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Directed by Jack Arnold (1955)
Of course you knew it was Leo G. Carroll that was over a barrel when Tarantula took to the hills, but did you know this was the movie where Clint Eastwood first appeared (he played an air-force pilot)
Directed by Jack Arnold, who also made It Came From Outer Space, this is on of the classic "monster" movies of the 50's.
Professor Deemer (Carroll) and his assistant are working on an experimental nutrient to eradicate famine. The scientists have a quarrel, during which the Tarantula that had been injected with the experimental drug manages to escape into the desert.
The spider begins to react to the drug and grows to giant size and starts changing it's diet from flies to people and livestock. Local doctor Matt Hastings (played by John Agar) soon realizes that the killings are the work of what can only be a huge spider when he discovers venom near each attack.
The movie also stars Mara Corday as Stephanie "Steve" Clayton, a researcher assigned to Professor Deemer. She soon discovers he has problems of his own due to him injecting the wonder drug into himself. Unlike the spider he does not grow huge, but develops acromegaly (a real disease, nice research there) which starts to transform him into something akin to the Elephant Man.
It's up to Clint Eastwood, in about five seconds of screen time and hidden behind a flight mask, and the air force to save the day. Write into that whatever political statement you want, but remember this was made in the 50's.
The movie has a great feeling of suspense, which is added to by the black and white photography and great music score and remains a classic to this day. Hurry up and release a special edition DVD Universal Studios.
With arachnophobia being the most common fear in the world, it is hardly surprising that so many horror movie makers have exploited the humble spider in order to scare their audiences.
We had THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION in 1975, which was scary for all the wrong reasons, while William Shatner valiantly battled his way through KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS in 1977, putting both his career and his dignity on the line, as this time the spiders were regular sized but the acting was monstrous.
Actually, giant spiders have turned up more often in the history of cinema than one might think; most recently of course in such high profile blockbusters as HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (2002) and THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003), not to mention 2002's tongue in cheek B-movie homage EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS (aka: ARAC ATTACK), which starred David Arquette and hundreds of computer generated arachnids.
However, the most memorable giant spider movie, and one of my favourite monster flicks, has to be 1955's TARANTULA, a tale of super-science gone wrong and nature run amok, from the legendary Jack Arnold, director of such classics as IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953) and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954). Unfortunately, TARANTULA is not usually as critically acclaimed as some of Arnold's other work, but I first saw it at a very young age and I've always loved it.
Scientist Leo G. Carroll, whilst attempting to eradicate world famine, has developed a nutrient which increases the size of laboratory rats, guinea pigs, and other animals. Of course, his ultimate goal is to feed the hungry nations of the world, so there is actually no logical explanation as to why he has injected a tarantula with his serum, but this is a film about a giant spider crushing houses and eating people so realism and logic are best not thought about for too long. A series of unfortunate events leads to Leo being injected with his own experimental growth serum, his lab being burned to the ground, and the still growing tarantula escaping into the desert. Death and destruction (two of my favourite movie ingredients) are on the menu, as the monster terrorises the countryside before heading towards town for its final showdown.
Written by Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley, and based on an episode of television's SCIENCE FICTION THEATRE entitled No Food For Thought, TARANTULA stars John Agar and Mara Corday, as well as Carroll of course, but the film is probably more famous for Clint Eastwood's cameo as a jet pilot sent to destroy the monstrous arachnid at the end of the film. The same year Eastwood also turned up, again for Jack Arnold, as a lab assistant in REVENGE OF THE CREATURE.
Technically superior and showing far more imagination in the script department than Bert I. Gordon's similarly themed, but run of the mill, EARTH VS. THE SPIDER (aka: THE SPIDER), which crawled along in 1958, I still think that TARANTULA is the best of the golden age's big bug genre, probably even surpassing Gordon Douglas' 1954 giant ant classic THEM, which is often regarded as the best of the bunch.
A compelling subplot, involving Leo G. Carroll's character gradually becoming disfigured by acromagaly (a genuine disease, caused by an over production of growth hormones), after falling victim to his own experiment, adds a fascinating dimension to the story. Carroll's acromagaly make-up, excellent for its time, is effectively creepy, and actually stayed in my head, fuelling my young imagination, for a lot longer than the giant tarantula itself.
Today, TARANTULA remains immensely watchable, and it is not shown on television anywhere near as often as it ought to be. It is well structured, pacy and fun, and even still manages to deliver a couple of effective scares. Not bad for a fifty year old creature feature.
Rob Bagnall (July 2005)
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