It’s Not Nice To Fool Mother Nature: Tarantula, Piranha, Inseminoid

Published on May 30th, 2011 in: Climb Onto The Nearest Star, Feminism, Horror, Issues, Movie Reviews, Movies, Science Fiction, Underground/Cult |

By Less Lee Moore

This article originally appeared in The So Bad It’s Good Movies Fanzine, Issue #2.

Godzilla (1954) is perhaps the first horror movie to depict the dire consequences of tinkering around with nature, and it inspired decades of thematic impersonators. Although it warned of the dangers inherent in the H-bomb, as environmental and sociopolitical concerns transformed, so did the types of movies which addressed these issues.

American films from the 1950s, such as Them! (giant killer ants), Beginning of the End (giant killer grasshoppers), and The Creature From The Black Lagoon (killer fish/man/beast) all point out how “tampering in God’s domain” (to paraphrase MST3K) can really screw things up.

But what about the womenfolk? How do they fit into this? From Tarantula to Piranha to Inseminoid, let’s look at what happens when we try to fool Mother Nature.

Tarantula (1955)

In Tarantula, directed by Jack Arnold, self-described “country doctor” Matt Hastings (John Agar) becomes unwittingly tangled in a scientific experiment gone awry. Actually, that synopsis is way more interesting than the actual movie, which is long on talk and short on horror. It seems as if the filmmakers were so enthused about their flashy (and impressive for the time period) special effects, they forgot about suspense, decent dialogue, and cinematography.

tarantula spider

For some unexplained reason, almost every scene is shot with a two to four foot gap between the tops of the actor’s heads and whatever ceiling happens to be there. This gives the impression that the whole movie was filmed from the point of view of a hobbit, or perhaps a smallish giant tarantula. Okay, so I’m being a little harsh on Director of Photography George Robinson. After all, his credits do include such gems as Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man and Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation. To be fair, the close up shot of the phone ringing and the weirdly lit shot of Professor Deemer’s misshapen face are pretty cool.

Ah, Professor Deemer, played by Leo G. Carroll. He’s responsible for this mess. And behind every successful mad scientist, who do we find? A woman, picking up his dirty lab coats, in this case, grad student Stephanie Clayton (Mara Corday), who goes by the name of “Steve.” Apparently, if you’re going to play with the big boys, you need a big boy name.

Actually, it’s Deemer’s equally crazy cohort, Eric Jacobs, who makes the mess in the first place, and who hires Steve as an assistant. Jacobs and Deemer are doing experiments on non-organic nutrients in order to ensure that the world’s population doesn’t starve to death when it reaches three billion in the year 1975. (Hey, it’s what he says.) Jacobs and doctoral candidate Paul Lund get impatient and decide to inject themselves with the stuff, resulting in the speedy development of a normally slow-moving and rare condition known as “acromegaly.” They both go crazy and die, but not before a pajama-and-slippers-clad Lund sets the lab on fire, jabs Deemer with some of the super-nutrient, and of course, sets free that pesky giant tarantula.

It’s Dr. Matt Hastings who suspects that the acromegaly found in Jacobs’ corpse (also inexplicably clad in pajamas and slippers) isn’t quite right, even though Sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva) doesn’t believe him. Sheriff Andrews could almost star in his own horror movie: he tries to dress like a cowboy, but ends up looking like a giant baby, waddling around like he needs his diapers changed. (Perhaps the movie could be renamed Toddler!) In between tasting spider poop, performing autopsies, and watching tarantula stag movies with the head of the Arizona State Agricultural College, Hastings does eventually figure out what’s going on.

Perhaps if he spent less time romancing and insulting Steve, he would have noticed the GIANT TARANTULA following them around the desolate desert highways. When Steve tells Matt she’s doing graduate work in Biology, his response is, “I knew it would happen. Give women the vote and what do you get? Lady scientists.” And yes folks, she ends up falling for him. Granted, the pickings are slim between Matt, Professor Lumpy Face Deemer, Toddler Sheriff Jack Andrews, and some cowboy hoboes, but still.

tarantula steve

Part of Steve’s graduate work contract with the now-deceased Jacobs was not only being a lab assistant, but also a cook. I guess that’s why Deemer doesn’t care when she leaves for the afternoon, brightly announcing that, “Science is science, but a girl must get her hair done.” And we’re not sure if Deemer’s naturally a jackass or if the acromegaly has gone to his head (in the non-literal sense) because when she returns, he chides her for letting Matt take a gander as their lab work, cutting off her “I’m sorry, sir” with a paternal “that will be enough Miss Clayton.”

Now that I think about it, maybe getting rid of all the eligible men in town was the giant tarantula’s plan the whole time. After embarking on a killing spree, including cattle, horses, ranchers, and the aforementioned cowboy hoboes, the tarantula goes after Steve. We see the hairy, eight-legged beast lurching up to Deemer’s house, getting closer and closer as Stephanie prepares for bed (in her pajamas, natch). And in one super creepy twist, it actually seems to be PEEPING at her through the window. Then, it attacks!

