"My career in films started because I was an actor," said Jack Arnold. "I was mainly a stage actor though I did act in films in England when I was there in 1937. I appeared in a couple of Edgar Wallace films and I stage-managed and also appeared in Three Men on a Horse in the West End. I was about eighteen years old at the time. When I came back from England I appeared in a number of plays on Broadway. I was working in My Sister Eileen when Pearl Harbor happened and I immediately enlisted in the Air Corps.
"As luck would have it they sent me to join a unit that was making a film produced and directed by Robert Flaherty. Now Flaherty was a kind of idol of mine so I decided to tell him the truth. I went up to this giant of an Irishman and said, look, I've got something to tell you--I'm an actor, not a cameraman. But I told him that I thought I would be able to handle the job. And I guessed he liked the fact that I had told him the truth instead of trying to fake my way through it and he kept me on.
"After I got out of the Air Force a buddy of mine who had been in my squadron said, let's go into business together. So we started a documentary film company. We made a number of documentaries over the years - for the State Department, the Ford Motor Company and so on, and we won some prizes. Then I made a film for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union called These Hands. It was a feature spanning fifty years of the union which was good enough to be released theatrically, and it got very good reviews. I was even nominated for an Academy Award which brought me to the attention of Hollywood. Universal gave me a contract with them as a director and I started working for them in 1950.
"The first film I directed for them was Girls in the Night. Originally it was called Night Flowers, but they gave it that exploitation title which I didn't like. It cheapened the picture, I thought. It was a pretty good film about the slums of New York and the kids who live in them. It did fairly well and then they started giving me Westerns to do. I spent over seven years at Universal doing every conceivable kind of film. It was in that period that I started making the science fiction films. It Came from Outer Space started because Universal had bought a story by Ray Bradbury with that name. They thought it could be successfully adapted to make a 3D picture. 3D had just come out and Warner Brothers had released a picture called The House of Wax, which was a hurriedly put together thing, in order to throw objects at people in 3D. So Universal assigned it to me and it was quite successful.
"So from there on I made all their science fiction films, and the more I did of these films the more I liked it because the studio left me alone. No one at that time was an expert at making sf films so I claimed to be one. I wasn't, of course, but the studio didn't know that so they never argued with me, no matter what I did. In most of my sf films I tried to create an atmosphere because I think if you shoot an imaginative film--a film in which you ask an audience to believe things that are bizarre--you have to make them believe it. You can't do this with the story or actors alone, you have to create a kind of atmosphere while shooting it in which the audience's credibility will be suspended to the point where they don't say to themselves: 'That's impossible!'"
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) was a continuation of the high standards established in the previous film--the highpoint being a sequence where the girl (Julie Adams) goes for a swim in the lagoon and we see the creature looking up at her from below. Attracted by her graceful movements he doesn't reveal his presence (one presumes it is a "he"), except briefly to touch her legs at the end of her swim. Before the relationship has time to develop further she is ordered from the water by one of the men on the boat (Richard Carlson). It is only when she is back on the boat that the water is suddenly churned up with great violence, revealing that something unbelievably powerful is lurking below the surface.
Revenge of the Creature followed in 1955 (with the Creature captured and taken to Marineland in Florida) and in the same year Arnold made one of that giant-monster-on-the-loose-and-stepping-on-buildings type of film which was so popular at the time, but his contribution to the genre was a cut above the others. Tarantula (1956), again set in the desert, relied on an atmosphere of menace as much as it did on the giant spider seen scuttling over hills (a disturbing enough image in itself). A spider also featured in what many people consider to be Arnold's masterpiece--The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Based on a novel by Richard Matheson (who also wrote the screenplay), it concerned the fate of Scott Carey (Grant Williams) who, due to the inevitable dose of atomic radiation that caused so many problems in the sci-fi films of the 1950s, found himself growing smaller and smaller until his familiar world took on nightmarish dimensions. At the end of the picture he faded away from sight completely, which was quite unusual (in more ways than one) as most films of that type and that era would have had the antidote to his condition being found at the last moment.
"Actually, though my sf pictures were technically "B" ones, they had relatively large budgets for those days. We spent about seven to eight hundred thousand dollars which was a lot of money for a film in the 1950s. That's what made the difference between our science fiction films and many that followed--such as the ones that American International Pictures made, and the Japanese ones. They just went out to exploit the market without trying to do anything imaginative. But our budgets were fairly good. It wasn't a budget that they would have given to, say, a Lana Turner picture, but it was above average for a "B" picture.
"I never regarded my films as horror films. I would call that film that Warhol made, Frankenstein, a horror film. I haven't seen it and I have no wish to see it. I don't relish seeing the guts and innards of someone thrown at me from the screen in 3D. The same applies to The Exorcist, which I did see. I thought it was a great special effects film but I hated it. I was offended by the vulgarity and the pornographic quality of it. I found myself saying as a director: 'I couldn't do that.' I couldn't make a fourteen-year-old girl go through the bestial things Linda Blair did. I know they used doubles for some of the worst parts but making a kid say the words she did--no. But I thought Mercedes McCambridge did a sensational job on the voice of the devil and, as I said, the special effects were great. They should have got the Academy Award for the special effects.
Arnold is still active in the film industry though he hasn't made any science fiction/horror pictures since the 1950s. He later became involved in TV production but has now returned to film making. "I was the Executive Producer on the It Takes a Thief series with Robert Wagner. Now I've formed my own company to make films. I'm tired of doing TV now, too much hard work for too little artistic satisfaction. The money is good but it's like working in a sausage factory. With my own company I've got the financial backing to make three films and I'd like one of them to be science fiction. I want stories that I can create an atmosphere with, but so many sf stories are like technical manuals. I've been trying to get Richard Matheson to write one for me again--he's a beautiful writer. We might get together and see if we can dream up a suitable story. But that's in the future; if my health lasts that long, or I last that long. I've got a lot of plans, I just hope I've got enough time to fulfil them."
--JOHN BROSNAN, from
The Horror People.
A selection of Jack Arnold films.
Find Jack Arnold on eBay.com
A selection of Jack Arnold in books.
A History of Horror
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