Watching Tarantula‘s opening, with its lonely shots of California’s Lucern Valley (once again standing in for Arizona), you can tell Jack Arnold really wanted to direct a Western. Of the four films he made in 1955, three were set in the Great American West and two were authentic Westerns: the one he made right before Tarantula (The Man from Bitter Ridge) and the one he made right after (Red Sundown). The blasted, lunar landscapes of the Mojave lend an expansive, mythic air to even the silliest drama, or the most serious monster picture.
Better yet, aside from some dated technobable and some really dated sexism, Tarantula isn’t even all that silly. Its got a weird, almost-retro atmosphere to it, thick as Jupiter’s but much more permeable…if you were lucky enough to grow up on Universal monster movies. (And I certainly was…can’t you tell?) All the classic horror tropes we learned to crave are present and accounted for…except for the thunderstorm and the Old, Dark Castle. We’ll excuse the thunderstorm’s absence on account of this taking place in “Arizona”…where, I suppose, a two-story ranch house is as good a castle-analogue as you’re likely to find. The only problem is, the movie forgoes focusing on those tropes in favor of building a mystery. A mystery the movie solves with its title.
I say Arnold “wanted” to make Westerns in the full knowledge that what director’s wanted didn’t really matter much in 1955’s Hollywood. Tarantula‘s no auteur‘s vision; it’s a quickly made, cheap knock-off of a rival studio’s hit from the previous year. There’d be no Tarantula without the surprise success of Them! and the parallels between the two are on fairly obvious display.
At least Tarantula keeps its cards hidden for the first few minutes, as we watch a hideously deformed man stumble through and eventually collapse face-down in the “Arizona” desert. After the credits, we meet and greet the population of Desert Rock, Arizona. As opposed to Sand Rock, Arizona, the Norman Rockwellian little desert town of It Came from Outer Space. With a vaguely recognizable dead man on their hands, Desert Rock’s Sheriff Jack (Nestor Pavia, after a shave that renders him completely unrecognizable, even to life-long fans of Creature from the Black Lagoon) calls in the town doctor, Matt Hastings (John Agar) for a consultation and hopefully a positive I.D. Sheriff Jack thinks the dead man is Professor Eric Jacobs (Eddie Parker, under a ton of make-up)…but he can’t be sure.
Dr. Matt isn’t even sure what killed him. It looks like acromegalia, but that takes years to put a guy down. Professor Jacobs was walking around town fit as you please just last week. Perhaps Jacob’s colleague and housemate, Professor Harold Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) can shed some light on this…wait, no? Prof. Deemer’s going with the “sudden onset acromegalia” diagnosis? And he’s refusing Dr. Matt permission to perform an autopsy. Nothing suspicious about that at all.
The Normals stymied, we follow Deemer back to his awesome ranch house and discover he’s a classic Mad Scientist in the Dr. Pretorius mold. Not content with sparky electrical panels and beakers full of strange liquids, Professor Deemer hopes to solve the worlds inevitable food crisis through Atomic Science. Specifically, a radioactive isotope that “binds” his “solution” of synthetic superfood together. It’s H.G. Wells’ Food of the Gods, dressed down for the drive-in circuits. This is a Bad Idea, if for no other reason than the superfood’s dangerously unstable. Every batch seems to produce a different result. Some kill the subject outright. Others keep it alive, but cause rapid aging, unchecked grown, gigantism…and then kill them.
That’s what happened to poor Professor Jacobs. One day, wtih Deemer out running errands, Jacobs and their other collegue, Paul (also Eddie Parker under a ton of make-up) decided to inject themselves with superfood concentrate. The rapidly-deforming Paul’s none-too-happy about Jacob’s death, and so starts a fight with Professor Deemer right in the middle of a lab crowded with Jumbo size animals…including a tarantula in a glass cage. Paul smashes the glass with a chair meant for Deemer’s head before choking the Mad Scientist down and injecting him with some more superfood, just to be a dick. With the lab in flames and Paul laid out in the living room, the tarantula escapes while Prof. Deemer’s busy fighting fires.
Leo Carroll’s another long-time actor I only know from one iconic role: Marley’s ghost in 1938’s version of A Christmas Carol. Here, he’s got the gruff, hard edges of a movie Scientist, absent-minded in daily life; a shrewd motherfucker when he’s on the clock. There’s a great moment where, after the chaos of Paul’s attack, Prof. Deemer picks up the phone…and immediately drops it. Who you gonna call with half your lab in ashes and your colleague dead on the floor? You can see the wheels turning in his head: Well…why call anyone? We’ve got a whole desert to ourselves out back, behind the house. Be a shame to waste it. Might as well dispose of some bodies.
With Paul and the dead lab animals safely hidden under the sand, someone off screen throws a monkey at our Professor. Oh, we’re meant to think the monkey just jumped into Deemer’s arms, but I know a stage hand with a good pitch when I see one.
Back in town, Dr. Matt and Sheriff Jack are still chin wagging about the opening death. At first I thought Sheriff Jack was just and ol’ country lawman with sense enough not to go poking his nose into the local Mad Scientist’s business. Then the script – by Revenge of the Creature writer Martin Berkeley and future-Monolith Monsters writer Robert M. Fresco – spoon feed him the dumbest line in the movie, so he can spoon feed it to us.
“You think that what they’re working on might’ve had something to do with what killed Jacobs?”
No! Really?! Shit, Sheriff…that question just occur to you? We’re twenty minutes, two fatalities and one lab fire into things and this is the first time that thought’s crossed your mind? Man…good thing Dr. Matt’s around to play Working Class Hero. And here comes Our Reporter, Joe Burch (Ross Elliott – that guy who got killed in the opening of Beast from 20,000 Fathoms), from the Desert Rock News. At least he’s prepared to ask some impertinent questions.
Dr. Matt’s got no real reason to stick his face into all this…until he meets Our Chick, Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (Mara Corday, following Arnold over from The Man from Bitter Ridge), a Biology grad student with hopes of studying under the famous Professor Jacobs. Animated by hopes of eventually sticking his face in her, Dr. Matt breaks the awkward news of Jacobs’ death to Steve. She then wins my eternal love by asking the Obvious Question:
Steve: Are you sure it was acromagalia?
Dr. Matt: No. No, I’m not sure at all.
That might give me pause if I were in Steve’s situation. Might make me reconsider my choice of doctoral sponsor. But if Steve were any smarter, she might escape danger on her own once effects of Prof. Deemer’s formula begin to manifest…first in Deemer himself, and then in the outside world…where that poor, forgotten tarantula’s growing larger (and hungrier) with each passing cut away.
Like Them!, the tarantula’s accompanied by a skin-crawling wall of sound, as if it commands its own army of hyperactive crickets we can’t see, thanks to murky footage. But whereas Them! used the cricket-calls to build up tension throughout the movie, Tarantula uses them to shout “YOU SHOULD FEEL TENSION!” at the top of its metaphorical lungs. It’s a cue for characters to look around and spot the monster they should’ve heard coming from miles away…especially in the desert, where sound tends to travel. Slack jawed yokels can hear the damn spider coming from the other side of a ridge, but poor Steve almost disrobes in front of the eight-legged fuck as it pulls a George McFly on her bedroom window. He’s got some pretty thick glass in his windows, does our Professor Deemer. Too bad he didn’t use that to build the tarantula’s original cage.
As a monster, our tarantula actually looks alright, especially when you remember this the first monster movies to utilize large-scale composite shots in creating its creature effects. This allowed the special effects crew to blow a live tarantula around a miniature set with hairdryers and then fit it into the background of the actor’s footage. Like its normal sized cousins, this tarantula’s nocturnal (for the most part), meaning most of its action takes place in day-for-night shots. I usually hate the fuzzy look of cheap black and white day-for-night, but here it helps hide the seams (or composite lines, as in this case).
Jack Arnold helps too, by never lingering on his titular star until the very end, when things get real and the tarantula starts crawling around in daylight. The high contrast between the black arachnid and the sun bleached backgrounds makes the matte job stand out like…like a fifty-foot spider in the middle of an Arizona highway. In daylight, an ill-time freeze-frame can completely wreck the illusion.
But everything leading up to that – from the tarantula’s attack on a cattle ranch, to its attack on a truck full of sheep (which may take place during the same night, since they happen consecutively, but whatever – it’s a growing bug, our tarantula; needs to eat all it can) are grade-A Prime, 1950s monster action. Even the ending is cool, if abrupt and completely lacking in resolution. Look out for the cameo by a young Clint Eastwood. Not that you’ll be able to recognize him.
