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Director: Jack Arnold
Starring: John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll
We’d already seen what happens when atomic science meets creepy crawlies a year earlier in 1954’s Them! – eight foot ants.
A year later and science would go badly wrong again, with an even bigger nightmare unleashed on the barren American desert – a giant frickin’ spider.
Unlike its predecessor, there’s only one bug causing mayhem, but brilliantly, it gets bigger and bigger all the time until it’s of absolutely gargantuan size and practically invulnerable. Even if spiders don’t freak you out, this one is absolute nightmare fuel at its best.
The other big difference is that instead of practical effects making a giant arachnid, director Jack Arnold has a real tarantula inserted into the shots, so all it’s natural unnaturalness is ever-present as it stomps about the desert attacking livestock and people alike.
Way out in the Arizona desert, Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) is experimenting with growth hormones, hoping to find a way to increase the world’s food supply by increasing the size of animals. All is not well at his laboratory though as his partner biological research scientist Eric Jacobs (Ed Parker) has been found dead after wandering the desert, his features hideously deformed by what appears to be years of Acromegaly. Jacobs had no symptoms at all only a few days before, though.
Dr. Matt Hastings, a doctor from the nearby town of Desert Rock, asks to perform an autopsy, but Deemer blocks him in an attempt to cover up that his work is out of control. When Paul Lund (Parker again) another member of the lab team, is similarly deformed he attacks Deemer, but dies in the ensuing battle. Unknown to anyone, one of the test subjects cases has been smashed in the struggle – a tarantula that has been artificially grown to the size of a large dog.
Given free rein to hunt and grow around the local desert, the spider soon increases the monstrous proportions and it’s left to Hastings and Deemer’s assistant Stephanie Clayton (Mara Corday) to work out what is going on and how to stop the colossal arachnid that is threatening the entire town…
You usually know what you’re in for with this kind of film, but Jack Arnold immediately puts you on the back foot with one of the most arresting intros of the decade. A horribly deformed man in what looks like pyjamas wanders across the barren desert before dropping dead in front of us. It’s bizarre, unsettling and just leaves you wondering if you’re watching the right film. All before the opening credits.
A film with a titanic spider stomping around eating people doesn’t really need much else, but the addition of the scientists driven insane by acromegaly plotting just adds an extra layer of…otherness to the whole affair. Add in the desert and that eight-legged freak and the overriding feeling is of an alien environment. It’s our world, but everything that’s going on in it makes it feel like anything but.
It’s what happens when science is allowed free rein, when even the best of intentions can end in madness, horror and death. Ten years after the world saw the real horror that science could bring to the world with the best of intentions, it’s not hard to work out what’s going on here.
Revenge Of The Creature’s square-jawed hero John Agar delivers more of the same reliability here as the local doctor caught up in the disaster that unfolds and he’s typically good if not great in the part. He’s outshone by Mara Corday as the smart, resourceful lab assistant Stephanie Clayton. Referred to as Steve throughout, she’s a stunning, charismatic screen presence and Corday plays her as anything but a damsel in distress. She’s as much a part of the investigation and solution to the tarantula as anyone else and it’s as much down to Corday’s performance as the script.
There’s only one real star of this film though and it’s got eight legs, two fangs and is really, really big. There’s something naturally disquieting about how spiders live and seeing one blown up to such hideous proportions only emphasises that.
The way Arnold keeps his powder dry with it is magnificently restrained. Scenes of it creeping about the desert are textbook examples in building tension, it’s enormous frame appearing in the background just as our heroes move away filling the viewer with absolute dread.
Much, much worse is when it stalks the horses in an enclosure, before turning its attention to the luckless and doomed farmer who’s reaction perfectly sums up the feeling that this crime against nature brings out in you.
Every time we see it, the tarantula seems to have increased in size. One minute it’s no bigger than an Alsatian (which is still a horrible concept) the next it’s bulletproof, dynamite proof and throwing pickup trucks around. Fortunately the giant spider hasn’t been invented that can withstand an uncredited Clint Eastwood leading an air force fighter jet squadron packed full of napalm, but for a while there, it wasn’t looking good.
Tarantula! is a different kind of giant monster movie from Them!, but is no less entertaining and very much it’s own thing, despite the obvious inspiration. It’s yet another classic in a decade that was absolutely churning them out by this point.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy