This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the 50s Monster Mash Blogathon, which is currently underway at Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear from July 28 through August 2. I want to warn any arachnophobes or people who get the willies from spiders that this post may contain some graphic pictures liable to do a number on those with heart conditions or pregnant women…you’ve been forewarned.
A desolate, foreboding desert…home to prairie dogs, Gila monsters, road runners and coyotes…a person could become intoxicated just by drinking in its beauty and majesty…
|"Gad! I'll never mix carrot juice and radish juice again as long as I live..."|
…that is, until an ugly man wearing jammies shows up and ends up expiring in same. The opening credits let us know that the film we are watching is Tarantula, a 1955 science fiction/horror offering from Universal-International that was helmed by cult director Jack Arnold and produced by former Mercury Theatre player William Alland. These two gentlemen were responsible for some of the best films of the science fiction and horror released in the 50s, notably the classics It Came from Outer Space (1953) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). (They also collaborated on Revenge of the Creature  and The Space Children …proving you can’t always hit one out of the park when it’s your turn at-bat.)
The death of the creepy-looking dude in the PJ’s is being investigated by Desert Rock, AZ sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva)…who’s so baffled by the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the corpse that he asks country doctor Matt Hastings (John Agar) in for a consult—Andrews theorizes that the dead man is biologist Eric Jacobs, but doesn’t get a confirmation on this until Jacobs’ colleague, Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll), arrives at the funeral home to identify the body. When Hastings questions Deemer about Jacobs’ distorted face and hands, the Professor explains that his pal had acromegaly…but the explanation doesn’t sit right with Doc Hastings, because it would appear that Jacobs’ symptoms developed within a four-day time span—and in doing some research on the condition at a medical library Hastings can find no recorded case of acromegaly developing so quickly.
|"Mmm-hmm! That's good eatin'!"|
“Radiation doesn’t work that way!” I can hear you yelling out in the blogosphere. (And I have a pretty good idea who it is.) But for the purposes of this motion picture, the filmmakers assure us that not only does it work this way but it’s capable of creating creatures like this…
|"Boogedy boogedy boogedy!"|
This “boogeyman” attacks Professor Deemer and in the struggle, the laboratory is set ablaze…and just before the misshapen creature draws his rations, he injects Deemer with a hypodermic filled with the same nutrient the Prof has been using on the lab animals. Creature Boy also manages to crash the glass cell that housed the big honkin’ arachnid, allowing it to escape from the lab and wander off into the desert for points unknown.
|Mom always said that if we left the door open bugs would get in. This is the exception to the rule.|
The laboratory in a shambles, Deemer plants the dead boogeyman six feet under in his spacious backyard and awaits the arrival of a new assistant in Stephanie Clayton (Mara Corday), who arrives in Desert Rock at a transportation disadvantage (the town’s only cab driver is out of town on a fare) and so the gallant Doc Hastings agrees to give her a lift out to Casa del Deemer.
may be a chivalrous medico but he’s also a bit of a chauvinist porker, because after learning why Clayton came to Desert Rock he comments: “I knew it would happen…give women the vote and whaddya get? Lady scientists…” (Because the concept of a female scientist is so revolutionary in this backwoods burg, Stephanie goes by “Steve” for the rest of the movie, as if she just walked out of a Howard Hawks film.) During the ride out to the lab, Steve is also informed by the tactful Matt that her patron, the eminent Professor Jacobs, is taking a permanent dirt nap. Knowing that acromegaly is an extremely rare glandular condition, Steve asks Matt if he’s sure about the cause of death and he replies: “No…no, I’m not sure at all.” Hastings
This is one of my favorite bits in the movie—our leading man and woman speed by in his ride and then suddenly from out of nowhere…
had only looked in his rear view mirror this picture would be over by now. Hastings
Arriving at the home of Deemer, our young couple find the good Professor being questioned by snoopy news hawk Joe Burch (Ross Elliott)—Deemer is giving him the skinny on the fire that destroyed most of the lab. During a conversation between Dr. Deemer, Steve and Matt, we learn of the existence of a previous assistant named Paul Lund—and though it’s not revealed until later in the film, the audience is able to put two and two together and deduce that the monstrous being who struggled with Deemer earlier before giving Dr. D a one-way ticket to Acromegaly City was indeed the unfortunate Mr. Lund. Deemer also takes the time to give Hastings and Clayton a guided tour of Deemer Industries, and explains the need to find a food source that will meet the needs of an expanding population…
“There are 2 billion people in the world today,” Deemer explains. “In 1975 there'll be 3 billion...in the year 2000, there'll be 3,625,000,000…” (The world population in mid-2000 was 6.1 billion…so it’s safe to assume that Professor D will not be advancing to the Showcase Showdown.) “Well, not many of us look that far into the future, sir,” is
’ rather idiotic reply…and I guess Deemer is too much of a gentleman to ask this doofus where he got his medical degree. Because Dr. Doofus is still not convinced that the late Professor Jacobs was suffering from acromegaly, Deemer gives consent to allow Hastings to perform an autopsy…which results in a diagnosis of acromegaly. Sheriff Andrews pronounces the case closed…and like Deemer, also politely avoids the matter that Doc Hastings may have graduated from a diploma mill. Hastings
Meanwhile, the mad experiments continue in the House of Deemer. After instructing Steve on how to work with the radiation isotope, Professor Deemer injects a small lab rat with the nutrient and then shows his assistant a bunny rabbit whose current lifespan appears to be about four months …but is in actuality six days old! But Deemer is concerned that the nutrient is wildly unstable, and explains to Steve that further testing is necessary before the fait accompli of using it on humans. “There mustn’t be a mistake this time,” he intones…and why she doesn’t respond “This time?” remains shrouded in mystery.
