IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: TARANTULA (1955)

1

 

8tarantula-1955-chasing

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?”

—END—

(Originally published in The Official Newsletter of the Horror Writers Association in July 2012).

 

Advertisements

THE HORROR JAR: GIANT BUG MOVIES

0
THEM! (1954), the first and arguably the best of the giant bug movies.

THEM! (1954), the first and arguably the best of the giant bug movies.

THE HORROR JAR: Giant Bug Movies
By Michael Arruda

Just in time for summer, it’s another edition of THE HORROR JAR, that column where we feature various lists of odds and ends pertaining to horror movies. This time out we look at giant bug movies. That’s right, when you’re out picnicking, at the beach, on a hike, or at a barbecue, and the pesky bugs are getting in your face, remember, it could be a lot worse.

They could be a lot bigger.

Here’s a look at some giant bug classics:

THEM! (1954)
Directed by Gordon Douglas
Screenplay by Ted Sherdeman
Sgt. Ben Peterson: James Whitmore
Robert Graham: James Arness
Dr. Harold Medford: Edmund Gwenn
Dr. Patricia Medford: Joan Weldon
General O’Brien: Onslow Stevens
Running Time: 94 minutes

Giant ants attack Los Angeles. One of the first giant bug movies remains one of the best. Chilling thriller is much scarier than its 1950s counterparts. Originally to have been shot in color and in 3D. It works just fine in black and white.

 

TARANTULA (1955)
Directed by Jack Arnold
Screenplay by Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley
Dr. Matt Hastings: John Agar
Professor Gerald Deemer: Leo G. Carroll
Running Time: 80 minutes

John Agar defends a desert town from a giant tarantula. Another classic.

 

RODAN (1956)
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Screenplay by Takeshi Kimura
Running Time: 74 minutes

Sure, Rodan is a pterosaur, but this Toho flick also features prehistoric insects which are quite scary until Rodan decides to eat them for breakfast.

 

BEGINNING OF THE END (1957)
Directed by Bert I. Gordon
Screenplay by Fred Freiberger and Lester Gorn
Dr. Ed Wainright: Peter Graves
Running Time: 76 minutes

It’s all in the family, as this tale of giant grasshoppers stars future Mission: Impossible star Peter Graves, the brother of James Arness (future Gunsmoke star) who starred in THEM! This one comes to us from director Bert I. Gordon (B.I.G.) who made a lot of these giant monster movies, and it’s an inferior production to the giant bug films which came before it.

 

THE BLACK SCORPION (1957)
Directed by Edward Ludwig
Screenplay by David Duncan and Robert Blees
Hank Scott: Richard Denning
Running Time: 88 minutes

This tale of giant scorpions attacking Mexico City features special effects by KING KONG (1933) creator Willis O’Brien and stars Richard Denning, fresh off his battle with the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954). Budget constraints forced O’Brien to use incomplete shots of the giant scorpions in some scenes. In these scenes the monsters appear as black shadows as opposed to fleshed out creatures.

 

THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957)
Directed by Nathan Juran
Screenplay by Martin Berkeley
Col. Joe Parkman: Craig Stevens
Dr. Ned Jackson: William Hopper
Running Time: 79 minutes

Universal’s companion piece to its earlier hit TARANTULA, this one about a giant praying mantis. Not as good as TARANTULA, but still an above average entry in the genre. Contains some very creepy scenes.

 

EARTH VS. THE SPIDER (1958)
Directed by Bert I. Gordon
Screenplay by Laszlo Gorog and George Worthing Yates
Running Time: 73 minutes

This Bert I. Gordon flick should have been called Teens Vs. The Spider, as a group of 1950s teens takes on a giant Arachnid which invades their small town.

 

MOTHRA (1961)
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Screenplay by Shin’ichi Sekizawa
Running Time: 88 minutes

I’ve never understood the desire to make a movie about a giant moth (“Hey, guys, here’s an idea for a giant monster movie: a giant moth!” Seriously?) Of course, this shows how little I know, as MOTHRA became a hit for Toho, and everybody’s favorite giant moth would go on to appear in countless other movies, most featuring Godzilla.

