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A fun shocker for monster fans everywhere, William Alland's titanic hairy spider provides plenty of chills for 1950s drive-ins, delivering exactly the naïve monster thrills teenagers craved. Five years after its debut on a Region B German Blu-ray, Universal's biggest monster creeps and crawls across the Arizona desert and into our hearts. Jack Arnold seems in to much of a rush to do anything interesting with his actors, but they make an impression anyway; Reynold Brown's spectacular poster art (which adds an exclamation point to the title) is one of the top monster One-Sheets of the 1950s.
This trend-follower of Warners' 1954 hit Them! plays out in a budget version of the desert town from It Came from Outer Space. Yet Tarantula works up its own broth of monster thrills and strange poetic effects. While the human characters exchange small talk, a colossal black arachnid stalks the wide-open desert spaces. As big as a mountain, it nevertheless escapes detection and snacks on various peripheral characters in approved monster-on-the-loose fashion.
Out in sleepy Sand Rock, Arizona, fussy Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) and his two science associates are concocting a radioactive growth-inducing serum, to combat the expected results of overpopulation -- epidemics of starvation are predicted to occur in just twenty years (1955 + 20 = 1975). In a severe case of Nerd misbehavior, all three researchers receive injections of their own super-vitamin, resulting in slow disfigurement and death from symptoms that look like the disease acromegaly. ('Acromegalia' sounds like a new act at Cirque d'Soleil.) Deemer's dishy new assistant Stephanie 'Steve' Clayton (Mara Corday) arrives to find Deemer's lab in disarray. She and the town doctor Matt Hastings (John Agar) discover that a test spider has escaped from the lab and grown to gargantuan proportions. It's roaming the countryside devouring horses, truckloads of beef and the truck drivers as well.
Jack Arnold's movie one-ups Them! mainly by saying, 'we gotta get a bigger monster.' Led by effects whiz David S. Horsley, the Universal optical department puts a lot of effort into twenty or so angles showing the giant spider striding down highways, knocking over power lines and sneaking up on unlucky motorists. As with the previous year's giant ants, the outsized crawling bug is accompanied by a loud signature noise that sounds like sizzling bacon. Unlike Warners' ants, the only practical full-scale part of the spider we see is one hairy palp-fang that smashes through a roof.
The monster shots were done by shooting various spiders high-speed (to get the slow motion) and in deep-focus. Miniature landscapes, possibly made of white plaster, were shaped to conform to the contours of the real desert in the live-action footage. When carefully matted into the picture the spider seems to 'fit' the hills and rocks, and even throws a shadow. The performing spiders could only be guided with jets of compressed air. Then again, the amount of light poured on the miniature sets to obtain the necessary depth of focus, probably made things so hot that the spiders needed little encouragement to walk.
Perspective issues remain, as the hairy arachnid has a tendency to appear a mile across in the far background, only to shrink to a hundred feet or so when he reaches the foreground. Clifford Stein's camera team must have been grateful whenever an angle matched up at all. After all that effort, it looks as though the optical experts weren't allowed to finesse each and every shot. Several show the spider's legs disappearing into mattes that cut across the sky. In a few shots, parts of the spider are transparent.
But the effect creates scenes that Salvador Dalí might applaud, as in the bright-sunlit sight of the spider stepping over an outcropping two or three miles away. The most unnerving effect occurs when the giant spider creeps up behind a pair of friendly prospectors. He makes a wonderfully subtle entrance, with one telltale leg silently peeking over the horizon. Another pre-dawn moment places Universal's ubiquitous Southern mansion on the right side of the screen, with a real desert landscape dominating the left. Off in the distance we can see the tarantula advancing this-a-way, an Arizona Highways Calendar gone surreal. It might be crawling into our reality from another dimension. He's a horrifying menace, but still so far away that it's much too soon to panic. I have nightmares like this.
In its most dramatic entrance, the spider suddenly reveals itself to the cast as they stand by their cars on stretch of desert road. It charges up over the crest of a hill and then freezes, as if holding still to evaluate its new dining opportunity. Then it resumes its machine-like crawl, accompanied by Henry Mancini's menace music recycled from This Island Earth.
