As I mentioned in my review of the execrable The Mole People, Red Molly and I actually watched a double bill that night. The first movie we watched, the “A” movie, so to speak, was the 1955 “big bug” film Tarantula.
For the sake of transparency, I’d like to admit right up front that I measure all “big bug” films against 1954’s Them!, and as far as I’m concerned, it has never been equaled. Not only the first and greatest of its own subgenre, Them! is one of the best atomic monster movies overall (with The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms as an equal and only the original Gojira being clearly superior), and an underrated classic of the horror genre as a whole.
So. Stiff competition. But Tarantula acquits itself reasonably well.
Tarantula is an archetypal “atomic monster” movie, so there aren’t many spoilers for a modern audience (though it was probably one of the trendsetters in 1955). Still, if you want to watch it completely fresh, read no further.
The movie begins with a man with oddly deformed features stumbling about the Arizona desert until he collapses and dies.
The next day (I assume), Dr. Matt Hastings (our protagonist, played by John Agar, the same actor who was the protagonist of The Mole People) lands his plane at the municipal air strip for the small town of Desert Rock. He’s been out on a house call (anyone remember those? Me neither) delivering a baby, and he’s exhausted. Still, he agrees to check out the strange body in the town morgue.
And it is indeed strange. The patient seems to have died of complications due to Acromegaly (which, for some reason, Dr. Hastings and everyone else in the movie pronounces as “Acromegalia”), but that’s impossible. The victim is someone that Hastings knew, and when Hastings saw him a month before, he’d been completely normal. If you followed that link, you’ll know that that’s just not how acromegaly works. Acromegaly is a chronic disease that takes years to manifest symptoms at all, and years more to develop complications that can kill. So how does someone go from healthy to a corpse in a month?
Understandably, Dr. Hastings wants to perform an autopsy, but the sheriff doesn’t think that necessary: the dead man’s associate, one Dr. Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll – yes that Leo G. Carroll), has already signed off on the death certificate (does he actually have authority to do that?). When Hastings finally gets permission, he finds nothing out of the ordinary for a victim of “acromegalia”. Which, as mentioned before, is strange in itself.
Still intrigued, Hastings goes out to visit Deemer at his remote mansion/lab, where Deemer is glad to explain what he and the deceased have been doing out here in the middle of the desert: working on creating a new superfood out of a radioactive isotope. Because that made sense in the Fifties.
I have to say, I was rather amused to hear Deemer’s population-growth predictions, which are supposed to be terrifying, but which actually turn out to be grossly over-optimistic (“Three billion by 2000!”).
Anyway, their experiments are showing some promise, in that some of the animal test subjects are indeed surviving on the stuff, but it isn’t ready for human testing yet. There are still too many side effects – some of the animals die, and some of them grow to truly inconvenient sizes.
What Deemer doesn’t tell Hastings is that he and the deceased had another partner – and that both partners had tested the nutrient on themselves, side effects be damned. It turns out that in humans, the rapid growth that created lab animals hundreds of times their natural size merely inflicted the cases of fast-acting “acromegalia” that have already killed one partner, and driven the other mad. Said surviving partner comes back after Hastings leaves, attacks Deemer, and forcibly injects him with the nutrient. The fight causes a fire that kills most of the lab animals…but which allows the tarantula to escape into the desert.
The rest of the movie follows a familiar pattern. A fantastically huge monster wanders around a largely flat and open space (albeit a sparsely-populated one), knocking over landscape features, eating people and cattle. And of course, nobody sees anything (or at least, sees anything and survives) until the plot says so.
To be honest, this part of the movie drags on a bit too long. After the tarantula reaches a certain size, this becomes a kaiju movie, and should have been treated as such. It eventually does get to that point, where the tarantula stops picking off people one by one and gets busy with the wholesale destruction while The Authorities do their best to stop it (it must have been nice to live in an era where you trusted the competence and good intentions of the government), but it takes a bit too long to get there.
