) on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, producer Jack Dietz used Willis O’Brien and Pete Peterson for the creature effects. The result is one of the better big bug films of the 1950s. Peterson (who handled the stop motion), instills real life and vitality in the scorpions despite the limited budget. They scuttle about with purpose and seem especially nasty. There are many great stop motion scenes (although some are reused) including the train wreck (which reportedly used over 60 separate segments of film) and the climatic confrontation with the Mexican military. While the overused drooling scorpion head (created by future effects wizard Wah Chang) doesn’t remotely resemble the stop motion scorpions, it doesn’t totally damage the illusion created by Peterson and O’Brien. Rarely screened today, The Black Scorpion remains a grand big bug movie and a testament to the stop motion skills of Pete Peterson and Willis O’Brien. (For more detailed information on Pete Peterson, please see my January 2010 Rogue Cinema article.)

Quotable Movie Line: “Look at this kid. Not a peep out of him. You know if I ever have any of my own, I think I’ll feed him beans and tortillas too. Then I’ll be able to get some sleep at night.”

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4. MONSTER FROM GREEN HELL (DCA, 1958) – Director: Kenneth G. Crane

Scientists Quent Brady (Jim Davis, yes of future Dallas fame) and Dan Morgan (Robert E. Griffin) send an experimental rocket loaded with animal specimens (including wasps) into space and are horrified when the craft goes haywire and crashes in Africa. Sometime later, terrible stories of monsters and death emanate from the location of the crash. Quent and Dan investigate and team up with a local doctor’s daughter (Barbara Turner). They find that the wasps from their space rocket have mutated and grown to huge proportions. These monsters have been killing animals and people at an alarming rate. If Quent and Dan can’t stop them, these fierce creatures may just take over the earth. Luckily for them a nearby volcano is starting to look pretty angry.

Monster from Green Hell played all the time on TV during the 1960s. It’s the first big bug movie I remember seeing. I hold fond memories of it, but that doesn’t change the fact that that it’s a real stinker. Almost half of the movie’s 71 minutes are stock footage! It seems like producer Al Zimbalist didn’t come across any stock footage that he didn’t like. So there’s stock V2 rocket footage. There’s footage lifted from the 1939 Spencer Tracey movie Stanley and Livingston. Then there’s footage of animal stampedes. Finally to top it off, there’s stock footage of a volcano erupting. So what’s left?  Really weird stop motion wasps (animated by Gene Warren)! The monsters don’t even remotely resemble wasps. Instead they look like a wacky version of the old Remco “Horrible Hamilton” toy (giant bug toy from the 1960s – you had to be there). They’ve got huge compound eyes, double stingers (on their faces!), round bulbous bodies and small stubby wings that flutter constantly. And despite all this weirdness, the movie is unbelievably dull. It takes so long for Davis and Griffin to slog through the jungle to find the wasps that you’re sleeping by time they get there. Couldn’t they have hired a helicopter to fly them in? Jim Davis tries to give a caring performance, but it sinks under the weight of this fiasco (I think he knew better days were ahead). Monster from Green Hell remains a cheap and tacky example of the big bug genre that you don’t see on TV anymore. At least TV has learned something since the 1960s.

Quotable Movie Line: “Well I’ll tell you one thing. If that rocket comes down in a populated area, it won’t be good!”

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5. THE COSMIC MONSTER (Allied Artists, 1958) – Director: Gilbert Gunn

American research scientist Gil Graham (Forest Tucker) has come to Scotland to work with renowned metallurgist Dr. Laird (Alec Mango) who’s trying to discover if magnetic fields can be made powerful enough to change the properties of metal. However, what his experiment does succeed in doing is punching a hole in the ionosphere, allowing uncontrolled radiation to bombard a small section of the Scottish countryside. This bombardment allows insects and spiders to grow to tremendous size. Gil befriends a strange man named Smith (Martin Benson) who turns out to be a benevolent alien who uses his unusual powers to help destroy the creatures. But as Mr. Smith leaves in his flying saucer Gil wonders if Smith and his kind will visit us again.

Along with Monster from Green Hell, The Cosmic Monster played very frequently on TV during the 1960s. While no award winner, the movie does contain several weird scenes that made me shiver as a young boy. Perhaps the scariest scene in the film is when the local school teacher gets trapped in her classroom at night while the enlarged insects creep around the building looking for a way in (if only the teacher was a nun!). Another gruesome highlight was the scene where an unlucky British Tommy gets his face eaten by a big beetle. Most of the giant insects are just enlarged real life specimens, but they’re integrated fairly well into the film. For me one of the eeriest scenes is the finale where Benson gets in his saucer and departs for home. Seeing the ship float across the sky (the effects team used a simple light that was cast on a painting) while Robert Sharples’s Theremin music plays in the background is really cool. It’s like we’re watching an opportunity for international brotherhood slip away. This was the third British sci-fi film that Forest Tucker did (along with The Crawling Eye and The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas). While this movie is not as good as those two classics, it is an enjoyable big bug romp that left a large impression on a lot of baby boomers like me.

Quotable Movie Line: “Man is the cosmic monster.”

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There were many other big bug movies during the1950s as well including Bert I. Gordon’s Beginning of the End (1957) and Earth vs the Spider (1958) [reviewed in the June 2009 issue of Rogue Cinema] as well as The Deadly Mantis (1957). But the five I chose were low budget (in some cases no budget) films that tried to add something new to the big bug genre. It will be interesting to see if Hollywood’s future holds a new rampage of giant insect films. One can only hope.

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Selected References:

Burns, Bob and Michlig, John. It Came from Bob’s Basement! San Francisco, California: Chronicle Books LLC, 2000.

Johnson, John. Cheap Tricks and Class Acts. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1996.

Schoell, William. Creature Features. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc. 2008.

Senn, Bryan and Johnson, John. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc. 1992.

Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies (Two Volume Set). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1982 and 1986.