Lovely Mara Corday has the task of looking concerned while pretending to be an eager research assistant in designer clothes. It's one of her few leading parts yet a thankless role yet, as it's difficult to create a memorable scene opposite the likable but stiff John Agar. Ms. Corday remains more arresting in her smaller, more sensual parts, such as the mining-town nurse in the same year's Foxfire.
A couple of scenes seem intentionally funny, as when the giant spider imitates King Kong by peeking into Mara Corday's dressing room through a convenient giant-sized window. Mara never notices a fifteen-foot glittering monster eyeball ogling her only a few feet away. When the spider subsequently climbs on top of the house and proceeds to batter it to pieces, it really appears to be, uh, aroused. We're also startled when Agar's Matt Hastings dips his finger into a pool of goopy spider excretions and gives it a taste. It's only theoretically spider venom, Matt. What if it's the acid stuff that the University expert says the spider uses to liquefy its prey? Matt Hastings could end up looking worse than poor drippy-faced Dr. Deemer.
It's neither Corday's nor John Agar's fault that the script keeps Matt and Steve far behind the story curve, always looking for answers that the audience already has. Leo G. Carroll's researcher Deemer is presented as sympathetic, but he also buries a colleague out in the desert, almost like Norman Bates from Psycho.. We never understand exactly why his associates would consider ingesting a drug that transforms bunnies and hamsters into 'sizeable beasts.'
Clint Eastwood (or at least his voice and eyes) is the pilot guiding the Napalm strike that turns the spider into a big fireball. Unlike other giant '50s threats, this monster is such an easy target that the movie could serve as an institutional ad for Du Pont or Dow Chemical. One phone call to your local Air Base does the trick: the bigger they come, the brighter they burn. Tarantula has always been a guilty favorite of giant monster fans, and fits in there right behind the top ten or so sci-fi offerings of the 1950s.
Scream Factory's Blu-ray of Tarantula is a fun disc that fans have been awaiting for quite a while. Despite various deficiencies in dramatics and sundry details, Jack Arnold's picture delivers the thrills favored by monster-obsessed public. The image quality looks the same as the earlier German disc, which was quite good. With the added detail we can see that the optical experts' mattes hardly ever matched well. The transfer artistes have adjusted the density to minimize print-through, but can't disguise shots where lighter areas of the spider, mostly the joints, also become transparent. On the other hand, a couple of shots of rockets impacting next to the spider use very sophisticated mattes, to link the larger-scale explosions both to the miniature spider and the larger desert backplate image. The illusion is very good.
Scream Factory has been doing right by their Uni monster pix by contracting expert interviewer and author Tom Weaver for their commentaries. Tom's chat track here is one of his best listens, perhaps because he likes it so much. Weaver prefers the big T to other bug movies because the spider is real, as opposed to a stop-motion puppet, a marionette or a big mock-up. For once I listened to all of David Schecter's music notes. Much of the music in the film comes from westerns, but we're told that when Universal repurposed its own music, it was always re-recorded. So the exact cues weren't used, which is why things like 'Metaluna Catastrophe' sound the same, but different.
Tom details some missing scenes including a brief one where jet fighter pilot Clint Eastwood was dispatched on his mission. The very comprehensive ad art and still galleries don't include the photos of the missing Eastwood scene that were scooped on a web board a couple of years ago. The trailer is the fuzzy old example we've seen elsewhere.
Scream Factory is quickly catching up with the entire Universal fantasy catalog for the glorious 1950s, finally releasing several pictures that have been out in Region B for quite a while. The Monolith Monsters (June 18) and Monster on the Campus (June 25) are on their way, along with the tip-top Sci-fi title This Island Earth (also June 25). That 1950 space opera didn't look good in its Region B release; let's hope that Universal will give it a proper polish for its domestic Blu-ray debut.
Movie: Very Good (Excellent for Sci-fi monster fans)
Supplements: Tom Weaver commentary, (with Creepy Dr. Kiss and Slippery David Schechter), photo galleries, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: April 14, 2019