Review of “Tarantula” (1955)

Image from IMDB

Saturday pizza and bad movie night with Svengoolie featured a 50s black-and-white mad scientist and monster flick—and some unfortunate sheep.

Plot:

The opening scenes show a deformed man (an uncredited Eddie Parker) stumbling through a desert. Dressed in striped pajamas, he’s obviously near death and soon collapses near a highway. The camera pans away from him, and then, the title Tarantula appears.

This is odd. What has one to do with the other?

The action then switches to the return by private plane of Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar) to the fictional small desert community of Desert Rock, Arizona. Despite being tired from his trip, he answers the summons by the local sheriff, Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva), to examine a body at the morgue. Dr. Hastings says the body looks like that of Eric Jacobs. However, the deformities on the face and hands appear to result from acromegaly, a pituitary gland disease, and would take an extended period of time to develop. Jacobs seemed fine when Hastings saw him a couple of days earlier.

Professor Gerald Deemer, Jacobs’ boss at the research lab outside of town, shows up and declares the condition to be acromegaly. He is clearly upset at the news of Jacobs’ death. (… Could there be an underlying reason…?) Because Jacobs had no family, Deemer offers to arrange for the funeral. None of this sits well with Hastings, but since Deemer is a highly-esteemed older man, the sheriff takes his word over Hastings’.

Back at the lab, the viewer watches Professor Deemer prepare and note injections for various animals, including a guinea pig of unusual size and a tarantula about the size of a Doberman pinscher. He is attacked by his other research assistant, Paul Lund (Eddie Parker, uncredited yet again). In their struggle, the lab catches fire, and the large tarantula’s enclosure is broken. Lund injects Deemer while he lies unconscious on the floor and expires soon afterward. The tarantula/Doberman saunters out the back door. Deemer revives in time to put the fire out before it spreads. He buries Lund in the backyard.

The sheriff soon receives a complaint from a farmer about some predator attacking his cattle and leaving only bones.

Thoughts:

The mad scientists aren’t all that mad. They were trying to devise an all-in-one nutrient to feed the world’s three billion (and growing) people before we run out of food. (There are approximately 7.7 billion people today.) It caused animals and arachnids to grow rapidly. Why it would act differently on humans as opposed to other mammals is never addressed.

The nutrient is explained to the viewer and to Dr. Hastings by way of a new lab assistant, the comely Stephanie ‘Steve’ Clayton, whose services Eric Jacobs arranged for before his untimely demise. Dr. Hastings likes her, and even arranges a sort of date after his tour of the lab. Professor Deemer, aware Jacobs was expecting an additional assistant, welcomes her, but tells her she doesn’t look like any biologist he knows of. Nevertheless, perhaps aware his own clock is ticking, he shows her the ropes. The fire in the lab he explains as an electrical short. And Paul Lund—uh, uh….he had to go out of town. The Professor is not sure where he is or when he’ll be back.

Steve gets to walk around the desert in a calf-length pencil skirt and spike heels, unaware that a giant tarantula is about to try to topple boulders onto her and her beau. Those 50s women’s styles might look elegant, but they’re not the kind of thing you want to be wearing when you’re running away from monster spiders.

But look, my god, a giant spider is coming over the hill! It’s attacked cattle and left nothing but bones! It’s picked up a truck transporting sheep and—oh, you don’t want to know.

There’s a pretty high body count in this flick.

All the dynamite in town doesn’t stop this now building-size monster. What’s left? Call out the Air Force, which leads to a pleasant surprise. The jet squadron leader is an uncredited twenty-five-year-old-ish Clint Eastwood, though it’s hard to tell with the oxygen mask on his face.

From the perspective of 2020, the special effects are unconvincing. For example, Professor Deemer never interacts with the guinea pig. Nevertheless, on its intended medium—the movie screen—this could be striking.

The exteriors were shot around Apple Valley and Dead Man’s Point in Lucerne Valley in California, the filming site for westerns such as Stagecoach (1939). The dearly beloved recognized Bell Mountain in the background, a landmark that bears an uncanny resemblance to those bell curves teachers used to talk about.

Like so many movies of its type, this movie was fun. You just can’t take it seriously.




Title: Tarantula (1955)

Directed by
Jack Arnold

Writing Credits
Robert M. Fresco…(screenplay) and
Martin Berkeley…(screenplay)
Jack Arnold…(story) and
Robert M. Fresco…(story)

Cast (in credits order)
John Agar…Dr. Matt Hastings
Mara Corday…Stephanie ‘Steve’ Clayton
Leo G. Carroll…Prof. Gerald Deemer
Nestor Paiva…Sheriff Jack Andrews
Ross Elliott…Joe Burch

Released: February 20, 1956 (Sweden)
Length: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

4 thoughts on “Review of “Tarantula” (1955)

    1. When I was about nine, “Mr. Sardonicus” scared the bejesus out of me when I saw it at my aunt’s. I couldn’t finish watching it. Years later, my aunt apologized to me.

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