It’s only in watching all types of science fiction films that one can discern the wheat from the chaff. Tarantula is not the worst film from 1950s but it certainly leaves some things to be desired.
While Tarantula is only the third giant animal film (by my count) it can’t top Them! for believability in the creation of a giant bug. The 1950s would go on to have many more giant animal films that are much cheaper and less believable than Tarantula, such as Attack of the Giant Leeches, or Monster from the Green Hell (about giant wasps), so in comparison to those films, Tarantula should have won an Oscar!
The absence of voice over in this trailer, or dialogue from the film is really lacking. Especially when compared to other works from the time. But what it lacks in dialogue it makes up for in showing some of the incredible special effects from the film, such as turning a normal sized tarantula into a giant monster, terrorizing the southwest. Really, after that last sentence, what more can be said about this film?
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Tarantula starts off with a very unexpected scene: a deformed man wanders out of the desert towards camera and collapses. The local doctor, Matt Hastings (John Agar) is called in to review the corpse. He is puzzled by his findings. The corpse, Eric Jacobs, has advanced acromegaly which would take years to form, but Hastings has seen Jacobs only recently, and with no signs of the disease.
Hastings wishes to perform an autopsy but Jacobs’ colleague Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) denies the request. Deemer calms Hastings fears that anything sinister is going on, but later the audience observes Deemer feeding giant rats, rabbits and yes, a tarantula, in cages in his lab. The feeding schedule indicates that the abnormal size for the animals has been achieved in mere days. Deemer is attacked by another deformed man who injects him with a hypodermic needle containing the serum being used on the animals, before setting fire to the lab. All the animals are killed, except the tarantula, which escapes.
The next day Hastings meets a new arrival in town Stephanie Clayton (Mara Corday), who goes by the nickname “Steve.” She mentions that she needs a ride to Deemer’s lab where she’ll be doing work, and Hastings is more than happy to take her. The two begin a burgeoning romantic subplot.
Hastings is later called out to several mysterious cattle mutilations, where the bones were picked clean, and pools of white fluid are found. Taking a sample to a university friend in Phoenix, Hastings is told that the white substance is venom from a tarantula; one that must be gigantic in size! During this time, several people have also been killed by the giant spider as it continues to grow.
Returning to the town with the knowledge of a giant spider-monster roaming the countryside, Hastings discovers Professor Deemer suffering from the same acromegaly that he saw with Jacobs. The doctor explains his research and apologizes for the release of the beast. Hastings tells the sheriff about the spider problem, but he and his men are unsuccessful in thwarting its advances. The air force is called in to drop napalm on the beast, incinerating it just outside of town.
“No footprints! No blood! No sign of a struggle! The bones just stripped clean like peeling a banana!” – Andy Anderson
History in the Making
Being at the beginning of any trend, at least in film, is probably a good thing. Audiences are not yet tired of the plot devices, and there’s more ability to have original ideas. Tarantula is at the leading edge of giant animal films, which started in 1954 with the giant ant film Them! And while it has some interesting things going for it, it also borrows a lot from its predecessor.
First off it’s really a different story than Them! The fact that a scientist is working on a cure for world hunger when he, misguidedly, creates a giant beast as opposed to errant nuclear radiation from bomb tests creating giant ants. The film actually may sit more in the genre of horror than sci-fi, which present the creation of the giant spider with a single man, rather than a actual societal event, like the detonation of nuclear weapons. From there, the similarities are evident: An average man (this time a doctor, and not a police officer) must investigate the events in a mystery-style detective story, the location is a desert in the American southwest, there’s a female scientist that screams at the creature, and finally the military is brought in to stop the giant spider. However it doesn’t feel like a ripoff, since the tone of the film is so different.
Finally the use of a real tarantula in the special effects, as well as other animals, is groundbreaking. Where as Them! used mechanical giant ants, Tarantula used footage of a real spider shot against a blue screen and matted into the footage of the desert. There were times when a mechanical appendage was used, for some close-ups with the actors, but overall it was a real arachnid. Small air jets were used to direct the spiders movements, just like filmmakers continue to use in films like Arachnophobia. The use of real animals, enlarged via special effects was a game-changer for the genre, and would continue to be used used throughout the 50s and beyond as needed.
