(6/10) This 1955 film marked Universal’s entrance into the giant bug market, and along with Them! it stands as one of the classiest examples of the subgenre. Sci-fi stalwarts John Agar and Mara Corday back up a good Leo G. Carroll in a rather anachronistic mad scientist role. The script is derivative and somewhat clumsy, but moves along at a good pace and avoids communist/nuclear hysteria. Occasionally flawed, but ultimately impressive visual effects make Jack Arnold’s fourth sci-fi picture a genuine classic.
Tarantula (1955, USA). Directed by Jack Arnold. Written by Robert M. Fresco, Martin Berkeley, Jack Arnold. Starring: John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll, Nestor Paiva, Eddie Parker, Clint Eastwood. Produced by William Alland for Universal-International.
IMDb rating: 6.5/10. Tomatometer: 92% Fresh. Metascore: N/A.
1955 stood in the middle of a decade that marked the second Golden Age for monster movies. But unlike in the thirties, the monsters were no longer gothic undead ripped from the pages of literary classics and folklore. No, these were the monsters of the atomic age – mutants, radioactive giants and overgrown insects. The hugely successful re-release of RKO:s King Kong (1933, review) in 1952 spurred Warner to take a chance with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review), and the old masters of the monster genre, Universal, answered with Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, review). Smelling success for science fiction in general, Universal splashed out with a big-budget space epic, This Island Earth (review) in 1955, and even if the film made back its budget, it wasn’t the hit they had hoped for. So, the studio decided, space rockets and far-off planets still weren’t the money-cows they needed, and for the rest of the decade decided to play it safe with an ever-declining line of mutated insects, arachnids and other critters. Tarantula isn’t the first time we’ve seen giant spiders on films, but it is the first time the spider has taken the size of a house. And this movie is without a doubt the best of Universal’s post-1954 sci-fi horror films.
This wasn’t the first time somebody had set out to make a film called Tarantula featuring giant spiders. Myth-enshrouded German wannabe director Herbert Tevos, real name Herbert von Schoellenbach, already made such a film in 1952, but it was so bad that nobody would release it. Instead the studio gave the finished movie to Arthur Hilton, who rounded up some of the old actors and filmed new scenes, turning the film into what we know today as Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, review), surely one of the worst movies ever to get a theatrical release.
Universal’s science fiction specialists in the fifties were producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold. The duo made the surprise hit It Came from Outer Space (1953, review) and the monster classic Creature from the Black Lagoon. In 1954 Warner had a smash hit with Them! (review), the original giant insect movie, featuring radioactively mutated ants. When the time came for Universal to release its own giant critter film, it was only natural that Alland & Arnold would be the duo responsible for bringing the spider to life. Both It Came from Outer Space and Them! had made good use of the Californian desert as the backdrop for weird horrors, and there was no reason to change this obviously successful (and cheap) setting.
However, the plot of the movie isn’t so much atomic age flying saucer fright, as it is a good old-fashioned thirties mad scientist tale. Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) works alongside two esteemed colleagues, Dr. Lund and Dr. Jacobs (both played by stuntman Eddie Parker) in a remote house in the desert on some secret experiment. Turns out that they have been perfecting a new form of super-nutrient, aided by a radioactive isotope, which makes animals grow super-large in a very short time, without the need for additional food.
But things turn sour when country doctor Matt Hastings (John Agar) gets called into town by the sheriff (Nestor Paiva) to investigate a strangely deformed human found dead in the desert. It turns out that it is Dr. Jacobs, hideously deformed by a disease which has all the symptoms of acromegaly, which causes gigantism. But Dr. Hastings is flabbergasted to find out that it has deformed Jacbos in only four days from normal to dead, when the disease usually takes years to develop. But Professor Deemer is adamant, and wishes no further investigation. Unlucky for him, his other colleague has the same deformation, and one night sets fire to the lab and all the animals inside, knocks out Deemer and injects him with the serum he’s been giving to the animals. And of course it should come to no surprise that the deformed (and dead) assistants have been human guinea pigs for Deemer’s experiments. In the melee, Deemer fails to see that a tarantula big as a dog escapes into the desert.
