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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Tarantula

Here we have another installment of the giant bug sub-genre begun by Them! the year before. Tarantula is solidly B material, but is fairly well done nonetheless. Jack Arnold, of Creature from the Black Lagoon fame co-wrote and directed it. Leo Carroll does a good job playing the mad scientist, professor Deemer. The special effects, which are mostly clever camera work, are actually rather well done for the pre-CGI era. Actually, with the deformed scientists subplot, Tarantula is almost two movies in one! One is the usual rampaging monster movie. The other is the detective/murder-mystery movie. The overall result is a very watchable example of classic 50s B sci-fi.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A deformed man wanders out of the southwest desert and dies. The local doctor (Agar) identifies the cause of death as a rare, slow-acting pituitary disease, but the reclusive Professor Deemer (Carroll) says the dead man is his associate, who was fine four days ago. Back in his lab, professor Deemer is giving injections of a nutrient solution to various animals who are very large. One of them is a tarantula in a glass case. Another deformed associate attacks the professor. In the ensuing struggle, the glass case is broken and the huge tarantula escapes out a door. A fire in the lab destroys the other giant animals. Before he dies, the deformed assistant injects the unconscious professor with the nutrient.
A pretty young grad student (Mara Corday) arrives to assist the professor. Doc Hastings (Agar) is predictably keen on her. A budding romance is put on hold as a mystery interrupts. Something has been eating a nearby rancher's cows, and then the rancher himself. A pool of white liquid near the skeltons is analyzed. It's tarantula venom -- gallons of it. Finally, the giant spider (now as big as a house) is seen and rampages around, making women scream and eating state troopers. The good guys try to blow it up with dynamite, but that fails. All seems lost as the now even larger spider approaches the town. Just in time, the Air Force flies in to the rescue. A squadron of P-80s arrive. Missiles do nothing, but they brought napalm bombs too. Now yer talkin'. The giant spider goes up in flames and the town is saved. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
For one of the giant bug flicks, Tarantula is pretty well done. The mad scientist subplot adds distraction, almost upstaging the giant spider story. The pacing is pretty good (except for a lull in the middle) and keeps interest. Later examples of the giant bug category would get much worse. This one is, by comparison, a gem.

Cold War Angle
There's not much Cold War in Tarantula. A thin connection is the "highly unstable" nature of the solution (to the world's problems) based on radioactive isotopes, but this isn't played up at all. The giant spider isn't cast as a personification of nuclear power, as Godzilla was. He's just a huge natural danger to be stopped by American military might.

Notes
End World Hunger -- What made the spider gigantic? Professor Deemer's synthetic nutrient solution. He worked on to solve world hunger. In his little speech, he noted that the world of 1955 had 2 million people. By 2000, he said there'd be 3.6 million. He says this gravely, as if the world could not support that many. In reality, by 2000 there were 6 billion of us. Deemer's idea was to create a synthetic nutrient that people could live on in lieu of dirt-grown food.

Ironic Justice -- Professor Deemer plays the common archetypal role of the misguided scientist who thinks he knows the best way to tweak nature. Of course, his synthetic nutrient solution creates monsters of animals and disfigured mutants of people. He, himself, falls prey to his own creation -- a fairly typical demise for B-movie impudent scientists. He is disfigured by his own concoction and killed by one of his monsters. In this, the frequent moral is made. Don't mess with nature.

Home Sweet Home -- Deemer's desert home (cum lab) is the "Dabney House" on Universal's back lot. It was featured in several films, such as being Exeter's house in This Island Earth earlier this year ('55). It will be used in the third Creature film, The Creature Walks Among Us ('56). Watch for it.

What Are You Smilin' At? -- One odd feature of the acting, is how often John Agar is smiling when he says his lines. The smiles don't fit the action. It's as if he can't get into character and is too conscious that he's making a monster movie. Since everyone else is able to stay in character, the dopy grin stands out as odd.

They're After Our Women -- Not. The poster art shows the spider with the usual beautiful, swooning woman clutched in his fangs. No such scene appears in the film. The spider eats cows, horses and men. There is, however, one scene which doespush the traditional buttons of "they're-after-our-women". Stephanie is in her room at Deemer's house, in her silky robe, getting for bed. The giant spider is a mega-peeping-tom outside her window, his huge compound eye watching her through the big window. He does start smashing the house, but doesn't seem to be after her. He does get Deemer, but no writhing leggy/buxom woman in the fangs.

Creature Theme -- Perhaps it's because Tarantula has the same director as the first two Creature films, but you'll note several times that when the spider is attacking, a familiar discordant three-note theme is used in the music. It's almost identical to the Creature from the Black Lagoon's special music theme. Perhaps Jack Arnold got to feeling that all monsters needed it, so instructed them to put it in.

Future Star Spotting -- This is pure movie trivia. Clint Eastwood gets a small uncredited part. It's easy to miss unless you're looking for it. He is the squadron leader of the Air Force jets coming to bomb the spider. He's wearing the full helmet, so you can't see his face. His voice is distinctive, though, as he orders his jets in to attack. Trivial, but fun.

Bottom line? Tarantula is not high cinematic art, but an entertaining example of the big bug sci-fi subgenre.

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John Drake said...

It is a fun movie and worth watching.


The banter between John Agar and Mara Corday is worth the price of admission.


And let's face it, Mara Corday was a doll.


Leo G. Carroll was great as the kind/mad scientist.


As with most 1950's science fiction films, they are best watched for enjoyment - not to be picked apart.