Director: Jack Arnold
Screenwriters: Harry Essex, Jack Arnold (uncredited), Ray Bradbury (uncredited) / Martin Berkeley, Robert M. Fresco
By Roderick Heath
Jack Arnold likely deserves the title of science fiction cinema’s first genuine auteur. Great and important directors had worked in the genre since the earliest days of the medium, but Arnold was the first filmmaker to demonstrate both a great love and knowledge of sci-fi, as he had consumed it voraciously when growing up, and to make most of his notable films in it. In this regard he beat out chief rival Ishirô Honda by a year, whilst Byron Haskin, who first tackled the genre in the same year Arnold did, was a less constant devotee. Arnold, whose full name was John Arnold Waks and was the son of Russian immigrants, was born in Connecticut in 1916. After studying acting and working as a vaudeville dancer, he started landing roles on Broadway, but as it did for so many, World War II proved a career hurdle. Arnold signed up to be a pilot, but a lack of planes meant he was placed with the Signal Corps, and after taking a crash course in cinematography became an assistant to the esteemed documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty in making military films, until he finally gained his shot as a pilot and served out the war in the air. When peace came filmmaking was still on Arnold’s mind, and he formed a production outfit to make commercial shorts and documentaries, whilst also resuming his acting career now in movies. Arnold’s 1950 documentary With These Hands, a pro-union documentary about early twentieth century working conditions, garnered Arnold attention and an Oscar nomination. Arnold was soon given a shot at making a feature film by Universal, debuting with Girls in the Night, one of three movies he finished up turning out in 1953. The second was It Came From Outer Space.
It Came From Outer Space was the first of a string of successful, now-iconic sci-fi films produced by former Orson Welles collaborator and actor William Alland, hired by Universal to turn out films in the genre which was big box office business in the early 1950s. Alland and Arnold quickly followed up their breakthrough with the even more famous and popular The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954), and its sequel Revenge of the Creature (1955). A TV play Arnold co-wrote and directed for the series Science Fiction Theatre called ‘No Food For Thought’ was quickly adapted by him into the feature Tarantula (1955) – Arnold’s lone contribution to the giant monster strand of the day’s sci-fi boom. He followed it with the film often called his masterpiece, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1956), and two less successful genre entries, The Space Children (1958) and Monster on the Campus (1958). In between these Arnold also made interesting, meaty noir and Western films like The Glass Web (1953), Man In The Shadow (1958), No Name On The Bullet (1959), the satirical comedy The Mouse That Roared (1959), and the beloved teensploitation thriller High School Confidential (1958). Arnold’s incredible pace of work through the ‘50s helped make his name synonymous with the decade’s pop culture in hindsight, but whilst he remained a busy worker, his creativity seemed to burn out as the kinds of movies he liked to make faded in popularity. He spent most of the rest of his career churning out TV episodes and directing the odd, anonymous feature, whilst amidst his late career the only movie that leaps out now is the provocatively titled Blaxploitation Western Boss Nigger (1975).
It Came From Outer Space had its genesis in an original film treatment entitled ‘The Meteor,’ written by the rising star of sci-fi and fantasy writing Ray Bradbury, who also in 1953 has his short story ‘The Fog Horn’ adapted as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, the movie that kicked off the ‘50s giant monster craze. Regular sci-fi screenwriter and Arnold collaborator Harry Essex was credited with the script for It Came From Outer Space, although Bradbury and Arnold reportedly had input. Bradbury’s imprint is patent in the sometimes wistfully poetic dialogue. It Came From Outer Space bears one of the most famous and evocative titles in the history of movies, encapsulating the forceful, lurid appeal the ‘50s sci-fi style with its simultaneous excitement and anxiety for the suddenly expanding limits of human existence in the burgeoning space and atomic ages, and the uneasy mood of the Cold War’s height. As if to give it an aesthetic to match its looming title, It Came From Outer Space was filmed in 3D. When David Cronenberg and his brand of gruesome, subversive body horror came along two decades later, his debut film Shivers (1975) was also called, by way inverting, They Came From Within. But It Came From Outer Space isn’t exactly the kind of movie it sounds like, and came out at a pivotal juncture for the ‘50s sci-fi movement.
