“…expect something that’s fiercer, more cruel and deadly than anything that ever walked the earth.”
I mentioned that we’d probably see at least one of the 1950’s “giant bug” movies this month, and here we are with a classic Universal release and one of the most financially successful of the big-bug films. Though Tarantula falls firmly on the giant monster end of the creature feature scale, it also presages some of the elements that would become familiar in the more “eco” minded animal attack films of the 1970’s. Unlike Them! or The Amazing Colossal Man the precipitating element in Tarantula isn’t nuclear – instead the giant animals are created by a scientist trying to fight hunger. The unintended consequences of humanity manipulating nature would become very familiar to later movie audiences, but it stands out here as being relatively science-friendly. Later films in the 1950’s sci-fi cycle wouldn’t show science or scientists as so well-meaning.
I’m a bit arachnophobic, so spider-based horror movies have a greater effect on me than they might on the average movie-goer. I saw Arachnophobia in the theater with my friend Chris and he laughed the entire time because I’d slide down in my seat, realize that spiders would be on the floor if they were in the theater and then jump up onto the seat. Rinse. Repeat. I don’t HATE spiders – in fact I’m kinda fascinated by them – but holy crap do they creep me out.
I don’t like being irrationally afraid of anything, so I’ve worked hard to desensitize myself to spiders. I do my best not to kill them and I’ve gotten to the point where I can actually pick up small spiders to take them outside (bigger ones get carried out on something long – like a yardstick or a broom). However, I’ll still freak out if I get surprised by one or stumble through a web. If you ever see me staggering along, waving my arms madly in the air as if fighting off invisible birds, well, you’ll know I’ve walked through a web.
I trace my fear of spiders back to a childhood event that is almost certainly a dream, but that I simply assumed was a memory for the longest time. I would have been four or five (I hadn’t yet gone to school). My brother Scott, sister Jen and I were rambling about my grandfather’s camp on Cedar Lake in northern Maine. Out in front of the camp was a short, rocky path down to the water and at the base of the path was a large rock that had a scoop taken out of it, forming a shallow basin. As we came ‘round the edge of the path and caught site of that rock we saw a spider FILLING THE BASIN. In my mind’s eye the basin is roughly 3 feet across, but I was 5 and terrified and since then I’ve looked and it’s roughly 8-10 inches across.
To my mind, this doesn’t make things much better.
My siblings and I ran screaming, but of course the spider was gone by the time adults showed up. I started swimming off of the dock from that point on. I figure if it WAS real and not a dream I probably saw an oversize fishing spider (which we used to call wood spiders). I’ve seen them get as large as 3 inches or more and maybe this was just a particularly large specimen that didn’t really fill the basin, but appeared to through the filter of abject horror.
You can imagine what effect Tarantula had on me as a kid.
The thing is, for the longest time I didn’t even know what movie it was that had scared the crap out of me, because I only caught the last 20 minutes or so. I saw it at my grandmother’s on a Saturday afternoon, which is where and when I saw a lot of 1950’s sci-fi pics – like Day of the Triffids. I’d been playing outside when it began to rain, so I came in, plopped down on the couch and turned on the TV only to see this freakish, monster-looking guy in pajamas and a spider as big as a damn house! BIGGER! Then some cops tried to stop it and got eaten. Then they tried to blow it up with dynamite and didn’t even scratch it! Then it was heading towards a town and HOLY CRAP LOOK AT THE SIZE OF IT!!! By the time the jets finally came in with the napalm and blew it up I was so worked up I could barely sit still.
It was several years before I got a chance to see the whole film in all its black and white glory, and by then it had become some epic creepshow in my mind. The reality wasn’t quite so scary – but of course by then I’d seen a lot worse. It was still a ton of fun, though, and it’s one of my favorite 50’s monster/sci-fi movies even now (right behind THEM! and The Incredible Shrinking Man).
My go-to release for previous viewings of Tarantula has been as part of the Classic Sci-fi Ultimate Collection, and it was fairly sharp and clear for an older DVD release, but I always bemoaned the lack of a decent (Region A) Blu-ray release. Luckily Shout Factory stepped up and released the film on Blu in 2019. It looks pretty damned good to my eyes and sounds good as well. The extras are fairly anemic, but include a commentary with Tom Weaver and a number of guests.
