Halloween Havoc!: TARANTULA (Universal-International 1955)

TARANTULA is a movie that used to scare the bejeezus out of me as a kid, and helped warp my fragile little mind. Watching it again through my so-called “grown-up” eyes, I could sit here and pick at some gaps in logic and bad dialog. But I’m not gonna do that; instead I’ll look at the positives in this still entertaining and fun “Big Bug” movie (okay, maybe I’ll pick at it a little!).

A pre-credits scene shows a deformed looking man in pajamas stumbling across the desert, buzzards circling over his head. He drops in his tracks, then the title appears in big, bold letters: TARANTULA! The credits roll, and we meet Dr. Mark Hastings, who’s “just a country doctor” in the aptly named desert town of Desert Rock. Mark gets a call from Sheriff Jack Andrews to inspect the body, assumed to be scientist Dr. Eric Jacobs. Mark thinks this is impossible, for the corpse has died from acute acromegaly, a disease of the pituitary glands causing gigantism and enlarged organs which takes years to produce the state the body’s in.

“Nutrient biologist” Prof. Gerald Deemer comes to the morgue and identifies the body as indeed Jacobs, “a friend for thirty years”. Deemer claims the condition came on suddenly four days ago, and he was helpless to aid his dear, deceased friend. Deemer returns to his laboratory far from town limits, and we glimpse the fruits of his labor: a giant rat, giant rabbit, and giant guinea pig locked in cages, as well as one BIG-ASS tarantula in a glass cage. A creepy dude looking similar to Jacobs enters the lab and attacks Deemer. They tussle, and the lab equipment bursts into flames! Creepy dude injects Deemer with a serum, then drops dead. The lab is in ruins, equipment and experiments destroyed… except for that BIG-ASS spider, who’s escaped into the desert night!

Enter hot graduate student Stephanie “Steve” Clayton, biology major. She’s arrived in town at the behest of Deemer and Jacobs, and Mark offers her a ride out to his home. He just happened to be heading there to meet newspaper reporter Joe Burch, hoping to get some info on Jacobs’ mysterious bout of acromegaly. Mark and Steve are automatically smitten with each other, despite Mark’s sexist comment, “I knew it would happen! Give women the vote and whaddaya get? Lady scientists!”.

Arriving at Deemer’s, the scientist tells Mark he’s been experimenting with a powerful nutrient bolstered by a “radioactive isotope” in hopes of overcoming a future world hunger crisis brought on by overpopulation. When he leaves, we see Deemer beginning to show signs of acromegaly from the serum Creepy Guy injected in him. As Deemer continues to weaken, reports of mutilated cattle, “their bones picked clean”, occur, a viscous pool of white liquid nearby. When a truck is overturned and it’s occupants similarly victimized, Mark takes a thermos full of the stuff to be examined at the local college… but not before taking a taste of the vile-looking stuff! Yuck!!

The university doctor tells Mark it’s “related to insect venom”, but it’d have to be one BIG-ASS insect to produce that much venom. Mark puts two and two together and calls Deemer’s home, with Steve telling him she’s worried about the scientist’s condition. She lets out a scream, and Mark rushes to the rescue, finding Deemer in rough shape, but not rough enough to give out some exposition on the story’s plot. Mark gets the sheriff to call in the state police, as the tarantula crawls along, ominous music playing wherever he goes!

The highway is blocked off, and here comes Spidey! Machine gun fire can’t stop it, as two unlucky trooper find out (“Jumpin’ Jupiter!”, exclaims the sheriff). Desert Rock is evacuated, and the townsfolk order caseloads of dynamite to try and blast it to smithereens. The Air Force is called in (Mark: “If those boys have some napalm, tell ’em to bring it along!”), and the TNT blast doesn’t stop it (“Holy Cow!”), so the air squadron, led by an uncredited 25-year-old Clint Eastwood no less, uses their rockets and napalm bombs to obliterate that BIG-ASS spider in a fiery conflagration!

Sci-fi hero John Agar plays Mark, utilizing his expressive eyebrows and lopsided grin as usual. He gets the worst dialog, but as a sci-fi hero he’s okay; he’s done this before. Mara Corday, of THE BLACK SCORPION and THE GIANT CLAW , made her sci-fi debut here; later, when Eastwood became a megastar, he cast his old friend Mara in small roles in some of his films. Veteran Leo G. Carroll  lends dignity to the sympathetic part of Prof. Deemer. Familiar Faces in key roles are Raymond Bailey (THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES’ Mr. Drysdale), Ross Elliott, Nestor Paiva, and Hank Patterson (GREEN ACRES’ Fred Ziffle, “father” of Arnold). Stuntman Eddie Parker does double-duty as the deformed Jacobs and Creepy Dude in makeup by the great Bud Westmore.

Producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold collaborated on 50’s sci-fi films IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE , THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and it’s sequel REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, THIS ISLAND EARTH (Arnold was uncredited on this one), and THE SPACE CHILDREN, all among  the decade’s best. Speaking of the decade’s best, Joseph Gershenson’s score is a cut above what’s usually heard in these films, and deserves recognition. Clifford Stine’s optical effects of the superimposed spider hold up well in this age of CGI. Robert Fresco and Martin Berkeley’s script manages to tell a gripping story regardless of those logic gaps and sometimes ludicrous dialog.

TARANTULA is definitely a guilty pleasure for me, an amusing “Big Bug” romp that’s doesn’t scare me like it did when I was a child, but remains a treat to watch. Nostalgia, maybe? Sure, but whereas some of these old sci-fi flicks I wouldn’t go out of my way to revisit, I would with TARANTULA! Over and over again!

17 Replies to “Halloween Havoc!: TARANTULA (Universal-International 1955)”

  1. Having grown-up watching the films you’ve listed, I’ve come to the conclusion that if we compare the old productions with the new, and consider the huge difference in budgets, available special effects and so on, the older films were comparatively better, by far.

    And I’m especially including even older films like Nosferatu and the original Dracula. In fact, I’ve never seen any monster that was as creepy and frightening as was the “vampyre” in Nosferatu.

    Yeah, I know, … I’m sounding like some old “they don’t make them like they used to, Sonny” type guy, but I do believe it’s accurate to say that they truly don’t.

    Liked by 1 person

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