During the 1950s the horror movie industry took to the atomic age like bees to honey, with incredible monstrous tales, while people worldwide contemplating the fears of nuclear holocausts, it was a great moment for filmmakers to exploit the fears of many, something the genre has hardwired into the psyche of the fans. Tarantula marks this year with its 64th anniversary, and while perhaps not the finest creature feature, the movie is not a slouch, rather it came the capable hands and mind of Jack Arnold, who reigns as a wonderful director in the 1950s, known for his often enthusiastic science fiction creatures that capture the excitement of a child on Christmas Day. Arnold, although passed in 1992, his work lives on, with the notes and nods to the hurried, but not rushed pace, selling through welcoming cinematography and storytelling from the scenery and characters. His work, still found on many websites, and now DVDs, such as the It Came from Outer Space (1953) and the legendary Universal classic Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) along with Revenge of the Creature (1955) just to name few that retain their place in genre memories. An important side note, that the spider, in this story was not created from atom bombs rather the increase massive size is attributing to a self-created radioactive synthetic nutrient, from a doctor acting as God.
The story takes place in the Arizona desert with Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) experimenting with growth hormones to finding the cure to the endless problem of providing more food supply for the growing population on the planet. Meanwhile, his colleague, found dead, with a disease that normally takes years before taking a soul’s life, however, is quickly dismissed as an abnormality, which afflicted him in only days. All of this of course leads back to the Professor and his experiments, and like any doctor in a horror or science fiction movie, the doctors have secrets, quirks, many mistrusts and a bit a zealousness to combat rational thinking. Now the laboratory brings the most interesting aspect, while small in nature, the animals inside do not exactly fit the experiment, guinea pigs, rabbits and (drum roll) a tarantula, no cows, or chickens, or even crops in general. Each of the animals grown in larger than life size, and reasoning, none presented, then again, that is not the point to movie. Hence, with a team member passing, enter the graduate student character, Stephanie, (Mara Corday), ready to assist in the discovery and who captures the romantic eye of the town’s young handsome Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar). The problem comes with lab destruction, the tarantula escapes, heads for the open countryside, becomes more agitated, and grows in size, quickly leaving milky while, deposits and strangely no webbing behind. Although, the demise always inevitable, comes far too quickly and easily from the minor appearance of Clint Eastwood as an Air Force dropping bombs, destroy the creature quickly, showing that the studio truly did not understand this new subgenre market.
After the successful run on Them (1954), Universal launched into attack mode on the teenage market with another supersized creature feature, but as stated above the studio, never got a full understanding of the boundaries and implications of this new subgenre. Therefore, this movie suffers from a less than wonderful creation, using the premise of solving a food crisis seems noble, but comes across confusing for the audience. The science fiction movies tended for a higher level of entertainment, and to some an elitist manner for the enjoyment, while horror either went for the straight ahead swipe of the jugular or a psychological terror trip, this movie shows a confusion of where it sought going. Now this does not mean the movie does not have redeeming qualities it does, and then come from Arnold’s direction and the cast, especially Carroll. He had the screen presence before and after this movie, and knew how to convey his character’s intent from mere emotion, the focus determination, to hide the building issues mounting from his wrongful interference in God’s world. He gained much attention in his career especially having worked with the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock on six of his films, and becoming a recognizable name and face as part the television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Sadly, a misplace criticizes of the modern audience befalls this movie, in the improper position, when regarding the character of Stephanie, but critics, overlooked the era of the film, and the societal implications, which in fact Mara later embraces in her own life, as her choice. The aspect, simply her character position in the movie, a pretty face, and secondary character needing the rescuing by Matt, although deeper, with her role as a medical graduate student, as put-off in a male dominated career path, than a professional scientist. This is not the first time in the decade that the writers buck the system with insisting that women were more that fixtures in the household, such as in the film, It Came beneath the Sea (1955) Faith Domergue as Prof. Lesley Joyce, her role belittle by military personnel. Even the stellar movie Them, Joan Weldon portrays Dr. Patricia Medford, but for all of intelligence, the male figureheads find themselves standoffish to her character’s point of views, a challenge that presented itself in television series M*A*S*H and Mad Men. As stated Mara, later left the business of feature films on her own accord, in 1958 to raise a family, and took great pleasure in that new role of mother and wife, however she did do one-off roles on television series. Coincidentally, Mara, returned briefly to acting in extremely minor roles in 1977 and continue for act in just 4 films to 1990, all which starred Clint Eastwood, who again makes the briefest appearance in this movie; too.
Obviously the star of the movie, is the Tarantula, though much manhandling was needed to have the beast become increasingly frightening, and with the assistance, of trick photography, air jets, contours of the desert far before Google Maps and even different body masses of spiders to achieve more menacing aspect. Nevertheless, the technical composite effects and production values hit the proper marks, and yet the movie does lag at certain moments, still achieving a solid b-movie enjoyment. Perhaps the psychological impact of this large massive beast never achieves the thrill that later in 1977 Kingdom of Spiders does, advocating the theory that sometimes a horde of small bugs and arachnids generates more fear than one oversized creature. One is in need Dr. Freud when you need him of an existential question of maximization to the minimization of the psychological impact to prey upon the fears of the viewers. The seeing of the oversized spider for the most part allows the potential victims to escape while a minuscule investigation allows for suspense terrorizing of the audience.
Tarantula, still holds the reigns of the larger than life spider movie, in age when there countless straight to DVD and VOD films of Mega creatures and then the onslaught of spiders, from recent Lavalantula (2015) and Arachnoquake (2012) to the more enjoyable Eight Legged Freaks (2002) and the thrilling Arachnophobia (1990). This movie continues to capture the attention of the creature feature fans, young and old, seeking to discover the secret gems of the years ago, and remaining bound in the webbing of classic horror.
This article was originally posted on the now defunct Rogue Cinema website in December 2015 with a view count of 1,894.
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IMDb Rating: 6.5/10
Baron’s Rating: 6.5/10