Tarantula! is a 1955 American black-and-white science fiction giant monster film from Universal-International, produced by William Alland, directed by Jack Arnold, that stars John Agar, Mara Corday, and Leo G. Carroll. The screenplay by Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley was based on a story by Arnold, which was in turn inspired by Frescos teleplay for the 1955 Science Fiction Theatre episode, "No Food for Thought", also directed by Arnold.
A severely deformed man stumbles through the Arizona desert, falls and dies. Dr. Matt Hastings, a doctor from the nearby town of Desert Rock, is called in by the sheriff to examine the body. Asked the cause of death, he finds himself perplexed: the deceased, biological research scientist Eric Jacobs, was someone he knew and had recently seen. He appears to have acromegaly, a distortion which takes years to reach its current state. Puzzled, Dr. Hastings asks to perform an autopsy. The sheriff refuses, judging it unnecessary since there is no indication of foul play. Hastings approaches Jacobs colleague, Dr. Gerald Deemer, who bluntly refuses permission. He signs Jacobs death certificate, with "heart disease" listed as the cause of death.
Still bothered, Hastings drives to Deemers combined home and research lab in an isolated desert mansion. Deemer apologizes for his earlier hostility, blaming it on grief, and insisting that Jacobs developed acromegaly rapidly, over just four days. He cannot offer an explanation but attempts to convince Hastings this was an anomaly, not a result of anything sinister. Hastings appears to accept his apology.
Deemer goes to his closed lab, which contain huge cages with white rabbits and rats of enormous size. Deemer examines each, noting when each last received an "injection", and how many each has had. He turns to a glass-front inset in a back wall, as a different specimen crawls into view: a tarantula with a body the size of a large dog, plus its legs.
As Deemer finishes his observations, a second deformed man appears, attacks Deemer, and begins destroying the lab. During his rampage the lab catches fire and the glass covering the tarantulas cage is shattered. The man grabs the hypodermic that Deemer was preparing, knocks him out, and injects him with the contents. As flames engulf the lab, the arachnid escapes, and the deformed man collapses and dies. Deemer regains consciousness, grabs a fire extinguisher, and puts out the fire. That night, Deemer calmly buries the body of his other assailant, Paul Lund, in the desert.
The intercity bus brings a newcomer to town, a young, beautiful woman who is expecting to be met by Dr. Deemer. Told by the hotel clerk that she will have to wait until the only taxi returns, she accepts a ride from Dr. Hastings, who is going back to Deemers lab. She introduces herself as Stephanie Clayton, nicknamed "Steve", who has signed on to assist in the lab.
At the mansion, Dr. Deemer tells them that the fire was caused by an equipment malfunction. He indicates that all the test animals were killed and explains that Lund has already left his employment. Since Steves contract stipulates that she live at the residence, Hastings leaves her and her suitcases there.
Days later, the sheriff calls and asks Dr. Hastings for help. Hastings finds a mystery involving picked-clean cattle carcasses and large pools of a thick white liquid. The tarantula, now the size of Deemers mansion, is the cause. The next night, a horse-rancher is killed outside his stable, and later a pickup truck is flipped over to get at the two men inside. Two hoboes, trying to enjoy a meal on the open range, are chased and killed.
Hastings pays a call on Steve at the lab. Dr. Deemer has been acting and looking ill recently and has gone to bed, so she shows Hastings what they are working on: the use of radioactive elements to produce an artificial super-nutrient which, once perfected, could provide an unlimited food supply for humanity. She shows Matt some of the giant lab animals created as an unintended side-effect. Dr. Deemer suddenly appears, furious. He chews out Steve for revealing "secret" work and orders Hastings to leave. Before he goes, he notices there are some subtle changes in Deemers physical appearance and demeanor.