At the same time a young biologist, Stephanie ”Steve” Clayton (Mara Corday) arrives to work as an assistant to the professors, and despite the recent disasters, she agrees to stay on to help Deemer. Along with the sheriff, doctor Hastings starts investigating strange cattle deaths, and Clayton starts noticing disturbing changes in Professor Deemer – not only does he get ever more irritable and sinister, his face and hands begin showing deformations. And then, of course, it doesn’t take too long before the heroes encounter the spider, which has now grown to an enormous size. Bombs and guns don’t seem to stop it – but what will?
The story for Tarantula was cooked up by Arnold himself, and Robert M. Fresco, whose first film this was. Fresco had previously written a few TV scripts, but would continue to write horror/sci-fi films for Universal. In Tom Weaver’s book Eye on Science Fiction, Fresco says that he got into the business through cult producer Ivan Tors’ science fiction series Science Fiction Theatre (1955-1957), for which he wrote four scripts. One of them was called No Food for Tought, which was directed by Jack Arnold. Arnold liked the script so much that he asked Fresco to flesh it out into a full movie, and the result was the first draft for Tarantula. Fresco also had a hand in The Monolith Monsters (1957), which was one of the most original science fiction movies of the late fifties, The 27th Day (1957), The Alligator People (1959) and the Swedish-American co-production Space Invasion in Lapland (1959), also known as Invasion of the Animal People. In the sixties Fresco started producing and directing documentary films, and earned an Oscar for the movie Czechoslovakia 1968 (1969), a film documenting the history of Czechoslovakia between WWII and the Soviet invasion during the Prague Spring. Much of the film consisted of never before seen Czech stock footage, which had been smuggled out of the Communist country. Another praised production of his was the biographical film To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1972), retelling the life-story of Lorraine Hansberry, author of the play A Raisin in the Sun.
The original TV script was about scientists developing an artificial nutrient, and experimenting on themselves. In Weaver’s book Fresco says that Arnold was the one who ordered him to put a monster in the movie script. Fresco wrote a first screenplay draft, but producer Alland turned that over to stock writer Martin Berkeley, who had just written Revenge of the Creature (1955, review), and would go on to co-write The Deadly Mantis (1957). However, according to Fresco, Berkeley didn’t really change much of his script – he was brought in by producer William Alland to get a screen credit. Fresco hated Alland and hated Berkeley – they were McCarthyist informers, credit-grabbers and all-round assholes, according to him. Fresco says that all studios had ”those kind of guys on their payrolls” in order to stay out of trouble with the McCarthyists, even of they were universally loathed. Look up the interview in Weaver’s book Eye on Science Fiction, it’s quite an interesting read.
The script is better than the one Berkeley wrote for Revenge of the Creature, which had way too much padding, too many repetitions of the original film, and which failed to do anything with the interesting concepts it brought up. Perhaps this film works better because it doesn’t try to be anything more than a straight-up horror film (although Fresco would disagree, and say it wasn’t about the monster, but about the ”ideas”). There’s a rather tedious romantic subplot between Steve and Matt, but it doesn’t take up too much of the script, and is mostly used to provide exposition and a few jokes. Berkeley has managed to sneak in a quip about ”lady scientists”, but fortunately he doesn’t delve deeper into the subject, which he did in Revenge of the Creature, with disastrous results.
By giving the human victims acromegaly, Berkeley and Fresco are able to tie the whole thing to the famed pituitary gland – the organ of choice for mad scientists in the forties to manipulate in order to create apemen and other fantastic creatures. The pituitary gland controls growth hormones in all mammals and terapods, and acromegaly is usually caused by a tumour in the gland. Thus, the movie stands on some scientific basis. You could probably induce acromegaly in a person by messing with the pituitary gland, even though it would probably be medically impossible for it to develop at such a rate as it does in the film. And the results look nothing like the monstrous creatures that the scientists are turned into.
However, logic fails to explain why the animals simply grow larger without any ill effects, while the humans get the deformities and health problems associated with far-developed acromegaly. It is even harder to explain why the spider grows in the same way as the animals, as the spider lacks a pituitary gland. Insects and arachnids have something called a corpus allatum, which basically serves the same purpose as a pituitary gland, but also controls metamorphosis in insects. By all accounts, the human transformation should be more similar to the animals’, and the spider should be the odd one out.
Something I haven’t talked about yet on the blog is the fact that giant insects and arachnids are impossible. There are clearly reasons as to why bugs and spiders never grow past a certain size. Scientists haven’t reached complete consensus as to all these reasons, but are fairly certain that ants the size of cars and spiders the size of houses are not possible. One problem is that invertebrates of this type have exoskeletons rather than endoskeletons, and they don’t grow as they do in vertebrates. This means that as a creature grows, it has to shed its exoskeleton and grow a new one. And the larger the exoskeleton, the longer it would take to grow back – and the larger the creature, the more vulnerable it would be to attacks from predators. A 10-foot spider would have a hard time finding holes to hide in while it regenerates its exterior armour. Another theory suggests that the exoskeleton would also grow thicker at the same rate as the creature grows, and since mass grows exponentially, it would simply become too heavy for a spider or bug to lug around, crushing the creature through sheer weight. However, studies have shown that larger insects don’t necessarily have thicker exoskeletons, so this theory isn’t necessarily valid.
The most compelling theory, however, has to do with invertebrate physiology. Vertebrates tend to have lungs, a heart, veins and other organs carrying bodily fluids. However, insects and arachnids don’t. Spiders and bugs don’t breathe. Instead air is pushed through holes called trachea by the help of atmospheric pressure. But for giant creatures, pressure simply wouldn’t be enough for collecting all the needed oxygen – that’s why we use muscles to breathe. And if a spider managed to develop big enough trachea to satisfy its need for oxygen, it would leave too many cells open to the atmosphere, resulting in rapid dehydration. Someone might point out that giant insects did exist a long time ago, during the carboniferous period. That’s true, but none of them were the size of humans – the largest was probably the giant dragonfly, which could reach the size of a large hawk. But one should remember that during this period the oxygen content of the atmosphere was 35 percent, compared to 21 today, and the humidity was higher as well, making bigger insects possible.
Jack Arnold was without doubt one of the most important science fiction directors of the fifties. When he started working on It Came from Outer Space, he was mainly known for his documentaries, but quickly proved very apt at adapting new technology and handling the visual effects involved in making sci-fi movies. It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature were all filmed in 3D, and his films cleverly blended optical tricks, travelling mattes, split-screen techniques, models and puppetry to make his creatures come to life. Tarantula is one of his masterpieces as far as his visual trickery goes. Using a live spider in almost all shots was a bold move, considering spiders are not known to be easily trained.
Yet Arnold pulls it off, alongside visual effects veterans Clifford Stein and David S. Horsley, both sporting effects and cinematography credits that would make most men pale. Between them they can count titles like King Kong, Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review), Werewolf of London (1935), The Invisible Man Returns (1940, review), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), This Island Earth (1955, review), The incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Spartacus (1960), Patton (1970), Earthquake (1974) and The Hindenburg (1975).
The first taste of the visual effects of the film come quite early on, when we see Professor Deemer checking his caged animals, and you could swear they were in the shot with him, although you know it’s impossible when there’s a rabbit as big as a hog and a spider the size of a dog. There’s even an reflection from the lab in the glass of the aquarium where he keeps his spider, so you know it’s not just a black pane where’s Arnold has later matted in the spider. In all probability it’s a rear projection, but then it’s the best rear projection I’ve seen in a fifties movies, since it isn’t at all faded the way these tend to be. Later on you could swear that Arnold’s photographed a real 30-foot spider – so well does it blend in to its surroundings, although your brain tells you that it must be a travelling matte. For an audience who had no idea how these effects were made, it must have been quite fantastic to see the images on screen. At least with monsters in suits or stop-motion animations, you knew they were suits and puppets. But here was a real live spider stepping over a real live road, and you must have been scratching your hair out figuring how the hell they did it.
The coolest shots of the movie are when Arnold gives us the spider’s point of view as it is about to devour its prey – and you can see the fangs and the antennae writhing in front of you. These, along with a miniature spider puppet, were created by Wah Chang. Chang was long one of the great unsung heroes of Hollywood’s special effects and props departments, who very seldom was credited for his work. The Chinese-American boy started exhibiting his paintings at the age of seven, and soon began working on theatre productions with his adopted father, and eventually they started their own production company, producing short films.