And of course, while all of this is going on, Dr. Hastings is intimately involved with the investigation. I have no idea why. He’s an MD, not a forensic scientist, or even a Fifties movie “scientist” like Deemer. And he really needs to stop tasting pools of unidentified liquids found near piles of bones that were live cattle a few hours ago.
The movie also fills the time with a completely extraneous love story. Around about the time that Dr. Deemer is starting to suffer the first symptoms of his accelerated “acromegalia” (credit where it’s due, this is nicely subtle and well-acted by Carroll, with only Deemer and the audience knowing the significance of the muscle aches and the apparently-arthritic fingers that Deemer is now suffering), one Dr. Stephanie “Steve” Clayton arrives in town to act as his new assistant.
The year before Tarantula came out, Them! had proven that even the Fifties had room for an assertive, competent female character who was included in a movie on her own merits, with only the barest hints of a romance plotline. Dr. Pat Medford is one of my favorite parts of that movie.
Unfortunately, “Steve” is made in the insipid mold of Sylvia Van Buren from The War of the Worlds, and while she’s not as completely useless as Sylvia was (she even gets to do some science!), it’s clear that she’s only here because a romantic subplot is traditional in these things.
That wouldn’t be so bad – like I said, it’s traditional, so I’m pretty used to it – but the screenwriters seemed to believe that since Steve is being portrayed as a reasonably competent professional (if not the tough-as-nails leader in her field that Dr. Medford was), there needed to be a few scenes to remind us that she was still just a woman if Steve was to be a sympathetic character.
Dr. Hastings to Steve, upon discovering her profession: “Give women the vote and what do you get? Lady scientists.” (Note: John Agar was born in 1921, one year after the 19th Amendment passed. Assuming Dr. Hastings is the same age, he has never known a time when women did not have the vote.)
Steve: “Well, student so far.”
Dr. Deemer, who you’d think would be more professional: “I wasn’t expecting a biologist who looked like you”
Steve, upon running into Dr. Hastings on a visit into town: “Science is science, but a girl must get her hair done”
The terrible thing is, given their audience, those writers might not have been wrong.
Anyway, let’s get away from the annoying characters for a moment, and back to the monster. Over the course of the movie, the titular tarantula goes from huge-for-a-spider, about the size of a pony, to absolutely vast – perhaps even the hundred feet high that is touted in the movie poster.
Naturally, this makes it far too large to use life-size puppets like those used in Them!. Instead, the filmmakers use film footage of a real tarantula, and superimpose it over full-size scenery. It’s an interesting choice, and it mostly works. There are a few spots where the tarantula seems to be walking in midair, and a few others where the contrast is off and it just looks like a dark mass, but it still looks better than putting a real tarantula on playset with a bunch of miniature houses would have. I do wonder how some good stop-motion would have worked out.
A few other details that caught my attention, in no particular order:
- “Keep your eyes open, and your mouths shut.” – It’s hardly uncommon for The Authorities or even the heroes to try to cover up the unusual goings-on in a horror movie. Still, this seems to have a rather…specific tone to it. As I was with Them! and The War of the Worlds, I’m reminded of how fresh World War II would have been in the memories of the audience, and I wonder if this is an echo of the “Careless Talk Costs Lives” campaign.
- When Dr. Deemer yells at Steve for showing Hastings the lab without permission, we’re supposed to take it as a sign that he has something to hide. The fact is, if Deemer wanted to be a hardass about it, what Steve did could easily count as industrial espionage.
- Hastings, why did you run out to the Deemer place alone when Steve called you on the phone screaming? You had to run right past your secretary to do it. Tell him to call the cops and tell them that there’s trouble at the Deemer place. You wouldn’t even have to slow down to do it!
So that’s about it. Tarantula lives in the shadow of better movies, and rightly so, but it’s still a perfectly good movie in its own right. If you want a bit of Saturday night atomic horror goodness in perfect drive-in style, perhaps a step above the rest, Tarantula is a safe bet. If you can find an edition that doesn’t come packaged with The Mole People, then get that edition, because the less exposure The Mole People gets, the better it is for the world.