The style had started off as inquisitive and yearning and fretful, evinced in early entries like Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), and The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). It Came From Outer Space continued this run of inquisitive fare, but The Thing From Another World (1951) enshrined the more common run of portrayals of malevolent alien incursion. It Came From Outer Space also, alongside William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders From Mars (1953), established the subgenre of humans being replaced or suborned by alien entities, to be taken up and given variations like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and I Married A Monster From Outer Space (1958). It Came From Outer Space manages the tricky task of extracting strong dramatic tension from an ambiguous situation without clear villains or immediate world-threatening stakes, choosing rather a key of eerily poetic mystery woven around a smart parable for the fear of the unknown and its crazy-making influence on the human mind, collective and individual.
For a kid out of New Haven, Arnold evinced a genuine and powerful sense of the desert as a dramatic location, first demonstrated on It Came From Outer Space and carried over to Tarantula. In both movies Arnold manages to make the seemingly bright, open, sun-broiled spaces of desert locales – generally the environs of the Mojave Desert and the rock formations of Dead Man’s Point in Lucerne Valley, California – into places capable hiding sources of danger and wonder, where you could just well believe aliens and mammoth arachnids could be lurking. A sense of atmosphere was indeed one of Arnold’s singular talents, applied to his best films: he was equally good at capturing the teeming, enclosing world of the jungle for The Creature From The Black Lagoon and slowly transforming bland suburbia into a shadowland of adventure and threat with The Incredible Shrinking Man. The brief but effective pre-title sequence of Tarantula offers a slow pan across a desert landscape, accompanied only by the sound of wind washing through the cacti, until a misshapen human figure stumbles into view, disease entering a cruel but balanced system. Arnold would take up that idea more concertedly on The Incredible Shrinking Man. Another was taking his characters sufficiently seriously and preventing the human element of his movies taking a backseat. Arnold made minor genre stars of aging former ingénues like Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, and John Agar, and interesting, undervalued starlets like Barbara Rush, Julie Adams, and Mara Corday. Some of It Came From Outer Space’s sly power stems from the intelligent way it links its romantically involved heroes’ adventures with the alien with their psychological and social travails.
At the outset of It Came From Outer Space, professional science journalist and amateur astronomer John Putnam (Carlson) is dining with girlfriend Ellen Fields (Rush) at his house in the Arizona desert, just outside the small town of Sand Rock, which Putnam’s opening narration describes as “a nice town – knowing its past and sure of its future, as it makes ready for the night and the predictable morning.” Immediately the setting is invested with qualities both specific but also microcosmic, as Arnold films the town in a hazy aerial shot as evening descends. Putnam and Ellen’s easy conversation is threaded with asides contending with their prospects, as Putnam worries he doesn’t make enough steady money to keep Ellen if they get married, something Ellen evidently isn’t particularly concerned about, as Putnam has the cast of a dreamer and thinker somewhat outside the normal run of men she knows, like the town’s sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake), who turns protective attentions her way and the disapproving kind on Putnam as the drama unfolds, suggesting he has foiled romantic ambitions in that direction. When the couple go out to take a look through his telescope (not a euphemism…I think), they see a huge, flaming meteorite streak through the sky and slam into the earth nearby. The duo rush to get a helicopter pilot, Pete Davis (Dave Willock) to fly them to the impact crater, and when he descends into the crater Putnam is astounded to behold a large, circular vessel, moments before it’s buried by a landslide.
