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Why’d The Spider Cross The Road?
Released by Universal in 1955 as part of that studio’s wave of sci-fi films produced to capitalize on the newfound fear of nuclear radiation, Tarantula was directed by Jack Arnold. Arnold was the logical choice to direct as he had just delivered a massive “hit” for Universal with 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon. Tarantula would, no doubt, help inspire future “giant animal” movies, but there is solid argument that this film may not have been made if it had not been for the success of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms just a year prior.
Set in the fictional desert town of Desert Rock, AZ, the film opens on an empty stretch of desert sand. A man stumbles into the shot. He appears almost Neanderthal, his face and body monstrously deformed. The only sign of “modern civility” are the pajamas that he wears.
Meanwhile, local doctor Matthew Hastings (John Agar – The Mole People, The Brain From Planet Arous) has just returned to town after being called away to deliver a set of twins. He arrives at the hotel in which he has set up his office and residence. As soon as he arrives, the desk clerk informs him that the local sheriff is looking for him. Hastings meets the sheriff (Nestor Paiva – Creature from the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature) at the police station, and from there is taken to the undertaker’s office in order to help identify a recently discovered corpse. In this case, the man seen wandering the desert in the opening sequence.
The deceased man is believed to be Prof. Eric Jacobs, part of a duo of scientists that have set up residence in Desert Rock. Hastings initially rebukes the identification, saying that he had seen Jacobs just a month prior, and that the man presented none of the symptoms at the time. Jacobs’ partner, Prof. Deemer (Leo G. Carroll – The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Parent Trap), soon arrives and positively identifies the body as that of Jacobs, much to Hastings’ bewilderment. Deemer attributes the death to acromegaly (here called “acromegalia”), an extremely rare disorder that results when the anterior pituitary gland produces excess growth hormone, and can result in tumor growth and gigantism. Hastings doesn’t buy this either, as that disease would have taken years to manifest this extreme of a change.
Deemer explains that Jacobs reported starting to feel “pains” 4 days earlier. By the next morning, the physical changes had started to set in. Jacobs, allegedly, became delirious and ran off into the desert. Having declared the cause of death himself, Deemer rejects a request from Matt to have the body autopsied.
After the men go their separate ways, Deemer returns to his secluded lab. In his lab are cages with animals used in previous tests, including enlarged rats and guinea pigs. And, of course, there is also one mutated tarantula, now on its 6th injection and grown to half the size of a man. As Deemer is preparing to inject a monkey, another deformed man appears behind him. He accuses Deemer of killing Jacobs. He swings a stool at Deemer, but misses, instead smashing the glass on the tank holding the tarantula. The 2 men fight, setting off a fire that destroys a large portion of the lab. The mutated man knocks Deemer out and then injects him with the shot intended for the monkey. He soon collapses himself and dies. The tarantula escapes the lab through an open door. Deemer later recovers from the assault and buries the man in the desert.
Reviewer’s note: Why were the mad scientists in all of these older movies constantly trying to enlarge animals? Who really asked for giant-sized spiders and such? Why was no one working on elephants small enough to carry in a handbag?
A young, female biology student arrives in town. She inquires at the hotel for directions to Deemer’s residence. Due to the lack of any available buses or taxis, she is forced to wait in the hotel’s lobby for a ride. Matt is leaving his office to head out to Deemer’s and offers her a ride. She introduces herself as Stephanie Clayton (Mara Corday – The Giant Claw, The Black Scorpion), but prefers to be called “Steve”. Um, okay? Deemer and Jacobs read a paper that she wrote on nutrition and offered her a summer internship with them. Matt informs her of Jacob’s death. Steve also questions the acromegaly claim. As they drive out of the shot, the spider wanders into the scene just behind them. Despite the fact that it is now around the same size as the car, the 2 never see it.
As with most of these 50’s sci-fi films, the chemistry between the leads is forced down your throat, but at least Agar and Corday make it palatable. The pair comparatively don’t spend much screen time together, what with Hastings playing detective and Steve, the damsel in distress.
At the lab, Deemer dodges a few questions about a former associate of Steve’s that had previous interned for the professors. He then explains his research to our leads. In response to fears of famine due to Earth’s population growth, Deemer and Jacobs were working on creating synthetic “food stuffs”. Kinda like Twinkies, but with nutritional value. This involved the use of a radioactive bonding agent. If we’ve learned anything from films of this type, it’s that “radioactive” equals “bad”.
After some time, the spider has grown to the size of a small building and is advancing on the town to do what most giant spiders do when they go out for a night on the town. They mess shit up. They eat some livestock, crush some buildings, knock over power lines, and kill a few cops.
There’s a subplot about the effects that the shot injected into Deemer has on him, but it’s quite superfluous. Who really cares about the scientist? People come to see the giant spider. While these effects may seem woefully dated in contrast to the CG effects of today, the effects in Tarantula were quite advanced for their time. The matte effects used to project the enlarged image of the spider over the desert highways and hills were fairly state-of-the-art for the era.
The film climaxes in streets lined with dynamite and a bomber squadron being called in to combat the spider. As you may already be aware, the squadron leader is played by a young Clint Eastwood, although you never see more than his eyes as the role has him hidden behind a pilot’s helmet and gear. There’s also a fair portion of stock footage on display here.
While technically superior in multiple ways, I still find that I enjoy 1958’s Earth Vs the Spider a little more than this film, but that may be due in larger part to the 40-year olds portraying teenagers in that film. What Tarantula does offer is an entertaining piece of 50’s sci-fi thrills and fairly steady pacing. Oh, and a big ass spider. Highly recommended for fans of early nuclear era schlockfests.