Some of Chang’s early big studio work was as a model builder for Disney, creating maquettes that the animated characters were based upon, and worked on Fantasia, Pinochio (both 1940) and Bambi (1942). He also got into stop-motion animation, and directed and produced his own shorts. He later started designing creatures and props for film and TV, and also created and filmed other special effects, sometimes through his company and sometimes by himself. Unfortunately it’s hard to find information on exactly what he did because of the way he often worked through the company, and thus sometimes remained uncredited, but this at least is known:
Chang did special effects for Cat-Women of the Moon (1953), stop-motion work for Monster from Green Hell (1957), the scorpion puppet for The Black Scorpion (1957), stop-motion puppet for Kronos (1957), and designed the iconic time machine for George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960). He worked on Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961), Master of the World (1961) and Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962), as well as The Power (1968), Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968) and Planet of the Apes (1968). Chang also worked extensively on the TV series Land of the Lost (1974-1977), for which he designed and built most of the dinosaur puppets. In addition to this, he created some of the iconic creatures and props for the original Star Trek series, like the Salt Vampire, Balok’s false image, the Romulan bird of prey, and the famous Gorn from the episode Arena, as well as the original tricorder, and most famously the communicator. His company Project Unlimited won the Academy Award for the special effects for The Time Machine, but because of the way the credits were submitted to the Academy, his name was not among the recipients (he did receive a plaque at the ceremony, though, as someone apparently informed the Academy that he had been left out).
After Tarantula, Jack Arnold directed a good dozen movies, including The Incredible Shrinking Man, which is generally considered his masterpiece, but also lesser efforts like Monster on Campus (1958) and The Space Children (1958). He made one last superb film, The Mouse that Roared (1959), in Britain with Peter Sellers, before he moved into TV, where he did a whole bunch of good work, but is perhaps best known for directing three seasons of Gilligan’s Island.
In Tom Weaver’s book It Came from Horrorwood Mara Corday says that she liked working with Jack Arnold because he was fun to be around on set, and he was a prankster, ”Oh, he would tell dirty jokes on set, and then all of a sudden, he’d break out in a little dance. He used to be a chorus boy in New York, a little dancer, so he’d do steps. He’d fix you chair so that when you sat on it, you’d almost fall, things like that.”
Robert M. Fresco said that Jack Arnold was a credit-grabber (”but so where everyone in those days”), but that he really liked him, and the two got along great. In his mind, Arnold was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and would have been able to make a really big name for himself with A-class pictures, had he ever gotten the chance. According to Fresco, Arnold actually didn’t like making science fiction movies – The Mouse that Roared was the kind of ”caustic comedy” that he would have liked to make more of. ”He had a profound sense of movement, he had an understanding of lighting, he was a good director. But he didn’t have the balls /…/ Jack didn’t have courage. That was one of the reasons he never made it. Jack didn’t take chances. He wouldn’t stand up to Bill Alland”.
John Agar in the lead role is better than he was in Revenge of the Creature, perhaps because the script is better: there are less awkward romantic scenes, less chauvinism and more chances for Agar to to do a relaxed, laid-back hero type. In some scenes Arnold tries to infuse the desert with the same sense of wonder and mystery as he did in It Came from Outer Space, but unfortunately this time he doesn’t have Ray Bradbury’s script to help him do it, which results in Agar and Mara Corday waxing poetically about what is obviously a bunch of styrofoam or papier maché rocks.
At this time, John Agar was probably still hoping his leading man career would take off. He got a flying start to his career in 1946, when he had just married teenager and former child star Shirley Temple, and Temple’s producer David O. Zelznick discovered him and his good looks, and offered him a five-year contract including acting lessons. Agar did a number of high-profile supporting roles opposite stars like John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, but his carer suffered badly when his marriage with Temple ended, the press turned against him and his contract with Zelznick ran out in 1951. However, after a few rough years he was cast in the lead of the B horror film The Golden Mistress (1954), after which he was offered a seven-year contract with Universal.
