company: Universal International
country: United States
director: Jack Arnold
cast: John Agar, Mara Corday,
Leo G. Carroll, Nestor Paiva,
Ross Elliot, Edwin Rand,
Raymond Bailey, Hank Patterson
writers: Robert M. Fresco,
Martin Berkeley, and Jack Arnold
cinematographer: George Robinson
music: Joseph Gershenson (supervisor)
special effects: David S. Horsley,
Clifford Stine and Wah Chang (puppet creator)
dvd company: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
release date: January 2, 2007 / May 13, 2008
retail price: $19.99 / $59.98
disc details: Region 1 / NTSC / dual layer
video: 4:3 open matte / progressive
audio: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 monophonic)
subtitles: English SDH, French
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OOP 2007 collection | 2008 Ultimate Collection
Plot: A scientist investigating a new growth serum in the Arizona desert inadvertently lets an ever-growing tarantula loose on the countryside. It’s up to a country doctor, local law enforcement, and the air force to stop the beast.
Tarantula! is the prototypical ’50s monster picture, and one in a long line in which the creeping unknown descends upon small-town America. Throughout the decade the Rockwellian fantasy would be invaded by fifty foot women, perverse space brains, blobs, and even an econonomy-sized crystal garden. Tarantula! also fits well into the cold war atomic paranoia of the time, and while the bomb doesn’t play a role in the titular creature’s creation (the closest we get is an isotope that holds the good scientist’s growth formula together) the idea of science creating an unstoppable and inhumanly huge force of destruction is of obvious inspiration.
Made just a few years before Universal International’s science fiction cycle would descend into low-budget idiocy (I’m looking at you, Monster on the Campus), Tarantula! is a solid production with a name cast and memorable iconography. The sight of the title creature cresting hills and progressing with all deliberate speed across the desert landscapes, devouring cattle and people and downing power lines along the way, is hard to forget.
Typical for the genre, Tarantula! plays as a mystery – that the audience is in on the solution ten minutes in is of little consequence. Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar) is called in when a horribly disfigured man is found dead of unknown causes in the desert. Hastings determines that the man died of complications from acromagaly (a syndrome caused by an excess of growth hormone), a diagnosis confirmed when Professor Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) arrives in town to identify the body. The man turns out to have been Deemer’s assistant, his acromagaly having appeared and progressed to life threatening proportions in just a few short days.
Hasting, knowing that acromagaly is a condition that takes years to develop, senses that something is amiss and, with the help of Deemer’s newly arrived assistant Steve (Mara Corday), starts an investigation into the matter. Steve lets Hastings in on what Deemer is working on in his laboratory outside town – an artificial nutrient he hopes will help alleviate the food shortages of the future. Injected into test animals, like mice, guinea pigs, and rabbits, the nutrient results in spectacular growth, with the test subjects reaching maturity in a matter of hours.
Meanwhile, strange things are happening outside of town. A rancher finds the bones of part of his cattle herd lying in a field, a truck is mysteriously thrown tens of yards off the road, and a pair of prospectors go missing. The only evidence connecting the incidents are the large puddles of liquid left behind at each – liquid that, when tested, reveals itself to be a kind of venom . . .
There is certainly silliness afoot in Tarantula! – take the acromagaly subplot that links the cast together, for instance. The cause of the condition seems to be “instability” in the nutrient, which Deemer’s assistant had been injected with for dubious scientific reasons. Why would men inject themselves with a nutrient that causes uncontrollable growth in test animals and, for that matter, what are they doing injecting something like a tarantula with it? Methinks that if Deemer and company had settled on something quick-growing and harmless like fruit flies as test subjects then this whole mess could have been avoided. Then again, a title like Fruit Flies! doesn’t offer quite the number of horrifying possibilities that Tarantula! does.
