Tarantula (1955) dir. Jack Arnold
Starring: John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll, Raymond Bailey and Clint Eastwood
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
It’s often noted that the best science fiction features “good science” – wherein the “facts” can hold up (or almost hold up) to the scrutiny of actual scientists. While I suspect this view is not without considerable merit, I prefer to think that the science should at least SEEM credible or, at the very least, play out within a context that reveals some sort of truth about the world and/or humanity, as we know it.
Such, I think, is the case with Jack Arnold’s Tarantula, the classic big-bug picture he made for Universal – a movie wherein the science is, in a manner of speaking, dubious, but where some of the truths it explores are not only valid with respect to the period they reflect, but given that the picture is over fifty-years-old, they are indeed issues and themes which touch (or plague, if you will) all of us – even today. It is in this respect that Tarantula was very much ahead of its time, in spite of clearly being a product of its time – not unlike Arnold’s other great sci-fi thrillers such as The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Creature From The Black Lagoon and, among others, It Came From Outer Space.
The theme of world hunger and the need to find ways to successfully address it is something that hangs over the picture with significant weight. The fact that this issue is something that plagued the world in the 50s – especially during the post-war/cold-war prosperity in American during the world of McCarthy’s witch hunts – somehow seems so unbelievable, yet it is clearly something the filmmakers emphasize and in a contemporary context, the issue of world hunger that serves as one of the picture’s thematic backdrops, is something that seems to place Tarantula firmly in the pantheon of pictures that truly deserve their classic status.
Set in a sleepy Arizona desert town, the resident doctor (played with characteristic stalwartness by the ex-Mr. Shirley Temple, John Agar) investigates the mysterious death of someone who was working as a researcher on the outskirts of this sleepy, hot and definitely dusty Southwestern hamlet. The Doc suspects there’s more to this death than meets the eye, but his suspicions are ignored by the town’s sheriff who prefers to believe the diagnosis proposed by the head of the research lab, a respected local scientist (played deliciously by the venerable old ham Leo G. Carroll).
The old doc, as it turns out, is trying to find a solution to world hunger. His experiments involve finding a way to make animals bigger – much bigger, actually – in order to provide more flesh to render from slaughtered beasts so that more food will exist in the world for all those who are poor.
The old doc takes on a new assistant, a fetching, young female scientist (played by the mouth-wateringly sexy Mara Corday) who not only provides him with ample (in more ways than one) support, but also delivers an amorous target for young Doc Agar. When old Doc Leo is injected with the serum he’s been using on tarantulas, bunnies and other assorted small animals, hell begins to break loose. The old Doc starts turning into an erratic, crazed monstrosity and, eventually the increasingly mysterious deaths and disappearances are attributed to one of the old doc’s experimental subject, a tarantula who’s been fed just a bit too much growth formula.
Another characteristic of note in the picture is how it examines a scientist’s obsession with his experiments. In that sense, one might argue that Leo G. Carroll’s character is yet another in a long line of mad scientists, but the actual fact of the matter is that his character is genuinely obsessed with finding a cure to world hunger. He has no self-interest in any of this – he is not looking for wealth, nor power – all he wants is to help the world. The old doctor’s suffering is all the more poignant because his blind obsession to give something good to the world is a life’s work that ends his life and the lives of others. His failure – given that his experiments result in something destructive – is especially frustrating and finally, very moving – tragic, even. Carroll, in all of this, delivers a splendid performance and one that rises well above the clichés otherwise inherent in roles such as these.
The performances are all superb and the writing is more than serviceable. Though the screenplay doesn’t quite reach the transcendent heights of Richard Matheson’s work on The Incredible Shrinking Man, it does feature more than a few lines that are genuinely campy – genuine because they are INTENTIONALLY cheesy and goofy and NOT a result of being dated.
Most impressive are the optical effects involving the blowing up of actual tarantula footage. I’d argue Clifford Stine’s work on the special effects is as effective as some of today’s best digital work. Yes, the effects (very) occasionally fall short, but then, so do many digital effects these days. One ignores this, as we are wont to do ultimately when something is genuinely good. At the end of the day, we let the picture work its considerable magic.
One fun note of trivia is that Clint Eastwood appears in a tiny, but important role during the climax of the picture. It seems thoroughly appropriate that it is Eastwood who commands all his bombers to let rip and decimate the brick-shithouse that is the Tarantula. And, even more interesting, is that Tarantula’s fetching leading lady Mara Corday was cast years later by Eastwood as the wise-acre waitress who signals Harry Callahan that danger is afoot in her café in the now-almost-classic Sudden Impact.
All in all, Tarantula is an absolute must-see. It holds up admirably and will also provide great entertainment for the kiddies (of ALL ages). Most importantly, like all great sci-fi thrillers, it provides big emotions, food for thought AND one hell of a rollercoaster ride.