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August 29, 2007 |

By Agent Bedhead | Film | August 29, 2007 |

Metaphoric malarky is one of those all-time great defense mechanisms to explain away things that cause anxiety and fear in human beings. The 1954 classic Them! wrought an army of giant irradiated ants upon much of America, and more importantly, upon Hollywood. In 1955, Tarantula further defined the “giant bug” genre by employing a genetically mutated and very hungry spider to terrorize a small Arizonan desert town. Directed by Jack Arnold, this creature feature measures up to the B-movie standard of incomprehensible dialogue, spoofy special effects, and a three-story arachnid diva with a longer backstage rider and more badoinkadoink than Jennifer Lopez. Like many cultural mammoths, this spider fails to credit its makers and even snacks heartily upon one of them. So much for the afterglow.

Yet before all of these drama queen theatrics, the film opens when the harried yet impeccably dressed town physician, Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar), receives a call from the Sheriff (Nestor Paiva) after a most unusual-looking corpse is discovered in the nearby desert.

Dr. Hastings: “Well, what’s it look like?”
Sheriff: “Like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

Sheriff reckons that this body “has the same general build” and face of a local biologist, “but maybe he ain’t.” After the doctor expresses confusion, the Sheriff issues those most inauspicious of words: “You’d better have a look.” According to Dr. Hastings, the body demonstrates an advanced state of acromegala, a disease where “the pituitary disorder goes haywire” but generally takes years to develop. Prof. Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) shows up and confirms the body’s identity as his colleague. It turns out that the well-intentioned scientific duo had been plotting to end world hunger by developing a growth hormone for crops and livestock. For whatever reason, these PhD-level scientists figured it was a great idea to test this irradiated hormone on themselves. Soon, the word “acromegaly” gets tossed around more times than Ryan Seacrest’s salad, and while one hormonally enraged scientist throttles the other, a tarantula that’s had enough of being kept down by the man escapes from its cage. The arachnid and its indiscriminate appetite soon feasts upon cattle, horses, and humans, growing all the while. It appears that nothing could stop this tarantula — bullets do nothing, and it emerges unscathed from a dynamite blast — so the government sends in an air strike. A barely recognizable Clint Eastwood makes a cameo appearance as the jet squadron’s leader, who effectively torches the spider with a friendly shower of napalm because, obviously, napalm is extremely useful in extinguishing all sorts of vermin from the Earth.

Tarantula doesn’t deliver its chills in the most visual of manners, but we infer these things through a tedious and formulaic score, looming shadows and the reactions of those standing directly in the spider’s path. The most horrifying moments of Tarantula are in its suspenseful slow exposure and the preceding moments of abject fear and terror in the victims, especially the group of horses trapped in the corral. Once the spider actually appears on the screen, the inherent cheesiness provokes the standard uneasy B-movie laughter. A real spider was, of course, used for the filming and back projected to make it appear insanely large in size. One particularly creepy scene begins with a female scientist apprentice (Mara Corday) as she sits at her bedroom desk. At the window sits the tarantula, ready to strike at its luxury, and when it shatters the glass, Corday delivers one of the most lusciously shrill B-movie screams of the era. For his part, Dr. Hastings remains stoic in the face of the beast, but he always manages to schedule some shameless flirtation with Corday in between spider sessions. Certainly, a reason must exist why he is referred to as “the good doctor.”

Creature features have been allegorically defined in several manners. The interpretations of the giant bug movies are rather varied, and in particular, Tarantula is forced to carry a Sisyphean burden of human anxieties. The most common metaphor for this film is represented by the atomic-era cold war anxiety that stems from fear of nuclear proliferation that would result in World War III. Another view shows the film as an anti-science parable, which theorizes that despite best intentions, human beings will somehow create terrible side effects in the name of progress. Perhaps the most amusing metaphor would be in the Freudian analysis, which has become a rather predicable contemporary slant for almost any horror film, regardless of its production era. The oversized spider could very well reflect a fear of impotence (a true side effect of acromegala), or it could dramatize the individual’s anxiety over his own sexual desires and the fear over seeing these desires unleashed. Spiders do rather resemble hair-covered human hands, which of course are most useful for the shameful act of masturbation. In light of this interpretation, the scene in which the Dr. Hastings encounters a puddle of spider venom and actually tastes it … well, this could lead to very perverse assumptions. So, we’ll leave it at that. Sometimes though, a bug is just that, and the all too real fear of insect infestation and the counterproductiveness of pesticides such as DDT were most likely the true indicator of the public’s fascination with Tarantula and its cinematic colleagues.

Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and shows up daily at

I Knew Leo G. Carroll Was Over a Barrel

Tarantula / Agent Bedhead

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