Tarantula (1955) **
Hot on the heels of the quite successful Them!, Universal studios slapped together Tarantula in an effort to get in on the atomic bug action. The less-than-spectacular results suggest that Universalís people really didnít quite understand the emerging genre. Technically speaking, the movie is comparatively good. It has okay composite-style special effects, decent performances, and relatively high production values all around, yet it is a strangely lifeless and unsatisfying film. And as we shall soon see, it fails almost completely at the task that most critics have seen as the entire raison díetre of the atomic bug genre-- serving up a harmless, schlocky allegory for the nuclear holocaust that was never far from anybodyís mind in the 1950ís.
Tarantula begins, surprisingly, with what is to all appearances an ape-man in a hideous striped suit wandering alone in the Arizona desert. The creature takes a few steps, falls, crawls a few more paces, and then lies still on the ground. After the opening credits, we will learn that what we just saw was no ape-man, but rather Tarantulaís first feeble attempt to portray the rare medical condition that the script calls ďacromegalia,Ē but which we in the real world refer to as ďacromegaly.Ē (And while weíre on the subject, I love that word. If you read it literally, it means ďhigh bignessĒ in Greek.) Acromegaly is a hormonal malfunction generally caused by a benign tumor of the pitutary gland. The tumor stimulates excessive production of growth hormones, resulting in the gradual thickening and enlargement of body parts long after the age at which growth normally stops. In the days before modern biochemistry, it was one of the nastier ways that a personís growth could go haywire, and it very often killed its victims by piling up so much extra tissue on their bodies that their organs began malfunctioning or their hearts could no longer handle the workload. The thing is, though, that acromegaly is, in medical parlance, a chronic rather than acute condition. That is to say, itís something you live with for a very long time before it or its complications have a chance to do you in. This is important because the acromegaliac we just saw drop dead in the desert turns out to have been perfectly healthy no more than a month ago. Both Sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva, of Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Mole People) and Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar, another Mole People alumnus, who was also in The Brain from Planet Arous), the nearest townís resident physician, saw the dead man (a reclusive scientist who had worked in a private laboratory 20 miles out from town) that recently, and he showed no signs of the disease. When the dead manís closest colleague, another scientist by the name of Deemer (Leo G. Carroll, who would later be a regular on ďThe Man from U.N.C.L.E.Ē), comes to have a look at the body, it comes out that his condition hadnít appeared until a mere four days before! Indeed, it is Deemer who makes the diagnosis of acromegaly-- Dr. Hastings has never seen the like of it before.
But he has read about the disease, and he knows damn well that itís not something you just pick up out of nowhere and die of four days later. So Hastings is just as interested as Joe Burch, our obligatory newspaper reporter (The Crawling Handís Ross Elliott), in checking Deemerís story out. The perfect excuse appears early the next day when a young woman named Stephanie (but call her Steve) Clayton (Mara Corday, from The Giant Claw and The Black Scorpion) arrives in town. Sheís a grad student whom Deemer and the dead man had hired to assist them in their work. Steve showed up long after the last bus to Deemerís neck of the woods had left, and she needs a ride. And because Hastings had wanted to go see Deemer anyway, giving her such a ride seems like a wonderful idea.
Something very strange has happened at Deemerís place, however, and Iím not even talking about his experiments, which are plenty weird enough-- they involve giving injections of God alone knows what to mice and rabbits and guinea pigs that make them grow to prodigious size. No, what Iím talking about is the appearance at the lab of a second, very angry, acromegaliac, who kicked the shit out of the scientist, injected him with a shot of his own formula, and then fell down dead on the floor. A lot of collateral damage was done to the lab during the struggle. Numerous specimen cages were smashed, some huge piece of electronic equipment was blown up, and the whole damn lab might have burned to the ground had the doctor not regained consciousness in time to put out the resulting fire. But most importantly for the overall course of the film, one of Deemerís experimental animals escaped. This was the creature of which Deemer was proudest, a tarantula which his injections had caused to grow to the size of a man. Now your guess as to why anyone would want to create such a thing is as good as mine (maybe the Hays Code forbade the portrayal of monkeys with four asses...), but that is indeed what Deemer did, and now the thing is loose in the Arizona countryside. Deemer spent most of the night cleaning up the worst of the mess (including the dead acromegaliac), so his lab is in a relatively presentable state when visitors arrive, first in the form of Joe Burch, and later in the form of Steve and Dr. Hastings. The scientist blows off the reporter, but obviously no such thing can be done with Steve. So instead, Deemer tries to pass off the fire as a simple accident, and introduces Steve to his work.