It Came From Outer Space and Tarantula are connected by their use of landscape and the way the desert space is tethered to evocation of threat and the superfuturistic landscapes opened up by scientific development, even as the manifestation of those threats come from radically different angles. Arnold finds it’s precisely the primal, hallucinatory quality of the desert expanse and the quiet of the rural world that makes it perfect to host destabilising infestation, largely because it already hosts such things. Arnold delves in to notice a landscape crawling with animal life engaged in the cold business of survival through predation, and the illusion of peace to the human eye is also connected to its danger as a sparse place of heat and dryness. In a marvellous vignette in It Came From Outer Space, telephone line repairman Frank Daylon (Joe Sawyer) meditates on the shifting nature of the landscape he often works in: “After working out on the desert for fifteen year like I have you see a lot of things – hear a lot of things too. Sun in the sky and the heat – all that sand out there with the rivers, lakes that aren’t real at all – and sometimes you think that the wind gets in the wires and hum and listens and talks…”
This lilt of the poetic runs through the veins of It Came From Outer Space. The meat of the drama, on the other hand, comes with overtones of Ibsen and Arthur Miller, about the clash between the unusual individual and the prosaic community, hinted at in Putnam’s opening narration, as Putnam finds himself laughingly disbelieved when he reports seeing the spaceship in the crater. Even his astronomer friend Dr Snell (George Eldredge) doesn’t believe his report, pointing out that the physical traces around the site are consistent with a meteorite’s impact. Warren is more provocative in his dismissal, trying to use Putnam’s report and the fact Ellen is momentarily neglecting her job as a teacher to back him up to imply Putnam is a bad influence. This motif was also employed in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms – intelligent, educated men who represent the voice of observant awareness shading into prophecy, but cannot convince others of the validity of their observations if it disturbs their worldview. Sounds familiar. Arnold gives it a more interesting spin in making Putnam a natural outsider, regarded as a bit of a weirdo by others, even Snell describing him bitingly to an assistant as “more than odd – individual and lonely. A man who thinks for himself.” Only Ellen, who is initially dubious too, sticks with Putnam, largely because as they drive home from the crater they catch sight of one of the aliens as it looms before them on the road.
Like just about every sci-fi film of the ‘50s, It Came From Outer Space is usually viewed through the prism of the era’s anti-Communist hysteria, which makes this quintessentially Bradburyesque central figure particularly telling, as the story unfolds and the nature of the alien visitors resolves from pure enigma, and Arnold wrestles with the concept of potentially fateful culture clash where both sides come to be frightened and defensive and the possibility of mutual destruction looms. Putnam’s discovery of the alien ship coincides with one of the aliens emerging from the crashed ship. Arnold resorts to the first of many point-of-view shots from the alien perspective, with the alien’s unusual vision through its single, prominent eye suggested by filming through a circular, jelly-like lens – the plain progenitor of the many similar viewpoint evocations of the lurking menace ranging through Jaws (1975) to Predator (1987) and beyond. Putnam meanwhile gazes up in awe at the huge, spherical craft with its hull decorated with hexagonal portals, and open portway through which he can glimpse machines buzzing and glowing with mysterious purpose.
This diptych of bewildered fascination set up here eventually leads to a brilliant punch-line at the film’s end, when the alien leader is revealed to have taken on Putnam’s appearance, leading to a climax that’s essentially one version of the type Putnam represent arguing with another, separated not just by their true physiognomy but history, philosophy, and scientific achievement – and the fact that the alien’s Putnam is charge indicates their evolution. Soon the aliens, whose ship crashed on top of an old gold mine which some luckless prospectors are trying to work, are moving around, waylaying people and assuming their forms in order to get their hands on equipment required to repair their ship. They claim the prospectors, and also Frank and his fellow lineman George (Russell Johnson), after the two men talk with Putnam and Ellen and Frank answers Putnam’s question as to whether they’ve seen anything unusual, “No, I haven’t seen anything – but I’m sure hearing things.” Frank lets Putnam listen to the unusual sounds vibrating through the telephone wires, a sign of the alien presence. Later, Ellen and Putnam encounter what looks like Frank but is really one of the impersonating aliens. Putnam and Ellen are bemused and suspicious at George’s suddenly changed, vacant manner, and his new habit of looking at the sun without squinting or blinking. Putnam sees an arm lying oustreteched from behind a rock, and assuing it’s Frank’s and that he’s been killed, hurriedly slips away with Ellen. Frank isn’t dead, however, and he awakens to the reality-warping sight of George awakeneing from unconsciousness with his alien double standing over him: the double assures the two men that they won’t be harmed. By the time Putnam and Ellen bring Warren back to the site, all evidence of the strange event is gone.
