"More terrifying than any horror known to man comes a creeping crawling monster whose towering fury no one can escape!"
When a tarantula which has been injected with experimental growth hormones, it escapes the secret laboratory and grows to enormous size, causing havoc across the Arizona desert.
Tarantula is one of the 50s giant monster movie cycle's more famous entries and is not to be confused with the later 50s film, Earth Vs The Spider, also about a giant spider on the rampage in a desert town in America. But whereas that was attracted by rock and roll music, the spider in this one is simply hungry. Jack Arnold, fresh off legendary status with Creature from the Black Lagoon, brings his considerable talent to the table but unfortunately ends up with a throwaway science fiction movie which just so happens to have a giant spider running amok in.
Tarantula runs according to the well-embedded 50s atomic monster formula but a formula done reasonably effectively when the film wants to put the effort in - and Tarantula was one of the earlier entries into this sub-genre so it can be argued it was one of the ones to establish the tropes we are so familiar with. In this case the cause of the problem isn’t atomic radiation but an early form of genetic experimentation. It matters little in the long run though – either way there is a huge hungry spider on the loose. The film runs almost entirely without the spider as the plot regarding the scientists and the experiments takes the majority of the screen time. It’s a race against time for Professor Deemer to find a cure for his acromegaly which killed his partner and is now starting to kill him. It’s nowhere near as exciting as it sounds, if it sounds exciting anyway. At least there is some decent make-up effects on both characters as the slow effects of the syndrome begin to take their toll. The deeper messages being sent about hunger and how science and experiments have long been seen as solutions to the problem (for example, we're still arguing about the consumption of genetically modified crops decades after they were first developed) still resonate today and whilst this side of the film isn't particularly thrilling, it adds a bit of heart and soul to proceedings. These are fleshed-out characters, not stereotypes, and it makes a change.
But we didn’t come for guys in make-up, we came for giant spiders and the damage they do. On this aspect, Tarantula is dreadfully dull. It’s almost fifty minutes into the film before you get a look at the giant spider. That said, the first shot of it climbing over the hill in silhouette form is pretty spine-tingling and there is another awesome shot of it slowly creeping up behind a couple of prospectors sitting by a dawn campfire. I may have lambasted special effects in similar 50s giant bug movies but here they look like they’ve had some time and effort devoted to them. The spider even casts a shadow across the background that it’s been superimposed onto. I mean its hardly ground-breaking stuff but the effects at least manage to make the spider look like its real, even if it seems that plenty of the shots are re-used. I just wish they’d have made more use of the spider instead of relegating it to background duty.
The spider doesn’t do an awful lot except toddle around the desert. Many shots of it walking across highways, climbing over rocks or traversing hills are inter-cut with the rest of the film. Nothing flash, just a ten second clip of it walking around to make you remember that it’s still out there. It doesn’t really get well fed (if you don’t take into consideration a herd of horses that it snacks upon) but then it hasn’t really done much to get its appetite worked up. When it does get around to attacking people, it’s the same scenario over and over: close-up of the spider bearing its fangs and going in for the kill and then a zoom-in shot of the unlucky victims(s) covering helplessly on the floor with some super-imposed legs either side of them. Hardly the most exciting attack scenes you’ll see. But Tarantula doesn't need to go into a lot of graphic detail, given how widespread arachnophobia has always been. The thought and suggestion of being devoured by this giant spider is enough to put some people off.
On a final note, Clint Eastwood makes an uncredited appearance as one of the pilots who bomb the spider in the finale. Well, even greatness had to start somewhere.
Tarantula gets way more acclaim than it deserves but is still a fair way to spend time. There are far more entertaining examples of the 50s monster movies but when this film wants to show off, it does so in style with some excellent special effects and a certain level of depth which few of the others can match.
Director(s): Jack Arnold
Writer(s): Robert M. Fresco (screenplay), Martin Berkeley (screenplay), Jack Arnold (story)
Actor(s): John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll, Nestor Paiva, Ross Elliott, Hank Patterson, Eddie Parker, Bert Holland
Duration: 80 mins