While the film is firmly in the science fiction genre, Tarantula makes more use of the horror tropes to propel the shocks associated with the film. Beginning with the disfigured man wandering in the desert, it makes one wonder if we’ve accidentally put the wrong film in. That scene is followed by the title credits, so that’s not the case. The subplot of the acromegaly elements adds an unnecessary distraction from the main plot of the escaped gigantic tarantula. Add to that the elements of the “mad scientist” trope with Professor Deemer, and the film feels like two different storylines.
Owing to the horror themes, the film uses some incredible make-up on Leo G Carroll. The make-up effects for Professor Deemer and Eric Jacobs were produced by Bud Westmore, son of famed make-up artist George Westmore. Bud was responsible for make-up effects in It Came from Outer Space (1953) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and would go on to work on Man of a Thousand Faces, Spartacus and the television series The Munsters. In fact the Westmore family is responsible for some of the best make-up effects from the 1920s through present day, with Bud’s nephew, Michael Westmore, having worked prominently on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Other horror tropes besides the “monsters” and make-up effects, include the scientist falling victim to his creation. And while it’s not Deemer’s own actions that infect him, it’s the use of the serum by his deranged assistant that finally does him in. The acromegaly was presented as more of a deforming condition, rather than what might be seen in real life. In fact, the presentation of the effect appears similar to the look of the “elephant-man” Joseph Merrick, rather than actual people with acromegaly, such as Andre the Giant, Ted Cassidy (Lurch in The Addams Family) and Richard Kiel (Jaws in the James Bond films). The look, of course, can be attributed to the radiation the serum was exposed to prior to injection.
At this time in film, and specifically in sci-fi films, the human race was still depicted as working for mostly-good purposes. American society was still in a glory phase following World War II, prospering from the advancements of technology, medicine and social programs. Of course there were individuals in these movies that disagreed with the general consensus of humanity, that mankind was good and altruistic and working to better society through acts, that inevitably go awry.
As seen in Tarantula, Professor Deemer is working on a cure for hunger. His altruistic nature and single-mindedness ends up creating the killer beast. He did not set out to create the giant spider, but through his own work produced the monster. In actuality, the fact that the results were not worse than a few deaths and some property damage, is notable. This theme would change over time as the consequences of the actions of science would become more dire and destructive, leading to deeper themes of social responsibility (or irresponsibility).
The Science in The Fiction
As mentioned above, acromegaly was not presented accurately in the film. Honestly, the film is attempting to make this disease seem more scary than it is, and that may also be due to the fact that the serum has been irradiated which may cause the issues depicted.
However the most humorously wrong prediction would be regarding the increase in the world population. In 1955 Deemer states that there are 2 billion people in the world (actual number – 2,772,242,535 from worldometers.info). He then says that number will be 3 billion by 1975 and 3.625 billion by the year 2000. In fact 1975 the earth was at 4,079,087,198 and by 2000 we were almost twice his predicted number at 6,145,006,989. It’s not so much the need to feed the population as the fact that the world is running out of space necessary to hold this number of people.
The Final Frontier
Tarantula may be most notable today for being one of the first appearances of Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry, et. al.). 1955 was the year of his film debut, being in no less than four films. His first released film was Revenge of the Creature, where he was uncredited, as he was in this film as the Jet Squadron leader that drops the napalm on the giant spider. Mara Corday apparently became typecast after this film appearing in at least two other giant monster films in 1957, The Giant Claw and The Black Scorpion. Her career would end in supporting roles in Clint Eastwood films, surprisingly enough. Tarantula also features John Agar, a serial B-movie actor that would go onto appear in such films as The Mole People, Attack of the Puppet People and The Brain from Planet Arous.
While Tarantula appears like a B-movie, it actually takes itself seriously. It breaks some new ground in the use of special effects and the fusion of science-fiction and horror. The film actually provides a fun take on the enlargement of animals sub-genre and is definitely worth a look.
Coming Next Week
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.