Revenge of the Creature was Agar’s first role for Universal, and he hoped that his contract would finally give him his big breakthrough. However, he was relegated to playing B movies, and William Alland especially liked him in his science fiction films. Agar played the lead in Tarantula, and later in The Mole Men (1957), a film Agar thought was so bad, that he would rather tear up his contract than appear in another one as lousy. He saw his contract with Universal going nowhere, especially as Universal was grooming leading men like Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis and George Nader. So he quit.
However, his roles didn’t necessarily get better. Straight out of Universal he found himself starring the horror film Daughter of Dr. Jekyll. This was followed by films like The Brain from Planet Arous (1957), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), Invisible Invaders (1959), Hand of Death (1962), Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962), Women of the Prehistoric Planet (1966) and Night Fright (1967). In the late sixties his roles became more sporadic, and he partly withdrew from motion pictures, but happily took on smaller roles when they were offered. He appeared alongside a number of old sci-fi veterans in the bizarre fan fiction movie The Naked Monster, originally filmed in 1988, but partly re-shot in 2004, when much of the cast had died, and released in 2005. In the sixties he also did three TV movies for director Larry Buchanan, including Zontar: The Thing from Venus (1966) and Curse of the Swamp Creature (1966), both considered among some of the worst movies ever made.
One of the reasons Agar’s movie career didn’t quite take off the way he wanted may have been his heavy drinking. His Tarantula co-star Mara Corday tells Tom Weaver that she felt sorry for Agar’s career decline, and that she was almost like a brother to her, ”he was very quiet, very respectful, but he couldn’t drink, you could not give this man a drink of alcohol. He’d turn into … something else. Luckily, I did not see that (except maybe once), because he was straight-arrow on that set, he did a fine little job for us, and we got along great.”
In his book Keep Watching the Skies Bill Warren writes about Agar’s sci-fi notoriety: ”He turned up so often in these films in the 1950s not because his acting style was deemed appropriate, but because he had almost been a name actor at one point, and because his personal problems forced him to take parts most actors would have avoided. He was chosen because he was physically suitable, did what the director wanted with reasonable competence, and had a certain amount of fame. And he didn’t cost a lot.”
In later years Agar, like so many other B sci-fi actors, embraced his cult legacy, stating: ”I don’t resent being identified with B science fiction movies at all. Why should I? Even though they were not considered top of the line, for those people that like sci-fi, I guess they were fun. My whole feeling about working as an actor is, if I give anybody any enjoyment, I’m doing my job, and that’s what counts.”
Mara Corday is surprisingly good in this role, as the fifties science fiction movies more often than not were inhabited by glamour starlets who didn’t want to be in science fiction films, but weren’t good enough to get anything else than sci-fi a western roles. They often had very little else to do than look frightened, scream and faint, and do a little kissing in between. To be fair, the script doesn’t give Corday much more to do in this film either, but at least she is good at what she does.
Corday was a former chorus girl and cheesecake photo model who did some early work in TV and small pictures, until she was snatched up on a contract with Universal in the mid-fifties. At the time she appeared as a cover girl on numerous magazines, and according to her own words, it was probably this, more than anything, that compelled Universal to push her, rather some of the other starlets in the studio’s stock company, for leading roles. Her first big break came in Jack Arnold’s romantic western The Man from Bitter Ridge, opposite her former boyfriend and Tarzan star Lex Barker, just a few years before he switched Hollywood B-roles for immense success in European movies. After Tarantula, Corday made a few westerns at Universal, before she was dropped and continued to work as a freelancer for the rest of the fifties. Apart from a few crime dramas, she was typecast in sci-fi movies, and played the lead in The Giant Claw (1957) and The Black Scorpion (1957). Her last big movie role was in Paul Henried’s film noir Girls on the Loose (1958), after which she turned to television, where she worked until 1961, when she dropped out of acting to focus on her family. Only after her husband died in 1974, did she return to the screen, but only to appear in bit-parts in her good friend Clint Eastwood’s movies.
Speaking of which, Clint Eastwood also shows up for a few brief seconds as an air force pilot (you hear his voice and see his eyes) in Tarantula. Eastwood made his film debut in Revenge of the Creature – read more about his early career in my review of that film.
