Since the era of silent film, Universal Studios had been making a tidy profit with horror films, particularly the monster genre. This would explode in the 30’s and 40’s with a series of films centered around what would become known as The Universal Classic Monsters which would primarily be made up of Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman, The Mummy and to a lesser degree, The Invisible Man and The Phantom of the Opera . These monsters would become the studios legacy and would continue to be remade and reimagined by the studio and others to this day as anyone who remembers the Stephan Sommers films of the 90’s and knows about the studios’ current Alex Kurtman-helmed shared universe will recognize.
By the 1950’s, Universal was in full monster mode but had pretty much ran the well dry with the Classic Monsters. Something new was needed, a slight modernization of the formula fit for The Atomic Age. They would begin a new series of monster one off films that would take a much more science fiction bent than the more paranormal-based films of the 40’s. Enter one of the greatest genre directors of the 50’s and 60’s: Jack Arnold.
Originally pursuing a career as an actor, Arnold became interested in cinematography during the war. He would later start directing episodes of Science Fiction Theater and others. His first film for Universal was It Came From Outer Space in 1953 based on a story from Ray Bradbury. It would be the next year though, when he would really knock it out of the park for the studio when he would create a monster so iconic that it would be added to the list of Universals’ Classic Monsters, the only one to be from the 50’s and the last of the classical monsters on the list. The film was Creature From The Black Lagoon and a sequel would follow the following year, Revenge Of The Creature. 1955 was a very busy year for Arnold. He would direct the Black Lagoon sequel, Tarantula and be called in to fix another film as a second unit director for This Island Earth when the alien planet sequence in the third act was felt to have been lackluster and Arnold was given the task of reshooting all of it to make it more exciting.
He was Universal’s golden boy for this decade and when it came to Tarantula, he would do his usual impressive job of telling an intelligent, interesting story, deliver great special effects sequences for the time and otherwise take a B-picture premise and elevate it.
Tarantula itself was actually adapted from an episode of Science Fiction Theater that Arnold himself directed that same year entitled “No Food For Thought”. He would take that story which was basically filled with exposition and add the much more cinematic elements of gigantic animals much like Food Of The Gods from the previous review. Actually, Arnold has said in interviews that the H.G. Wells book is where these new elements came from.
The story begins like a lot of Arnold films, in the desert. This time, a figure comes stumbling towards us to reveal a distorted, mutated face and large bulges underneath his PJ’s (no, above the waist). He collapses, dead under the hot Arizona sun.
Just then, the local doctor Matt Hastings (John Agar) has returned to the small desert town of Desert Rock from seeing a patient and is immediately called in by Sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva) to examine the body. The Sheriff seems to think it’s the body of Dr. Eric Jacobs but the deformed appearance of the corpse makes Hastings doubt that since he had seen him only a few days ago and he didn’t look like this. The matter is settled however when Jacobs’ colleague Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) identifies the body and explains that Dr. Jacobs’ condition is due to acromegaly which “makes the pituitary gland go haywire” but the Doc Hastings isn’t buying it since it takes years to set in. Professor Deemer returns to his place where, like every good 1950’s scientist; has a lab right off the foyer. There’s a lot of scientific equipment, test tubes… the usual. Oh, and a caged rat and gerbil the size of a Great Dane! And what’s in that glass aquarium? Holy shit, it’s a giant tarantula and if it was any bigger, you could put a saddle on it and ride it out of there!
As Deemer prepares to inject a monkey with whatever crazy concoction made these animals into giants, another deformed guy in pajamas appears and attacks the doc. Of course the first thing he does is swing a chair that breaks the glass the spider is in. Maybe he should have put the spider in the cage and the gerbil in the glass aquarium. Oh well.
Anyway, equipment is destroyed, a fire starts and in all the confusion, the eight legged freak walks straight out the back door to sweet freedom. Dr. Deemer is knocked out by the guy with the gland problem who injects him with the same serum right before he collapses and dies just like Jacobs.
Deemer regains consciousness in time to put out the fire and bury gland guy in the backyard, assuming all the animals died in the fire. Why call the cops right? As anyone who’s seen Breaking Bad knows, this is how things are done in the desert.
Meanwhile, as Dr. Hastings is wondering why two experts in “nutrient biology” (Jacobs and Deemer) would be holed up in the middle of the desert and NOT making meth, the lovely, young Stephanie Clayton (Mara Corday) has just arrived as the assistant of the late Dr. Jacobs but can’t seem to procure a cab in this one horse town but luckily for her, Dr. Hastings just happens to be going her way.
As they make introductions (just call her Steve by the way) Hastings gives her the bad news about her new boss amid some wordy foreplay. Too bad they were so busy flirting because one of them may have noticed the giant spider crawling across the road behind them.
At the Deemer place, Steve is given the good news that she can indeed stay on as Deemer’s assistant and we’re all treated to some important exposition. It seems Deemer, Jacobs and Lund (that’s the deformed guy who attacked Deemer and is buried out back) were working on a synthetic nutrient to feed the increasing population of the world. There’s also one little detail mentioned. Apparently the nutrient needed a bonding agent to make it work so they used a radioactive isotope. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time but apparently it makes the animals yuuuuge and causes slight pituitary complications in people. No big deal. Just some bugs that need to be worked out.
