Before the horror genre truly began capitalising on the common phobia of creepy-crawlies with films like ‘Arachnophobia,’ ‘Itsy Bitsy,’ ‘Kingdom of the Spiders’ and ‘Eight Legged Freaks,’ the 1950s sci-fi/horror classic: ‘Tarantula’ terrified many viewers with its marvellous creature effects and continuously unnerving atmosphere. Ensuring the film would go on to be the exemplary for future monster flicks despite featuring many of the usual problems plaguing creature-features at the time.
Plot Summary: In a remote facility in the Arizona desert, ‘Professor Gerald Deemer’ is conducting a series of experiments in the hopes of finding a way to increase the world’s food supply, injecting growth hormones into various animals to greatly increase their size. But when a tarantula escapes from the isolated laboratory, still growing at a exponential rate due to the formula, the giant arachnid begins to wreak havoc on a nearby town…
Directed by the late Jack Arnold (With These Hands, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man), ‘Tarantula’ was just one of the many science fiction flicks Arnold undertook throughout his career, and in a similar fashion to many of his other stories revolving around horrifying creatures, ‘Tarantula’ was part of the 1950s wave of sci-fi/horror films crafted around the newfound fear of nuclear radiation following World War II. Yet while we now know ‘Tarantula‘ did greatly help in creating the ‘giant animal’ subgenre, there is an argument to be made that if not for the release of: ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’ just a year prior, ‘Tarantula’ may not even exist, as general audiences only gained interest in creature-features on account of that film’s success.
The late John Agar portrays the film’s square-jawed hero: ‘Dr. Matt Hastings,’ and just like a large majority of male protagonists in 50s sci-fi, ‘Dr. Hastings’ is charismatic-enough to carry the film in spite of the actual character receiving very little development over the course of the runtime. And as expected, ‘Tarantula’ also includes a romantic subplot between ‘Dr. Hastings’ and secondary-protagonist: ‘Stephanie Clayton’ portrayed by Mara Corday, which although made palatable by Agar and Corday, still feels pretty forced. However, one of the film’s biggest missed-opportunities is certainly ‘Professor Gerald Deemer’ portrayed by the late Leo G. Carrol, as whilst Carrol gives a decent performance here, the story sadly pushes his character into the background and nearly entirely ignores the suffering his character later endures after injecting himself with his formula, making his character’s inclusion seem quite superfluous.
Despite the many creature effects throughout ‘Tarantula’ clearly being the film’s main focus, the cinematography by the late George Robinson does have its share of attractive shots even with the film’s lack of colour/camera movement due to the technological restrictions of the time-period. As any wide-shots displaying the vast Arizona desert or the fictional town of: ‘Desert Rock’ are fairly appealing, and occasionally, even add to the film’s tense atmosphere as the uneven rocky landscape alongside the film’s dim lighting allows the giant arachnid to often lurk unseen.
The original score by the late Herman Stein and the late Henry Mancini is a thunderous and sometimes overly-dramatic score, feeling very much like a soundtrack taken from films of the 1950s for better, and for worse. And while both composers are often uncredited for their work on the film, ‘Tarantula’ is far from the first time Herman Stein has collaborated with director Jack Arnold, providing scores (and having much of his music reused) for a number of his films.
But of course, ‘Tarantula’ will always be best-known for its effects, which are in all fairness the film’s best attribute. As whilst many fondly-remembered science fiction and horror films of the 1950s relied on models, costumes and stop-motion to bring their strange creatures to-life, many of these filmmaking techniques can feel very dated and tacky by today’s standards for films brimming with CGI. This isn’t the case with ‘Tarantula’s effects however, as the way the film brings its signature creature to-life is quite innovative, as the filmmakers actually used a real tarantula shot separately from the rest of the film, before it was then enlarged and composited/projected onto the desert locations. This clever technique allows the spider to move naturally, and was not only state-of-the-art for the era, but is still quite impressive now, as the matte effect is usually impeccable aside from one or two shots where some of the tarantula’s legs seem to phase through the environment.
Overall, just like many other films released around the time of the 1950s/1960s, ‘Tarantula’ does have its entertainment-value, but is also much slower-paced and far more simplistic than many of the sci-fi blockbusters and epic creature-features we’d see released today. Yet whilst its characters are a little uninspired and the film is more about spectacle than anything else, ‘Tarantula’ definitely has its moments, and even if just for the effects alone, I think it deserves its place as a 50s classic, flaws and all. Final Rating: high 6/10.