Tarantula (film)

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Tarantula 1955.jpg
Directed by Jack Arnold
Produced by William Alland
Screenplay by
Story by Jack Arnold
Based on "No Food for Thought" (teleplay, Science Fiction Theatre, May 17, 1955)
by Robert M. Fresco[2][3]
Music by
Cinematography George Robinson
Edited by William Morgan
Distributed by Universal-International
Release date
  • November 23, 1955 (1955-11-23) (Los Angeles, California)
  • December 7, 1955 (1955-12-07) (Rochester, NY)
  • December 14, 1955 (1955-12-14) (United States)
Running time
81 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $1.1 million (US)[4]

Tarantula is a 1955 American black-and-white science fiction 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 Fresco's teleplay for the 1955 Science Fiction Theatre episode, "No Food for Thought", which Arnold also directed.[2]


A severely deformed man stumbles through the Arizona desert, falls and dies. Dr. Matt Hastings, a doctor in the nearby small town of Desert Rock, is called in by the Sheriff to examine the body at the local mortuary. Asked to define the cause of death, he finds himself perplexed: the deceased was someone he knew and had just seen recently – biological research scientist Eric Jacobs – whose deformity appears to be acromegaly, a distortion which takes years to reach its apparent present state. Dr. Hastings asks to be allowed to perform an autopsy to clarify the diagnosis. The sheriff refuses, judging an autopsy unnecessary because there is no indication of foul play. Hastings then approaches Jacobs' colleague, Dr. Gerald Deemer, who more bluntly refuses permission, then signs Jacobs' death certificate in lieu of Hastings, with heart disease listed as the cause of death.

Bothered still by the anomaly, and also by Deemer's abruptness, Hastings later drives to Deemer's combined home and research lab, located in an isolated mansion in the desert far from town. Deemer apologizes for his hostility, blaming it on his grief, then insists that Jacobs had developed acromegaly incredibly rapidly, over just four days. He cannot offer an explanation but attempts to convince Hastings this was only an anomaly, not a result of anything sinister. Hastings appears to accept this apology.

After Hasting leaves, Deemer goes to his closed lab, where huge cages contain white rabbits and mice, some of enormous size. Deemer examines each of the oversized specimens, noting when each last received an "injection", and how many each has had altogether. Then he turns to observe a glass-fronted inset in the back wall, as a different sort of specimen slides into view inside - a tarantula bodily the size of a large dog, plus legs.

As Deemer finishes his observations of this creature, a second deformed man appears, attacks Deemer and begins destroying the lab. During this rampage the lab catches fire and the glass covering the tarantula's cage is shattered. The man grabs a hypodermic that Deemer was preparing, knocks him out and injects him with the contents. As flames and electrical sparking rage over the lab, the arachnid escapes outdoors, 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 assailant - whom he has recognized from the first attack as his other assistant, Paul Lund - in the desert.

The following day, 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 in town returns from a mission, she accepts a ride from Dr. Hastings, who is again going to Deemer's place and is apprised of her plight. She introduces herself to him as Stephanie Clayton, nicknamed "Steve," who has signed on to assist in the lab to replace Paul Lund, as part of her doctoral degree program.

When they arrive at the mansion, Deemer tells them that the fire was caused by an equipment malfunction. He indicates that all the animals were killed in the fire, and explains that Lund has already left his employ. As Steve's contract stipulates that she live in Dr. Deemer's residence, Dr. Hastings leaves her there with her suitcases. Steve begins working in the lab and proves to be a capable lab assistant.

A couple of days later, Dr. Hastings finds a mystery has arisen, involving clean-picked cattle carcasses and pools of a thick white liquid up to eight feet in diameter, when the Sheriff calls on him for help. Unbeknownst to anyone, the cause is the tarantula, now the size of Deemer's mansion, which is hungrily beginning to ravage the countryside: the next night, a horse-rancher is killed by the spider outside his stable, and later a pickup truck is flipped by the tarantula in order to get at the two men inside. Elsewhere still, two hoboes trying to enjoy a meal and a smoke on the open range are chased and killed.

While this carnage is occurring, Hastings has decided to pay a call on Steve. Explaining that Deemer has been acting and looking ill recently and gone to bed, she shows Matt what they have been working on - the use of radioactive elements to produce an artificial super-nutrient which, once perfected, could provide an unlimited food option for humanity. She shows Matt some of the giant lab-animals created just since her arrival as an unintended side-effect of the nutrient. Suddenly Deemer appears, furious. He bawls out Steve for revealing "secret" work and orders Matt to leave. Before he goes, he notices there are some subtle changes in Deemer's appearance as well as in his demeanor.

