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Regarded as the height of the Atomic Age, the 1950s basked in the warm glow of the possibilities of nuclear power and the conquering of outer space. Movie theaters were flooded with science fiction and horror films demonstrating the possible hazards of venturing into the technological unknown, and one of the most popular of these depicted the monstrous outcomes of tampering with mother nature. For example, seemingly innocuous animals could, with the help of a little radiation, balloon to enormous size and wreak havoc on nearby towns, turning the American dream into a debris-strewn nightmare.
Insects and reptiles were the frequent objects of transformation in these films as moviegoers kept flocking to theaters displaying titles like The Giant Gila Monster (1959), Beginning of the End (1957), and The Deadly Mantis (1957). The original film that kicked the entire craze off was 1954's Them!, a surprise hit from Warner Brothers in which New Mexico atomic bomb tests create giant subterranean ants that feed on the nearby human populace.
Not to be outdone, Universal Pictures (going under the banner of Universal-International, which it dropped in 1962 when it was taken over by MCA) entered the fray one year after Them! with its own giant arachnid movie, Tarantula, which is now often regarded as one of the high points of the killer bug cycle. The film (which doesn't feature an actual nuclear factor in its story but fits within the cycle nonetheless) is a textbook example of many of Universal's talents in the field, particularly stalwart director Jack Arnold, who had already proven himself on the studio's It Came from Outer Space (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and Revenge of the Creature (1955) and would go on to direct one of the decade's most enduring science fiction classics in 1957, Universal's The Incredible Shrinking Man.
Though it shares a desert setting with Them!, Tarantula distinguishes itself immediately from its predecessor by focusing on a single monstrous threat rather than a horde of mutated monsters. The titular beast is created through experiments at the Arizona laboratory of Professor Deemer (Leo G. Carroll), who is trying to increase the size of food to stave off an impending shortage crisis. In the process, Deemer himself is injected with his serum while a tarantula, also subjected to the experiment, breaks loose and begins to grow exponentially. Stymied by a doubting sheriff (Nestor Paiva), the heroic couple of Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar) and Stephanie Clayton (Mara Corday) race against time to stop the titanic tarantula before the entire town is destroyed.
One of the more beloved '50s B-movie heroes, John Agar began working onscreen in 1948 and had already starred in director Arnold's Revenge of the Creature, which also shares Tarantula's most noteworthy bit player, a very young Clint Eastwood. Thanks to the success of this film, Agar became an in-demand foe for a variety of creatures or even an occasional monster himself, including such films as The Mole People (1956), Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), and his most indelible performance as the cackling possessed lead in the cult classic, The Brain from Planet Arous (1957). He remained busy in both films and television well into the 1990s and provided a memorable cameo during the climax of the 1976 version of King Kong. Agar himself regarded Tarantula as one of his better films from the period and gave a great deal of credit to its producer, William Alland, who oversaw most of the Jack Arnold-directed features at Universal and even appeared as the character Jerry Thompson in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941). When speaking with monster expert Tom Weaver, Agar felt Alland "was the one who came up with some of the ideas and he produced the films... Those pictures, whether Universal wants to admit it or not, were moneymakers... I also heard that Tarantula was one of the top grossers of 1955; what they probably meant was that it was a top moneymaker in terms of what it cost and what it brought in, but I had heard that it was Number 5 in 1955."
Agar's female co-star, Mara Corday, had been working her way up from bit parts in the early '50s and went on to appear in two more monster movies, both in 1957: The Black Scorpion and the gleefully absurd The Giant Claw. Though she officially retired from acting in 1961, she resurfaced four times to appear in colorful character roles for her friend Clint Eastwood in such films as The Gauntlet (1977) and Sudden Impact (1983). She had already worked with Arnold on a western, The Man from Bitter Ridge (1955), and found the director "a prankster... he would tell dirty jokes, and then all of a sudden he'd break into a little dance. He used to be a chorus boy in New York, a little dancer, so he'd do steps. He'd fix your chair so that when you sat on it, you'd almost fall, things like that." While she got along well with Arnold, she did wish that her wardrobe had been more flattering to compete with the attention given to previous Universal damsels in distress like Creature from the Black Lagoon's Julie Adams. "I didn't like the wardrobe," she recalls. "It was really conservative. I thought maybe I could at least wear a negligee for the ending - the whole last part of that show was me running away from this tarantula in a night outfit. But they said, 'Oh, no, not on your life" - I had to wear pajamas, and even a light cover over that! So there was no sex appeal there."
One of the era's most in-demand character actors, Leo G. Carroll enjoyed one of his most iconic roles as the mutating Professor Deemer. Corday recalls him as a "very dignified little Englishman... He had a terrible time with that makeup; he had to have everything sipped through a straw 'cause it was like a mask that he had to wear. It took forever to get it on, so you don't take that off for lunch." Fresh off the TV series of Topper at the time, Carroll had been a busy performer since the mid-1930s and often provided effective supporting roles in Alfred Hitchcock films such as Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945), The Paradine Case (1947), and North by Northwest (1959).
As for the actual tarantula itself, the monster was created using a combination of live spiders (guided by blasts of air) with models including cotton-constructed miniature hills, and giant spider leg props covered with hair. Though set in Arizona, Tarantula was shot in California with desert scenes in Apple Valley. Corday remembered the heat reaching 120 degrees, which wreaked havoc with a wax-constructed dental appliance she was wearing to close up a gap between her front teeth. "I would be standing there talking," she recalls, "and then my teeth would melt!"
Tarantula was shot during a period in which films were competing heavily against television for audience attention, and a number of different aspect ratios were being explored beyond the usual square-shaped Academy ratio. Widescreen processes like Cinemascope and Panavision were often trumpeted by studios, while non-anamorphic films were more often shown at medium width with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Throughout the decade, Universal dabbled in scope for some of its more prestigious films (like the biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) but composed most of its films to be projected around 1.85:1, with excess space left in the frame so it could be shot at Academy ratio (for theaters still locked into that screen size) and then matted off for more modern theaters with wider screens. Tarantula was shot this way and has always been shown on television and home video full frame with the excess headroom present. However, if you have a widescreen television with a zoom button, you can blow it up with your remote control to fill the screen and get an idea of how many first-run audiences actually saw the film. Don't worry; you'll still see all of the tarantula's rampage either way.
Producer: William Alland
Director: Jack Arnold
Screenplay: Robert M. Fresco, Martin Berkeley (screenplay); Jack Arnold, Robert M. Fresco (story)
Cinematography: George Robinson
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen, Alfred Sweeney
Music: Herman Stein (uncredited)
Film Editing: William M. Morgan
Cast: John Agar (Dr. Matt Hastings), Mara Corday (Stephanie 'Steve' Clayton), Leo G. Carroll (Prof. Gerald Deemer), Nestor Paiva (Sheriff Jack Andrews), Ross Elliott (Joe Burch), Edwin Rand (Lt. John Nolan), Raymond Bailey (Townsend), Hank Patterson (Josh), Bert Holland (Barney Russell), Steve Darrell (Andy Andersen).
by Nathaniel Thompson
Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com)
Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makes by Tom Weaver. McFarland, 1988.
It Came from Weaver Five by Tom Weaver. McFarland, 1996.