Arnold is a difficult filmmaker to describe, largely because he was such a no-nonsense talent at his height, his images charged with an igneous solidity, and yet able to conjure a sense of the numinous at will. It Came From Outer Space and Tarantula are brisk, supremely efficient films, both running 80 minutes, but packing in tight, well-told narratives that nonetheless aren’t mere narrative machines, but convey a sense of atmosphere and off-hand human detail as humdrum worlds suddenly begin to come apart at the seams. Something of Arnold’s skill is best conveyed by the scene where Putnam and Ellen encounter the alien that’s replaced George: Arnold adopts the alien viewpoint as it lurks behind the couple as they search for the linemen, only to have the creature extend a nebulous tendril that becomes a hand and touches Ellen on the shoulder, a clever special effect flourish that also provides an example of Arnold’s inventive use of the still-very new 3D frame, the required dimensional effect looming into the depth of the frame rather than out. The dark fairytale atmosphere is amplified by the way the aliens loom around the desert environs and leave trails behind them, like snails, only their passing is marked by a glittering dust that fades away after a time, claiming their human hosts in a whirl of steam and gold.
When Putnam spots ‘Frank’ and ‘George’ walking the main street of Sand Rock, he follows them and confronts them: the two doubles, holding back within the shadows of a building, don’t bother trying to fool Putnam, and assure him they need to be left to go about their business. Whenever the alien doubles are heard to speak, Arnold has their voices dubbed with ADR recording and slightly treated, so they sound disembodied. The choice of focusing part of the narrative on the two linemen, who also represent Putnam’s only real friends in the locale and who are in their way something like the film’s poetic Greek chorus at first, was personal on Bradbury’s part, as his father had worked that job in Tucson. Their replacement signals an assault on the salt-of-the-earth portion of Sand Rock whilst authority, represented by Warren, is forced gradually to concede something funny’s going on, but then becomes increasingly paranoid and frantic. Warren calls in Putnam and Ellen after dismissing their entreaties repeatedly, when Frank’s wife (Virginia Mullen) and George’s girlfriend Jane (Kathleen Hughes) report the two men have vanished together after stopping at their homes, acting strangely, and heading off with all their clothes. Warren also tells Putnam about electrical equipment being stolen all around town, after Putnam suggests the linemen were targeted for their service truck with its equipment. Ellen is soon waylaid on the road by Frank’s double and then claimed by the aliens, and a double of her appears to Putnam to lead him to a rendezvous with the alien leader in the old mind shaft. Putnam demands to see the alien’s real form before he’ll agree to try and keep the town at bay, but when the alien emerges, looking something like a cross between a slug and a bent penis with one glowing eye. Even the open-minded and rational Putnam cringes in horror before something so radically different.
Something of the film’s power and originality for its time is still conveyed by this vividly staged moment, which has always stuck in my mind like a fishhook, as well a subsequent, subtler scene where Putnam, talking over the incident with Warren later and needs a reference point for dealing with the unfamiliar. Putnam points to a scuttling tarantula on the ground and asks the sheriff what he’d do if the spider came for him, whereupon Warren simply stands on the bug, illustrating Putnam’s concerns precisely. That Arnold had similar wartime experience to Gene Roddenberry, who would later dedicate so much of Star Trek to investigating the same preoccupations as It Came From Outer Space, particularly the problem of recognising the value of intelligent life that looks and acts very differently, doesn’t feel coincidental. Later, in his squirming, ratcheting anxiety, Warren comments that more murders are committed at 92˚ Fahrenheit than at any other temperature (a speech Bradbury also deployed in his short story ‘Touched With Fire’), prior to forming a posse to root out the infesting interlopers, in a wry sidelong swipe at Western film conventions here that connects with the film’s sceptical attitude about the rousing of the communal hive, a motif with telling meaning in the context of McCarthyism’s height. Putnam is a more thoughtful and pacifistic answer to High Noon’s (1952) Will Kane as the bulwark between community and chaos. As Warren goes on the warpath, the posse causes the death of Frank’s double by catching him a roadblock and shooting at his truck until he swerves and crashes.
