Monsters and Matinees: ‘Tarantula’ – Or why I’m afraid to look out my bedroom window

Tarantula – Or why I’m afraid to look out my bedroom window

My childhood bedroom had two windows: one by the headboard and one near the other end of the bed. They were great to let a cool breeze in the room, but they also held a darker side where my overactive imagination freely roamed.

It was a smaller room I shared with my sister that had just enough space for a full bed and a dresser so there was no place to hide from those windows – and whatever lurked outside of them. (That would be the creature in the latest horror movie I was watching or sci-fi novel I was reading.) Sure, many of those monsters have disappeared with the years – except for two.

I vividly remember reading H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds on my bed and freaking out because I thought those spindly alien fingers were coming into the bedroom. That was before I saw the 1953 George Pal film, so you can imagine it got worse from there.

But while there are reasons to believe in aliens, there’s nothing to back up the idea that tarantulas can grow to be 100 feet tall. Yet that’s what I saw in my window many a night as a kid. (OK, and adult.)

The giant tarantula approaching a bedroom window in “Tarantula” has haunted me since I was a kid. I still keep my curtains closed.

Blame Jack Arnold’s 1955 big bug film “Tarantula,” a movie from that glorious decade of B-movie creature features. In it, a well-meaning scientist trying to solve world hunger, instead creates a nutrient with dramatic and deadly side effects.

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A bit of a back story. In 1954, Warner Bros. found unexpected success with its giant ant movie Them! Other studios took notice, spawning a subgenre of horror. Universal, home to some of the greatest horror films ever made, was now Universal International and found a renewed energy with creature feature and sci-fi films such as Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), This Island Earth (1955), The Mole People (1956) and The Deadly Mantis (1957).

Good or bad, these films remain entertaining because they work our imaginations. This was especially true in kids, hence the designation from decades ago of the “Monster Kid Generation.”

There are so many great creature features and big-bug movies, but it’s Tarantula that holds a spell over me. I never quite figured out why until I learned that real tarantulas were used in the movie, with rear-screen projection making them appear larger-than-life. That’s why they were so terrifying – there was nothing fake about them and you could feel it.

If the way the spider moves its legs feels too real to you – that’s because it is. With the help of some movie magic, real spiders were used in scenes like this throughout “Tarantula.”

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Tarantula opens in the desert where a man in his pajamas stumbles into the frame and drops to the ground. As vultures loom overhead, we see his skin is deformed, he has giant lumps across his body and his outstretched hand is hideous. Something isn’t right.

Cut to a two-seater plane landing in a desert “airport.” Out jumps a handsome, well-dressed man (Dr. Matt Hastings, played by B-movie favorite John Agar) who quickly drives off in his sports car to a town called Desert Rock. There, he’s immediately summoned by the sheriff for help with a dead body.

“What does it look like?” Doc Matt asks.

“Like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” Sheriff Jack responds. Cue the music – and my interest.

The face of the corpse is too misshapen for Doc Matt and Sheriff Jack to identify – but we know it’s our Deformed PJ guy from the desert. When Professor Gerald Deemer (played by the great character actor Leo J. Carroll, which ups the film cred immediately) arrives, he says it’s his friend and co-worker Eric Jacobs. Eric suffered from a pituitary gland disease (called acromegaly in the real world), and only days earlier complained of muscular pain as his body rapidly worsened. Eric hadn’t been seen since he ran off into the desert (a familiar theme here).

Professor Deemer (Leo J. Carroll) is studying the effects of his nutrient on his lab experiments. It seems to be working a bit too well.

Later, Professor Deemer is in his laboratory and we literally see the big picture: There are syringes and, in glass cages, are an oversized rat, guinea pig and tarantula. (This also is done with rear projection that  again uses real animals that lend to the authenticity.) It’s easy for even the youngest viewer to start putting the pieces together.

