Starring: John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll, Nestor Paiva, Ross Elliot
Experiments in nutrient biology go horribly awry, settling loose a giant tarantula that terrorizes a small desert town.
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There are three types of 50s B-movies: decent, engaging ones with a strong, satirical edge; mediocre ones with mild entertainment; terrible ones with no sense of clear direction or timing, a waste of shock value and pretty faces. A key to discovering which film is which is to focus on how the female leads are utilized, especially in relation to the main character.
I know I seem to constantly harp on female’s role in these films, but I think it’s a very important point. If you’re told absolutely that a certain element must belong in a film, how clever can a writer or a filmmaker utilize it? The Black Scorpion failed by using a series of inane dinner conversations. The Fly succeeded by having their relationship parallel the plot and making the wife a strong central figure. Tarantula is right down the middle.
Mara Corday, in this case, plays the assistant to a scientist (Carroll) who is going through some serious hardships. His partner has died from an extremely rare disease, and his former assistant, afflicted with the same disease, attacks the scientist and sets fire to their lab. Carroll puts out the fires and goes through hell and high water to cover up all these incidents, but in time the disease begins showing on his body. And there’s a giant spider, too.
All of this is caused by a “biological nutrient,” a syringe filled with a substance that, in theory, allows living organisms to sustain themselves without food or water. In practice, it causes animals to grow huge and humans to get the aforementioned disease. (The former assistant knew this, and injected Carroll with the substance to “teach him a lesson,” I guess.) Also, during the fire, the growing, injected tarantula escapes, increasing in size until he’s a eight-legged monstrosity attacking everyone.
Having Corday as Carroll’s assistant keeps her role grounded, leaving her as prime character to follow for plot divulgence. She’s not distracting or throw-away, which is rewarding in its own way. Jack Agar, the protagonist, and community doctor, works well, being his inquisitive self and managing to somehow get in control of situations where the police would normally control. Carroll himself is both creepy as the secretive scientist and sympathetic when he lays his cards on the table. Not a memorable cast, but a capable one.
The spider beast isn’t too scary; foregoing stop-motion models, the filmmakers opted for close-ups of a regular tarantula and projecting it, large-scaled, on the actual footage. One of the elements that made the past monsters creepy was the choppy, uncanny movements of those models. By usual a live arachnid, it more or less depends on the viewers view towards spiders (and perhaps an overactive imagination).
Moments in the film seem poorly thought out – if all the animals were getting nutrient treatments, why did only the tarantula grow huge? Was it really necessary to stop the film for a slide show about how tarantulas kill their prey, especially since the large sized one doesn’t kill humans in the same way? And did John Ager’s character REALLY lick a unexplained substance found at the scene of bizarre attack? That final one was particularly hilarious, completely anathema to what a scientist would really do.
But Tarantula is a fine, short film that runs the usual gamut of filmic beats. It neither adds nor subtracts from the pantheon of B-movies, so it works for what it is; I doubt many viewers would utilize too many complaints. And for the Easter egg hunters, check out a young, hard-to-distinguish Clint Eastwood as the un-credited jet pilot in the climax.