Direction: Jack Arnold
Screenplay: Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley
Original Story: Jack Arnold and Robert M. Fresco
Music: Henry Mancini
Special Effects: Clifford Stine and David S. Horsley
Producer: William Alland
Director Jack Arnold triumphs again with another of his many 1950's genre movie winners. And while this second official entry in the fifties "Big Bug" subgenre may not be quite as well-made as 1954's Them!, it's still just as much fun.
Elderly scientist Leo G. Carroll (Mr Waverly on The Man fromU.N.C.L.E.) creates a radioactive food nutrient as a means to ease world starvation. The nutrient has caused all of his lab animals -- guinea pigs and a tarantula ¡V to grow giant. (You though maybe it would cause them to sprout flashlights from their navels?) When a lab assistant fights with Carroll, the lab is wrecked and the five-foot tarantula escapes into the desert.
As good guy John Agar and good gal Mara Corday ponder the desert and Carroll's experiments, the tarantula grows larger than a greyhound bus and starts to chow down on horses and humans alike. By the time everybody realizes there really is a hundred foot arachnid crawling about, it looks as though the small Arizona town of Desert Rock is doomed to become bug grub -- or is it?
Tarantula is a compact, well-paced example of fifties monster cinema. It wastes little time getting down to business. Nice touches abound, such as depicting Leo G. Carroll not as a mad scientist, but as a sane, well-meaning scientist whose experiments go awry only because of his two rash lab assistants. Both of them inject themselves with the growth nutrient, develop acromegaly, and die -- but not before one of them injects Carroll with the nutrient as well.
Some have questioned the appropriateness of using a real and tragic disease -- acromegaly -- for the film's human "horror faces." But in fact, the two lab assistants' make-up looks nothing like the effects of real acromegaly. In addition, Carroll's ravaged face resembles a melting man motif, not acromegaly's bone distortions. Apparently, the tragic disease was simply a handy plot device for the writer to stick into the script.
Carroll's restrained performance of the doomed scientist elicits sympathy. Meanwhile, Agar and Corday pass muster as the two romantic leads. Agar is famous for a whole slew of fifties and sixties low-budgeters, including Revenge of the Creature (1955), The Mole People (1956), Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), The Brain from Planet Arous (1958), Invisible Invaders (1959), Journey tothe Seventh Planet (1961), and Zontar, Thing from Venus (1966). Of course, some would argue that the eight-legged critters playing the title star turn in the beast performances.
Jack Arnold's direction is trim and efficient. Arnold directed a number of fifties SFantasies, including It Came From Outer Space (1953), Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge Of The Creature (1955), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Monster On The Campus (1958), and The Space Children (1958). He's also responsible for the fun and funny 1959 satire The Mouse That Roared. In essence, what James Whale was to 1930's horror, Jack Arnold was to 1950's SF.
For a low-budget film, Tarantula's special effects are often truly special. The gargantuan spider convincingly creeps across the countryside, shadow intact. The best scene depicts the colossal arachnid pausing atop a hill as a corral of understandably upset horses panic below; the spider matter-of-factly crawls down the hillside to devour them. Likewise effective is a scene in which two prospectors flee from the formidable arachnid but inevitably wind up as monster appetizers.
In fact, Tarantula is one of those films during which you sometimes yell at the characters, "Get out of there!" Especially edge-of-the-seat is a scene in which two policemen are told to hold the jumbo-sized spider at bay (!) while the other characters drive into town. Naturally, what threat can two measly patrolmen offer a hundred-foot spider? You're right -- none. As the elephantine arachnid creeps closer and closer, the two cops finally jump into their jalopy. Only it doesn't start right away. And before you can say, "You idiots!" one more time, the spider bears down upon them and -- well, you can guess the rest.
When I first saw Tarantula, the only disappointing aspect of the film was the lack of destruction promised in the movie's spectacular theatrical poster. Unfortunately, Air Force jets (led by Clint Eastwood) rain napalm death upon the super-sized spider before it reaches the small hamlet of Desert Rock. It would have been so much better to show the spider wreck the town kaiju-style before it got barbecued.
Otherwise, Tarantula is everything any self-respecting Grade-B 1950's monster movie ought to be. And who would want it any other way?