Of course silliness in a film like Tarantula! is obligatory, and Jack Arnold’s Them!-inspired yarn is more than competent enough in its dramatics to keep things from diving headlong into self-parody (a la Beginning of the End). John Agar and Mara Corday make a fine leading couple even if the script offers them little of substance. Corday’s working girl is more typical of the genre here than in the later The Giant Claw (as she tells Deemer before heading into town, “Science is science, but a girl must get her hair done”), though she’s still far from the usual scream queen, only reduced to hysterics when giant spiderlegs are tapping at her window. The supporting cast are familiar faces – Ross Elliot (Monster on Campus, The Indestructible Man) as Joe the reporter, Nestor Paiva (The Mole People) as the town sheriff, and bit actor and Bert I. Gordon regular Hank Patterson (Earth vs. the Spider, Beginning of the End, Attack of the Puppet People, etc.) as Josh, the nosy desk clerk.
Leo G. Carroll as the not-mad scientist Professor Deemer is the most recognizable actor on board, lending much-needed believability to the part of the noble scientist gone wrong. The Hitchcock regular (Suspicion, Spellbound, Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest) was immortalized forever for his involvement in Tarantula!, his part one of many of classic sci-fi-dom evoked in the “Science Fiction/Double Feature” number from The Rocky Horror Show. Carroll takes the role in stride, even when donning his own ridiculous acromagaly prosthetics and tangling with a life-sized tarantula limb.
The real star of the show is, of course, the tarantula, actually several directed around white plaster molds of filmed landscapes with compressed air. Veteran Universal effects man David S. Horsley (Bride of Frankenstein, Werewolf of London, This Island Earth) and the accomplished Clifford Stine (King Kong, Gunga Din, This Island Earth) get away with a fare share of flubs, like the spider’s legs suddenly disappearing behind invisible matte lines and the occasional transparency of the menace, by virtue of how often their techniques simply work. The visages of the monster creeping down hillsides, growing ever larger as it stalks its prey, are impressive in their dimensionality and even creepy. Wah Chang’s scale puppet, plastered all over the advertising for the film, is wisely avoided, but is seen briefly leering (as salaciously as a spider reasonably can) at future Playmate Corday through a gigantic bedroom window (a scene copied outright for 1957′s The Deadly Mantis).
Universal Studios Home Entertainment took its sweet time bringing Tarantula! to DVD domestically, finally releasing it in the boxed set Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection Volume 1 in 2007, alongside The Mole People, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Monolith Monsters, and Monster on the Campus. That Best Buy exclusive release went out-of-print in short order and was fetching ridiculous prices through third party sellers (this reviewer made a pretty penny offing his in preparation for the repackaged release) before Universal repackaged it, along with the second installment (including Dr. Cyclops, Cult of the Cobra, The Land Unknown, The Deadly Mantis, and The Leech Woman), as The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection Volumes 1 & 2 in May of 2008. The film is not currently available in the States as an individual release.
Tarantula! comes paired with The Mole People on a dual layered DVD (oddly the only disc of the first set not to feature an image of Mara Corday), and the ostensibly single layer transfer greatly improves upon the previously available laserdisc and VHS editions. The progressive image sports healthy grain, detail, and contrast, but is unfortunately presented open matte. While the film still plays well full screen, those with widescreen televisions will find that it crops perfectly to a 16:9 set (I’ve cropped the images for this review to 1.78:1 give a representation of the originally intended framing). Damage is present throughout but not terribly invasive, limited to light dirt and speckling in most instances. Audio is presented in a nice Dolby Digital 2.0 monophonic track in the original English. The older recording still retains some nice punch, particularly when the Henry Mancini cues from This Island Earth come into play. Both English SDH and French subtitles are available.
The only extra to be had on the disc is a trailer in rough shape, but don’t let that deter you as the 10 film The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection Volumes 1 & 2 is still a great buy for fans (it can be had new for around $4.50 per film on Amazon.com). As both an old-school genre fanatic and a long-time tarantula keeper, Tarantula! is nothing short of a minor classic for me in spite of its frequent silliness, and as an archetypal example of the B-budget monster opus it’s hard to beat. Highly recommended.