Tarantula (1955)

Tarantula (1955) is a Cold War red scare science fiction giant bug monster movie directed by Jack Arnold and starring John Agar, Mara Corday and Leo G. Carroll.

To be fair to it, there is less about the metaphorical possibilities of giant spiders in Tarantula (1955) than may be commonly imagined.

It's not exactly a nuclear threat movie, and nor in earnest is it a movie about any communist threat.

If anything Tarantula is a fable about our reliance on science to both get us into messes but also to fix those messes up.

Unlike virtually every other monster and giant monster film of the time, the monsters of Tarantula are born of a benign scientists goofy positive plan to create food for all mankind by simply enlarging domestic animals.

Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll), anticipating global food shortage problems due to an increasing world population, has been attempting to develop a serum which people can feed off exclusively. 

Alas, when trying it on rats, rabbits and a tarantula, all it does is cause them to grow to enormous proportions, and when humans take it, it causes them to develop acromegaly, go mad, and die. 

Science as friend in Tarantula (1955) with Leo G. Carroll

Deemer's two lab assistants take the serum when he is gone one day, causing one to die, and the other to go mad and attack Deemer, injecting him with the serum himself. 

During their fight, the cage of the tarantula, which is already about the size of a large dog, is shattered, and it escapes into the desert.

Mutated scientist! Science as foe in Tarantula (1955)

Giant insects did feature rather large in the 1950s science fiction boom of the 1950s — as did the various ideas of scale which gave us shrinking, growing, fast-growing and disappearing traits and features in these terrifying visions.

It has been usual to interpret these cinematic big bugs as symbolic manifestations of Cold War anxieties, including nuclear fear and of course worries about communist infiltration. On even more general terms the out-sizing of the every day does express an ongoing doubt about science itself and the more mysterious developments that had been shown to have been made in the casualties of the atomic bomb.

Leo G. Carroll in Tarantula (1955)

Science also implies technocratic authority, and at the same time little could be more expressive of repressed Freudian impulses than insects.

This is a fairly normal reaction in 1950s science fiction which catastrophises quickly, as well as offers a healthy dose of monster delay — much of the early action only shows the aftermath of the ants' attacks. We see the damage they have caused and a few bodies, one of which is filled with acid and chewed to bits — all of which contributes to their menace before we see them first on screen.

Mara Corday in Tarantula (1955)

Leo G. Carroll in Tarantula (1955)

Some things never change and it is reassuring to see the patriarchy itself — not an uncommon sight in noir, neither in science fiction from the 1950s.

When the authorities go public and before beginning their announcement, the movie Tarantula (1955) introduces a tableful of generals and scientists to support the statement that's about to be made, so the public will believe it.

Into the desert in Tarantula (1955)

With giant insects in particular, but also applicable to any science fiction monster, we are entering the world of Freud, because such things, as well as being creatures of the night, or creatures of crazy nuclear science, are still at once creatures of the id. 

The dominating factor in these interpretations is the fact that the monsters are first so large, and second the fact that they are unleashed. Thus as erotic representatives of the concealed mind, the giant insects rampaging across the 1950s are mobilised to express sexual anxieties — writ large — writ rampant.

The interest in female scientists in the various insect films under discussion might seem to lean into this, as well as a more general interest in gender, with the queen bees and queen ants and ovulating anthropoids of the movies brought to bear.

Most generally it might be said that in Tarantula and Them! and its 1950s counterparts are simply about the possibility of The Other — that which is not us. Race readings and gender readings can be found, and the insects can be simply stand-ins for nature, in an effort to chronicle further our collective battle with it. Most simply, the bug movies might have expressed concerns about insect infestation, are about cleanliness, another great theme of the 1950s. 

"The sense of public fear of destructive insects, stoked by entomologists, government officials, agricultural interests, and the pesticide industry, reached a fever pitch in the 1950s, at the very same time that giant bugs were swarming over movie screens across America. Books and magazines spoke of the insidious efficiency of insects, relentlessly consuming our crops, infiltrating our homes, and undermining our health; the arthropods, one entomologist direly warned, would "inherit the earth unless man abandons war and turns his martial interests to killing pests."  As numerous scholars have noted, through the 1950s, one can trace the process by which the vocabulary and imagery of pest control merged with the language of the Cold War. Commentators regularly wrote of the "war on insects," the invasions of pests, and the battles to exterminate unwanted species. Winston Churchill famously compared communism to white ant society and Billy Graham opened the 1952 session of the Senate praying for protection from "barbarians beating at our gates from without and moral termites from within."

from Looking Straight at "Them!" Understanding the Big Bug Movies of the 1950s, by William M. Tsutsui — Environmental History, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Apr., 2007), pp. 237-253

Like Them! (1954), Tarantula makes use of desert locations. While a radioactive isotope does make an appearance, it differs from most other 1950s big-bug science fiction features in having the mutation caused by the peaceful research of a well-intentioned scientist, rather than by nuclear weapons and/or a mad genius.

Director Jack Arnold used matte effects once again two years later to show miniaturisation, rather than gigantism, in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), which also features an encounter with a spider.

The film's theatrical 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. All the spider's human victims are in fact male and yet this depiction of a woman-in-peril had become, by this time, a standard B-movie poster cliché that continued being used for some years.

Meantime, it appeared that real world threats of real world fears and most notably of all insects, could be translated quickly into successful cinema with no need to worry about any hidden meanings regarding communism or even the nuclear threat.

This was also the decade of DDT, which it appeared had dangerous side-effects, and was perhaps not a long-term solution either. The corollary concern is that the American public had begun to see that scientists, chemicals and politicians could not be fully trusted, and it might even be said that they were just as dangerous and ruthless as the insects they were supposed to be destroying.

Leo G. Carroll in Tarantula (1955)

Interestingly, it is a trope too of the big bug movies that the insect threats are not harmed by such pesticides, and that they usually succumb to quite basic methods of assault — such as fire and electricity. In Tarantula, it is napalm which does the job — and treat of treats it is delivered by a very young Clint Eastwood, fresh in a da movies. 

William M. Tsutsui adds:

"It is no wonder, then, that Hollywood stopped making giant insect films at just about the very time that Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published. By the early 1960s, it had become clear that the potential of chemical insecticides like DDT and the threat of insect hoards overrunning humanity had both been wildly exaggerated."

The trouble with a monster picture as opposed to some solid atmospheric film noir, is that often the monster does not appear until quite late in the action, leaving a lot of suspense time to fill. We don't much see the spider in its fully-grown, people-eating, building-destroying glory until about 47 minutes in. Until then, there's just a few shots of it escaping out of the laboratory door and then straying in the desert.

Clint Eastwood to the rescue in Tarantula (1955)

The film was often paired with Running Wild as part of a double feature, excitingly expressive of a variety of concerns as a pair — but also keenly, attentive of the sudden new audience that had just emerged, as readily as the giant insects themselves — the teenagers.

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