When I started compiling this list of classic monster movies and creature features, it only seemed right to throw at least one giant bug movie into the mix. (Please don’t comment just to tell me that arachnids aren’t bugs. I know. We all know.) Of course, many people consider Creature From the Black Lagoon to be the last great Universal monster movie, but come on, a story about a gigantic tarantula skittering around the desert, destroying everyone and everything in its path? I mean, how could we not watch that?
Have I mentioned that Mekaela and I both absolutely despise spiders?
Yup. Happy Birthday, Mekaela!
Director: Jack Arnold
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Oh, yeah. I’m basically gonna tell you the whole movie.
Truthfully, giant spiders in movies don’t tend to bother me all that much. Like, okay, the one in LOTR is some creepy bullshit, sure, but usually, a spider the size of a house is just too silly to be anything but funny to me. And such is pretty much the case here: I had a great time laughing at the massive tarantula as it ominously crested hilltops or straight up attacked a mansion. (The special effects are also funny now, of course, but at the time, I imagine they were pretty solid. Which is genuinely cool.)
For me, the titular tarantula is actually at Max Creepiness when we first meet it crawling around inside its glass terrarium. (Well, it’s really just a glass box, but terrarium sounds better.) The spider is maybe the size of a large toddler at this point, or, IDK, a medium-sized dog. And watching it press up against the glass, trying to get out?
Tarantula is a pretty decent B-movie, but the best part of the whole film was Mek’s reaction to it, specifically to the dog-sized spider and the giant gerbil. Which is to say, she pointed her finger at the screen and started lecturing the mad scientist. Mekaela, you’re my very favorite person.
But that comes later. Let’s go back to the beginning, shall we?
Tarantula begins with a dude in pajamas staggering around the desert. At this point, I couldn’t quite tell if he was supposed to be some kinda time-displaced caveman, or an animal/human hybrid, or if he just had very severe facial deformities; what he absolutely didn’t look like, however, was a giant spider, or a spider-person, or even someone who’d been bit multiple times by a poisonous spider. I bring this up because when he collapses and TARANTULA dramatically appears on the screen well, it’s a bit hilariously incongruent.
We then meet our hero, Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar), who’s mildly insufferable, but not, like, David Manners level of insufferable. Hastings assists our slightly bumbling sheriff (Nestor Paiva) in examining the weird body out in the desert. While the face vaguely resembles some local scientist dude, Hastings says it can’t be him: this person clearly died of acromegaly, a condition which takes years to disfigure and kill, while their local scientist was perfectly fine only a short time ago. But then the scientist’s shady ass partner, Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll), walks in and insists that it is that dude, and he just happened to have a case of super rapid acromegaly, but anyway, don’t worry about it, it’s all right, everything’s just fine here.
It will shock you, I’m sure, to learn that everything is not just fine here. See, Deemer (along with his dead partner and their assistant) has been trying to solve world hunger by creating a nutrient that will sustain humans indefinitely. Unfortunately, the nutrient has quite a few side effects: on humans, for instance, it’s this rapid and fatal condition, but on mice and gerbils and, yes, tarantulas, the growth isn’t fatal or localized to a particular body part. The animals just keep growing exponentially larger after their initial injection. What I find bewildering here is how Deemer never treats this exponential growth like it’s a serious concern. In fact, dude seems positively overjoyed that his animals are huge now, and, like, I get the thrill and discovery and all? But based on his reaction, you’d think that the acromegaly was the only serious stumbling block with this nutrient’s success, and I’m like, “Uh, ending world hunger is a wonderful goal, but turning everyone into giants is probably gonna have some devastating consequences, right? Maybe we shouldn’t be so pleased with ourselves just yet?”
Anyway, not only did the scientist partner decide to test the nutrient on himself, he also injected the assistant with it, too–so, not only is he a terrible person, he’s also just a shitty scientist, like, maybe see the results of one ludicrously rushed human trial first, my dude? The assistant, meanwhile, decides to seek revenge on Deemer, presumably because the other guy is dead. A fire starts in the ensuing struggle, and most of the test animals burn to death, all except the tarantula who crawls away to freedom. The assistant knocks Deemer unconscious and injects him with the nutrient before collapsing and dying. Deemer secretly buries the assistant in the desert before Steve (Mara Corday), the new assistant, arrives.
Steve, the only woman in this whole movie, inevitably becomes Dr. Hastings’ love interest. Fortunately, however, I rather like Steve: she’s training to be a scientist, has actual goals, and even a bit of personality. She does scream occasionally, but at pretty legitimate times. She’s also stylish and wears a very small cap. And as an added bonus? I don’t think she faints even once. After Christine and The Phantom of the Opera, I was definitely grateful.
