Thursday, September 25, 2014

Giant Spiders from my Childhood

I can't now remember the train of thought or conversation that took me in this particular direction, but I recently began thinking back to some of the monster movies I enjoyed on Creature Feature as a kid that I've never watched again as an adult. There aren't many--I think I might be pretty close to caught up in this department.

But it occurred to me that I had missed at least one: Tarantula, the 1955 film about a giant... well, tarantula.  The advantage of working at the library of a school that includes a Digital Film program means we have a pretty well-stocked collection of feature film DVDs. And my presence on the staff
has ensured a representation of B-movies from all genres.

So I snatched up our copy of Tarantula and brought it home to watch.

It's a good film. It's directed by Jack Arnold, who helmed a number of genre classics during the 1950s, including The Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man and It Came From Outer Space. Tarantula isn't quite as good as those, but it's still a pretty nifty film.

Like many other movies from the 1950s, it involves a creature mutated to gigantic size via radiation. But the interesting twist here is that the radiation isn't a result of atomic testing. Instead, a trio of scientists, working in a remote lab in the Arizona desert, are trying to develop an artificial nutrient and get rid of world hunger. They use a radioactive isotope as a binding agent to hold the nutrient's atoms together. I'm pretty sure this makes no sense at all, but Leo G. Carroll, (playing the only scientist who isn't dead soon after the movie begins) sounds appropriately authoritative when he explains it.

Whether or not the nutrient will eliminate hunger, it is good at getting test animals to grow really, really big. This includes a tarantula, which is presumed to have burned up in a lab accident, but actually escapes into the desert and keeps growing. A young growing spider needs plenty to eat, so its diet soon includes cows, horses and the occasional human being.

Arnold keeps the story moving along. Even though the spider doesn't go into its full-on rampage until pretty late into the film, the plot unfolds in a suspenseful manner. There's an effective sub-plot involving Carroll's character. He's slowly dying (with his face gradually becoming deformed) after himself being infected by the nutrient. This also helps keep us interested until the spider antics begin.

When the spider does start rampaging and getting closer and closer to town, it's time to call in the big guns. Pay close attention to the finale if you watch this film. Killing a giant spider doesn't just require jet fighters and modern ordinance. It requires jet fighters, modern ordinance and Clint Eastwood. "Have I fired six napalm rockets or only five? In all this confusion, I've lost count."

The special effects--mostly involving a real spider and matte effects--are really very good. One particular scene, with Leo G. Carroll examining the various over-sized animals in his lab, is quite

John Agar plays the lead--a small town doctor who is the first to figure out what's going on. Agar was an actor who was never in danger of having to write an Academy Award acceptance speech and in many movies, he was incredibly stiff (The Mole People).  He was usually more effective as a supporting character in films such as Fort Apache and The Sands of Iwo Jima.

But he occasionally did quite well as the lead character. His most notable performance is the under-appreciated 1950 war movie Breaththrough. He's pretty good in Tarantula as well, coming across as intelligent and likable.

Well, mostly intelligent. Here's a safety tip: Don't leave a dying elderly scientist and an attractive graduate student alone in a remote desert lab if you even suspect there might be a giant spider running around. And when you find a pool of liquid near some human bones (a pool of venom, it turns out), for gosh sakes don't taste it while trying to figure out what it is. Gee whiz, John Agar, its no wonder Shirley Temple left you in real life!

Mara Corday is the female lead, playing a graduate student working for Carroll. She would be encountering giant arachnids again a few years later in The Black Scorpion.  Some women need to stay away from the desert.

I've been trying to think if there are any other films from my childhood I haven't re-watched. There are undoubtebly a few that I don't remember at all--just because a movie is old doesn't automatically mean its good enough to remember. But in these days of DVDs and streaming movies, it's getting easier and easier to get caught up on the ones I do remember. In fact, next week I think I'll jump from monsters to cowboys and talk about a Western I was as a kid and recently watched for the first time as an adult.

1 comment:

  1. I freakin' love that movie !



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