Film

Don’t Open That Door! #16: 'Tarantula' (1955)

Welcome to our weekly field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: it's two legs bad, four legs good, eight legs best of all in Tarantula


Tarantula

Director: Jack Arnold
Cast: John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll, Nestor Paiva
US release date: 1955-12

Alternative titles: By the Time It Gets to Phoenix; Eight Legged Freaks, and Some Two-Legged Ones Too

POSITIVES:

Good effects.

Creepy setup in misguided scientist's lab.

Suspenseful first half leads to satisfying monster rampage later on.

Cool "point of view" spider attack shots.

First onscreen appearance by Clint Eastwood (really!).

NEGATIVES:

Patronizing male lead

Too much lame romance

Abrupt ending

Clint is there, but you don't see his face (because he's wearing a pilot's mask)

SYNOPSIS: Small-town Arizona mainstay Doctor Matt is concerned when a horribly disfigured body turns up in the desert, bearing the signs of an obscure disease that takes years to develop. The body's former employer, reclusive hermit and crackpot Professor Deemer, declares that the man did indeed die of acromigalia, despite having no symptoms only days ago. Doctor Matt argues that the disease, whose Latin name means "death due to a really atrocious makeup job," couldn't have developed so fast, but Professor Deemer—you can tell he's a scientist by his British accent, and besides he's got a lab rat the size of a golden retriever—remains adamant. Doctor Matt gives in. Local lawman Sheriff Jack takes the opportunity to rub Doc's face in it, too, and that's that.


Except that that's not that, because soon afterward a small riot breaks out in Prof Deemer's lab, resulting in 1.) a fire, 2.) another dead body, 3.) the Prof himself getting stabbed with mysterious radioactive isotope growth solution, and 4.) the unfortunate escape of a tarantula the size of a golden retriever. Cue mayhem—but unfortunately, not before a whole lotta (yawn) character development in the form of a budding romance between Doctor Matt and the Prof's newly-arrived lab assistant, Steve. (That's a nickname for Stephanie—no, it's not that kind of movie.) Matt and Steve spend a lot of time standing out in the desert sun without hats, avoiding rockfalls and looking concerned about how Professor D.'s complexion has gone to pot. (Hint: he got stabbed with isotope growth solution.) Steve is probably also concerned at Matt's propensity for saying egregiously stupid things like, "Give women the vote and the next thing you know—lady scientists!" Where's that syringe of radioactive isotope when you need it, anyway?

Fortunately, the name of this movie is not Young Dumb Doctors in Love, so it's only a matter of time before our arachnid buddy grows from golden-retriever-sized to split-level-condominium-sized. A satisfying amount of chaos ensues, involving cattle ranchers, pickup trucks, A-frame houses, and by-now-horribly-disfigured scientists. Sheriff Jack is mightily concerned, but there's little Doctor Matt or Steve can do, other than point at the monster and go, "Aaaaaaaagh!" With the oversized eight-legged freak making a beeline for civilization, there's nothing for it but to call in the cavalry, or possibly the air force. Where's Clint Eastwood when you need him? Oh—right up there.

Best line of dialogue: "Science or no science, a girl's gotta get her hair done!"

What gets tangled up in blue: A guy; another guy, some cattle; a rancher guy; two guys in a truck; a guy in a lab coat; a couple guys who can't get the car started; a big fuzzy.

What gets saved: Well, somewhere out there is a huge bunny rabbit, and quite possibly a rat the size of a golden retriever.

Moral of the story: If you want to grow up big and strong, eat your vegetables. And leave it at that, okay?

You decide which big-bug movie is better:

Tarantula (1955)Earth vs the Spider (1958)
a. Creepy scientist’s lab!a. Creepy underground caverns!
b. John Agar and Leo G. Carroll!b. Nobody we remember!
c. Deadly power of the Air Force!c. Healing power of rock 'n' roll!
d. More spider, but less hairy!d. Hairy spider, but less of it!

Somehow their careers survived: John Agar (Dr Matt)'s long and storied monster-movie career begins this year; it would continue through The Brain From Planet Arous (1957), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), Invisible Invaders (1959), and into the '60s with such efforts as Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962) and Women of the Prehistoric Planet (1966). He also had a small role in the 1976 King Kong remake. Amazingly, he still found plenty of time to make buckets of westerns and war films too. Mara Corday (Stephanie) appeared in the musical So This Is Paris (1955) alongside Tony Curtis; 1957 would see her starring in The Giant Claw and The Black Scorpion. Leo G. Carroll (Professor Deemer) enjoyed a distinguished career that included roles in such Hitchcock films as Spellbound (1945), Strangers on a Train (1951) and North By Northwest (1959). Nestor Paiva (Sheriff Andrews) appeared in Revenge of the Creature (1955) and would be in The Mole People (1956)—both of which starred John Agar.


BOTTOM LINE: One of the best big-bug movies of the decade, if you can ignore—or laugh off—the cringe-inducing sexism toward the "ladies."

NEXT WEEK: Kronos (1957)

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