From the great classic pantheon of 1950s American monster movies which ran the gamut from various Blobs, Things, Creatures and giant-sized creepy crawlies such as the mutated ants in Them! or THE colossal crustaceans in Attack of the Crab Monsters, there are few which still have the capacity to terrify its audience more than 1955’s Tarantula, directed by Jack Arnold. Everyone – that’s everyone – hates spiders, of course, and here we have one of the eight-legged freaks grown to house-sized proportions rampaging across the monochrome Arizona desert laying waste to anything and everyone in its path. Eek, get it off me etc. Oh, and Clint Eastwood appears in an uncredited role as a fighter pilot in the film’s fiery climax.
Tarantula is no-nonsense, no-frills stuff. We open on a hideously-deformed man stumbling through the desert and collapsing. The deceased is scientist Eric Jacobs, an old friend of Dr Matt Hastings (Agar) who diagnoses acromegaly, a real-life disfiguring condition which takes years to develop but which Jacobs seemed to have contracted in days. Out in the desert, Jacobs’ colleague Dr Deemer (Carroll) is experimenting on a new growth drug which has unfortunate side effects. His lab is damaged in a fire and one of his test specimens – an already abnormally-large tarantula – escapes into the desert. Inevitably it starts to grow bigger and bigger and appears to resist all efforts to destroy it or halt its destructive, murderous rampage across the desert.
Tarantula is still a powerful and skin-crawling experience even now, over sixty years after it was made, mainly because unlike genre bedfellows such as Them!, the film doesn’t resort to unwieldy, unconvincing props, and uses a real spider and overlays it onto location footage. Scenes of the spider scuttling over desert highways and looming over hills and dunes are hugely effective – much of the film is set at night and the silhouette of the spider moving against the darkened horizon is still an eerie image – and the film even pays homage to King Kong as the tarantula crawls all over Deemer’s house and gazes through the window at Deemer’s unsuspecting assistant Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (Corday).
The film is punchy and to the point, and whilst it’s possible to read a Black Mirror-type “science is dangerous” subtext into the narrative it’s certainly not as heavy-handed and hectoring as the “beware radiation!” themes of many of its cinematic contemporaries. The film’s climax is a little throwaway though, with the tarantula nixed by napalm dropped by overflying fighter jets before fading to credits, but then again most of these 1950s creature features had the sense to get in and get the job done and then get out again.
A classic of its kind, Tarantula is pretty much guaranteed to get you looking behind the curtains and under the bed before you turn out the lights. They’re out there somewhere, millions of ‘em...
REVIEW: TARANTULA / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: JACK ARNOLD / SCREENPLAY: ROBERT M FRESCO, MARTIN BERKELEY / STARRING: LEO G. CARROLL, JOHN AGAR, MARA CORDAY / OUT NOW