Perhaps the most affecting aspect of It Came From Outer Space however is that whilst it’s sci-fi in basic plot and themes, in style and mood it moves closer to fable-like fantasy, pervaded with aspects of dream logic. The aliens take on and cast off human apparel at will and travel about by flying, almost like thought. Frank’s monologue about the desert sets up a drama where reality is unstable, changelings lurk as in ancient folklore. Ellen’s alien double appears to Putnam, having changed from her usual prim apparel into a billowing black gown. This is the sort of touch which can trip a camp alarm in a modern viewer, but there is a reasonably clever motive behind it – knowing that Putnam is both their potential best ally and also most aggravating foe, the aliens have absorbed enough about humans to play on Putnam’s desire for Ellen to make him react just a little off kilter, and later almost manage to kill him by playing on this exactly. It also of course works on other levels, invoking familiar fantastical metaphor for erotic transformation, alien double Ellen embodying witchy femininity tantalising and dangerous, skirting metaphors more usually the province of vampire movies. When Putnam tries to outrun Warren’s posse and approach the aliens through the mine, Ellen’s double appears to him again and tries to fool him to falling into a crevice, as the aliens are now in the defensive. She shoots at him with an energy weapon that resembles a wand, further smudging the line between genre imagery. The ‘wand’, in a strong, simple special effect, carves great ruts in the stone walls behind Putnam, who fires back with his pistol, striking the alien who transforms back into its true form before plunging into the crevice and seeming to dissolve in the water pooling there.
Finally Putnam manages to reach the alien ship and confronts their gang of doppelgangers, including the one that’s taken on his own appearance. The alien Putnam warns off his human counterpart as he turns on the repaired drive for the spaceship, a thrumming mechanism exuding obscure but dazzling cosmic power: “You know how long we’ve worked on this? A thousand years of reaching for the stars.” The alien explains they were travelling on to their true destination only to be forced to crash-land on Earth, and intend to travel on. Putnam convinces the aliens to release their human captives and in exchange they’ll hold off the posse long enough to let the spaceship blast off, which they do by dynamiting the entrance to the mine. Finally the spaceship blasts off out of the crater, watched in awe by the humans, whilst Putnam anticipates a time when the two species will meet again and humanity is evolved enough to countenance it. This notion of a first contact that doesn’t entirely take is still a relatively underserved one, although the film’s narrative shape was likely remembered by pielberg for E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
Tarantula is both a companion piece to It Came From Outer Space and also a counterpoint to it in key respects. Where the earlier film is humanistic and curious and close to unique, Tarantula involves the overtly monstrous and inimical, and exemplifies a more familiar genre template. The story is driven by the failure of the same kind of Promethean scientific project that the aliens have finally succeeded in. It also inverts the core romantic situation by making protagonist Dr Matt Hastings (John Agar) a man reasonably happy in the stolid role of a doctor in another small Arizona town, this one with the slightly amended name of Desert Rock, who quickly falls under the sway of a glamorous young biology doctoral student, Stephanie ‘Steve’ Clayton (Corday), who embodies the siren call of a changing world beyond and arrives on the bus. Steve comes to town to take up a job as a research assistant to renowned scientist Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll). Deemer has set up a laboratory in an isolated ranch house in the desert along with two doctoral students also as assistants, Eric Jacobs and Paul Lund (both played by Eddie Parker), to work on his new project of synthesising a food hormone that can make plants and animals grow faster and larger, to cure world hunger. The opening shot I mentioned earlier sees Jacobs, face disfigured, stumbling through the desert and collapsing dead, before the opening titles roll. Jacobs’ body is found and inspected by Matt, who is bewildered by what was clearly a case of acromegalia but couldn’t possibly have developed as fast as its seems to in the course of a few days, and he approaches Deemer to learn more. Deemer confirms Jacobs had acromegalia and won’t say more, or allow an autopsy.
When Deemer returns to his house he enters his laboratory, which is filled with test animals, many of which have grown vastly outsized thanks to an experimental growth serum he and his collaborators have been developing, with the aim of increasing food supplies for a growing, hungry world population. In a neat visual joke-cum-flash of exposition, Arnold shows Deemer injecting the serum into a normal tarantula, whilst, in the background, offering sight of a tarantula already dosed several times, grown to be the size of a Great Dane and kept in a glass case. Deemer is assaulted by Lund, who has also developed acromegalia: Lund swings a chair at Deemer and smashes the big tarantula’s case, and the monstrous animal crawls ponderously out the door and vanishes in the desert whilst the two men fight and the lab catches afire. Lund knocks Deemer out and injects his prone form with the serum, before dropping dead, whilst most of the test animals perish in the fire. Deemer buries Lund’s body and acts as if nothing happened when Steve comes to work for him, and with Matt constantly popping by with questions about Jacob as well as interest in Steve. As Deemer begins to rapidly succumb to both acromegalia and accompanying mental instability, his ever-growing pet project stalks the hills and dales around Desert Rock eating up horses, cattle ranchers, and other hapless locals with voracious appetite.
Tarantula is close in setting and story to Gordon Douglas’ mighty Them! (1954), swapping out many giant ants for one huge arachnid, and because its creation involves radiation it counts as one of the many atomic monsters that lumbered across screens. Tarantula doesn’t have the dramatic force or sweep of Them! or the iconic stature of Godzilla (1954), but in one respect it’s more cogent than either, in the way it connects the monster with its creation: the tarantula isn’t spawned by accident, but is conceived as an expression of a utopian project that ultimately proves ill-conceived, quite apart from thinking making a predatory spider huge a good idea. The cleverly structured story opens with the destructive fallout of the savants’ experimenting and over-enthusiastic attempts to prove their formula a success, but just what transpired is only slowly clarified, that Lund and Jacobs were so eager to prove the serum worked despite its instability they injected themselves and fell victim to the artificially induced acromegalia. Lund’s rampage in the laboratory reflects both the serum’s corrosive impact but also an expression of enraged frustration, resulting him in sentencing his colleague Deemer to a slow and awful death like his own. Much as the giant monster allowed filmmakers to tackle the subject of the atomic bomb without seeming to, the motif of bodily poisoning and degeneration here touches on the consequences of nuclear fallout, the signature of the age written in distorted and misshapen bodies.
Tarantula gains much from Carroll’s performance, his low-key air of calm ideal for playing a scientist compelled by intellectual curiosity rather than emotional display, an essentially decent but fatefully tunnel-visioned genius, and one who slowly starts to disintegrate in mind and body as Lund’s dose starts to take hold. The presence of a respected character actor like Carroll said something about the lifting horizons and respectability of ’50 sci-fi cinema, approaching the movement’s highpoints in production terms with This Island Earth (1955) and Forbidden Planet (1956), and was paid tribute in turn via the mischievous wordplay of genre film lampoon-cum-lampoon The Rocky Horror Picture Show twenty years later. Agar, not an actor I’m fond of at the best of times, is nonetheless solid as Matt, who has an engaging character arc as the local lad of modest talent who, a little like Putnam, is faced with incredulity, in his case when he insists that Jacobs couldn’t have developed acromegalia so quickly, but finds it was certainly the cause of death when he performs an autopsy after at last gaining Deemers’ permission. Local sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva), Matt’s friend but also sceptical about his talent weighed against Deemer’s opinion, teases him mercilessly about the wrong call, but as Matt digs he begins to piece together the picture of what happened at the laboratory.
A chunk of Tarantula’s first half is given over to romantic business as Matt and Steve flirt up a storm, in the kinds of scenes genre fans likely groan over a bit then and now, even if it is solid character business that’s properly connected with the plot. Tarantula can’t entirely escape the usual awkwardness sci-fi movies of the period often wielded in trying to deal with the idea of a female scientist, with even Deemer taken aback by getting a research assistant who looks like a Playboy model (as Corday would become in 1958): “I didn’t expect someone who looked like you…I’m sorry my dear, that was supposed to be a compliment.” It benefits, however, from Arnold’s relative matter-of-factness on the issue – when Matt makes a quip about giving women the vote leading to “lady scientists,” he pitches it as an inside gag between them, and she quickly proves her abilities in helping Deemer rebuild the lab and prepare the serum. Nor does she collapse into a screaming damsel in the climactic scenes, as she recognises the spider has discovered the road will lead it to more food – that is, Desert Rock. Her masculine nickname nudges the spectacle in the ribs a little even as Steve is presented as all woman, down to her improbably chic wardrobe. Whilst all of the tarantula’s victims are male, the film builds to a phobic crescendo inhabiting a realm of fervent psychological symbolism when the by-now monumental tarantula crawls towards Deemer’s house on the search for morsel and sets its eyes on Steve within, the monstrous form without the ultimate depiction of the septic id envisioning itself, drooling literally over the female body within.