Steve may be competing in a male-dominated field but she still takes time out for the important things in life—or as she declares: “Science is science but a girl must have her hair done.” (This might explain, for example, why Albert Einstein’s do always looked unkempt…he and his stylist could never coordinate their schedules.) As she leaves, Deemer begins to absentmindedly rub his sore arm and we can clearly see that he’s developing the same “unstable” symptoms that befell his two unfortunate colleagues:
In town, Dr. Rico Suave continues his transparent attempts to make time with Steve, telling her: “You dress up our town very nicely…if you don’t look out, our Chamber of Commerce is going to list you in its publicity of local attractions.” (Oh, Stevie—set your cap for the big lug before he gets away.) “Do you have to go right back?” he asks her, and when she replies in the negative the audience becomes concerned for all those starving children in Europe who will suffer from Steve’s inattention to her work. The two of them shamelessly flirt with one another for what seems like the rest of the picture, and they finally wind up enjoying a smoke break underneath some bluffs out in the desert…
…when they are nearly killed by a small avalanche that materializes out of nowhere. There is, of course, an explanation for this phenomenon but Matt and Steve leave the area before they learn why they were nearly flattened…
|Does whatever a spider can.|
…yes, it’s the itsy bitsy spider that climbed up the water spout. It’s a darned good thing that mountain face was there in the desert for it to hide behind.
Arriving back at the laboratory, Matt and Steve start to discover that there is some seriously weird sh*t going on in that place, starting with the lab rat that Deemer injected with the nutrient earlier that morning…
…that has now grown to the size of a wheel of cheddar. When Doc Hastings beats a hasty retreat, Deemer comes downstairs to chastise his assistant for allowing Hastings to see the secrets in their treehouse club…and…well…
…the dude has been seriously Rondo-ized. (I included the earlier picture so you can compare and contrast.)
Let this be a lesson, boys and girls—botox can be a harsh mistress.
En route back to town, Hastings stops by Death Bluff to see if he can determine the cause of the avalanche…and he meets up with Sheriff Jack, who’s on his way out to investigate some even more weird sh*t occurring at the home of rancher Andy Andersen (Steve Darrell). And by weird, I mean this:
If I had to guess, I’d suspect some local high schoolers. The cattle have been stripped clean—“Just like peeling a banana,” Andy observes. The only other unexplained phenomena nearby is this mysterious pool of white stuff, which
discovers not too far from the bones of the customized cattle. Since Andrews was elected sheriff solely on the basis of how many hands he shook at the county fair and not for his investigative skills, he tells Andersen to stand guard that night and keep an eye out for the return of whatever it was that made a snack out of his heifers. The unknown creature does return, and as the audience is clued in by now, the cow-killing culprit is that big honkin’ spider. At this point in the narrative, I just want to say that I’d include some screen caps of the arachnid rompin’ and stompin’ at Rancho Andersen but the visual quality of the film print shown on TCM makes it nigh impossible (they really wound up with a crappy print…and it’s not letterboxed, either)—you’d just end up staring at blackness and saying “I think I can make out one of the spider’s legs…but I’m not sure.” (For the record, our eight-legged freaky pal kills Andy in the struggle.) Hastings
The spider also takes time out from its steak dinner to attack a traveling truck that has the effrontery to interrupt its digestion, and the giant beast throws it into a ditch, killing the two men inside. Sheriff Jack and Doc Hastings arrive at the scene of the crime the next morning and find the truck’s occupants stripped clean in the same manner as Andersen’s cattle. And a little ways from the remains…
…more mysterious white sh*t. Hastings gets down on one knee, putting his freakin’ finger in the substance and taking a sniff…then commenting that “There doesn’t seem to be any distinctive odor”…and then like the man of science that I’m starting to hugely suspect he is not, he takes a taste…
|"Do I detect a slight marzipan flavor...?"|
Ferchrissake, Hastings…that could be tarantula doody for all you know. He asks the state policemen on the site if they have a jar or Thermos so he can collect some of the spider crap, and while he waits for them to locate the receptacle he warns reporter Burch off from covering the event, advising him to write it up as merely a routine accident story. “If you print anything as vague as what we’ve got you’ll scare half the state to death,”
warns him. Yeah, like the eventual truth about this whole thing isn’t going to make some people crap their pants. Hastings
Back in his office,
’ examination of the mysterious white substance yields no easy answers…and he admits as such to Andrews and Burch, which would also explain why he tasted that arachnid waste as if it were vanilla pudding in the first place. But in his studies, the acidic content of the fluid would seem to suggest that it’s some sort of insect venom, and when a skeptical Burch argues that there’s not an insect big enough to produce that amount Hastings announces that he’ll take the stuff out to Professor Deemer’s lab and get an expert opinion. Placing a call to the lab, Hastings speaks with a panicky Steve, who informs him that Deemer is ill and that his hands and face have swollen to enormous proportions. The phone call is interrupted when a hand lunges out at Steve, causing her to scream…and Hastings goes from zero to sixty in his jalopy to get out to the laboratory where he is greeted with this: Hastings
|I counted five "Ninas"...|
Gad! He’s positively grotesque! And that’s when the curtain comes down on all the lies and deception—Deemer tells Matt and Steve that his colleague Jacobs, being an impatient old fart, was convinced that the instability of the nutrient was nothing to be concerned about and one day while Deemer was in town Jacobs injected himself and Lund with the solution for sh*ts and giggles. Deemer also spills the beans about the lab fire and that the animals were destroyed…including a cute irradiated tarantula that’s turned up missing. (You can find it just behind that rock!)
