Director: Jack Arnold
Writer: Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley; story by Jack Arnold; based on "No Food for Thought" (teleplay, Science Fiction Theatre, May 17, 1955)
by Robert M. Fresco
Cinematographer: George Robinson
Producer: William Alland
by Jon Cvack
I’m running low on solid 1950s creature features, surprised I hadn’t seen or even heard of this film (or at the very least that it’d be worth checking out). Released alongside such legends from the genre as Them! ('54), The Thing from Another World ('51), Creature of the Black Lagoon ('54), The Blob ('58), Godzilla ('54), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms ('53), or the tragically underrated Night of the Demon ('57), they captured the fears of a Red Scare, coupled with fears of nuclear fallout, what they really provided was the first modern look at monster movies.
The films never contained the high and ultra modern craftsmanship found in more laudable fare from the decade such as Anatomy of a Murder ('59), The Enemy Below ('57), or Touch of Evil ('58), the films weren’t all that far behind; likely constrained by budget more than ingenuity, in which most of the funds either went toward star power, or if they were smart, toward the monsters themselves. What makes Tarantulas outshine much of its competition was abandoning the inevitable difficulty in constructing a monster, instead relying on some type of superimposed creature shadow; shooting what looks like an actual Tarantula and laying it over the film stock, ensuring that the scene’s lighting would justify a silhouetted creature.
It opens up in Desert Rock, Arizona where a facially deformed man dies running through the desert, escaping from something or someone. An attractive man and young doctor from the city, Matt Hasting (John Agar) completes the autopsy, discovering that the person died from acromegaly which is a form of excessive growth hormones that can cause deformity over the long term. Yet while it should have taken years, he believes he saw the same man just days before.
Dr. Gerald Deemer signs off on the autopsy (Leo G. Carroll) while also conducting his own experiments back at his mansion home located far in the middle of the desert, which we later learn is using growth hormones to create giant versions of rabbits, mice, and of course, a tarantula. His newest assistant is the gorgeous Stephanie Clayton (Mara Corday) who takes a liking to Hasting and slowly unravels Deemer’s plans, soon connecting them to the attacks.
1950s sci-fi films are often divided between the scientists and the army/police, each doubting the other side’s ability to resolve the problem, reflecting a conservative/liberal split. The Thing and It Came from Outer Space ('53) took the scientific point of view, while Them! and Tarantulas took the military’s. Deemer’s intention might have been honorable, but the dangers of science led to the creation of the monster and the police are aware of that fact. It’s only when they call in the air force that the creature can be destroyed, as fighter jets dump their entire stock of napalm and burn the thing to a crisp, with Hasting and Deering having close to no role in the resolution, serving as a rare conservative voice in a genre that seems increasingly determined to utilize allegory rather than demonstrate a terrifying view of the world that has no explanation. Both can be effective. Tarantulas is a great creature feature, able to stand with all the rest of them, and yet a film I’ve heard very little about.
BELOW: A brilliant use of lighting to pull of a simple effect. The same technique today, updated correctly, could achieve some cool stuff
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