…expect something that’s fiercer, more cruel and deadly than anything that ever walked the earth.– Professor Townsend
A severely deformed man stumbles through the desert. Falls. Dies. But that is only the beginning, as the tiny Arizona town of Desert Rock is soon besieged by a horror unlike any other. So begins the 1955 big bug classic, Tarantula.
It’s one of the better giant-insect films, both in terms of production and acting. It’s also one of my favourites, along with Them! (1954) and The Black Scorpion (1957). The special effects are fairly advanced for the time, and the opening sequence with its stumbling, irradiated victim in his striped pyjamas, is darkly effective for a number of reasons. John Agar does his usual workmanlike job as square-jawed leading man. Jack Arnold, the director, was responsible for a few other favourites of mine, including Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).
Unlike the Lovecraftian overtones of the former, however, Tarantula is, at its core, a Promethean fable for the Atomic Age. The eponymous monstrosity is neither fish nor fowl, to mangle an old saying. It isn’t an outsider trying to get in, nor is it something ancient imposing itself on the modern era.
Even so, there is a whiff of the eldritch to its creation. Radiation and strange chemicals might as well be the tools of necromancy as far as these sorts of films go. The tarantula is summoned like Karswell’s demon, and loosed upon the Earth when its ritual (re: atomic) bindings falter. An unfettered devil, running riot.
It is a child of Frankenstein – in spirit, if not blood. Even as Frankenstein’s monster was born out of an attempt to defeat death, the tarantula’s apotheosis has its origin in an experiment meant to help mankind. It is made into what it is through modern alchemy, and loosed upon the world thanks to the hubris of its creator. But unlike the monster of Frankenstein, the tarantula is no tormented child turned wicked.
Instead, the beast is a disaster made flesh, a hunting horror predating upon an unsuspecting populace. It is not evil, for it is beyond such things. If anything, that only makes it more terrifying. Like the ants of 1954’s Them!, the tarantula is an inhuman intelligence in its purest form. A thing that cannot be bargained with, intimidated or tricked. Remorseless and savage, it hunts as it was designed to do – both by evolution and the atomic alchemist who made it into something monstrous.
As it stalks its prey beneath the desert sun, the tarantula is nothing less than an atomic nemesis, giving us our due in payment for the sin of hubris – it is a walking bomb, bringing destruction wherever its shadow falls. And even its demise brings no true comfort, for the terrible forces which created it still exist, hanging over the heads of the survivors.
Even as they exist today.
I think I’ve had enough of the unknown for one afternoon.– Stephanie Clayton