Naturally, Matt, Toddler Sheriff, and the other law enforcement men cannot let this pass. They enlist the help of the Army to bring some napalm (and how exactly does Matt know they just have that stuff lying around?) to blast the critter into the great unknown. Poor giant tarantula. At least you’ll always be immortalized in the opening song to The Rocky Horror Picture Show: “Leo G. Carroll was over a barrel/when Tarantula took to the hills.”

Piranha (1978)

By the 1970s, the feminist movement was in full swing. It was acceptable for women wear pants instead of the skirt, jacket, hat, gloves, and heels uniform worn by “Steve” in Tarantula (though I must admit I loved her clothes in the movie). And their jobs didn’t necessarily involve cooking. Case in point: Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies, Louisa from The Sound Of Music), the skiptracer in Piranha. A skiptracer, according to Wikipedia, is “a colloquial term used to describe the process of locating a person’s whereabouts for any number of purposes,” in this case, two missing teenagers named Barbara and David.

piranha maggie paul

Maggie is a spunky chick. She convinces her boss she’ll find the two missing kids and proceeds to drive up the side of a mountain in a beat-up looking jeep. However, she’s not quite so savvy with mechanical objects, such as the jeep’s engine (which overheats), the jeep’s keys (which she leaves in the ignition resulting in the theft of said jeep), and the switch at the government testing facility (which houses the movie’s namesake). Thankfully, she crosses paths with Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), who provides help and eventually, moral support.

Granted, releasing the piranha is not entirely Maggie’s fault, even though she flips the switch that frees them. Dr. Robert Hoak and his fellow scientist/ex-girlfriend Dr. Mengers (dig the snooty way she pronounces “pir-AHN-ya”) are the ones who developed and created the hungry fish in the first place, at the behest of the U.S. government. “Project Razorteeth” and was intended to destroy the rivers of the North Vietnamese during the war. When the war ended and funding for the operation dried up, Dr. Hoak kept the fish alive because it was “pure research.” (Who cares if these fish are dangerous? He is a SCIENTIST, people!) Here we see some inspired casting: Hoak is portrayed by Kevin McCarthy, who played the decidedly-less-enthused-about-government-research Dr. Miles Bennell in the original Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.

Hoak must’ve been pretty bored in the “abandoned” government testing facility because there are a few choice shots of some adorable animatronic lizard creatures which not only are never explained, they are never even mentioned. Rest assured, Hoak gets his in the end. Although he gets pissed when Maggie and Paul strongly imply that he’s responsible for the existence and release of the piranha, Hoak does sacrifice himself to save a kid whose father is eaten alive once the piranha make their way up the river.

These piranha are nasty buggers! There are neat special effects (though nothing as cute as the unnamed animatronic lizard thing), including latex dummies and fake blood and great close ups of the fish chowing down. It’s enough to drive a man to drink, unless of course, that man was already a drunk. Like Paul.

We are introduced to Paul when fellow mountain-dweller/drunk Jack (accompanied by his aptly-named dog Brandy) brings him a wagon of liquor, including scotch, gin, bourbon, and Paul’s favorite, tequila. Paul immediately refills his flask and guzzles from it frequently, even taking it along when Maggie drags him to the government testing facility. In fact, he tells Maggie that he quit smoking because it interfered with his drinking! Throughout the rest of the movie, the flask is seen less and less frequently, but unfortunately, Paul’s reputation precedes him. No one, not the cops nor his daughter’s camp counselor, believes him when he tries to warn them about the piranha.

He’s still cranky, though, and not exactly fond of women. When he and Maggie are jailed because they won’t shut up about the piranha, Maggie comes up with a scheme to get the key ring from the jailer. It works, but unfortunately, the keys are chained to the jailer’s pants. Paul barks, “Take his pants off then!” And when Maggie takes too long for his liking he follows it up with the scathing, “I thought you’d get a man’s pants off quicker than that!” Ouch. There are at least two instances of what I have dubbed “The Paul Grogan Groan,” this guttural, thoroughly exasperated noise he emits when people (i.e., Maggie) are getting on his nerves.

piranha paul

Like Tarantula, Piranha is fairly sexist, particularly in terms of blame. There’s bumbling Maggie who (unwittingly) lets the piranha into the wild and the sinister Dr. Mengers (Barbara Steele), whose name is far too close to Nazi doctor Josef Mengele to be mere coincidence. And don’t forget it’s teen camper Barbara who convinces her boyfriend to take a dip in the piranha pool, which starts the whole chain of events. I could have also done without the shots of the fish attacking some woman’s bare breasts. But thankfully, the jerky men in the movie get their comeuppance in the end.