While you can rent or purchase Tarantula at a number of online streaming outlets it’s not currently available for free or as part of any services.
Tarantula was written by Robert M. Fresco and directed by Jack Arnold, who made some of my favorite sci-fi films: It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man. He also contributed to The Monolith Monsters, which is an interesting little film if you get a chance to see it.
The titular monster is the result of experiments by a scientist named Deemer (Leo G. Caroll). He’s invented a nutrient formula that he hopes will be able to sustain the human race in the face of food shortages that he expects to be caused by overpopulation (one of his dire pronouncements is that the world population will reach three billion, six hundred fifty million by the year 2000 – it was closer to six billion!). In animals, the side-effect is enormous growth. In humans it’s accelerated acromegaly (which we know because his colleague and assistant both experiment on themselves – I assume in the hope that they had discovered Viagra several decades early).
Deemer’s assistant goes mad, attacking him and causing several of the animals to escape. Now they’ve used some standard lab animals – including monkeys, rats, rabbits and guinea pigs. Unfortunately, they’ve also used a tarantula for some reason. These are people who injected themselves with a radioactive, experimental nutrient remember, so I guess we should just count ourselves lucky it wasn’t an alligator or a tigon.
Anyway, in the chaos, the tarantula – already the size of a large dog – escapes and Deemer is injected with the nutrient as well, giving him 4 days before he’s overcome.
The hero is a local doctor, Matt Hastings (John Agar), who is immediately suspicious when the sheriff finds the body of Deemer’s colleague in the desert. He’s never seen a case of ‘acromegalia’ happen in 4 days before and takes every opportunity to go out to Deemer’s lab and ask him questions. He befriends Deemer’s new assistant, a lovely woman named Steve (Mara Corday) and is generally hanging around all the time, rather than seeing patients. (To be fair, the script mentions this as well.)
Agar was in another Universal picture the previous year, Revenge of the Creature, and this time around I realized that it makes this a bit of a reunion picture. The sheriff is played by Nestor Paiva who played boat captain Lucas in that film (as well as in the original Creature From the Black Lagoon)and Clint Eastwood also famously makes an (uncredited) appearance as a fighter pilot – and he too appeared in Revenge (again uncredited) as a lab assistant.
Meanwhile, the tarantula is growing. It’s feeding on cattle in the high country and leaving skeletons and big pools of venom laying around. (I burst out laughing every time when the Doc actually tastes the damn stuff). It was big enough for nightmares before, but now it’s close to 30 feet high and probably 80 feet across.
The special effects by David S. Horsley and Clifford Stine are pretty darn good for the time. The use of an actual tarantula for most of the matte shots makes it more effective than the ants in THEM! (though I think THEM! Is actually a better movie). There are problematic bits, of course (in one scene the spider moves beyond the matte frame, causing its legs to suddenly disappear into thin air), but in general the effects are as good as it gets for 1950’s giant monster movies. You won’t see ‘Tonka’ written on the bottom of any overturned buses, anyway.
The scene in which the spider attacks the two-story house where Deemer (by now overwhelmed by acromegaly) has his lab is the one I remember the most from a kid. As Steve readys for bed the giant spider approaches the house and peers in, like an enormous peeping tom. As huge as the spider appears, it then gets closer, and you start to realize just how really big the thing is. The model they used for the closeups of the spider is still effectively gruesome and the matte shots and model work are great. It’s a pretty tense sequence and well edited.
The final scenes where the air force is called in to deal with the skyscraper sized spider, making its way inevitably towards highly populated areas, are tense and exciting as well. Clint Eastwood makes his appearance as one of the fighter pilots, dropping napalm on the creature as it menaces the town. The credit sequence with the corpse of the spider burning in the background, looming over the town, always reminds me of the end of Independence Day with the crashed spaceship.
The Bottom Line
Tarantula is a fun, ‘50s monster film; better than most, with decent acting, writing, good special effects and lovely desert scenery. It also hints at a type of film that would become prevalent a couple of decades later, with a scientist causing all the mayhem, but with the best of intentions. Maybe not one to check out if you’re arachnophobic – they used a real spider for most of those shots after all – but still a decent chiller after over 65 years.