Friday, 1 August 2014

Tarantula (1955)

Jack Arnold’s well-crafted science fiction classic

Directed by Jack Arnold
Produced by William Alland
Screenplay by Robert M. Fresco, Martin Berkeley
Story by Jack Arnold
Based inspired by "No Food for Thought" (teleplay, Science Fiction Theatre series, May 14, 1955) by Robert M. Fresco
Music by Herman Stein, Henry Mancini
Cinematography: George Robinson
Edited by William Morgan
Distributed by Universal Studios
Running time: 81 minutes
Box office: $1.1 million (US)


Leo G. Carroll as Prof Gerald Deemer
John Agar as Dr Matt Hastings
Mara Corday as Stephanie Clayton
Nestor Paiva as Sheriff Jack Andrews
Ross Elliott as Joe Burch
Edwin Rand as Lt. John Nolan
Raymond Bailey as Townsend
Hank Patterson as Josh
Bert Holland as Barney Russell
Steve Darrell as Andy Andersen


Spoilers Follow....

A tarantula injected with a special nutrient formula…

escapes from a scientist's laboratory...

and grows into a 100-foot monster that rampages through the Arizona countryside!!!!

A scene of barren desolation punctuated only by the mournful Arizona desert wind and the aerial winged seekers of death circling overhead above a staggering figure of unnatural deformity. This figure in its final death throes has seemingly been coughed up by the desert in disgust. The scene of tragedy is somewhat rendered comical as the figure is about to meet its “Maker” (whoever that may be) in the middle of the desert clad only in pyjamas!

This mysteriously deformed man turns out to be biological research scientist Eric Jacobs whose dead body is soon found in the desert. Dr Matt Hastings, a family doctor from the town of Desert Rock, is called in to examine the body. Jacobs worked with Prof Gerald Deemer who has been conducting mysterious experiments at an isolated mansion near the town.

Dr. Matt Hastings is baffled by the cause of Eric's death. Jacob’s distorted features suggest that he was suffering from acromegaly, a disorder of the pituitary gland that normally takes years to develop but in Jacob’s case seems to have progressed in a matter of only a few days. Hastings can't understand why he has deteriorated so rapidly. Dr Hastings requests that he be given permission to perform an autopsy to learn why Jacobs’ face is so distorted. This is refused on the grounds that Dr Gerald Deemer already signed the death certificate and there is no indication that Jacobs’ death was the result of foul play. Professor Deemer also insists that Jacobs was suffering from acromegaly and refuses to authorize an autopsy.

Prof Deemer’s comments give us an insight into his thinking and are made more poignant as events unfold. At one point he observes that “These things (aches, pains and bodily wear and tear) happen as you get older.” He also declares that as a physician one can feel helpless knowing what is wrong while not being able to do anything about it.

Matt Hastings is puzzled with the mysterious disease and decides to investigate acromegaly further.


Taken from Ancient Greek άκρος akros "extreme" or "extremities" and μεγάλος megalos "large") acromegaly is a condition that most commonly affects adults in middle age and can result in severe disfigurement, complicating conditions, and premature death if left unchecked. Its slow progression makes the disease hard to diagnose in the early stages and it is frequently missed for years until changes in external features, especially of the face, become noticeable. Acromegaly is often associated with gigantism.

Deemer’s Lab

Deemer has been conducting experiments on animals using an atomic isotope to create a super food nutrient with the aim of feeding the world's increasing population. He has injected this nutrient (type 3Y) into lab animals, which have grown at astonishing rates. Using simple but quite effective special effects we see an enormous guinea pig after only 13 days treatment and a caged tarantula many times its normal size after 22 days treatment. Notice how its size and rapid rate of growth is emphasized by the visual juxtaposition with its normal-sized counterpart.

Science: providing a potential solution for an impending problem, in this case a future of food shortages for humanity due to human population growth outstripping food production. The solution: to create a viable replacement for food and prevent future global starvation. But what about unforseen consequences?

While science strives to find solutions to problems, it can inadvertently create even greater unforseen problems. (Such concerns form part of the fears surrounding modern day scientific developments such as genetically modified food and crops.) Hastings learns that the experiments proved to be successful in that some animals were able to thrive and grow exclusively on the nutrient without any food. However, other animals have died after receiving injections of the nutrient, and as we have seen and are about to see, other animals have kept growing to gargantuan proportions with drastic implications for human beings. 