As time goes on, Steve settles into doing science stuff and continues her courtship with Hastings. Meanwhile, the effects of the serum injection from Lund start to show up on Deemer’s face as it slowly becomes more deformed.
Other odd things start to happen around town like the mysterious avalanche that almost takes the couple out and ranchers are finding their livestock reduced to skeletons with the meat stripped clean. But that’s just the beginning because that same night the spider, now the size of an industrial building; feeds on a rancher and throws a truck through the air and devouring the passengers. The next day, the sheriff and Hastings are at the site where they find large pools of some white substance. After a taste test proves inconclusive, Hastings takes a sample off to Deemer and Steve to analyze where he finds the guy totally mutated out.
He finally spills the beans and tells the couple that Jacobs and Lund decided to inject themselves with the nutrient when he was out because they were sure it would work THIS time.
Hastings leaves the doctor in the care of Steve and goes to Phoenix to have the substance analyzed where it’s discovered to be spider venom and in concentrated quantities that can mean only one thing: you guessed it, giant spider.
Just in time too because the gargantuan arachnid is knocking over telephone lines and killing more locals and now it’s got it’s sights set on the Deemer place where it knocks out the electricity and pulls a King Kong, looking through Deemers’ window with it’s big spider eyes (only two though for some reason).
It attacks the house, puncturing Deemers’ room with it’s giant fangs, devouring him. Steve is able to escape just in time to be saved by Hastings and they hightail it out of there with the big guy in pursuit.
They run into the sheriff and some state police who try to fend off the tarantula with machine guns but to no avail. A cop or two are taken out and as the sun comes up, the cops and townspeople regroup and try laying dynamite in the spiders path. Everyone gets a good fireworks show but the tarantula just keeps on truckin’.
Luckily, the cops are able to contact the Air Force base at White Sands and a squadron of jet fighters loaded with napalm missiles is on the way. But why would the Air Force work when machine guns and dynamite couldn’t do the trick? Because these planes are under the command of Clint Eastwood, that’s why.
As Clint squints under his flight gear, a giant salvo of missiles slams into the spider, setting him on fire just a mile away from the town square and the townspeople watch the giant spider legs burn as order is restored to the desert town, that is until the next giant insect attack. You get a lot of those out in Barstow.
Since writing these reviews, I’ve covered giant rabbits and last week alone giant roosters, wasps, maggots and rats but in the heyday of the 50’s it was seldom done better and this flick is one of the best examples of that. There were a lot of giant creatures flooding the landscape at this time but all were done with varying degrees of competence, entertainment value and skill. Tarantula is in the highest pedigree when it comes to this sub genre. That’s mainly due to the skill of Arnold who always brought an intelligent script with well defined characters and a pretty convincing stab at real science as well as the best in special effects techniques at the time. On display here is how well even a giant monster movie can be brought to life when the filmmaker has a real respect for the genre and Arnold is that man, having grown up reading pulp magazines and science fiction novels. That love of fantastic tales is in every frame of all of the movies he made at this time.
What really sells the tale in this case, is his approach to the monster itself. If you’re going to make a movie about a giant spider, there really is no substitute for the real thing. There’s no stop motion animation or a wonky puppet on strings in this film. With the one exception utilizing a giant fang and eyeball on the attack at Deemers’ house, the tarantula is brought to life with micro photography of an actual tarantula superimposed on the live action and even now, the creep factor remains intact. Nothing holds up like the real thing. Even today’s CGI effects come up short probably because digital animators would feel the need to create a “performance” whereas this is a real animal obeying it’s natural instincts and our senses can recognize that instantly. The spider itself was moved through the frame by shooting air jets at it to make it move in the right direction and that’s as much performance as it gets. In fact, this particular performer did such a great job that the exact same spider was used again in Arnolds’ masterpiece a few years later, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) of course that time, it was the human who has the size problem. Even the way the creature is composited onto the desert landscapes is well done and for the most part, it’s integrated without strange matte lines cutting it off.
The actual direction is first rate as usual for a Jack Arnold film and the locations are a lot of fun to see if you’re familiar with the Universal films of this period and their science fiction/horror films in particular. For the town of Desert Rock, I welcome back my old friend on the Universal backlot, which we all know as Hill Valley in the Back To The Future films. Even 30 years earlier, the location is so unmistakable that I was waiting for Biff to bump into John Agar on the street and tell him to “Watch were you’re going, butthead!” In one shot, I think you can even see the alleyway that Marty and the Doc land in the 2015 timeline.
Then there’s the Deemers’ mansion that also held the Black Lagoon monster in the third film The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) in the only one in that cycle ironically not helmed by Arnold. It also burnt down in the second Mummy film The Mummy’s Hand (1940) just 15 years earlier. The desert locations themselves are just as wonderfully atmospheric as they were in Them (1954) and Arnolds’ earlier outing, It Came From Outer Space (1953) and is once again shot in the Apple Valley near Barstow which is also not too far from where Spielberg would later shoot Duel (1972). Arnold obviously has an affinity for the desert because even the characters in the film comment and how beautiful they think the landscape is.
