Field Guide to Invertebrates in Film: Tarantula

Tarantula (1955)
Critter: Tarantula (Family: Theraphosidae)
Size: Varies, approximately 100 feet tall and 300 feet long
Modus Operandi: Crawls around creepily, bites victims with venom-filled chelicerae, paralyzing victim. Secretes juices that pre-digest the victim, proceeds to suck the melted victim clean off of the bones.
How the Menace Emerges: An experimental nutritional substance using a radioactive isotope called Ammoniac is in the testing phases when an inoculated tarantula escapes the lab and rampages through desert and town.
End Goal: Dinner

Tarantula is another of the better sci-fi flicks involving gigantic invertebrates from the 1950s. While not as fantastic as Them!, it is solid, moves at a clip and the shots of the tarantula and of the desert are creepy and foreboding, just as they should be.

“I knew it would happen. Give women the vote, and what do you get? Lady scientists.” This time Mara Coraday (The Black Scorpion) plays Steve, our lady scientist, well… lady grad student anyhow. She’s certainly more lady than scientist, but at least the film spends more time with the spider and the desert than her burgeoning romance with John Agar (Attack of the Puppet People), the town doctor. Agar plays it best as the “I’m just a country doctor” type, while flying his own plane, driving about in a convertible and knowing a good deal more about current scientific research, insect venom, weird medical disorders and geology than he should. Like Them!, Tarantula steers clear of the hokey mad scientist role, opting instead for a man obsessed with finding a solution to global hunger. Still, the picture manages to pack in themes about overpopulation and the vast age of the earth compared to man all while parading as a big bug movie. Not bad. Although the end of the film comes too fast with the townspeople cheering napalm and military glory, the menacing spider parts are well worth it.

As for the spider, radioactivity is at it again, but this time it’s employed in Professor Deemer’s quest to solve world hunger through artificial nutrients. A side-effect of his experimental food substitute is gigantism, and hence the very cinematic star of our show. Using a real tarantula kept the monster of the film naturalistically creepy, and it is easy to imagine looking out of your window into the strange, empty desert only to see this guy crawling over the nearest mesa. The special effects are 1950s top-notch: our spider pal is well integrated into the landscape, with shadows underfoot and screaming victims sharing screen time. All in all, Tarantula is one of the good ones. Give it a go.

Nit-picking Science: 1) Whoa, Professor Deemer, your population estimates are way too low! In the year 2000, we reached a world population of over 6 billion, nearly twice your 1955 predictions! 2) Doc, a species called arachnida? Pshaw, Arachnida is a class encompassing all of the spiders; the tarantulas are in the family Theraphosidae, but I’m unsure of the species used here.

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