Realizing he’s out of his league on this giant tarantula business,
takes an out-of-town trip and meets up with Hastings Milburn Drysdale Dr. Townsend (Raymond Bailey), a researcher at the Arizona Agricultural Institute. Townsend compliments Matt on his call about the venom (it’s definitely tarantula spit, all right) but adopts a bit of skepticism when tells him he found eight-foot pools of it near the victims. Now…I’m certainly not a scientifical kind of guy but if I learned that great big gobs of spider hock were turning up in a desert in Hastings I would be phoning the proper authorities with all deliberate speed…but in this particular instance, Professor Townsend takes time out from the proceedings to show Arizona some home movies: Hastings
|"And I captured this magnificent beast with my Toshiba just outside my hotel room..."|
“Then expect something that's fiercer, more cruel and deadly than anything that ever walked on earth!” Well, thanks a whole heck of a lot, Dr. Emergency Broadcasting System—maybe you should have thought about that before padding the narrative with your boring sixteen millimeter lecture!
|Something that's fiercer, more cruel and deadly than anything that ever walked on earth...|
narrowly escapes being bored to death, he must eventually come to terms with the titular beast because no amount of torrential rain is going to wash that thing out. He can’t place a call to his hometown because Townsend’s gal Friday informs him that the phone lines are out—at this point in the film, the giant beastie has gone on a rampage, both giving AT&T the finger (by downing the phone lines) and terrorizing his girl out at the laboratory…this screen cap is a little blurry but I love how she walks blithely by the window, completely unaware that there’s a humongous arachnid peering in… Hastings
|"Lady? Oh, come on...let me in!"|
The spider proceeds to kick the house in, which wakes up Professor Deemer and while Matt arrives in time to save his main squeeze, Deemer is a casualty of not being insured against home spider invasions. The rest of the movie unspools with our young couple joining forces with Sheriff Jack and other authorities to put an end to the spider, which they manage to do by napalming the beejeezus out of it.
“I know what you're thinking: ‘Did he fire six rockets or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself.” An Air Force pilot’s got to know his limitations...
Before sitting down and becoming reacquainted with Tarantula for this blogathon, I tried to remember the last time I saw the movie and though I’m sure I watched it between now and the first time I caught it on WOWK-TV’s Chiller Theater it’s lost a bit of its luster over the years. Both Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon are superior movies (not to mention The Incredible Shrinking Man ) to this giggle-inducing B-picture that seems longer than its running time of 79 minutes. There are, of course, pluses in Tarantula—I enjoyed seeing familiar TV faces like Carroll, Bailey and Hank “Fred Ziffel” Patterson in small roles (not to mention Clint Eastwood, who would go on to TV fame on Rawhide) and I appreciate that the film tries to explore additional avenues of science fiction (the acromegaly angle, for example) rather than put all its eggs in one big giant bug basket. The special effects in Tarantula are pretty impressive for the time, utilizing a real spider in many of the shots—far more convincing than the giant ants in Them! (1954)…even though I would argue that Them! is a better movie due to its stronger narrative and superior acting.
You see…a little of John Agar goes a long way with me—the actor, best known for marrying Shirley Temple and appearing in scores of John Wayne films (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) saw his onscreen stock take a nose dive by the mid 50s and he was forced to portray smirky heroes in films like Revenge of the Creature, The Mole People (1956) and the camp classic The Brain from Planet Arous (1957), a serious candidate for the WTF Movie Hall of Fame. He has no chemistry whatsoever with co-star Mara Corday, whom I will admit I’m fond of even when she was also grinding out sci-fi cheapies like The Giant Claw and The Black Scorpion (both 1957). (She and Clint must have become good friends in this one, because she later had small parts in some of his movies: The Gauntlet, Sudden Impact and Pink Cadillac, to name a few.) Their relationship in Tarantula might best be summed up in this deathless dialogue exchange:
STEVE: What does it look like?
MATT: Oh, like something from another life science... quiet, yet strangely evil…as if it were hiding its secrets from man…
STEVE: You make it sound so creepy…
MATT: The unknown always is…
Even Science was stunned!