We all know that, scientifically, the idea of giant insects — or on this case a giant arachnid — is utter nonsense. (No wonder the film’s tagline was, “Even science was baffled!” No doubt.) The beasts just couldn’t exist. That said, the 1950s giant bug craze clearly didn’t care — nor did audiences — and studios happily trotted out ants, spiders, grasshoppers (now that was memoroable), scorpions and even a praying mantis to thrill, terrify or amuse viewers unused to such oversized critters. Generally, Gordon Douglas’ Them! (1954) with its giant ants is considered the best such film — in large part because it tries to be persuasively “scientific” — but I lean toward Tarantula (1955) as my pick. This has nothing to do with being among those who consider director Jack Arnold a major figure in the cinema of the fantastic. Far from it, in fact, because I’ve never found Arnold’s work to be any more than workmanlike. That’s certainly the case here, but what more do you really expect from a movie about a rampaging giant spider?
One thing that sets the film apart is that it offers up an interesting array of “monsters” before the big boy becomes our primary focus — even some of the human variety, since it turns out that the radioactive (of course) serum that turns little bugs into unstoppable monsters feeding on entire herds of cattle has a different effect on people. Such variations are passed off as being the result of the serum being unstable, though why it should make big bugs, rats, guinea pigs while causing lightning-speed acromegaly in humans is never really addressed. Even so, it’s nice to see this 1940s B-picture favorite affliction show up one last time. All right, so grotesquely misshapen gents might have been somewhat more menacing wearing something other than pajamas.
As usual, the rationale behind the experiments — strictly for the benefit of mankind, you understand — doesn’t bear a lot of — or any — scrutiny, but just go with it. Leo G. Carroll — the unhinged scientist in charge — is a good enough actor to make the whole spiel sound reasonable while he’s saying them. That (and the fact that no one in the film says, “But, doctor…”) is what counts. Of course, what we’re really here for is a hundred-foot-tall, eight-legged horror, and when we get it, it’s largely worth the wait. (Though I have to admit that you can occasionally see through the monster in moments of double exposures.) Plus, let’s face it, there’s always some amusement inherent in shots of folks reacting in terror to something you know darn good and well they’re not actually seeing. The question arises, though, whether it matters as long as we’re being entertained. Probably not. And, yes, if you look carefully, that really is Clint Eastwood as the pilot who helps to save the day at the end of the film. It ranks among Eastwood’s most nuanced performances.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Tarantula Thursday, Jan. 31 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.