Inseminoid (1982)

Several online reviews of this movie call it an Alien ripoff.” I admit that when I first started watching it, I thought the same thing. But the aliens in that franchise would impregnate anyone that got in their way and not in the typical fashion. Inseminoid is so much more than the Alien series, yet also, so much less.

The voiceover at the beginning (a woman’s) sets up the entire film: we learn that a group of astronauts are exploring the “tomblike section” of the planet, one that is suspiciously lit with red and has bumpy cavernous openings. Do I have to spell it out for you? It’s a WOMB, not a TOMB. And their EXPLORATION is more like IMPREGNATION.

inseminoid title

Anyway, despite its overtly symbolic usage, the lighting is interesting, and the camerawork is creepily effective (although, I’ve seen the movie twice now and I’m still unclear as to how the exterior “crane” shots of the astronauts walking around spatially connect the tomb/womb to the actual spaceship or how the airlock is related to anything).

The head of this mission is Holly (Jennifer Ashley), who is a little too into herself and her authority. No one seems to like her much, especially Gary (but more on him later). She’s kind of like the bossy girl at school who is only in charge of student council/school newspaper/Mathletes because her mom is a teacher. The forward thinking act of casting a woman in charge cancels itself out as the woman in question is super annoying.

Yet, Holly is not the only woman on board this ship. There is also reporter Kate, played by Stephanie Beacham, who you might recognize as “Sable” from Dynasty and later, The Colbys. We are also introduced to Gail, Barbra, Sharon, and Sandy (Judy Geeson). Sandy and fellow astronaut Mark (Robin Clarke) have what we are supposed to think is sex in the lab (although they just kiss and give each other naked hugs). This will be a giant red flag to those who have seen more than one slasher film. In the tradition of Halloween, Friday the 13th, and many more, those who have sex are punished because they are BAD PEOPLE. In this case, Sandy’s punishment seems rather out of proportion to her crime and the filmmakers seem to enjoy this punishment in a rather uncomfortable way.

After some confusing hijinx with energy crystals, explosions, comatose and possibly dead astronauts, sweaty nightmares, and Gail freaking out and trying to saw off her own leg, Sandy and another astronaut (Mitch) go back out into the tomb/womb to investigate things further. Suddenly, someone or someTHING whizzes by and slaughters Mitch rather gruesomely. This is one of the better scenes in Inseminoid because we don’t see the monster or the actual violence; just blood and screaming, terrified faces. Unfortunately, the following scenes lose this effect.

inseminoid sandy

Suddenly, Sandy is naked and on some sort of light table, spinning around. Her bare legs part and the alien appears between them (it is just as crass as it sounds). On the one hand, the fact that the alien’s rubber suit is about as scary as a Muppet’s ruins the intended horror of this scene; on the other hand, I’m glad the alien isn’t scary because watching an alien rape scene would totally freak me out. There is some really disturbing yet hilarious footage of a long glass tube filled with what looks like pickled eggs and well, I think you can figure out where this is all going.

When she comes to, back on the ship’s sickbay, Sandy is hysterical and screaming (wouldn’t you be?) and Karl the doctor (Barry Houghton) must sedate her. Of course, Holly is petulant because now she can’t find out what happened and OMG SHE NEEDS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW. When Karl finally examines Sandy and discovers she is somehow two months pregnant (despite being given birth control like the other women on the mission), Holly is even more irritated. Of course, we can’t really blame everyone for hating on Holly. And as Sandy becomes more visibly pregnant, insane, homicidal, and even cannibalistic, we don’t care too much for her, either. But Gary (Steven Grives) seems resentful of the fact that women are even allowed out of the house, much less on board a spaceship.

When Gail’s ankle is caught and her thermostat is fried, Gary tries to help her over her intercom, but she is too frazzled to think rationally. “I can’t help you, sweetheart” he complains, visibly frustrated. Later, when he and Kate are fetching weapons, Kate screams when she sees Holly’s mutilated corpse, thus giving away their location. You can practically FEEL Gary’s annoyance. He then disparagingly shouts, “Kate! Move woman!” as Sandy is shooting at them. Finally, when he temporarily overpowers Sandy, he kicks her pregnant belly with far more glee than is warranted. I know she’s carrying alien babies, but geez.

In retrospect, I sort of wish Gary had just killed Sandy because a few minutes later we witness the birth of the alien babies. Sandy pants and moans, her eyes roll back into her head, and she screams like she is actually giving birth on the set. This goes on for what feels like thirty minutes, but which is probably only three minutes. More screaming, explosions, murders, and cannibalism follow and then, fade in to another crew on another spaceship approaching the planet. They explore the destruction and death and then the camera pans back to a steamer trunk with the alien babies peeking out and cackling. Again, I’ve watched this twice and I still don’t get exactly where this trunk is and what exactly its location means. One thing I do know is that Sandy one bad mother. And I do mean what you think I mean.

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