Back we go the golden age of the drive-in, or at least what many see as the ideal time freeze of a continent; family values, mom and dad and the kids loading into the car for a wholesome night under the sky. But the most popular films on the outdoor screen were the horror movies, and those were hitting their very own genre idealism with Atomic Horror, led off by 1954’s Them!, which brought giant ants from their hills (and more importantly, teenagers outside) to Hollywood’s with resounding success. It was open season on gargantuan critters after that, and first out of the gate was Tarantula! (1955), melding together a larger than life spider with some mad scientist action to create a unique and fun addition to the canon.
As a matter of fact, Tarantula! stands as one of the best B’s from the era; solid performances and pretty damn great special effects help it get a leg (or eight) up on many of its similar brethren. And of course audiences ate it up, bringing in over a million at the box office and praise from the critics for the effective depiction of hairy terror on eight legs.
The story deviates from the norm right from the start: instead of showing a leak/eruption/testing site gone wrong, we open on a deformed man collapsing and dying in the desert. When Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar – The Mole People) checks out the body on the request of Sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva – Creature from the Black Lagoon), he’s told by the dead man’s associate, Professor Deemer (Leo G. Carroll – Spellbound), that the man died of a debilitating illness. Except, according to Dr. Hastings, this illness would take years to produce the monstrosity before them.
Keeping a close eye on the professor (who knows what he’s cooking up in the lab?), Hastings is introduced to his replacement lab assistant, Stephanie ‘Steve’ Clayton (Mara Corday – The Gauntlet), and they take a right fancy to one other. Meanwhile back in the lab, Deemer’s special growth juice to eliminate world hunger has gotten out of control, and a tarantula the size of a dog manages to escape and hit the open desert. And he’s getting bigger and bigger…
Tarantula! differs from many other films of the era simply by virtue of its secondary plot, besides the requisite romance; the plight of poor Deemer. Easily the most complex character on sight, the prof’s arc is filled with ambiguity and remorse; we’re never quite sure at first if he’s responsible for his deformed and dead assistant, just that he wants to cure world hunger. A noble cause to be sure, although why he’d want to grow an enormous spider is nobody’s business but his own, I guess. Carroll sells the role with equal shots of pomposity and pathos.
It’s a good thing he’s there, too; the film seems to mostly forget until the third act that a monstrous tarantula is sweeping across the desert landscape, and his interactions with an engaging Agar and captivating Corday keep the audience from leaving their cars to hit the snack bar. And yet, Tarantula! is well paced and does provide some horrific moments, particularly when Corday’s home is under attack by the major arachnid.
The effects work really sell the sizzle though, and through a tight use of matte work and miniatures, director Jack Arnold (The Incredible Shrinking Man) makes a strong case for ingenuity over dollars, and even manages to instill some potent chills for those with a touch of arachnophobia (ooh, pick me!).
The other main difference between this and others of its ilk is the lack of a government cover-up, as they aren’t (for once) duplicitous in the atrocity; the horror in Tarantula! is born of kindness and necessity gone wrong, and it’s a refreshing tact. (Not that the government shouldn’t be blamed for, I dunno, everything.)
There is levity to be had as well, most of it intentional; the occasional chuckle at the film’s expense happen in the most unusual moments: when the sheriff and doctor come across a car and its occupants that’s been attacked by the spider, and their bones are stripped clean, the doctor is asked if it was an accident. (Unless the accident happened a few years prior, I’m inclined to blame the creepy crawler.)
But these moments are necessary to remind us of the charms of the Big Bug flicks; that solemnity will always be surpassed by an underlying kick on behalf of the filmmakers to embrace the absurd and run with it. Tarantula! is that film, just with better effects. Having Clint Eastwood bomb the shit out of your creature doesn’t hurt either.
Tarantula! is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: BLOOD LINK (1982)