Mara Corday was born Marilyn Watts, but changed her name because she thought her birth name wasn’t exotic enough for show business. All through her childhood she wanted to be in show business, and was eagerly spurred on by her mother, who even faked her birth certificate when she was seventeen so that she could get a job as a chorus girl – she had to be eighteen to get the gig.
Corday tells Weaver a funny story about filming Tarantula. For many years she had a gap between her upper front teeth, but directors never realised it, because she used a veneer over her teeth. But when it came time to do Tarantula, Universal had noticed her gap, and sent her to a dentist who gave her a retainer to use when she wasn’t filming. But he said that she couldn’t use the veneer because it kept the gap open. Instead he gave her some wax to fill the gap with when filming. Corday says the wax worked great, until it came time to do the desert shots in the scorching heat of summer in Apple Valley outside Los Angeles. ”I would be standing there and my teeth would melt [laughs]! We could barely get any of those shots, especially the ones where John Agar and I are standing in front of the rocks. That’s when it fell out”.
Talking to Weaver, Corday says she has no regrets of using cheesecake photography as a springboard for her film carer (as late as 1958 she was Miss October in Playboy – you can check out her Playboy pictures here, no nudity). On the contrary, she was disappointed that Universal never used her sex appeal in any of the films she was in – instead they covered her up. Even in the last part of Tarantula, when she is running from the spider, she wears full pyjamas with a cover over – even when she requested to do it in a negligee, ”It was really conservative”.
Apart from the conservative wardrobe, Corday says she really liked doing Tarantula. ”I thought the picture was very good, for what it was – very, very good – and I’m very proud to be in it, to tell you the truth. Shortly after it was released, I ran into my agent, and he said, ‘My God, Mara, it’s number one in France’ – I couldn’t believe it, I was thrilled!” However, after making a number of lousy westerns at Universal, Corday became really fed up with bad genre roles. She turned down the role of the wife in The Incredible Shrinking Man and refused to make The Deadly Mantis, a dangerous move as a contract player. She didn’t turn down the role because she disliked sci-fi films as such, but because she thought the roles were bad. She tells Weaver that she regrets not doing The Incredible Shrinking Man, since it became a classic, but on the other hand, she says, it did nothing for the woman who played ”her” role.
Leo G. Carroll lends some nice gravitas to the role of the ”mad” scientist, who in fact isn’t mad at all, but rather a victim of his science. Bud Westmore’s makeup team does stellar work on Carroll’s final ”acromegaly” makeup, where his right eye has slid down to his cheek. I don’t know how they’ve done it, but the eye, which surely must be a special effect, moves and blinks in sync with his left eye. Of course it looks nothing like what actual acromegaly looks like, but at least it’s a bit closer than the horrible masks that Eddie Parker wears as the two other infected scientists. Mara Corday says that Carroll had a terrible time, since the makeup took hours to put on, and he was only able to eat through a straw during lunch.
Carroll isn’t nearly effective enough in the role to become one of the more memorable mad scientists of the screen. But despite this being his only science fiction movie, he is something of a cult figure with many sci-fi fans, thanks to the fact that he is referenced in Richard O’Brien’s title song Science Fiction Double Feature in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975): ”I knew Leo G. Carroll was over a barrel when Tarantula took to the hills”. But British Carroll was first and foremost a celebrated stage actor, and second a celebrated movie character actor. He was especially loved by Alfred Hitchcock, who used him central roles in a number of his movies. However, he may be best remembered for his role as Napoleon Solo’s and Ilya Kuryakin’s spy boss in the TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968) – a show that sometimes flirted with sci-fi gadgetry.
Nestor Paiva was one of the most prolific bit-part and supporting actors of the forties, fifties and sixties. He made a huge impact as the loud, unwashed, but ultimately heroic South-American boat captain in Creature from the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature. In Tarantula he has a big supporting part as the small town’s sheriff. He has shaved, dropped his faux accent – and is absolutely unrecognisable! And just like in the Creature features, he is superb in his role. Paiva also appeared in The Mole People (1956), Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961), The Madmen of Mandoras (1963), Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966) and the TV movie They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1968).
