"Tarantula" is the giant spider movie. The film was made in 1955 right at the crest of the giant monster craze in the United States, probably as a specific reaction to the success of Warner Bros' "Them!" from the previous year. Amongst the heavy barrage of giant bug movies that came out in the mid-to-late Fifites, "Tarantula" actually features decent enough monster effects, at least good enough that you do not automatically burst out laughing like the ants from "Them!" or the Meganulons from "Rodan". Amongst modern rankings of Fifties SciFi horror, "Tarantula" is remembered as being one of the best giant bug movies, second only to "Them!" in appreciation. However, that still means it belongs to a genre in filmmaking well-known for terrible effects, cheesy stories, and notoriously awful direction.
Unfortunately I don't think there's terribly much to say about "Tarantula". It was directed by Jack Arnold, a SciFi B-movie specialist who also made such classics as "The Thing From Outer Space" and "The Creature From the Black Lagoon", both very iconic SciFi films from this decade. "Tarantula" is one of his more well-known creations, and would go on to inspire the rip-off Bert I. Gordon film, "Earth vs. The Spider", which I don't think needs coverage here, and the truly incompetent 1975 film, "The Giant Spider Invasion". As compared with that atrocious disaster, "Tarantula"'s Tarantula actually doesn't look too awful. Basically what they did was splice in a real life tarantula, and spliced it film making it appear one hundred feet tall. For the most part, the effect actually works. Fighting this monster is Dr. Matt Hastings, played by legendary B-movie actor, John Agar, and his love interest, Stephenie Clayton, played by Playboy centerfold, Mara Corday.
Now as 1950s SciFi films go, "Tarantula" unfortunately sits right on the centerline of mediocrity. The Tarantula is a very flat monster, appearing only to eat people, never getting the depth and sympathy of other creatures from the time period. He's also not in the movie nearly enough. For the most part, the film is about John Agar driving back and forth across generic Californian desert landscapes, and only at the end do we get a real giant monster fight. There are some laughably bad make-up effects though, and Mara Corday is seriously sexy even in restrictive 1950s cloths, so there's some entertainment to be found. But still, this might be the worst movie on this countdown so far.
"Tarantula" opens with a hunchback man climbing through the desert before falling over to his death. His face is badly mutated, and his entire body seems to be riddled with tumors of some kind. As it turns out, he's a local scientist named Eric Jacobs, who somehow has contracted Acromegaly, a pituitary disease which causes wild growth. However, as local doctor John Agar tells us, Acromegaly takes years to develop, and well, nobody should wind up looking like a "Twilight Zone" alien in just four days. Eric Jacob's lab partner, Professor Harold Deemer, played by English actor, Leo G. Caroll, appears and assures everybody that its just Acromegaly and nobody should be alarmed. The shockingly incurious sheriff laughs the whole incident off, but John Agar is still concerned. The sheriff then begins to act like a dick, refusing to investigate any of this and goes back to eating donuts or something.
The Professor then returns to his lab. Turns out he's been working on curing world hunger, though in the most bizarre way I can think of. In a later speech, he points out that there are two billion people on Earth in 1955 and by the year 2000 there will be 3.6 billion, and where or how are they going to feed all of these new mouths*. His solution is a black formula of "synthesis non-organic compounds" that somehow has been made through "an isotope" and various other kinds of Chemistry quackery. The idea is that humans could just eat the black goo he's made and survive without any other nutrient. As a side effect, however, the lab animals have grown gigantic, with a rat twenty times normal size and a hamster the size of a police dog. These adorable effects are made through rear-projection using a regular hamster. But the centerpiece of the lab is a tarantula as big as a bear. Exactly how turning humans into giants solves the hunger crisis is unknown to me, but that question is never answered because it turns out the formula for humans turns you into a Acromegaly freak and kills you in four days. The Professor's other lab partner is currently a cancerous zombie having also taken the black stuff, he then attacks, sets the lab on fire, the spider goes free, and our dear Professor gets injected himself. Which of course, causing him to mutate like fucking Loony Tunes, look at this:
"This movie is terrible, but at least... I... got to keep my dignity."
