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Tarantula! (Universal Pictures, NR)

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His purpose is noble—he wants to feed a starving world—but you know what happens in these movies when you fool with Mother Nature.

 

 

Horror movies in the 1950s were full of gigantic insects: ants in Them! (1954), grasshoppers in Beginning of the End (1957), a praying mantis in The Deadly Mantis (1957). A cut above them all is Tarantula! (or, less hyperbolically, Tarantula; you will see the title both with and without the exclamation point) directed by Jack Arnold and starring a capable cast including John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll, Nestor Paiva, and an uncredited Clint Eastwood. The technical package is also excellent for a B movie and includes atmospheric cinematography by George Robinson (whose credits stretch back to the silent era), nifty special photography (using a real tarantula) by Clifford Stine, and some truly scary makeup by Bud Westmore.

The first thing we see in Tarantula! is a horribly disfigured man stumbling out into the desert to die. We soon learn that he was a research assistant for the well-meaning but somewhat untethered scientist Gerald Deemer (Carroll) who is conducting experiments in hastening the growth of rabbits, guinea pigs and the like by injecting them with something like a super growth hormone. His purpose is noble—he wants to feed a starving world—but you know what happens in these movies when you fool with Mother Nature.

It seems the dead assistant had tried the super-growth-serum on himself and came down with a nasty case of fast-acting acromegaly. His motivation is never explored (did he want to be a nose tackle in the NFL?) but perhaps Deemer's unseemly tampering with nature is contagious because his other assistant does the same thing and goes nuts, burning down the lab, injecting Deemer with the potion, and setting loose the tarantula without which there would be no movie. Why Deemer would want to create giant tarantulas, and how plausible it is that the same substance would have similar effects on humans, lagamorpha, rodents and arachnids are questions we'll have to leave for another day.

You can't have a monster movie without a pretty girl, and Playmate of the Month Mara Corday fills the bill as Deemer's new lab assistant Stephanie "Steve" Clayton. She also serves as a romantic interest for ruggedly handsome local physician Matt Hastings (Agar) and provides a convenient reason for Hastings to pay regular visits to Deemer's lab. Strange events multiply (horses and cattle go missing, rocks tumble seemingly of their own accord) and Dr. Hastings becomes increasingly suspicious of Deemer lab, while sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva) adopts more of a three wise monkeys approach ("see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil").

If you've ever seen one of these movies you have a pretty good idea how things will turn out, but I'm not going to spoil the fun by providing details. Take my word for it: the special effects alone are worth the price of admission, and if you bring a kid with you they might find them truly scary. If you're an adult, you can admire the craftsmanship that produced a pretty good film on a small budget and also enjoy a trip to a gentler time and place when everyone had a job and knew how to do it and evil could be identified, contained, and overcome in less than 90 minutes. And, of course, nearly everyone in the fictional small town ("Desert Rock, Arizona") where the film takes place is really good looking unless they're playing a comic role (in which case they're loveable).

Tarantula! doesn't reach the philosophical heights of Arnold's best film, The Incredible Shrinking Man ("the unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet like the closing of a gigantic circle"), but it's much closer in quality to that film than it is to the many rubber-monster creature features that were mass-produced in the 1950s. Above all, it's worth noting that the life-threatening evil in Tarantula! owes more to Mary Shelley than to Godzilla; the evil unleashed on human society is the deliberate product of scientific hubris rather than atomic radiation gone astray. | Sarah Boslaugh

Tarantula! will be presented on July 6 at 8 pm as part of the Strange Brew: Cult Films series at Schlafly Bottleworks, 7260 Southwest Avenue, Maplewood, MO. Tickets are $4.00. For more information see http://www.schlafly.com/events/ or http://www.webster.edu/filmseries/.

 

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