Corday, a model, dancer, singer and actress, was a minor starlet around Hollywood for a few years, was given her first starring role by Arnold for the Western The Man From Bitter Spring (1955), and with Tarantula was making the first of the three monster movies for which she’s mostly remembered today (along with The Giant Claw, 1957, and The Black Scorpion, 1957). Whilst her movie career waned soon after, she remains one of the more interesting starlets to feature in the era’s genre cinema, displaying a confident poise and edge of humour that largely remained untapped. She’s just about the only good thing about The Giant Claw, for instance, playing the sceptical, sarcastic love interest, and anyone who can look as keen as she does whilst being romanced by John Agar deserves an Oscar. Years later, after being out of movies for a couple of decades, she was given some small parts in movies by her friend Clint Eastwood, who appears at the end of Tarantula in a small but vital early part of his own, after having appeared in Revenge of the Creature for Arnold. There’s a hint of an in-joke to Arnold casting Paiva, who had been the boisterous and hardy Brazilian riverboat captain Lucas in The Creature From The Black Lagoon and usually played Latin caricatures, as an all-American sheriff. Brief but surprisingly good comic relief comes Hank Patterson as Josh, the bashful but stickybeaked desk clerk in the hotel where Matt also has his practice, who likes to listen in on Matt’s phone calls and tries flirting unsuccessfully with Steve.
The monster movie portion of Tarantula doesn’t really get going until the second half, apart from brief shots privileged to the audience of the growing spider stalking across the long, straight highway that links Desert Rock with Deemer’s house, and Arnold sets himself the challenge of abandoning the noirish lilt he gave to the desert scenes in It Came From Outer Space and instead evoking menace in the locale at its most glaringly sunlit. When Matt and Steve stop for a cigarette break by an awesome outcropping of stone (Dead Man’s Point again), they scan the horizon like their precursors in It Came From Outer Space and meditate on the desert’s strange power, as Matt comments, “Everything that ever walked or crawled on the face of the Earth – swum the depths of the ocean – soared through the skies left its imprint here.” Steve notes it was once a sea floor, and Matt comments they can still find seashells here, and looks from the air like “something from another life…serene, quiet, yet strangely evil, as if it were hiding its secret from man.” This proves literal, as something starts an avalanche of rock from the peak of the outcrop, and when Matt and Steve drive off the legs of the tarantula stir behind the formation. Of course any tarantula growing over a certain size would soon collapse for the weight of its own exoskeleton and suffocate for lack of lungs, but let’s not worry about that.
What is important is Arnold’s depicting of the tarantula on the loose – attacking a ranch, grabbing a cattle truck and hurling it off the road, and chasing down a pair of itinerant labourers camping out. Arnold conjures flickers of nightmarish dread with his images of the colossal spider stalking across landscapes, barging its way through power lines as the currents spark and arc, and falling on dwarfed and hapless human victims. Clifford Stine’s special effects rely on a photographically enlarged tarantula for the most part, and whilst it’s a pity the film didn’t have Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen on hand, and there are occasional superimposition problems, the effects are sufficient and effective in large part because of their simplicity. One particularly potent shot offers the two labourers drinking coffee around their campfire and sharing a joke, whilst the tarantula ponderously crawls over the ridge above them and down towards them with quiet, remorseless focus, until the two men notice it too late. Arnold uses high crane shots to mimic the viewpoint of the tarantula looming over and pouncing on its screaming prey. The tarantula leaves only the bones of its food and large pools of venom for the investigators to puzzle over: Matt, analysing and realising what the venom is, soon tries to bring in outside help, but events begin to outpace him, as Deemer in his deranged state tries to stop Steve talking to Matt on the phone.
Along the way Tarantula squeezes in some off-hand commentary on the responsibility of different forms of authority in crises in addition to the central theme of Deemer’s experiment-gone-wrong, and continuing on from It Came From Outer Space’s portrait of hysterical authority versus wise restraint, here finally more idealised as the threat is hostile and deadly. Surveying the perplexing and mysterious signs left by the tarantula’s attack on the cattle truck, Matt encourages local journalist Joe Burch (Ross Elliott) to simply describe it as a road accident, in case too many vague and alarming details spark a panic. Matt’s methodical approach is meanwhile valorised – he is after all the hero, but then that’s also why he’s the hero – as he refuses to be fobbed off with vague explanations and the intimidating impact of professional stature.