The following day at the destroyed horse ranch, Hastings once again appears at the request of the Sheriff and, finding again pools of the strange, thick liquid, decides an analysis of this substance might solve the mystery. He takes a sample and flies it to the university in Phoenix, where Dr. Townsend determines that it is tarantula-venom, only in such a quantity that only a monster-spider could produce. After viewing a film prepared by Townsend, showing the predatory ferocity of a normal tarantula, he phone calls Dr. Deemer but is told by Steve that he has become even more ill and is again abed. He again appears behind her, this time hanging up the phone. Matt thus hastens to his airplane and flies quickly back to Desert Rock.

Upon arriving there, he drives to the Deemer mansion, where he finds Deemer, severe acromegalic deformities rapidly setting in, resignedly under the care of Steve as he knows he is nearing death. He divulges all he knows about the nutrient's effects on humans and animals, and tells of Lund's death. Matt then returns to town to brief the sheriff on what he has learned from Dr. Townsend and at the mansion. As night falls, the tarantula comes to the mansion. Deemer is killed but Steve escapes when Hastings returns by car. The tarantula pursues them down the highway toward the town. The Sheriff and his men intercept the pursuit, but their guns don't faze the tarantula. Hastening to town, they gather dynamite, but a blast big enough to blow up the highway doesn't faze the monster either. As they complete a hasty evacuation of the town, the Air Force, summoned by the Sheriff, arrives in the form of a jet squadron which launches a napalm attack, successfully incinerating the monster at the town's edge.


Clint Eastwood appears uncredited in a minor role as the jet squadron leader.[5]


The special effects showing the giant animals and the unfortunate scientist's deformity are fairly advanced for the time, with real animals (including a rabbit and a guinea pig in Professor Deemer's lab) being used to represent the giant creatures. A real spider was also used for shots where the entire monster was shown. Shooting miniatures were reserved for close-ups and the final shots of the creature on fire, resulting in a rather more convincing monster than the giant ants seen in the earlier big-bug film Them! (1954).[6] Of this and the entire film, Jack Arnold said, "We decided to do this film because, generally, people are very afraid of spiders".

Although set in Arizona, the film was shot in California with locations for the desert scenes in Apple Valley.[7] The movie was also filmed in and around the rock formations of "Dead Man's Point" in Lucerne Valley California, a frequently used movie location for many early western films. It takes place in the fictional town of Desert Rock, Arizona.[8]

Like Them!, Tarantula makes atmospheric use of its desert locations; and although a radioactive isotope does make an appearance, it differs from most big-bug films in having the mutation caused by the peaceful research of a well-intentioned scientist rather than nuclear weapons and/or a mad genius. Director Jack Arnold was to use matte effects again two years later to show miniaturization, rather than gigantism, in The Incredible Shrinking Man, which also featured an encounter with a spider. That real spider was the same one that appeared in Tarantula.[citation needed]

The film's 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.


Film critic Leonard Maltin awarded the film 3 out of 4 stars, praising the film's fast pacing, special effects, and intriguing subplot calling it "One of the best giant-insect films".[9] 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." [10] 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."[5] It currently has a very positive 92% "Fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes with an average of 6.3/10 based on 13 reviews.[11]

Home media[edit]

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 4 other classics as well (The Incredible Shrinking Man, Monster on the Campus, The Monolith Monsters and The Mole People). It was last released on September 27, 2013.[12]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ The poster shows the spider (inaccurately depicted with only two eyes instead of eight) carrying a woman in its fangs, à la Fay Wray in King Kong, though such a scene does not appear in the film.
  2. ^ a b Tarantula at the American Film Institute Catalog
  3. ^ Bill Warren; Bill Thomas (16 November 2009). Keep Watching the Skies!: American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, The 21st Century Edition. McFarland. pp. 738–741. ISBN 978-0-7864-4230-0. 
  4. ^ 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1956', Variety Weekly, January 2, 1957
  5. ^ a b Martin and Potter 2001, p. 1074.
  6. ^ Searles 1988, pp. 165–167.
  7. ^ Thompson, Nathaniel. "Articles: 'Tarantula'." TCM.com. Retrieved: January 30, 2015.
  8. ^ "Exclamation Point." Wordpress. Retrieved: March 29, 2011.
  9. ^ Leonard Maltin; Spencer Green; Rob Edelman (January 2010). Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide. Plume. p. 655. ISBN 978-0-452-29577-3. 
  10. ^ "Review: Tarantula." Variety. Retrieved: January 30, 2015.
  11. ^ "Tarantula (1955) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes.com. Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 23 September 2015. 
  12. ^ "Tarantula (1955) - Jack Arnold". AllMovie.com. AllMovie. Retrieved 25 April 2016. 


  • Martin, Mick and Marsha Porter. Video Movie Guide 2002. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001. ISBN 978-0-3454-2100-5.
  • Searles, Baird. Films of Science Fiction and Fantasy. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1988. ISBN 0-8109-0922-7.

External links[edit]