Hastings also learns that the cause of Jacobs' death was his impatience to see if the latest batch of the nutrient would sustain humans. It was his act of injecting himself with the nutrient which resulted in his advanced acromegaly and his subsequent rapid death. Deemer does not reveal that Jacobs also injected his research assistant, Paul Lund, with the same nutrient.

After Hasting leaves, the now deformed Lund appears, attacks Deemer and runs amok destroying part of the lab. As a result of this rampage, the lab catches fire and the glass of the tarantula's cage is shattered by Lund who then injects the unconscious Deemer with the nutrient.

During the struggle, the tarantula escapes the lab unnoticed. Lund then staggers, collapses and dies. Deemer soon regains consciousness, grabs a fire extinguisher, and puts out the fire. 

Deemer, intending to continue his work without questions or objections being raised, buries Lund's body without informing the authorities. As he is concealing all traces of the grave, the research monkey suddenly jumps from the side of the screen onto the Professor’s back in a tried and true shock tactic often used by director Jack Arnold. We will again see the little monkey perched on Deemer’s back, neck and shoulders in the film. It almost stands as symbol of the much larger monkey that Deemer will have on his back as a result of his course of action.

Enter Stephanie "Steve" Clayton

Stephanie "Steve" Clayton arrives in town to work with Dr Jacobs. She has signed on to assist in the lab as part of her master's degree program. After being told that she will have to wait a couple of hours for the only taxi driver in town to return and drive her out to the lab, she winds up accepting a ride from Dr Hastings, who also happens to be headed there.

Deemer’s Lab

After Hastings and Steve arrive at Deemer's house, the Professor pretends that lab fire was an accident due to an equipment malfunction. He goes on to explain how he is making the nutrient using the power of the atom to bind the solution. His aim is to produce a non-organic food concentrate to meet the demands of an ever increasing world population from 2 billion people to a projected 3 billion in 1975.

Deemer’s figures for the year 2000 show how thinking about future population trends greatly underestimated population growth. Present day food shortages are often a function of unequal distribution combined with natural and man-made causes (political corruption and mismanagement, war etc.) What we produce, where we produce and the way we produce our food will need to be reconsidered in the very near future, particularly in the face of global climate change. Science and the genetic manipulation of food resources will loom large in the global consideration of food production. One problem for humanity has been (as stated by Matt), “how many of us look that far into the future?”

Shape Of Things To Come

Events are foreshadowed as the camera zooms in on Deemer’s deformed hand, added to the fact that we know what had happened to Jacobs and Lund and Steve’s observation that there are “so many things to take into account” before there can be tests on humans.

Yes, the times are a-changing: Dealing with it ‘50s style!

Steve and Matt get to know each other better as Matt takes her around the town and out to take in the desert scenery. For Matt the desert is a focus of nature whereby everything that swam or crawled “left its imprint.” As for matters deemed to be creepy, “the unknown always is.” As if right on cue, a pile of rocks come crashing down on to the spot where they were sitting.

By the pricking of my thumbs something unknown, big and creepy this way comes!

The creepiness is added to by director Arnold’s visual shock tactic when the Sherriff’s hand suddenly darts from the side of the screen and touches Matt’s shoulder as he looks around. Add to that the later shot of a giant black silhouette of the tarantula and the point of view shot as the spider bears down on the terror-stricken horses and rancher. 

It turns out that the something unknown is devouring the local ranchers’ horses, leaving only their skeletal remains, “like peeling a banana.” Not even footprints or blood have been left behind. Not only that, but two human beings appear to have been added to the mysterious something’s menu in what at first sight appears to have been a car accident. 

The only clue as to what happened consists of large pools of what seems to be some kind of venom next to the stripped skeletons and near the car accident. After what seems to be a disturbing practice of handling and seeming to taste the unknown substance, Hastings takes some of the material in for a test at the Arizona Agricultural Institute.

The lab analysis determines that the mysterious substance is insect venom and more specifically, venom from a tarantula but in an enormous quantity.

Roll The Film

At the Institute Matt and the audience are treated to an educational film in which we learn that tarantulas;

  • Main enemy is the spider wasp
  • Move fast 
  • Can back down a rattlesnake 
  • Are flesh eaters 
  • Predigest their food 
  • Can live for 25 years 
  • Like all God’s creatures, “has a function in their own world.”