Ross Elliott puts in a stable performance as the town’s journalist. Elliott appeared in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Indestructible Man (1956), Monster on Campus (1958), The Crawling Hand (1963), and guested a large number of sci-fi TV series. Character actor Raymond Bailey has a fair-sized supporting role as a military type. He also appeared in substantial supporting roles in Black Friday (1940), The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Space Children, The Absent Minded Professor (1961) and Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962). Gaunt, wrinkled character actor Hank Patterson was a western mainstay, but also appeared in Beginning of the End (1957), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), Monster on the Campus, Earth vs. the Spider (1958) and The Absent Minded Professor. Patterson is great as the lethargic, wry hotel receptionist in Tarantula. Sure, he plays for cheap laughs, but he does it well.
The movie naturally features a number of well-renowned bit-part actors. One of them is Robert J. Wilke, known for his many villainous roles in westerns, and awarded with a Golden Boot for his services to the genre. There is Bing Russell, who appeared in over 170 films or TV productions, but is best known as the owner of the baseball club Portland Mavericks. And then there’s the man with the superb name Sailor Vincent, whom I happen to remember because he played a sailor in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1955, review). Stuntman Eddie Parker did a tremendous amount of work in sci-fi serials in the forties and fifties, but is perhaps best known for donning the Frankenstein makeup in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, review) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review). He also doubled for Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster (1955, review) and appeared in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Mole People and Monster on Campus, among others.
Art direction and set decoration by Universal masters Alexander Golitzen, Alfred Sweeney and Russell A. Gausman is good, as usual, without overwhelming or doing much out of the ordinary. The backlot recreations of the desert are good, and Professor Deemer’s lab is all you expect it to be, and thankfully lacks arc generators. The music is effective, even if much of it is canned and reused stock by Herman Stein and Henry Mancini, although Stein seems to have composed something new for the movie.
Unless you count Bert I. Gordon’s hilariously bad work with a Jerusalem cricket in a short scene in King Dinosaur (1955, review), Tarantula marks the first time a giant monster has been rendered almost entirely with composite shots. The effects are mostly surprisingly good for the time, although not perfect. In some shots the spider has been rendered so dark that it stands out almost like a monolithic black block against the white sands of the desert, other times parts of its legs seem to fade into the sky. If you freeze-frame one of the shots of the spider walking along a road, you can clearly see the wheel beneath the mechanical puppet. Most of the time, though, a real spider was used. The special effects team built white miniature landscapes out of plaster and cotton to match the locations and sets, then matted out the background and superimposed the spider over the live-action sequences. It is perhaps most impressive in the scene where the 100-foot spider devours an entire house. The only way the miniature team was able to control the spider(s) was to coax it in different directions using blow-driers, and there must have been a lot of swearing and unused footage on that set.
When it comes to themes, Robert Fresco would like to convince us that the story is really about the professor creating his super-nutrient, but don’t be fooled. You really couldn’t care less about what the mad scientist is doing in his lab, since it is really of no consequence for the film. This is a film about an indestructible giant spider. The film is noteworthy, however, because it is one of the few fifties science fiction movies that doesn’t deal with either communist infiltration or nuclear annihilation. Sure, there’s a nuclear isotope involved, but that’s really just a MacGuffin to make things giant. This film is about the hunt for a big spider, period. Some reviewers feel that the omission of these two fifties tropes makes for a ”lifeless and unsatisfying film”, but I don’t quite agree. The film suffers a bit from the so often made mistake of giving the audience all the answers almost from the beginning and leaving the main characters two steps behind throughout the entire plot. This leaves the viewers screaming at the screen at the dumb characters, who fail to put two and two together: we have one dead scientist, one missing scientist, a fire in Deemer’s lab, where he is conducting secretive experiments, and strange cattle deaths in its vicinity – do you think that all this could have ANYTHING to do with Deemer’s work? Noooo, what an absurd thought! However, I think that the plot – in general – moves along at a decent enough pace. The visuals are great, the editing good. The actors are also good enough to counterbalance Arnold’s lack of personal direction.