When Matt rushes to the ranch house, he finds the contrite Deemer ready to explain all that’s transpired, and mourning the marvellous results of his experiments lost in the fire. Steve thinks his story is the product of his unbalanced mind, but Matt begins to fit the pieces together. He flies to Phoenix to consult with biologist Prof. Townsend, who backs up his analysis of the venom. Here we get shoehorned in one of those informative little educational movies within a movie detailing the characteristics of a real tarantula: Townsend comments as they watch the film that the tarantula “doesn’t know the meaning of fear,” and foreshadows the climax of the film as he explains the tarantula’s great enemy is a species of wasp, a flying foe. Meanwhile back at the ranch (ha), as Deemer languishes in bed, increasingly disfigured by his advancing disease, and Steve prepares to sleep, the tarantula approaches and attacks the house, and begins crushing the building as it scrambles to get at the morsels within. Deemer is consumed by his own creation, whilst Matt turns up in time to whisk Steve off along the highway with the monster in pursuit.
The main problem with Tarantula as a monster movie is that can’t sustain its action as well as Arnold managed with The Creature From The Black Lagoon, which, one it dispensed with mystery and set-up, was sustained by the relentless attacks of its human-sized antagonist. Tarantula also suffers a little from a rather jerky pace, essentially compressing the inevitable battle to hold the spider at bay into the last ten minutes. Arnold still infuses the inevitable moment of confrontation with the primal horror stalking down the highway for the chieftains of Desert Rock with notes of deadpan humour as well as suspense – the Sheriff’s exclamation of “Jumpin’ Jupiter!” when he spots the tarantula, is one of many moments Arnold seems to be inviting the audience to fill in less censor-friendly comments. The town paltry ranks of official guardians snap into action with Matt helping, as they raid all the supplies of dynamite in Desert Rock and plant it on the highway, blowing it up when the tarantula marches over it, but barely singing a hair on his legs.
Finally, as the tarantula nears Desert Rock, a flight of air force jets ride in like the cavalry. This provides a reminder that all monster movies are made to some extent or other in the mould of King Kong (1933). The jets fire rockets at the spider, but fail to do much damage; it’s only when they hit it with napalm that the spider is consumed in a great writhing fireball, halted right at the fringe of the town. As a climax this is both spectacular, and represents a flourish of personal satisfaction for the former pilot Arnold, but also a rather terse and practical one, as the film immediately fades out on the sight of the tarantula burning. Notably, the young Eastwood plays the commander of the attacking planes, but his face is obscured by his flight mask; there is no real hero here, the actual job of bringing down the monster an impersonal business performed by professionals wielding hard military force. For that it feels peculiarly realistic and indeed anticlimactic compared to the many variations on the Aliens (1986) get-away-from-her-you-bitch ending where lone plucky protagonists have to face down monstrous adversaries in more recent monster movies. Still, it has dimensions that echo beyond its immediate purpose – the use of napalm as emblem of the American military’s prowess would take on a rather less heroic meaning a decade or so later.
A vast number of sci-fi and monster movie directors have painstakingly recreated Arnold’s juxtapositions of mood and setting – Steven Spielberg on Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), John Carpenter with Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1979), Lewis Teague’s Alligator (1980), Frank Marshall’s Arachnophobia (1990), Ron Underwood’s Tremors (1990), Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996), J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (2011) and Jordan Peele’s Nope (2022) – all owe a great deal to the Arnold aesthetic. Whilst the surrealism-tinged styles of David Lynch and David Cronenberg in part represented a critique of the imprint of Arnold and other ‘50s sci-fi and Horror cinema, nonetheless both ran with elements of his films – the subplot of Tarantula involving the rapid physical degeneration of characters brought about by scientific experimentation invokes an early variation on Cronenberg’s body horror, whilst The Incredible Shrinking Man’s portrait of everyday suburbia turning threatening and relentless emasculation anticipates elements of both directors. One of the sore lacks of many contemporary directors venturing into this tradition is an ability to establish baseline normality before introducing the unreal – something Arnold made look easy. Perhaps the audience was pushed out of the normal so many times we couldn’t find our way back.