The story here is well told with the only thing slowing it down a little is the love story that seems to come a little out of nowhere but that was probably studio mandated anyway. It does a great job of balancing exposition that’s pretty easy to digest with the character moments and blends nicely into the more sensationalist aspects of the story which come to a head in the third act. And it of course, contains the one big flaw found in every Jack Arnold script that always makes me laugh my ass off from my modern perspective with 60 years of hindsight. It’s something I’ve come to call the Jack Arnold Arbitrary Line Of Misogyny. Here it occurs when Hastings and Steve first meet and he finds out she’s also a scientist working on her Masters. In response, he says “I knew it would happen. Give women the right to vote and what do you get? Lady scientist.” Ah, the 50’s. Life was so much better. And not to grind the axe but this was apparently just the kind of guy Arnold was. Like I’ve said, there’s a line like this in all his films but that could easily be attributed to the time period. However, on the commentary for Revenge of the Creature, lead actress Lori Nelson tells the story of Arnold offering to come to her room on location in Florida in order to help her “learn her lines”. But she had been in Hollywood long enough to know what that meant so she invited the wardrobe lady over. Her fellow crewman arrived a little late and in that time, Arnold started to massage her feet but when Nelson’s girlfriend showed up, he calmed down and needless to say, had to relieve his tension on his own. I find all this fascinating with all of the recent reports in the media about someone whose said lewd things, claiming that it doesn’t indicate a pattern backed up by action. Well, I offer exhibit A here which shows that it probably does.
Anyway, there’s a lot more about the time period here to be entertained by. I can’t get enough of those old cars, that seem to be as big and heavy as a tank but have such style. There’s a lot in the plot dealing with communication problems in a world without internet and cell phones that has a certain nostalgic charm to it. The scientific speculation is interesting in a world wrestling with the newly released power of the atom. And you got to love a time when men wore suits everywhere. The formality of style is very charming looking back from the present world where way too many guys go out in public wearing man sandals and old jeans. There’s also a copious amount of smoking from the lead character who happens to be a doctor. This is a lot of what makes these films so fun. They’re not just entertainment but time capsules.
It’s also interesting to see the original Science Fiction Theater episode directed by Jack Arnold to see the similarities between the two stories and take note of the new elements that made the feature more sensational and cinematic. Here it is here:
John Agar as the lead does his usual affable job bringing his easygoing charm with a pinch of that 1950’s gee wiz charm that he always seems to exude in all of his performances. His easy manner plays great in the role especially in the slightly antagonistic, teasing relationship he has with the sheriff and the chemistry he has with Steve. Agar was a guy who kind of fell into acting when he became the first husband of Shirley Temple and was by Temples’ boss, David O. Selznick; to a five year contract and acting lessons. He was a favorite of John Wayne and starred alongside The Duke in Fort Apache (1948) and then She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). Agar however had a drinking problem which had him relegated to B-Movies for the second half of his career where he made some of the most popular of those films. If you like these kinds of movies, there’s no way you haven’t run across Agar. Just look at this list of Creature Features this guy’s been in: Revenge of the Creature (1955), The Mole People (1956), Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), The Brain From Planet Arous (1957), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), Invisible Invaders (1959), Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962), Women of the Prehistoric Planet (1966), Curse of the Swamp Creature (1966), Zontar, The Thing From Venus (1966), Night Fright (1967) and later would have cameos in the King Kong remake of 1976 as well as Miracle Mile (1989) and Nightbreed (1990). That’s a lot of Monster Mashing.
Mara Corday as Steve has a real presence and you really believe that she’s an intelligent, capable scientist while still maintaining her femininity. A former Playboy Playmate, she would go on to star in two other monster movies, the Black Scorpion (1957) and The Giant Claw (1957). She became close friends with Clint Eastwood from this film and working with him on the Universal lot. Being lifelong pals, Eastwood would lure her back into acting with 1977’s The Gauntlet and she would appear in Sudden Impact (1983) in that films’ “Go ahead, make my day” scene as the waitress who dumps a load of sugar in Dirty Harry’s coffee. She would go on to show up in Eastwood’s Pink Cadillac (1989) and her last role, The Rookie (1990).
Leo G. Carroll as Professor Deemer is not your usual mad scientist of most 1950’s monster movies but plays his part with a gentle kindness and a genuine remorse and his makeup looks great as he’s slowly transformed by the serum. He was best known as a favorite of Alfred Hitchcock, appearing in six of his films and he would go on to have a recurring role in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
The other stand out here is Arnold favorite, Nestor Paiva as the grumpy but lovable and good natured Sheriff Jack Andrews. Andrews appeared in Mighty Joe Young (1949) before this and was also played a very different part for Arnold as Lucas the boat captain in Creature From The Black Lagoon and Revenge Of The Creature.
Overall, Tarantula proudly continues the Universal Monster Movie legacy. As far as giant monsters go, this film ranks right up there along the likes of the original King Kong for the craft put into it and is a standing legacy of the James Cameron of his time: Jack Arnold. This Halloween, give this one a look. This is what Drive-Ins were made for.