Friday, November 8, 2013

#1,180. Tarantula (1955)

Directed By: Jack Arnold

Starring: John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll

Tag line: "Science's Deadliest Accident"

Trivia: The tarantula was an actual live spider. Air jets were used to make it move in the desired way over a miniature landscape

Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar) finds himself at a loss to explain the sudden, very mysterious death of scientist Eric Jacobs, whose deformed body was found lying in the desert. Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll), a colleague and close friend of the deceased, claims Jacobs died of a rare disease, but as it turns out, it was Deemer’s secret experiment to end world hunger that caused his associate to mutate and die. What’s more, the serum Deemer’s concocted also makes normal creatures grow at an alarming rate, many times their usual size. When one of Deemer’s test subjects, a giant tarantula, escapes from the lab, it leaves a trail of dead bodies in its wake. In fact, the creature is so huge that Dr. Hastings, joined by Deemer’s new assistant, Stephanie Clayton (Mara Corday), has to call in the authorities, including the Air Force, to try and stop it.

Tarantula grabs our attention right from the get-go thanks to its well-staged opening scenes. While Dr. Hastings is attempting to solve the mystery of what happened to Eric Jacobs, Deemer himself carries on with his experiments, and in his lab we see some of the results he’s achieved thus far (one cage holds a rat that’s as big as a dog). While Deemer is hard at work, another mutated man (apparently a graduate student who's worked with the two scientists for years) wanders into the lab and attacks him, smashing the tarantula's cage in the process. These initial scenes, which are crisply paced, bring us to the edge of our seat, and do so without the benefit of the film's title character (the tarantula doesn't really make its presence known until the movie's halfway point).

Of course, when the spider does show up, Tarantula kicks things up a  notch; after devouring some livestock, the creature attacks a farmer and kills two people in a truck, leaving large puddles of venom next to their remains. The film's later scenes, which involve trying to destroy the tarantula, are positively nerve-wracking, culminating in a final showdown that's truly intense.

The performances in Tarantula are, for the most part, exceptional; John Agar makes for a charismatic leading man and Mara Corday is strong as his eventual love interest, while Leo G. Carroll, perhaps a bit too subdued at times, is nonetheless effective as Professor Deemer. As for the film's special effects, most of which involve bringing the spider to life, they range from “good” to “good enough” (using a real arachnid did have its limitations).

With mutated scientists and experiments in the desert, Tarantula offers viewers a whole lot more than an overgrown spider, and ranks alongside 1954's Them! as one of the best of the giant bug movies.

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