Blu-ray review: Tarantula (1955), dir. Jack Arnold – Koch Media (DE)

Just watched the very solid Koch release of this. I watched the 1.78:1 version because in checking between this and the 1.33:1 versions I preferred the tighter aspect ratio to the amount of empty space in the frame. That said, I may revisit it another time in the other aspect ratio. I think there’s a case to be made for either aspect ratio but 1.78:1 is at least closer to Shout!’s 1.85:1 (although the Shout! seems to have the stronger image). There were some minor scratches and flickering I noticed – especially shots of the bunny running across and the planes lifting off – so I don’t know if the Shout! release improves in this regard. Otherwise, a pretty solid transfer and a very fun film.

The interview with Jack Arnold is very informative, including the film’s origins from the FDA film Chicken of the Future, how some of the effects were achieved and his thoughts on the notion of propaganda and politics in cinema and The China Syndrome (1979). It’s made up of two 12 minute segments with transitions between. In the second section, he talks about working at Universal and the studio system, and his thoughts on the present conglomerate state of the industry and audience segmentation. He also discusses his intentions of producing future films (that never came to be.) The series, Jack Arnold erzählt (Jack Arnold Speaks) was produced for West German TV (WDR – Westdeutscher Rundfunk), including German language posters for the corresponding films discussed. Arnold references Columbia being bought by Coca Cola, so we can date the interview itself to 1982, although it closes with a memorial slideshow (Arnold died a decade later in 1992). A dubbed version is available on YouTube, watermarked with WDR’s logo.

Further segments of these interviews can be found on other Koch Media releases, with two more WDR segments (running to 30 minutes total) on Monster on the Campus, a segment on It Came from Outer Space 3D, and a 12 minute segment on The Incredible Shrinking Man. That said, Arrow’s release is more definitive, with an expanded version of Daniel Griffith/Ballyhoo’s Auteur on the Campus: Jack Arnold at Universal! documentary (48 minutes), first issued on Shout! Factory’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 DVD set, an informative and contextualising commentary from Tim Lucas, an interview with Richard Matheson’s son, a Super 8 version and a brief 4 page booklet essay by Kim Newman and poster gallery. Three segments appear on Creature from the Black Lagoon: The Trilogy (delightfully renamed for the German market as Der Schrecken vom Amazonas – The Horror of the Amazon, available to purchase from Amazon.de) – an equivalent release to Universal’s cheaper Creature from the Black Lagoon: Complete Legacy Collection, with the same key art but with the other films spread over 2 discs not 1. For fans of Arnold’s work outside of horror, 36 minutes of further WDR interviews appear on the Jack Arnold Western Collection (No Name on the Bullet, Red Sundown, Man in the Shadow).

Just a note that the Super 8 version is dubbed in German with no English option. The shorter Normal 8 version is silent, widescreen and with burned-in German subtitles.

The image gallery is extensive and runs for 137 pages. What’s really cool is seeing the lobby cards colourised from stills, and it’s so nice to have music playing over an image gallery for once! It also shows the design process for the poster, with text and different illustrations composited together!

Perhaps one of the curious elements about this film is the uncredited – but undeniably visible – debut of Clint Eastwood during the film’s final act. He establishes his career as an archetypal masculine figure framed in the centre of the frame, his eyes gazing out towards us, saving the world as the ultimate military hero: even behind a helmet, he immortalises himself.

Candyman (1992), dir. Bernard Rose

Cover of Arrow Video Blu-ray release

Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman.

Candyman.

As much as I adore Hellraiser (1987) for its resonant queer themes and exploration of female sex positivity and BDSM culture, Candyman is absolutely remarkable. Its grounding in the juxtaposition between the horrific actions of graduate student Helen (Virginia Madsen) – who seems very much sane – and its supernatural origins – really drives this home. There’s a depressing cyclicality in the film’s violence and fears, within not only the urban legend – mutating, transferring, translating – but also in the gentrified, ghettoised Chicago city architecture alluding to the city skyscrapers of 1970s New York in Koyaanisqatsi (1982) in architectural, geometric aerial shots thanks to Philip Glass’ haunting cries of a score – built over, redrawn, languishing in engineered poverty. The Candyman mythos emerges from the outside, just as slavery brought forward ships from colonies – and its own legends and stories with it. The weight of Candyman isn’t only the cycle of psychological harm, but the weight of history. There’s such a strong symbolic resonance that stretches back centuries – and millennia – from baby snatchers, the imagery of the hook and walking into the fire – and coming through scathed.

Candyman drives through racial conflict – white academia wanting to explore African American mythology from the outside, not only in ethnicity but in privilege, status, accessibility and wealth. Walking into spaces coded as unsafe and as gang culture. A male dominated establishment built on questionable relationships with professors, and women attempting to re-conceptualise the exploration of those ideas and stories. The film’s white characters refuse to believe the myth, but the African American characters known all too well to stay away and never touch it – defecated lavatories, the sting of bees, decay, ruin and graffiti. Even within the film’s penultimate scene, the mourning white gathering by the tombstones is confronted by a horror: the community of the ghetto walking in a funeral procession, with their own connections and stories.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), dir. Wes Craven

I feel a little sad for Wes Craven. His genuine importance in developing horror feels overshadowed by the self-reflexive (not merely satirical or parodic) strategies of Scream (1996), where Craven was already building upon the same divisions of reality and fiction to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise in New Nightmare (1994), and the enduring, complex legacy of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986). His major works have been swallowed by inferior remakes using their name capital, including The Hills Have Eyes (2006), The Last House on the Left (2009) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010).

