Tarantula is a 1955 science fiction/horror film directed by Jack Arnold, and starring Leo G. Carroll, John Agar (Revenge of the Creature, The Mole People, Daughter of Dr. Jekyll), and Mara Corday (The Giant Claw, The Black Scorpion).
Somewhere in the Arizona desert, a scientist is frantically trying to solve the world’s overpopulation by atomically adapting food that only animals can feed on. The results have the added side-effect of ballooning the creatures to unnaturally large sizes (camera cuts to big mouse). An ill-advised test on humans sends the victim loopy and results in several of the caged giant beasts being set free, including, would you believe it, hairy spiders. It’s not long until the picked-clean carcasses of cattle found scattered in the desert are linked to an enormous tarantula that somehow managing to hide from view.
Following hot on the heels of giant ant movie, Them!, this is one of the first American films to use the breeding paranoia regarding the Cold War and atomic developments to scare audiences into surrendering their money, Tarantula also use another ingenious trick to pack out cinemas: everybody of sound mind hates/is terrified of big spiders.
There was certainly no bigger arachnid than the one terrorising sleepy desert towns in 1955 – contrasting with the completely mechanical insects in Them!, Tarantula almost exclusively uses a real tarantula but miniature sets or matte composites, combining shots of actors with footage of the enlarged spider, thus delivering an increased dose of the heebie-jeebies. The spider wranglers used jets of air to direct the spider in the required directions. Models were used for close-up shots and though not utterly convincing, you’ve already got a bad case of the itches by this stage. The tarantula does have a rather eyebrow-raising tendency to ‘roar’ but we’ll let them off with that.
The sign of a top-notch 50s/60s B-movie is an appearance by John Agar, and here he is in his element. Not content with dealing with 8-legged beasts with an admirably straight face, he went on to tackle Puppet People, Mole People, brains (from Arous), Zontar and towards the end of his career, no lesser personage than Amazing Mr. No Legs. Appearing uncredited as a fighter pilot is Clint Eastwood, fresh from his very first film role in another monster classic, Revenge of the Creature (of Black Lagoon infamy).
Tarantula is far better than it should be – the special effects really are a credit to the team behind them and the austere desert backdrop is suitably eerie and alien enough to make a giant tarantula a viable threat, though at an alleged 100 feet tall, according to the posters, you wonder how well hidden from view they could have been.
The score, delivered by Herman Stein and Henry ‘Pink Panther’ Mancini, both of whom churned out endless themes for Universal sci-fi and horror films, remains largely uncredited. Portentous strings battle with booming brass blasts, alternating between quiet and loud to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. The writer of the story the film is based upon was also uncredited – master of the sci-fi genre, Ray Bradbury.
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