Monday, January 28, 2013

Random Movie Report: Tarantula!

Tarantula DVD cover and Amazon link

Spiders are creepy, and big spiders creepier still, so they tend to make great movie monsters. Sure, you lose the portion of the audience which has actual arachnophobia, but you can't make an omelet, etc. After Them! introduced the concept of giant insects spawned by radiation, a film about a giant spider was inevitable, but Jack Arnold's Tarantula!, to its credit, isn't just a ripoff. It's got an original, kinda goofy storyline, and while it sometimes stretches plausibility even by the standards of a movie about a giant spider, it captures contemporary paranoia about atomic science pretty well, and delivers some very memorable moments.

The film begins with the discovery of a deformed dead man outside of Desert Rock, Arizona, a small town whose only distinction is that it has its own atomic research lab on the outskirts. The lead researcher, Professor Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) identifies the body as that of one of his partners, who apparently suffered from acromegaly, which transformed him inside and out until his organs didn't work anymore. But as it turns out there's nothing natural about what happened; Deemer and his associates have been working on developing a super nutrient, using atomic isotopes, to provide food for our ever-increasing world population. The animals it's been tested on have grown very big, but the dead man and Deemer's other partner tried it on themselves and ended up rapidly mutating. The other partner attacks Deemer, and in the struggle the lab is destroyed, one of the animals- a tarantula the size of a large dog- escaping into the desert. The town doctor (John Agar) suspects something's not right at the Deemer place, but he's distracted by the professor's lovely new assistant Stephanie (Mara Corday), and who wouldn't be? But the tarantula still lurks, and keeps on growing, and eventually it gets hungry.

The movie goes through a lot just to get us to the point where a giant spider is rampaging across the countryside, and it's arguably too complicated and loopy for its own good. Parts of the plot rely on the characters explaining how acromegaly works, and the whole deformed-people subplot doesn't play nice with the "giant animals" business. The plot holds together but it sometimes gets in the way of the fact that there is a giant fucking tarantula roaming the desert. It's hard not to put this up against the procedural discipline of Them! and find it a little wanting.

On the other hand, the film's melodramatics may ultimately serve a purpose. One of the major fears that films like this articulated was that of scientific progress making our world alien, even hostile- this was the Atomic Age, and it was inaugurated by the deaths of millions at the end of the Second World War. We may now associate fears of science gone mad with movements against evolution and environmentalism, but at the time people were understandably a little jumpy about rushing headlong into a new world and trusting experts to master forces we still didn't quite understand. Tarantula!'s bizarre central experiment and its twisted results is a great example of the worst-case scenario- there's even a scene where two anachronistic old-timey miners chuckle about the educated folk playing with fancy new Geiger counters while behind them, the dark sihlouette of the giant spider grows.

Speaking of which, the tarantula itself is still a remarkably effective bit of special effects considering how basic it is. The technique, used in many a Bert I. Gordon opus, was that of simply shooting slow-motion footage of an actual tarantula (guided along by puffs of air) and superimposing that on full-size background plates. There's the occasional glitch in processing, but it creates an incredible visual- most of the time the tarantula is simply a black twisted shape, walking with its odd gracefulness and instantly registering as a dangerous and unnatural presence. (The only real lapse is the use of the large puppet pictured above, which doesn't match the actual spider at all.)

John Agar cannot help but project a certain smug aura on screen, and his is the kind of overconfident hero that has not aged well in genre cinema, but it's not a bad performance at all, and he, Corday, and Carroll all turn in solid performances. Arnold makes good use of a cast full of B-actors (watch for Clint Eastwood at the film's climax), and the film's brass-heavy score is as effective as it is unsubtle. Tarantula! endures simply because it's a solid, well-made movie about a giant spider eating people, and though it falls well short of classic status it's no slouch either. A memorable picture even if it is on the sloppy side.

Story by Jack Arnold and Robert M. Fresco
Screenplay by Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley
DIrected by Jack Arnold

Grade: B

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