Posts Tagged ‘Tarantula’

I was fortunate enough to spend a few days last year in the Grand Canyon state itself – Arizona, home of the Saguaro Cactus, the Apache trout, the two-tailed Swallowtail Butterfly and the Colt Single-action Army Revolver. (Don’t mock, these are all official state insignia of Arizona.) Phoenix, Sedona and Flagstaff were all beautiful, to say nothing of the Canyon itself.

Missing, however, from Arizona’s list of attractions are giant spiders the size of bus stations. Luckily, in 1955 this oversight was rectified in Jack Arnold’s Tarantula, the last of the SF B-movies I’ve been ploughing through recently. (Well – there’s still one film to come, but that doesn’t quite qualify.) Arnold’s films dominated this genre in the mid-50s and while it’s not really one of his best, it’s still massively and obviously influential.

It opens strikingly, with the corpse of a horribly deformed man being found in the desert. Local doctor Matt Hastings (John Agar) can’t explain what the cause of death is. Investigations reveal the dead man worked at the private lab of biologist Gerald Deemer (Leo G Carroll, who does indeed find himself over a barrel as the story progresses). Deemer claims the man, his co-researcher, suffered from acromegaly (a disorder affecting the body’s growth), which Hastings disputes but can’t prove.

But unbeknownst to Hastings and his friend the sherriff, there is trouble at t’lab. Deemer’s lab animals are noticeably big for their ages, including a tarantula which is the size of a large dog, but this does not worry the boffin too much. What does distress him is being attacked by another acromegaloid gentleman, who starts a fire, injects Deemer with Something Ominous, and allows the spider to make a discreet exit before expiring.

Things calm down a bit after this, with Hastings romancing Deemer’s new lab assistant (Mara Corday) and trying to figure out what Deemer’s up to (the audience is, of course, many steps ahead by this point). Eventually, Deemer himself starts showing signs of acromegaly (some relatively sophisticated make-up courtesy of Bud Westmore), while elsewhere in the area something starts eating cattle, their ranchers, and the ranchers’ pick-up trucks and leaving large pools of venom in its wake. Just how soon will Hastings figure out that two and two make four?

The main problem Tarantula has is that it’s called Tarantula. This may just tip the audience off to the possibility that the plot may revolve around a tarantula. (To be fair, neither script nor director try to be clever about this and the big spider turns up quite early on, though not as big as it will later become.) The giant spider plotline doesn’t really take centre stage until quite late on, though.

The film has a mildly peculiar and somewhat inelegant structure – it opens with one of the acromegaly sufferers keeling over in the desert, from which we transition to Dr Hastings examining the corpse and crossing swords with Deemer. And then from here we go into an odd sequence with Deemer returning to his lab. We see lots of things, including the giant animals and spider, none of which are explained to us. Then the plot proper kicks off with Deemer being attacked and the spider taking to the hills.

It would probably been hopelessly clumsy had all this been done through exposition or a flashback, but the problem remains: the title and this sequence make it quite clear that this is going to be a rampaging giant spider movie, but none of the characters are allowed to know that until the third act. This makes them all seem annoyingly dense in the sequences where they investigate the scenes of its attacks – unlike similar moments in, for example, Them! (a movie to which Tarantula clearly owes a tremendous narrative debt), there’s no sense of mystery or tension, just a vague awareness of plot cogs clicking over.

Most of the mid-section is preoccupied with the plight of Leo G Carroll’s character, anyway. As the movie isn’t called The Funny-headed Acromegaloid Man there is some genuine tension and horror here as he gradually becomes more and more deformed, and Carroll’s performance is accomplished. (All the main players in this movie are superior, compared to their counterparts in other Jack Arnold movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon and This Island Earth, which makes the clunkiness of the script all the more annoying.) Even so there’s a repeated trope where, while driving through the desert (Agar spends most of the movie driving back and forth between the sherriff’s office and the lab), Agar’s car zooms past the camera only for the arachnid colossus to scuttle out from behind some rocks seconds later. Presumably this was to remind the audience of what film they were watching, but it eventually becomes silly – does Hastings never look in his rear-view mirror? How come nobody else spots the damn thing? Is the state impediment of Arizona chronic tunnel vision?

Oh, well. Given the subject matter the effects are decent enough, though there are inevitably a few issues with the background plates of the scenery not quite aligning with the inserted tarantula. For the vast majority of the movie Arnold opts for blown-up footage of a real spider, as opposed to the full-size puppets of Them!, which works fairly well considering.

Arnold directs with his usual energy and gives everything the slightly lurid tone common to his work (a definite contrast to the more naturalistic Them! – I’m sorry to keep going on about it, but the two movies are such close cousins in terms of setting and theme). He also inserts a dash of subtext, making it clear that there’s nothing wrong with being a spider per se, it’s just the disruptive influence of man (and particularly scientists) on the ecology that’s causing all the trouble. And even then there’s a touch of ambiguity, given that Carroll’s motives seem wholly pure – he’s trying to ensure there’ll be enough food to go around in the far-off year 2000, when the population will reach – gasp! – three and a half billion people!

A movie from a more innocent age and no mistake. As usual, the US armed forces come to the rescue, and one of the things that makes Tarantula notable is the fact that the spider is eventually killed by an uncredited Clint Eastwood, playing a jet pilot (shades of Lee van Cleef in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms). The fact that the plot is resolved by the characters essentially just ringing up the Air Force for help makes for a weak and rather abrupt ending, but there are enough incidental pleasures along the way to make Tarantula a fun if slightly exasperating watch.

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