Forgotten B&W Horror #11: Tarantula

We’re back with the eleventh installment in the Forgotten B&W Horror series. With this entry, we continue to look at…

Tim Rich

Contributor

We’re back with the eleventh installment in the Forgotten B&W Horror series. With this entry, we continue to look at a few movies that blur the line between horror and science fiction – a blurring that occurred with many sci-fi movies of the 1950′s.

Tarantula (1955) begins, oddly enough, with a man and his hideously misshapen face wandering through the desert until at last the man falls down dead. The county sheriff believes the man to be Eric Jacobs, a local scientist who works with Professor Deemer, a scientist who lives 20 miles out in the desert. The local doctor, Matt Hastings (who for some reason has his office in the lobby of the local hotel in the town of Desert Rock), doesn’t believe the official cause of death and begins poking around at Professor Deemer’s research lab. Along the way he meets up with the new lab assistant, Stephanie “Steve” Clayton. Together they discover that a giant tarantula, created by the experiments of Deemer and Jacobs, is killing the local mammals (men included). The tarantula eventually threatens the small town of Desert Rock causing the police to call in the U.S. Air Force to napalm the arachnid to death.

 

Why This Movie Has Been Forgotten

This movie isn’t so much forgotten as it is neglected by the latest generation of horror connoisseurs. The movie has a small cult following amongst the older folks, but frankly, I’m not sure why this movie has the positive following it’s received.

I found John Agar (who plays our hero, Dr. Matt Hastings) to have a smug, smirking, and superior look on his face throughout the movie. It annoyed the heck out of me. Additionally, Dr. Hastings is given an inordinate amount of influence over the local police, state police, and military. Since when can a doctor call up the sheriff and order him to request backup from the state police? And since when do those state police ask him what orders he has for the military?

The dialogue was filled with ridiculous attempts at sounding philosophically deep. With lines such as “You can’t second guess the desert” and “The history of medicine is the history of the unusual”, I found myself gagging on the pathetic efforts to simulate wisdom.

The film’s grossly contrived methods of helping us poor, stupid audience members to understand what’s happening are sometimes distracting. You have to watch the movie to see what I mean, but pay special attention to the scene where Professor Deemer first checks his clipboards before giving his latest food substitute njection to a rat.

Maybe Tarantula was the first horror movie to do these things, but the constantly annoying “hand comes off the screen and grabs our hero’s shoulder” or “monstrous hand slowly reveals itself around the corner” or even the “cat jumps from off camera at a character on the screen” (in this case it was a monkey, but the result is the same) techniques never cease to irritate me. If you want me to be terrified by your movie, don’t try to make me jump in shock; actually do something that is scary.

 

Why Horror Fans Should Watch This Movie

Clint Eastwood makes an appearance. Make sure you pay attention to the climactic scene where the U.S. Air Force squadron leader heads out to napalm the spider. That guy is Clint.

Tarantula is one of the iconic movies of the sci-fi / horror genre. It’s one of those movies you HAVE to watch to be considered a real fan of horror cinema.

The old cars are awesome! I especially like Dr. Hastings’ Ford Fairlane.

You get to learn about the disease of acromegalia.

The scene where the tarantula tosses a truck off the road is directed quite well. Instead of just seeing a toy truck being tossed by a man in a tarantula suit, you at first see the view from inside the truck’s cab where the world starts spinning. The movie then cuts to an actual truck flying through the air and crash-landing off the road. I was impressed at the effect in a 1955 movie.

There is a scene in the town of Desert Stone where a store has a sign stating “MILLINERY” over the door. I had no idea what a millinery was until seeing this film. Apparently it is a ladies hat shop. Interesting.

Like The Killer Shrews, this is one of those rare 1950’s horror movies that is more concerned with human overpopulation than nuclear annihilation. The change is refreshing. The scary thing is, they estimate about 3,500,000,000 people on Earth by 2000. We now have 6,000,000,000. Hmmmmm.

 

Tarantula is considered by most fans to be a good movie. I enjoyed the way the story constantly moved forward and the effects were pretty dang good, but I wasn’t overly impressed with many portions of the film. Of course, when it comes to terror-invoking giant bugs, nothing beats a spider.