 

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961)
Directed by Cy Enfield
Screenplay by John Prebble, Daniel B. Ullman, and Crane Wilbur, based on the novel by Jules Verne.
Captain Cyrus Harding: Michael Craig
Herbert Brown: Michael Callan
Gideon Spilitt: Gary Merrill
Captain Nemo: Herbert Lom
Running Time: 101 minutes

This classic movie with special effects by Ray Harryhausen features many giant creatures, including oversized bees. Superior special effects here, but that’s no surprise as Ray Harryhausen always brought his “A” game to his movies. Memorable music score by Bernard Herrmann.

 

GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (1964)
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Screenplay by Shin’ichi Sekizawa
Running Time: 89 minutes

Godzilla battles Mothra for the first time. Mothra would go on to appear in many other Godzilla movies, not listed here.

 

SON OF GODZILLA (1967)
Directed by Jun Fukuda
Screenplay by Shin’ichi Sekizawa and Kazue Shiba
Running Time: 84 minutes

No Mothra here, but this film which introduced Godzilla’s son Minilla does feature giant praying mantises known as Kamacuras, and a giant spider called Kumonga.

 

THE FOOD OF THE GODS (1976)
Directed by Bert I. Gordon
Screenplay by Bert I. Gordon, based on the novel by H.G.Wells.
Running Time: 88 minutes

This Bert I. Gordon flick is mainly about enormous rats, but does feature humongous wasps as well.

 

EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977)
Directed by Bert I. Gordon
Screenplay by Jack Turley, based on a story by H.G. Wells
Marilyn Fryser: Joan Collins
Dan Stokely: Robert Lansing
Running Time: 89 minutes

Bert I. Gordon again, this time directing a tale about giant ants in Florida, starring Joan Collins, four years before her run on the TV show Dynasty.

 

KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (1977)
Directed by John “Bud” Cardos
Screenplay by Richard Robinson and Alan Caillou
Rack Hansen: William Shatner
Running Time: 97 minutes

Okay, technically, this isn’t a giant bug movie, because the spiders in this flick are regular sized— it’s just that there are millions of them invading a small town. (Well, maybe not millions, but there sure are a lot of them!). This film is on the list for one reason only, other than the spiders, of course, and that’s William Shatner. Shatner lifts this one to a higher level. Sure, it’s his over-dramatic Captain Kirk shtick again here as he plays veterinarian Rack Hansen, but that’s what makes his performance and ultimately this movie so much fun.

 

TREMORS (1990)
Directed by Ron Underwood
Screenplay by S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock
Valentine McKee: Kevin Bacon
Earl Bassett: Fred Ward
Burt Gummer: Michael Gross
Heather Gummer: Reba McIntire
Running Time: 96 minutes

Another film that technically isn’t a giant bug movie, but this flick about ferocious giant mutated worm-creatures is so good it’s impossible to keep off this list. A highly entertaining movie that was largely ignored upon its initial theatrical release, TREMORS ranks as one of the best giant monster movies ever made.

 

EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS (2002)
Directed by Ellory Elkayem
Screenplay by Jesse Alexander and Ellory Elkayem
Chris McCormick: David Arquette
Ashley Parker: Scarlett Johansson
Running Time: 99 minutes

This effective horror comedy mix about giant spiders features Scarlett Johansson in one of her early roles.

 

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)
Directed by Peter Jackson
Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson, based on the novel “The Return of the King” by J.R.R. Tolkien
Frodo: Elijah Wood
Aragorn: Viggo Mortensen
Gandalf: Ian McKellen
Gollum: Andy Serkis
Running Time: 201 minutes

This 2004 Oscar Winner for Best Picture features one very nasty giant spider in one very creepy scene. The other 195 minutes aren’t half bad either!

Well, there you have it. A list of giant bug movies just in time for summer. Is this all of them? No way! These are just a few of the giant critter flicks which I recommend. There are many, many more.

That’s it for now.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael