Wednesday 25 August 2021

Movie Review: Tarantula (1955)

A monster arthropod horror film, Tarantula offers a decent story, good build-up and modest special effects.

Matt Hastings (John Agar) is the local doctor in a small town on the edge of the Arizona desert. Sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva) asks him to examine the disfigured body of Eric Jacobs, found dead in the desert. Jacobs was a medical researcher working with Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) at an isolated ranch. Deemer insists Jacobs died from acromegaly, but Matt is unconvinced.

Deemer is developing a radioactive super-nutrient to help fight world hunger, and his lab is filled with out-sized animals. Another disfigured man attacks Deemer, injects him with the nutrient, and sets the lab on fire, causing an overgrown tarantula to escape. Medical student Stephanie Clayton (Mara Corday) arrives in town to work with Deemer, and she starts a friendship with Matt. Soon a local rancher reports his cattle being attacked. With a huge and hungry tarantula on the loose and Deemer exhibiting signs of rapid disfigurement, the community faces a crisis.

A low-budget but still charming monster-on-the-loose thriller, Tarantula does not disappoint. The cast is strictly B-grade, the performances comfortably wooden, the dialogue obvious, the sets rudimentary, the science naturally ridiculous, and the scary moments not very scary except for the drive-in dates anyway looking to get cozy.

But director Jack Arnold makes best use of the resources at his disposal, including the relatively grounded script by Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley, and in the process delivers an enjoyable romp. Through successive conversations between Matt and Deemer, genuine attempts are made to provide a rationale for the mayhem. Deemer may lack scientific discipline, but his noble intentions to solve the looming hunger crisis for the world's mushrooming population avoids evil scientist/corrupt government/military experiment/alien invasion cliches.

The special effects consist of overlaid blown-up images, and for the most part the giant tarantula is stitched into the action with passable artistry. It helps that the monster's rampage is held back until the final quarter of the brisk 80 minutes. Arnold invests the time in building tension with the cattle killings and occasional glimpses of the monster, and allows a cheery friendship/romance to blossom between Matt and Stephanie.

The climax deploys stock footage of military hardware to tilt the balance of power back from the overgrown invertebrate and to the humans, with none other than Clint Eastwood squinting into the sun to deliver an early kill. Up until then, Tarantula was feeling lucky.

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