Hastings and the sheriff investigate as the giant tarantula crawls around the desert, attacking people and livestock and, hilariously, leaving only pristine bones behind. Hastings also continues to snoop around Deemer, partially because Doc’s got the hots for Steve, and partially because he just can’t let go of the idea that he might’ve been wrong. Eventually, as Deemer rapidly deteriorates, Hastings and Steve get the truth about the experimental nutrient. Hastings starts putting the pieces together and warns the sheriff about the giant tarantula. Meanwhile, said giant tarantula attacks Deemer’s mansion, killing him. Steve, thankfully, escapes.
Neither guns nor dynamite have any effect on the monster. For a hot second, I really thought they were going to inject a spider wasp with the nutrient and have a wholly impractical yet totally awesome GIANT MONSTER BATTLE–otherwise, why even go on this field trip to discover that the spider wasp is the tarantula’s natural enemy? Alas, this bit of information has no bearing on the plot at all, and the giant tarantula is only killed when Clint Eastwood–yes, that Clint Eastwood–flies by and napalms the shit out of it.
1. “Science experiment gone horribly wrong” movies usually go hand-in-hand with a chiding “this is what you get for playing God” moral; here, surprisingly, that moral isn’t pushed quite so hard. Though perhaps that isn’t so surprising, after all, considering how Jack Arnold’s other movies I’ve reviewed this year (Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came From Outer Space) are both solidly pro-science. Perhaps that’s why we take this barely plot relevant trip field trip in the first place? It really does function more like an educational segment than anything else, even coming with its own moral that’s applicable to not only spiders but any animal that humans find scary: “Not pets, Doctor. Just part of the world about us. We must accept them as we do the rest of God’s creatures. Each has a function in its own world.”
Jack Arnold’s wildlife conservation game is strong in these movies, that’s all I’m saying.
2. Nestor Paiva, who played Lucas in Creature from the Black Lagoon, plays the sheriff in this movie. I definitely prefer Lucas, but I think Paiva makes the role of our lightly bumbling sheriff better than it has any right to be.
3. Tarantula really wants you to feel the majesty of the desert. Like, multiple characters comment on it, usually with some sense of romance or wonder in their words. It’s definitely all thematic and shit; the problem, unfortunately, is that this is shrubby ass Southern California desert (Arizona, too, apparently), and wonder is just not to be had. Like, maybe if this movie was in color or shot with a better camera or something? But as is . . . yeah, the wild untamed glory that is The Desert did not quite show up for Picture Day.
4. The cows always die first in these movies. That’s how you set up an SF/F/H mystery, after all: some poor bastard finds his livestock all killed to shit and demands local law enforcement figure out what did it. “Wolves? Did you sonsofbitches suggest wolves? I’ve lived on this land all my life, and ain’t no wolf ever did something like THAT.” (Or words to that effect.)
Actually, this isn’t quite true. The cows don’t die first in this movie. I believe it’s the mice and gerbils of unusual size first, then the cows, then the horses, and then, of course, the tarantula itself. (Also, some people along the way, including the poor bastard who owned those dead cows.) I’m just saying, this may not be the best movie for animal lovers to watch.
5. I’m frankly relieved to discover that the tarantula never had a crush on Steve or any other woman–you know, were there any other women in this movie. There are no Fay Wrays here. The movie poster is a lie.
6. Steve is obviously an unusual name for girls, one that never really caught on, at least here in America. You hear Stevie sometimes, but not so much with Steve. Looks like 1957 might have been the height of its popularity, and really, it was a very, very small height even then. Hell, even writing this review, I found myself constantly trying to course-correct to “Stevie.”
None of this is relevant, mind. I just find names interesting.
7. Finally, I feel like Tarantula might lose some momentum in the second half of the film, but to be fair, I’ve been fucking around with my sleep schedule for the past week, and I do often get randomly drowsy when I do that. I’ll tell you one thing for sure, though: like basically every Universal monster movie I’ve watched thus far, Tarantula ends super abruptly, like, the very second the tarantula is dead? It’s all, that’s it, game over, thanks for playing, folks, get the hell out.
It makes me sad. I need me a denouement.
The Current Ranking
1. The Black Cat
2. Creature from the Black Lagoon
3. The Bride of Frankenstein
6. The Mummy
7. The Invisible Man
9. It Came From Outer Space
10. The Phantom of the Opera