Acromegaly had been used before as a ”monsterism” in The Monster Maker (1944, review). In critique of that film, some reviewers were upset at the fact that sufferers from a chronic disease were portrayed in a bad light. While the portrayal of the disease was almost as unscientifically handled as in Tarantula, the man suffering from the ailment in that film was really the movie’s hero, though. I haven’t read any similar comments regarding Tarantula, but I do agree that there is always the risk of stigmatising rare conditions and the people who suffer from them when they are displayed in such an unrealistic and monstrous way. However, I think the film makes it clear enough that these aren’t ordinary cases of acromegaly. As a curiosity, the script renames the disease ”acromegalia”, and when Tom Weaver puts Robert Fresco on the spot about it, he readily owns up the mistake: ”I probably fucked up [laughs]!” Fresco says that when writing a horror script, he would go to the library and read the medical textbook Merck’s Manual of Medicine, and leaf through all hideous diseases that could afflict people. ”And I came up with acromegaly. I don’t know why I called it acromegalia, I have no idea. But I’m quite sure I’m capable of having screwed it up!”
As Sci-Fi Movie Page points out, the film is a wonderful time capsule, as are most of the fifties sci-fi films. Female scientists were still rare enough (in the public eye, anyway) that you could pin a whole subplot around a woman being a scientist. And no matter how brilliant they were, female scientists would still serve coffee to the male scientists. And everyone smoked. ”Was it a better world? Who knows? But there is something wistful and sad about a scene in which a scientist in the movie tells about how hopelessly overpopulated the world would be in the year 2000 when the globe’s total population hits the 3.6 billion mark.” One of the problems, with this as with many films of the era, is its complete lack of diversity. In American films from the fifties, there usually wasn’t a black person in sight. Nor Asian or Native-American (unless they were Indians with feathers in their hair, flinging arrows at cowboys).
Some critics will dismiss this film as ”yet another stupid giant bug movie”, but they fail to take into account the time at which it was made. In fact, this was, strictly speaking, only the second giant bug movie. The genre was born out of a really good film, Them!, in 1954, and Tarantula came along 18 months later. It was really Tarantula that cemented the giant bug film as a movie genre, as chances are that Them! would simply have remained as a one-off without it. One should remember that Them! was made by Warner on a substantial budget and had elaborate (and expensive) full-size, mechanical ant puppets. Other monster movies had time-consuming stop motion effects. But Tarantula (with a budget of appriximately 200 000-300 000 dollars, according to Fresco) came along and showed that you didn’t need expensive puppets or animation – all you needed was a bug and some decent composite photography. Sure, Tarantula DID have elaborate puppets as well, but most of the time it was just the spider and a white backdrop.
Andrew Smith at Popcorn Pictures calls the film ”dreadfully dull” because he doesn’t get to see the finalised giant spider before the 50-minute mark, but I respectfully disagree. Better to leave the audience waiting for the good stuff than giving it all away in the beginning. If you start with a 100-foot spider eating a house, how do you up it from there? And I do think that, dialogue and script issues aside, the film moves along at a decent enough pace, helped by competent acting all the way through. Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant puts the film among his top 5 fifties science fiction films. I’m not sure I’d go quite as far, but it may just squeeze into my top 10 list. And I do agree with Xavier Desparats at French genre site DeVilDead: ”Despite a simplistic story and some imperfections, Tarantula remains a monument to the era, and would open the door for dozens of more or less successful clones.” The film has a 92 percent Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, which should be some indication that it probably shouldn’t be lumped in with The Giant Gila Monster and its ilk.
Tarantula (1955, USA). Directed by Jack Arnold. Written by Robert M. Fresco, Martin Berkeley, Jack Arnold. Starring: John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll, Nestor Paiva, Ross Elliott, Edwin Rand, Raymond Bailey, Hank Patterson, Bert Holland, Steve Darrell, Eddie Parker, Clint Eastwood. Music: Herman Stein. Cinematography: George Robinson. Editing: William Morgan. Art direction: Alexander Golitzen, Alfred Seeney. Set decoration: Russell A. Gausman, Ruby R. Levitt. Costume design: Jay A. Morley Jr. Makeup: Bud Westmore. Sound: Leslie I. Carey, Frank H. Wilkinson. Tarantula puppet creator: Wah Chang. Visual effects: Clifford Stine, David S. Horsley. Stunts: Eddie Parker, et.al. Movie poster art: Reynold Brown. Produced by William Alland for Universal-International.