Its at this point that "Tarantula" realized that it forgot to have a female present, and thus summons Mara Corday, arriving on a bus to work with the Professor. Stephenie Clayton, for some reason insisting that people call her "Steve" (a nickname John Agar likes... for some reason). Mara Corday is basically a 1950s version of Gina Gershon, only she keeps her pants on in this movie, unfortunately. Even though Mara posed for Playboy, she still managed to get a respectable film career, while Gina Gershon's career can never recover from being in "Showgirls". What Steve does do in this movie is not buy strippers for Kyle McLaughlin, but instead stand around and look pretty for John Agar, and occasionally get a single classic B-movie scream out when the tarantula attacks her house. This is pretty unfortunate since I got the sense that both Mara Corday and John Agar were better actors who could be giving far better performances, if only the script weren't lousy and hadn't written them as one-dimensional cliches.
Its around now that the giant tarantula finally decides to start doing something. Most of the time it shows up right behind John Agar's car, where he somehow misses it every time. However, it finally does start attacking cows. John Agar and the idiot sheriff find completely stripped-bare cows of cattle with pools of white fluid on the ground. Nobody decides this is curious until the next day, when the tarantula has eaten four or five people. The monster attacks are probably the best crafted scenes of the movie, as the tarantula does look great standing on the horizon at dusk, in silhouette. However, there are just as many shots that are dark as shit, and you can't see anything. Its only after this point that John Agar actually tests the fluid, and it turns out to be arachnid venom. And then he figures out just what is attacking people at the exact same time that the spider goes on a full rampage.
The spider charges down the desert road towards the town. John Agar saves Steve, but leaves the poor elephant-man Professor to die horribly. Then he runs into the town police, and leaves his car for two guys holding tommy guns to use as they hold off the monster for a bit. This plan seems kinda silly considering its a giant spider but it turns out to have an even greater flaw: John Agar is a douche and he gave them a busted car. It decides not to start right at the moment that the spider jumps, leaving them both to die horribly. Bullets failed, so they try dynamite. That fails. Then they try the Viet Cong solution: Napalm from the sky. That works. Movie over.
"Come on, tarantula, make my day."
Wow, that was really easy. Who needs isotopes loaded into a sniper rifle fired by Lee Van Cleef when you have Clint Eastwood in a fighter jet! Yeah, its Clint Eastwood in a random extra part, just sitting behind the cockpit. So now that's two-thirds of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" on All-Out Giant Monster Attack!, now I just need to find a giant monster movie with Eli Wallach**.
Anyway, the movie, in typical 1950s SciFi fashion, ends very abruptly. John Agar and Mara Corday don't even get a final kiss, the monster dies in a horrific holocaust, and the people watch without comment. THE END!
Frankly, "Tarantula" sucks. I don't want to be too negative about these movies since they were made in a different time, but there's nothing to like here. It doesn't have the suspense of "Them!", it doesn't have the acting of "It Came From Beneath the Sea", it doesn't have the special effects of "Godzilla", it doesn't have the personality of Ray Harryhausen movies. And its not even shockingly terrible like the Bert I. Gordon movies. Its just boring. Occasionally hilarious, but usually boring. Yeah, its fondly remembered, but I don't know why. Sorry, I wasted your time with this.
Next time on All-Out Giant Monster Attack! - Roger Corman's island vacation movie, "Attack of the Crab Monsters".
* The professor's concerns, as it turns out, were wrong, as we actually reached six billion people in the year 2000, and the vast majority of them had plenty to eat. As a matter of fact, standards of living have gotten so high that the world population is beginning to level off as people move to urban areas and they no longer need to have half a dozen kids to support themselves. If there will be a global food crisis, it won't be coming until at least after my lifetime. And in the ensuing global world war, let's hope America wins.
Anyway, we do live in pretty unprecedented times for our species. Until the early 1800s world population had never even reached a single billion. Now with an industrialized planet, we can support seven times that number! Its a pretty fantastic population explosion. These are definitely golden times for our species. And we didn't even need Professor Deemer's magical isotope growth formula to reach it.
** Unfortunately, that movie does not exist. Though "The Godfather Part III" would have been far better with the inclusion of a giant octopus. However, Eli Wallach isn't dead yet, there's still hope!