One of the most entertaining and fondly remembered of the “giant bug” movies of the 1950s by baby boomers everywhere, Jack Arnold’s Tarantula! has only gained in critical and popular appreciation down through the years.
The Production: 3.5/5
One of the most entertaining and fondly remembered of the “giant bug” movies of the 1950s by baby boomers everywhere, Jack Arnold’s Tarantula! has only gained in critical and popular appreciation down through the years. An engaging premise, more than decent production values, and an attractive and familiar cast sell the notion of a giant spider on the rampage wonderfully resulting in a movie that’s a thrilling and fun cinematic excursion that’s not to be missed. Shout Factory’s Blu-ray release corrects the open matte framing of the DVD and presents the movie in a lovely high definition transfer.
Esteemed scientist Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) has been experimenting with a radioactive nutrient solution in the hope of finding ways to keep mankind alive as the world’s population reaches otherwise unsupportable limits. During a fight with his lab assistant over the nature of his experiments, an ever-growing tarantula who had received six injections of the unstable serum over twenty days is allowed to escape into the Arizona desert unknown to Deemer or his new graduate student intern Stephanie Clayton (Mara Corday). Young town doctor Matt Hastings (John Agar) gets drawn into the mystery when cattle, a farmer, and some miners are found with their flesh stripped from their skeletons with pools of white goo nearby, pools that appear to be some kind of insect venom. Hastings, town sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva), and newspaper editor Joe Burch (Ross Elliott) seek answers to this conundrum.
The screenplay by Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley manages to fit two side-by-side plots (the deadly tarantula’s desert rampage and Dr. Deemer’s ever-worsening condition) into a tidy eighty-minute running time, but nothing feels rushed or short-changed, and the thrills are plentiful as the writers use dramatic irony cleverly to allow us to know about the spider’s existence and lurking menace long before the film’s principals are aware of its lethal presence. We get great spider point-of view shots as it goes in for the kill time and again while the majority of the cast doesn’t get up to speed on what’s going on until the film’s last twenty minutes where, in the great tradition of movie monsters, bullets and dynamite are of no use whatsoever. And the special effects are excellent with a real and fiercely threatening tarantula being matted into real locations giving the images a believable danger that the animatronics used in the otherwise superlative Them! (perhaps the best 1950s sci-fi “bug movie”) couldn’t achieve. Director Jack Arnold uses some effective jump scares, some hideous make-up creations by Bud Westmore, and a canny mix of studio sets and real locations to keep his scary yarn humming consistently. Particularly good is a sequence involving a rockslide that mixes a real location with a soundstage miniature that’s spot-on, and like all of these monster movies, the key question of how the creature is to be eliminated becomes a real enigma that keeps first-time viewers on the edges of their seats. The conclusion here is a satisfying one.
No stranger to this kind of sci-fi thriller, John Agar comes off well as the good-natured but concerned doctor. Mara Corday may seem a bit mature for a grad school assistant, but she pairs nicely with Agar. Leo G. Carroll is aces as the scientist probing for answers who falls victim to his own experiments. Doing their usual sturdy work in supporting roles are Nestor Paiva as the town lawman, Ross Elliott as the newspaperman, Raymond Bailey as a specialist on arachnids, and Hank Patterson as the well-meaning busybody hotel clerk. As all fans undoubtedly know, that’s Clint Eastwood behind the aviator’s oxygen mask as the aerial squadron leader in the film’s climactic moments.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Sharpness is excellent throughout as wrinkles in backdrops and continuity errors become more visible with the extra resolution of high definition. The grayscale is solid with rich black levels and pure, clear whites. An occasional speck of dust or hair momentarily makes itself known, and some of the stock footage looks unsurprisingly weak, but most of the age-related anomalies have been eliminated. The movie has been divided into 12 chapters.
The film’s soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. It’s a very solid and engrossing mono track with clear, crisp dialogue mixed superlatively with the random music cues and the effectively chilling and sometimes thunderous sound effects. No evidence of age-related aural problems like hiss, crackle, flutter, and humming is present.
Special Features: 3.5/5
Audio Commentary: film historian Tom Weaver weaves a fascinating story of the film’s production sharing background on the major players and giving us the rundown on much of the film’s production history. In addition to a comment from director Joe Dante and some actor recreations of comments made by other production personnel, music historian David Schecter details the origins of the many music cues used in the movie, and Dr. Robert Kiss adds information on the movie’s lengthy theatrical release history.
Theatrical Trailer (1:52, SD)
Animated Stills Gallery (4:15)
Animated Poster and Lobby Card Gallery (4:55)
Recommended! Lovers of 1950s-styled “mutant bug movies” will thoroughly enjoy Shout Factory’s Blu-ray presentation of Jack Arnold’s Tarantula! With some fun special features and a fine disc presentation, this release is all one could hope for one of the decade’s most celebrated chillers.