With a franchise and a fan following behind it, it can be difficult to consider this initial film as an independent entity, outside of the queer, supernatural, or maternal places it would move towards, including a crossover with the Friday the 13th franchise (1980-2009) in Freddy vs. Jason (2003), only a year prior to Alien vs. Predator (2004). New Line, although now subsumed into the infrastructure of Warner Bros. (thanks to the success of The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) franchise), built its identity through horror films like Elm Street, an identity still alluded to by It: Chapter One (2017), Itself an 80s set horror film dealing with the intelligence (and darkness) of pubescent children and the parents that underestimate them.

Before I saw this film, I was still terrified by its concept: listening toNow Playing’s retrospective series on the films back in 2010 when I was too young to process it, the concept of teenagers being able to die in their sleep terrified me as I listened to podcasts to fall asleep each night. The inspiration behind the film – refugees from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam dying in their sleep – touches upon the serious trauma childhood loss and separation creates. But I only had the framework to view these nightmares from a white perspective – trauma that seemed inexplicable, not connected to war and immigration.

Approaching it now, my fears are different. I sleep as anxiety engulfs me; I tell myself I want to die, but sleep becomes my last refuge to save myself from myself, until morning passes. As I shifted onto antidepressants, my nightmares became vivid and real. In one dream, I detached myself from my body and became a ghost. In another, a friend became a victim of transphobic abuse. Dreams might be a nonsense mush hallucination of brain activity and memory, but boundaries blur. Dreams reflect anxieties and inform present reality. As I move through my memories, I question: did this event happen in reality, or within a dream? In dreams, the plausible vanishes: I fuck people I would never fuck; the deceased are resurrected; I watch movies in a cinema, making me question whether I still have any grip on reality. Once, I sat inside a crashing plane, praying to God in a final plea of hope, colliding with the cityscape – and my death – waking up as the impact hit. I dream of lost friendships and exes; awake, I convince myself to send another message and rekindle that connection. Dreaming of high school and university, my anxiety encroaches upon my waking life, questioning the past and direction of my life. Because it was in a dream, it has to mean something, right? Often, it can be predictive, mirroring an event that will later take place.

The mystery of consciousness has no boundaries, grounded in selfhood, individual interpretation and views of the world; my internal thought process merges into real conversations, as a thread in my own head carries on into the material world. My sleep lacks coherence, merging between nighttime hours as others sleep. As I dissociate, the world becomes a dream; there is no reality as I stare blankly, my thoughts and anxieties and doubts becoming louder than the material world and material people in front of me. I say words to people, before my memory retreats, or my sense as a material being speaking to another human retreats; my learned human actions wash away into impulses.

Film is both illusion and dream. To follow the thought of the Frankfurt School (and particularly Siegfried Kracauer), the function of cinema depends upon the dreams of a reality yet to come and a collective unconscious. As I watch A Nightmare on Elm Street on FilmStruck, immersed in its narrative, I become aware of the frame around it, as my iPad screen becomes more real than the film upon its illuminated surface. Wes Craven, having died in 2015, no longer dreams, or indeed lives, exempt from the anxieties that A Nightmare on Elm Street brings to life. As in The Tempest (1611), each life of dreams is “rounded with a sleep”. The nursery rhymes of Row, Row, Row Your Boat might for some represent the bliss of the natural world, but it is for me a scream of existential dread: moving through the stream of existence within the vessel of my body, each passing day an incomprehensible dream: “life is but a dream” is a genuine fear. A Nightmare on Elm Street is wise to invoke experiences extending beyond the horror of a murderer and the scream of nightmares, but reflecting a universal phenomenon. Friday the 13th needs at least a familiarity with summer camp; A Nightmare on Elm Street doesn’t even need familiarity with white suburban America, but with the human condition. The concept of Krueger in Elm Street may be a fantasy, but it is never preposterous. 

I remember my earliest encounter with existential dread in sleep: a ten year old child, waking in the middle of the night to the appearance of my parents, finally aware of my body and my mortality. David Lynch might hold the cards for depicting cinema as a dream, but these dreams are not uncommon to Richard Linklater (Waking Life (2001)), Kurosawa (Dreams (1990)), and, indeed, Wes Craven. Dreams can often be used as a lazy narrative device, or as a means of facilitating the fantasy wordbuilding of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) across film, novels, television, and other adaptations. Nightmare is different.

The sense of home invasion that penetrated the walls in Halloween (1978) and its divisions and boundaries are extended by Nightmare. The dreams of A Nightmare on Elm Street are foregrounded within a connection to another plane of reality (bodies and corpses sinking into beds, time reversing and shifting): the sins of the mother (not father) against the generational legacy of paedophilic abuser Fred Krueger is carried through the unconscious that places a connection between mother and daughter. These states of avoiding sleep are familiar to any student: days long all-nighters, watching television as a midnight distraction, falling asleep without intending to, drinking copious amounts of coffee. Often, Craven is on point with his use of comedy: coffee might be confiscated away, but of course there is another pot already brewed in preparation.

Elm Street has been read through a Final Girl lens, but it’s important to stress the teenage (female) empowerment that never feels false. Never doubt your children; never doubt the neighbourhood’s kids; allow agency outside of the bars that are meant to protect you, and outside of school; trust they are truthful. Part of this film involves repeated periods of mourning and understanding complexity, and coming to terms with independence from a relationship with a boyfriend. Periods of sadness (murderous boyfriends, prison suicide) involve a sense of knowing a truth imperceptible to adult lives. Whether in its boiler rooms or bedrooms, A Nightmare on Elm Street generates real fear as one of the scariest films ever made.