Before that, the movie focuses on Dr. Matt and Sheriff Jack’s quest to dig up something on Prof. Demmer and/or get Steve the hell out of his Old, Dark House. Every time they almost make some headway something tarantula related comes up, usually involving flesh-stripped bones and puddles of spent venom. It’s nicely paced build-up…but it’s the same build-up we went through in Them! Only this time, the local Department of Agriculture Scientist refuses to believe Dr. Matt’s giant bug stories, answering his pleas for help with an educational film strip of random tarantula stock footage. Because that’s how people learned everything in the 50s. (Why do you think the 60s happened?)
“See? That’s the spider wasp, the tarantula’s deadliest enemy. See? The wasp usually wins, but don’t count on it. The tarantula doesn’t know the meaning of fear. As you see, he’ll back down a rattlesnake if he has to.”
It’s like somebody said, “We need a scene like that scene in Them!, where the old doctor shows off the ant stock footage to a bunch of skeptical generals. Otherwise stupid, skeptical people in the audience won’t know what a tarantula is!” But, sir, we’re going to make posters and trailers and cardboard standies with a giant spider plastered all over them (even though this’ll make our main characters look even dumber when they spend two-thirds of the thing scratching their heads, wondering what the hell’s going on). We’re calling it “Tarantula,” for God’s sake. “Never mind that. Nobody ever went broke underestimating the stupidity of the average American. The educational film strip scene is mandatory!”
Still, the Department of Ag Scientist gets off a great line after Dr. Matt asks him, “What would you say, doctor, if I’d found pools of that venom, four to five feet across. Two to three inches deep.”
“I’d say you’d been having a nightmare. Or you’re the biggest liar since Baron Munchhausen.”
I took immediate umbrage with this vile slander! Every word of Baron Munchhausen’s story is true! Terry Gilliam even went and made the film to prove it in 1988. So there, doctor.
When it’s not trying to look like Them!, certain bits of Tarantula look like they were designed from a 3D movie, even though I can’t find anything to confirm that suspicion. I guess Jack Arnold had to work it out of his system. You don’t kick bad habits overnight, and the longer you were hooked, the longer it takes to kick. But when a tarantula-induced rock slide almost flattens Dr. Matt and Steve, with fake rocks happily bouncing and rolling right up to the camera, my eyes involuntarily rolled around a few times themselves. It’s one of my many superpowers: my 3D Sense. It warns me whenever gimmicky bullshit’s near.
Our leads, Agar and Corday, have some spark to them, though not as much as John and Ellen from It Came from Outer Space or Ben and Pat from Them! Agar, with his constant grin, comes off like a smooth operator, and I have no trouble buying Dr. Matt’s pursuit of Steve. He’s so clean cut, but he’s got a grin like a young Jack Nicholson, so I had fun imaging what might happen if a vigilante ever dropped him into a vat of chemicals.
Steve’s more interesting because she manages to put up with a lot of bullshit and manages not to murder anyone, which is more than I could manage if I were in her shoes. She gets hit with Dr. Matt’s many lame attempts at pick-up humor, like this gem
“I knew it would happen. Give women the vote and what do you get? Lady Scientists!”
or this forced compliment from Prof. Deemer
“I didn’t expect to see a biologist that looked like you! That was intended as a compliment; I’m afraid I’m a little bit rusty.”
In fact, Matt has some real weird lines all throughout; little conversational bombs that only someone on this side of the twentieth century would notice. What kind of doctor walks around saying things like, “[the desert ] serine, quite…yet strangely evil. As if hiding its secrets from Man.” Or “Freaks of any kind give me the willies”? How’d you get through med school, again? Times like this, there’s nothing to do but shake hands with the dominant culture of the 1950s and remember why it constantly pissed me off so much, back when I Was a Teenage Movie Critic.
On the whole, Tarantula’s a perfectly serviceable giant monster movie, held back by its visible seams. It’s like those bolts on the monster’s head at the beginning of Bride of Frankenstein: I can see where they stitched Them! onto the old subtext of a Universal Monster movie, with all the tragic hubris and mad ambition that implies. If they’d just let its hair grow out a little bit, the bolts would be hidden and the whole package could be perfect. As is, Dr. Pretorius can still show this monster off to its repentant creator…but he’ll have to kidnap someone in order to force its creator to make it a mate.
Yeah, time to dynamite that metaphor before it reaches town and starts eating people. Tarantula‘s fun enough for what it is, it’s just a shameless Them! rip-off. As shameless Them! rip-offs go, you could do far worse. (I’m look at you, Empire of the Ants.) Or you could just watch Them! and save yourself the trouble.