Joining The Dots

Steve meanwhile begins to notice disturbing changes in Dr Deemer's appearance and demeanour. His face is gradually becoming distorted and his mood has become more sinister and darker as the acromegaly continues to manifest itself.

Hastings learns that one of the professor's test animals was a tarantula, which was presumed destroyed in the fire. Deemer also confesses to Matt and Stephanie that Paul went on a rampage in the lab and caused the tarantula to escape. Hastings is able to make the connection to the recent disturbing local events.

Armed with this knowledge, Hastings pleads with the sheriff to obtain explosives in order to destroy the creature that has been killing livestock and humans.

As Stephanie is studying in her bedroom at night, the giant tarantula approaches Deemer’s house. Once at the house, the tarantula observes Stephanie through her bedroom window and then sets about wrecking the house. A terrified Stephanie attempts to save Deemer, but the tarantula kills him before she can save him.

Matt drives up to the house as it collapses and is just in time to rescue Steve from the Tarantula’s onslaught. They both drive off into the desert, notifying the State Police and the Sheriff, who issues orders to evacuate the town.

Efforts on the part of the sheriff and the highway patrol to slow the monstrous creature with machine guns as it follows the desert road toward the town fail completely. Another effort to kill the monster with dynamite also fails with the monster happily traipsing right through the blast

“Dog gonnit, I wish we had some nitro!!!” (sheriff)

Hey hairy legs, “…you've gotta ask yourself a question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, punk?”

With the tarantula bearing down on the town, jets are scrambled from a nearby Air Force base. The fighter planes with Clint Eastwood as jet squadron leader soon approach. They fire rockets and drop bombs on the monster as it reaches Desert Rock. When that has no effect, they unleash napalm, incinerating the tarantula.

 Points Of interest

The special effects of Clifford Stine even after 60 years are still quite impressive with the images of the giant spider being effectively and realistically incorporated into the shots by using film footage of a real tarantula being blown up and rear projected. Models were used only for close-ups and the final shots of the creature on fire, Note also the realistic destruction of Demmer’s house by the giant spider as well as the excellent make-up job on Jacobs and Deemer. 

Apparently a real tarantula named “Tomorrow” was used in the film.

Take note of the realistic depiction of ‘50s small town America which makes the characters seem all the more real to the viewer.

Leo G. Carroll’s style of acting serves to make him a most convincing scientist. His manner and delivery of dialog suggests something of the absent-minded scientist totally absorbed in his work.

“Tarantula” was produced by William Alland who also produced "Creature From the Black Lagoon" and "It Came From Outer Space", both films featured in this blog. It was directed by Jack Arnold who also directed those two films. See also the “Tribute to Jack Arnold” post in this blog. 

The movie was filmed in and around the rock formations of "Dead Man's Point" in Lucerne Valley California, often used as a location for early western films. The town of Desert Rock, Arizona is fictional.

Spot the discrepancies between what is depicted on the poster and what was seen on and known from the film.

Fact File


(Aphonopelma chalcodes)


Are the world’s largest spiders. They range in size from 4.5 to 11 inches (11.4 to 28 centimetres) in length or about the size of a dinner plate

Are arachnids and not insects and consist of more than 800 species

Live mostly in the tropical, subtropical, and desert areas of the world, with the majority found in South America

Are not threatening to humans. Their venom is milder than a honeybee, and though painful, their bites are not fatal

Can live (female) 30 years or longer in the wild.

Are quite docile and rarely bite people.

Defend themselves by throwing needle-like, barbed hairs at their attackers.

Ambush small prey at night, by stealthily sneaking up on a potential meal and then pouncing

Can be fatally injured if they fall or are dropped due to rupture of their exoskeleton

Have retractable claws on each leg, much like a cat

Can regenerate lost legs

Have been around for millions of years and have not changed much in that time

Do not spin webs but use their silk to make doors or soft walls for their burrow

Live (many species) in burrows underground

Are nocturnal hunters that eat insects, beetles and grasshoppers. The Goliath Bird-eating Tarantula species will eat larger prey, such as, lizards, snakes, frogs, bats and small birds. (No humans on the menu-yet!)

Worst enemy is the Spider-Wasp (also people)

Are often caught as pets and in some countries are eaten

Who should be more afraid of whom?

©Chris Christopoulos 2014

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