At the destroyed horse ranch, Hastings again appears at the request of the sheriff and, once again, finds pools of the strange, thick liquid. He decides an analysis could solve the mystery, so he takes samples and flies them to the university in Phoenix. The substance is determined to be tarantula venom, but in such a quantity that only a monster arachnid could produce. After being shown a film demonstrating the predatory ferocity of a normal tarantula, he calls Dr. Deemer, but is told by Steve that he is sick in bed. Deemer suddenly appears behind her and hangs up the phone abruptly. Hastings immediately flies back to Desert Rock.
Upon arriving, he drives to the mansion, where he finds Dr. Deemer near death, suffering from severe acromegalic deformities and under Steves care. Deemer divulges all that he knows about the nutrients effects on humans and animals and tells of Lunds death. Hastings returns to town to brief the sheriff on what he has learned.
As night falls, the giant tarantula comes to the mansion. Deemer is killed, but Steve is able to escape when Hastings returns for her in his car. The tarantula pursues them down the highway toward the town. The sheriff and his men intercept, but their guns have no effect. Dynamite is gathered from town, but a blast large enough to blow up the highway does not faze the monster arachnid. As they complete a hasty evacuation of the town, an Air Force fighter jet squadron, summoned by the sheriff, arrives and launches a napalm attack, successfully incinerating the tarantula at the towns edge.
Tarantula! takes place in the fictional town of Desert Rock, Arizona.
The films special effects, which depict giant animals and insects, were advanced for the mid-1950s time period. Real animals, including a rabbit and a Guinea pig in Professor Deemers lab, were used to represent their giant on-screen counterparts. A live tarantula was used whenever the gigantic spider is seen moving. Shooting miniatures were reserved for close-ups of its face and fangs and for the final scenes of the giant spider being set ablaze by the jet squadrons napalm attack. The resulting scenes proved more convincing than the giant prop ants used in the earlier Warner Bros. film Them! 1954. Of this and the entire film, Jack Arnold said about Tarantula!: "We decided to do this film because, generally, people are very afraid of spiders".
Although set in Arizona, Tarantula! was filmed entirely in California, with the desert scenes being shot in Apple Valley. Additional footage was shot in and around the rock formations of "Dead Mans Point" in Lucerne Valley, California, a frequently used location for many early western films.
Like Them!, Tarantula! makes atmospheric use of its desert locations. While a radioactive isotope does make an appearance, it differs from most other 1950s big-bug features in having the mutation caused by the peaceful research of a well-intentioned scientist, rather than by nuclear weapons and/or a mad genius. Director Jack Arnold used matte effects once again two years later to show miniaturization, rather than gigantism, in The Incredible Shrinking Man 1957, which also featured an encounter with a spider.
The films theatrical release poster, featuring a spider with two eyes instead of the normal eight and carrying a woman in its fangs, does not represent any scene in the final film. This gaudy depiction of a woman-in-peril had become, by this time, a standard B-movie poster cliche that would continue being used for years to promote feature films.
The film was often paired with Running Wild as part of a double feature. It was the fourth biggest film at the U.S. boxoffice in December 1955 and earned rentals of $1.1 million.
Film critic Leonard Maltin awarded the film 3 out of 4 stars, praising the films fast pacing, special effects, and intriguing subplot. He called it "One of the best giant-insect films". The contemporary review in Variety indicated "A tarantula as big as a barn puts the horror into this well-made program science-fictioner, and it is quite credibly staged and played, bringing off the far-fetched premise with a maximum of believability". In Video Movie Guide 2002, authors Mick Martin and Marsh Potter characterized Tarantula as "a pretty good entry in the giant bug subgenre of 1950s horror and science fiction movies". It currently holds a very positive 92% "Fresh" rating at the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 6.3/10, based on 13 reviews.
4. Home media
The film was first released on DVD by Universal Studios on April 3, 2006. Universal later re-released the film as a part of its boxed set The Classic Sci-Fi Collection, which features four other classics. It was last released on September 27, 2013. The German region B Blu-ray from Koch Media features both a 1.33:1 Academy ratio and a 1.78:1 widescreen version of the film. Shout! Factory released a region A Blu-ray April 30, 2019. It features audio commentary by Tom Weaver, Dr. Robert J. Kiss, and David Schecter.