But wait – another hideous hand appears and Deformed Guy No. 2 attacks the professor, who is yelling “I tried to help you.” They fight, breaking the glass in the tarantula’s cage, allowing it to crawl through an open door into the desert. The Professor is knocked unconscious and DG#2 injects him with the syringe. A fire rages, the ceiling falls and DG#2 is killed. (Of note: the actor playing both Deformed Guys, as well as the airport attendant, is stuntman Eddie Parker whose work includes Mr. Hyde in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.)

Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (Mara Corday) and Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar) are getting to know each other. They wouldn’t be smiling if they knew a giant tarantula was behind them.

Cut to town where an impeccably dressed young woman (suit, matching hat and pearls) steps out of a bus. Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (Mara Corday) arrives to do graduate work with Eric, now Dead Deformed Guy #1. Learning the news, Steve still wants to honor her contract. Handsome Doc Matt happily drives Lovely Student Steve to the Professor’s house through the desert where a tarantula, now the size of a car, walks across the road behind them.

At the house, the Professor (who’s not looking too good) explains his work is to combat a “disease of hunger” in an overcrowded world. His plan: feeding everyone with a nutrient made from radioactive isotopes. If you’ve seen enough big bug movies, you know where this is leading.

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That’s the setup. Now let’s get to the good stuff. Our tarantula is visiting fields and farms, leaving behind carcasses and big white pools of goo (“venom pools”). Despite the fact it is exponentially larger each time we see it and makes a loud, high-pitched noise, the tarantula continues to move unnoticed through the desert countryside. 

Dr. Matt (John Agar) and Sheriff Jack (Nestor Paiva) discover pools of a thick white substance near bones – and yes, the doctor will do a taste test.

Then we get to the most awful scene in the film – especially for animal lovers. 

It’s night, horses are in their corral at the foot of a mountain. They grow restless, then panic. The  tarantula looms at the top of the mountain looking down at its next meal. Thankfully, the scene happens quite fast as the poor trapped horses cry out in fear. Although we don’t “see” anything happen, it’s still terrible and makes me feel much worse, I’m ashamed to say, than watching the farmer meet the same fate as his horses.

Everything speeds up from here – the size of the tarantula, its brazen kills, the growing deformity of the kind professor who only wanted to help people. 

It leads to the traumatic scene of my nightmares with the tarantula at the Professor’s house. As it approaches, the tarantula can be seen outside Steve’s second-floor bedroom window, getting closer and closer and closer until its face fills the window. (Ugh! Try to erase that image.) Now larger than the house, the tarantula’s legs creepily crawl over the home, crushing it like it’s a toy. 

The scene of the tarantula standing over a two-story house still freaks me out.

Steve escapes just as Doc Matt arrives and they hurry toward town to tell others. Where the movie goes from there doesn’t matter much, since I’m still inside Steve’s bedroom frozen in place by the tarantula at the window.

I’ve watched Tarantula countless times since I was a kid. Occasionally, I’ll wonder why the tarantula doesn’t catch the car, or how the mammoth arachnid is walking unseen in the wide-open spaces of a desert. But I never think too hard: that would take the fun out of it. And if I’m honest, fun is the real reason why Tarantula resonates with me. My lifelong fear of a giant tarantula is just a bonus.

* * * * *

Where you’ve seen them before:

John Agar (Doctor Matt):The Mole People (1956), Revenge of the Creature (’55), Fort Apache (’48), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (’49). He was the first husband of Shirley Temple.

Nestor Paiva (Sheriff Jack Andrews): You know his face as Lucas the boat captain in Creature from the Black Lagoon (’54) and Revenge of the Creature (’55) and from the TV shows Zorro and The Lone Ranger.M

Mara Corday (Steve):The Black Scorpion (’57), The Giant Claw (’57), The Gauntlet (’77) and Sudden Impact (’83).H

Hank Patterson (Josh, the clerk):Beginning of the End (’57), Earth vs. the Spider (’58) and Mr.  Ziffle on the TV shows Green Acres and Petticoat Junction.

Don’t blink or you’ll miss an early role by Clint Eastwood as a fighter pilot in “Tarantula.”

Fighter pilot: That’s Clint Eastwood in one of his first film roles. Through his friendship with Mara Corday, he later cast her in some of his films.

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– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub

Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.

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