Don’t you just love furry little critters like— tarantulas? No? Find them a bit scary and repulsive, do you? Well, then you’ll just cringe at the colossal star of Universal’s TARANTULA (1955), a spider so big it can step on a house!
TARANTULA is one of the best giant monster movies from the 1950s. It’s certainly the finest one produced by Universal Studios.
Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar) is called to the coroner’s office in the small town of Desert Rock, Arizona, by his friend Sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva) to investigate the death of a man found in the desert. The victim resembles a man they know, Eric Jacobs, but his facial features are swollen and contorted. Hastings believes Jacobs’ symptoms resemble the disease acromegaly, a disorder of the pituitary gland, but this doesn’t make sense to Hastings since the disease takes years to develop and Jacobs wasn’t showing any symptoms just days before.
When Jacobs’ employer, the eminent Professor Gerald Deemer, (Leo G. Carroll), arrives, he insists that Jacobs was indeed suffering from acromegaly, and he refuses to allow an autopsy on the body. This doesn’t sit well with Dr. Hastings, who finds the diagnosis wrong, and Deemer’s behavior baffling.
Yep, Deemer is the town’s resident mad scientist, and he lives just outside Desert Rock in a huge mansion, complete with a laboratory full of oversized animals in cages, including a tarantula the size of a dog. When yet another malformed insane human attacks Professor Deemer, the laboratory is set on fire and destroyed, but not before the tarantula escapes from the house. This hideous human also injects an unconscious Deemer with some unknown drug, before collapsing and dying himself.
Later, when a new assistant arrives in town to work for Professor Deemer, the beautiful Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (Mara Corday), Matt Hastings accompanies her to Deemer’s place, where he learns all about the professor’s research. Professor Deemer is attempting to stamp out world hunger by using atomic energy to create a “super” food nutrient, which he has injected into various animals, and as a result they have grown in size. Hmm. Supersized fried chicken! Yummy!
Deemer tells Steve and Matt that his lab was destroyed in an accidental fire, and he believes all his caged animals were killed. He doesn’t realize that his tarantula is free in the desert growing bigger by the minute. When next seen, the spider is gigantic, the size of a house, and it’s hungry, eating everything in its path, including horses, farms animals, and people.
Eventually, the giant tarantula sets its hairy sights on Desert Rock, and suddenly the town has to scramble to defend itself against the humongous marauding arachnid.
TARANTULA is one of my favorite giant monster movies. First off, the screenplay by Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley presents a story that is more creative than most. There’s more going on in TARANTULA than just the basic “giant bug on the loose” storyline. There’s all the mystery surrounding Professor Deemer’s research, and the strange misshapen men lumbering in and around his property, which adds some genuine intrigue to the story. Screenwriter Berkeley also penned the screenplay for two other Universal monster classics, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) and THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957).
Director Jack Arnold, who directed several genre movies, including CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), is at the top of his game with TARANTULA. He creates some memorable scenes. One of my favorites occurs at night at a farm, when suddenly a group of horses begins to grow very nervous. In the distance we see a darkened hill, and very slowly, onto that hill from the other side, creeps the massive tarantula. It’s one hair-raising scene!
Another effective scene has Steve walking back and forth in her bedroom, not noticing the enormous tarantula through her window as it makes its way towards the house. She doesn’t notice until the beast is on top of the house, literally!
And the tarantula looks terrific, as it’s menacing and scary. I’m sure the special effects team was helped by the black and white photography, because with shades of light and dark, the tarantula fits into its scenes naturally and realistically. The special effects team did a phenomenal job in this one.
The make-up on the acromegaly victims was done by Bud Westmore, and it reminds me a lot of the work he did on ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1953) and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (1958), as his monstrous creations in both these movies resemble the folks in the desert in TARANTULA.
There’s also an effective music score by Herman Stein.
The cast is decent enough. Though I’m not a huge fan of John Agar, his performance in TARANTULA is one of his best. He makes his Dr. Matt Hastings a very likeable fellow, and rarely has he seemed more natural in front of the camera. I just want to know what he keeps inside his briefcase. It must be valuable, because young dashing Dr. Hastings doesn’t go anywhere without it, even grabbing it before he runs out the door!
Playing Sheriff Andrews is character actor Nestor Paiva, who appeared in a ton of movies and TV shows over the years. I’ll always remember him as Lucas, the captain of the Rita in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) and REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955).
Leo G. Carroll, another veteran of movies and television, is also very good as Professor Deemer. Carroll appeared in many Alfred Hitchcock movies, including NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) and SPELLBOUND (1945), and he played Alexander Waverly on the 1960s secret agent show THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968).
And for added fun, Clint Eastwood appears unbilled in one of his first roles as an air force pilot leading the attack on the tarantula, arriving just in time to save the folks of Desert Rock from the deadly arachnid.
“Do you feel lucky, tarantula?”
(Originally published in The Official Newsletter of the Horror Writers Association in July 2012).