This is where the explanation weíve been waiting for comes in. Deemer, along with most 50ís movie scientists with labs full of giant critters, is working on solving the problem of world hunger. His injections are a sort of synthetic nutrient of his own design-- a radioactive synthetic nutrient. The thing is, though, that it isnít at all clear just how the nutrient is supposed to address the problem itís meant to solve. I mean, is he figuring on using it to grow cattle the size of elephants? Then why does he make such a big deal about wanting to try the stuff out on human subjects? But if he means to use it as a food substitute, in an effort to make the worldís current food supply feed more mouths, isnít it a bit problematic that anything you give it to grows to many times its normal size? Think about it-- if world hunger is a problem now, wouldnít a world full of 50-Foot Women and Amazing Colossal Men just make it worse? Either way, thatís what Deemerís been up to, and I suppose it goes some way toward explaining all his giant lab rats. It doesnít explain the tarantula, though. Nothing could possibly explain the tarantula.
Itís a good thing Deemer made that huge spider, though, because while Attack of the 50-Foot Guinea Pig would have kicked ass, it probably couldnít have gotten made (though Night of the Lepus did, somehow...). And when we next see the tarantula, skittering across the highway behind him while Hastings drives home from Deemerís place, it has grown to be fully as large as the doctorís big-ass convertible. Then, the next time we see it (when it almost brings down the top half of a cool desert rock formation on Hastingsís and Steveís heads), it is at least 70 feet long. Given the great size which the creature has now attained, I think itís about time it started raising some hell, and writer/director Jack Arnold seems to agree, because itís at this stage in the movie that Sheriff Andrews starts hearing reports of livestock being skeletonized at night by who the hell knows what. Thereís no blood, nor footprints either, anywhere near the slain animals; indeed the only clue to their deaths takes the form of pools of milky, white sludge on the ground near all of the skeletons. Hastings has the stuff analyzed, and it turns out to be tarantula venom. Now weíre getting somewhere.
Meanwhile, that injection Deemer took of his formula has begun taking effect. The scientistís acromegaly is fairly mild at first, but not much time elapses before it becomes so severe as to hamper his breathing. Realizing that little point remains in trying to keep secrets from Steve and Hastings, the doctor decides to spill his guts. It turns out that his former colleague and their old grad-student assistant shot themselves up with the drug, believing that its erratic effects were due to the metabolisms of the experimental animals, or some such thing, and that the radioactive nutrient would be harmless to humans. (Again, what imaginable reason could there be for giving the drug to humans at all?!) Acromegaly was the price they paid for their impatience, and the grad student also flipped out and, somehow blaming Deemer for his condition, injected him in a misguided revenge gambit. Deemer doesnít know about the giant spider; he thinks it burned to death along with all his giant mice and rabbits, but he will learn the truth soon enough. That night, the spider puts in an appearance at the lab, announcing that the main body of monster action has begun. It kills Deemer and wrecks his house (but only after an unintentionally hilarious moment in which it spies on Steve as she gets ready for bed), and then launches into the rampage proper. Lots of power lines and telephone poles will fall before the wrath of Tarantula, as will a few police cars and a little bit of miscellaneous scenery. Submachine guns have no effect on the monster, and dynamite is of no avail either. But if thereís one thing the American Southwest is well stocked with, itís Air Force bases, and it turns out that giant spiders donít like napalm one little bit.
That right there is the main piece of evidence supporting my claim that Universal didnít really know what atomic bugs were about. Not only does the monster fall to purely conventional weapons, it does so in mere moments, after putting up no fight whatsoever. Iíve already dealt with this subject at some length in my reviews of Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Them!, so I wonít belabor the point again here, but a creature that can be killed by a couple of F-80ís carrying napalm bombs (one of which, by the way, is piloted by a then-unknown Clint Eastwood) isnít really a very strong hook to hang Americaís fear of nuclear Armageddon on. At least The Black Scorpion gave the Mexican army a run for its money before it went down, and even there, the army had help from a high-tech gizmo cooked up by the movieís scientific team. But here, the monster fares even worse against the military than the one in Universalís later The Deadly Mantis. Itís really pretty pathetic when you get right down to it.
The other interesting thing about Tarantula is the way that it suggests how dependent the atomic bug movies were for their success upon their own stupidity. Tarantula is a pretty well-made flick, and without the kind of gaffes for which we could always depend on Bert I. Gordon, it ends up being pretty hard to sit through. It isnít as lethally leaden as The Deadly Mantis, but it comes pretty close, and because it isnít nearly so ridiculous, itís also a lot less fun. Nevertheless, you could definitely do worse than this for mindless entertainment on a Saturday afternoon.