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Stephanie 'Steve' Clayton: "What DOES it look like?" (re: the desert)
Dr. Matt Hastings: "Oh, like something from another life. Serene, quiet, yet strangely evil as if it were hiding its secret from Man."
Stephanie: "You make it sound so, um... so creepy."
Matt: "The unknown always is."

A 1955 movie, so it’s giant creature due to radiation time! A movie with a giant spider, so not good for arachnophobes, but a fun movie if you’re okay with the title monster.

When you first start watching this one, you may be confused as to what movie this is. A strange looking man-like creature wanders the desert, looking confused, and then promptly collapses. The mystery of his condition and death starts the ball rolling and introduces us to most of the main cast, Doctor Matt Hastings (John Agar), sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva), and Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll), while local reporter Joe Burch (Ross Elliott), tried to glean the situation as not a lot happens in their corner of Arizona, so is eager to learn more.

"I must have left my car keys around here somewhere!"

Dr. Hastings isn’t exactly happy about how Deemer explained away Eric Jacobs, who was our malformed man from earlier, changed so dramatically in so short of time; the disease that he supposedly had was acromegaly, which normally takes years to manifest so blatantly. Dr. Hastings is suspicious of the whole thing, and Deemer and his colleagues keeping themselves and their experiments isolated from the local town of Desert Rock, which itself is quite isolated in the first place, doesn’t help allay that suspicion.

We then follow Deemer to his mansion and see his lab where several oversized creatures are in cages and tanks, including the titular tarantula that is the size of a dog. Deemer is suddenly attacked by another deformed colleague who injects him with something while the lab catches fire. Deemer is able to wake in time to extinguish the fire and save some of the work, but the tarantula escapes in the confusion. The attacker has died in the scuffle, and Deemer deals with that on his own.

"I'm the star of this film, you can't keep me in here!"

Eventually science student Stephanie ‘Steve’ Clayton (Mara Corday) arrives, and after some obligatory 50s sexism about women voting and becoming scientists, we find out she’s here to join Deemer’s team as a lab assistant. Once at Deemer’s isolated estate, our main couple (and by association, we the audience) find out that the reason for the oversized animals we saw previously that Deemer presumes have all died in the fire, is that they are working on a serum to increase livestock animal size to ensure the world has enough food, and of course since it’s the 50s, a radioactive isotope is part of this formula.

We mostly follow Matt and ‘Steve’ from there, as she works with professor Deemer and Matt bouncing between courting Steve and being called to bizarre occurrences as the tarantula continues to grow and starts attacking livestock in the area, leaving behind sizable puddles of venom at the scene that causes a lot of confusion over what is actually attacking the animals.

Deemer begins to change as the injection affects him much like it did to the other two now deceased scientists that were working with him on the food project, and between this and her telling Matt about how she saw a rabbit injected grow from a baby to full sized in seconds has our lead doctor very suspicious.

Matt finds out that the substance he found at the livestock deaths, and later at attacks on some of the locals, including them finding a truck that the creature assaulted, is in fact tarantula venom, although Doctor Townsend (Raymond Bailey), finds that so much of it being found is very odd.

Steve and Deemer are having some issues as his deformity grows more severe and he becomes more difficult to work with. Matt arrives at the mansion and together with Deemer and Steve, they realize what they are dealing with, while Deemer’s condition grows worse. As the personal drama of the main cast plays out, we see that the tarantula has grown so large that it casually knocks down power poles as it strides across the desert.

"We need a tarantula crossing sign, and hurry!"

Armed with proof of the monster’s existence, and after a harrowing encounter for Steve, Deemer, and Matt at Deemer's mansion, the town has to work out how to deal with the thing as it makes its way towards Desert Rock. A local military bases gets called, explosives are placed, jets fly in to attack the giant arachnid, and it all ends fairly abruptly when we consider it had so much tension building for a large chunk of the film.

The special effects are mostly practical effects, with Doctor Deemer’s transformation makeup being grotesque (for the 50s) and well-done. The other two transformed scientists are decent enough, if not as good as his. The Tarantula is mostly done by superimposing an actual tarantula on the film, although the close-ups of its face as it attacks Deemer’s place near the end is some kind of mock-up. This does help the monster be more frightening, as even great 50s monster movies can fail on the monster models a bit. I find Them! to be a better movie overall, and will review it soon, but the ant models aren’t great. They do work, but modern audiences may find them not very convincing. Using an actual tarantula for most scenes with the monster helps this film significantly.

The acting is actually quite good. The main cast is especially believable, and the supporting cast do a solid job too. I didn’t find a single performance that felt phoned-in or lackadaisical. This is another foible of some of these ‘B’ movies; if the cast comes off badly, the movie will too, although sometimes it can be humorous when that happens, it can also ruin immersion, and that’s not a problem here.

Where it does let us down a bit is mostly the fact that the spider remains hidden for far too long. At first, it’s not that big, and it’s in the desert near a small, isolated town and mansion, so that early part is fine, but later on, when it can pick up a truck in its mandibles and toss it like a plaything, there’s no way it should still be hidden! This is doubly true after livestock is disappearing and it even attacks a farmer that comes out to see what the noise is. When it’s so huge that it towers over the power poles, and yet still unknown for so long, it pushes the suspension of disbelief a little too far. Some of the comments to Steve are very 50s, but also sexist as I mentioned earlier, and I would have preferred had they not gone there in the first place, although at least they don’t dwell on it for long.

Overall, a fun movie with a few, mostly minor flaws. If you enjoy giant monster movies, you’ll find a lot to like here. It’s one of the better examples of this genre of films from this time.

--The main cast here; John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll, Nestor Paiva, and Ross Elliott, all had significant acting careers, including other monster and sci-fi movies.

--John Agar was married to Shirley Temple for a time. He wasn’t a fan of being called ‘Mr. Shirley Temple’ and he drank heavily due to that, so they divorced, and he went from a sought-after leading man to a B-Movie actor due to his drinking, and the associated problems he had with it.

--In addition to the above point, when he was asked about being known mostly for his B movies, he didn’t seem to mind at all.

--Raymond Bailey is best known for being Mister Drysdale from The Beverly Hillbillies.

--The jet squadron commander is a very young and uncredited Clint Eastwood.

--Others have asked this as well, but if you’re going for increased food supply by growing larger animals, why a tarantula? While there are some that do or would consider them food at least to a point, it’s not exactly a popular idea today, much less in 1955.

Three giant arachnids out of four.

Morella is a Gen Xer who likes strange things a bit too much.

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