There’s a complete stockpile of ’50s classic sci-fi devices here: desert setting (with a wandering mutant), wacko scientist (and his sketchy lab, which gets burned up), an isolated community with its locals, assorted authorities, and, of course, a large creature.
Although there’s no nuclear blast, the bugbear atom is not sitting still; there’s a radioactive isotope involved. Professor Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) is busy cooking up growth hormones (“non-organic nutrients”) for animals and for human experiments. As we expect, things get out of hand there…
No time wasted getting clued-in, as the dying mutant (in his pjs) starts things off. Then, Dr. Hastings (John Agar, Sheriff Andrews (Nestor Paiva), and Deemer examine Mr. Mutant (Dr. Jacobs). At first we’re dealing with an oddball disease, acromegaly.
Meanwhile, back at the lab with Deemer, messing with gigantic rats and guinea pigs, and…a tarantula. His goal is to boost the world’s food supply. So, as many critics have asked, why not grow giant cows, pigs, and chickens? Well, skip logic–there’s mayhem in progress–another mutant, with requisite pjs, attacks Deemer. In the scuffle flammable stuff causes a blaze, stuff’s knocked over…So, less than :15 minutes in, the tarantula (no pjs), is tootling out the front door. The second mutant is toast, but Deemer puts the fire out.
Stephanie/Steve (Mara Corday), another lab prospect, rolls in, just as Hastings and the local newspaper guy Joe Burch (Ross Elliot) plan to take a peek at Deemer’s, so all three head out. The tarantula follows at a discrete distance. Stephanie/Steve immediately starts work. But, strangely, it’s only at this point that Deemer talks about trying out the nutrient on humans. Haven’t two guys already ‘tested’ it pretty thoroughly by dying? Another discrete Tarantula sighting. No one’s seen it yet and lived to tell the tale.
Weirdly, Deemer tries the stuff on himself; he knows it messes people up. But why does it cause mutation in humans, but just growth in animals? The final dagger (steak knife?) in the world food supply deal comes when the carnivorous tarantula chews up cattle. A food supply that cannibalizes itself is sort of a non-starter.
After :50 minutes in, the tarantula finally goes public, with the obligatory two guys in an old truck getting the treatment. Hastings scopes out the gooey stuff the tarantula leaves around its victims. Steve, grossed out by Deemer, gets Hastings to hi-tail it to the lab (tarantula looming by). Deemer tells Hastings what’s more or less obvious, but doesn’t explain the divergent effects of the nutrient.
Hastings puts two and two together (spider venom plus giant creatures equals giant tarantula) as he consults with a biologist. Not to miss any of the stock situations of this genre, now it’s two miners showing up for the tarantula’s dinner.
Well, it takes a bit of prodding for Hastings to get the sheriff motivated “The State Police?! You must be drunk!” Fittingly, the tarantula comes home, so to speak, and demolishes Deemer’s place. Now car-loads of cops square off with the tarantula. Dynamite should do the trick–dang! Not so much. It’s about to hit Main Street just as a handy squadron of Shooting Stars napalms it.
Done. Pretty good stuff. Tarantula starts and ends strongly, but lags a bit in the middle. In this sort of isolated setting, it’s sensible that the creature isn’t going to appear in another setting–i.e., to attack Phoenix. (The very influential Them! from the previous year successfully got its giant critters from an isolated spot to L.A., but those ants could fly).
There’s too much time spent with Hastings courting Steve/Stephanie. We sort of have to start all over, because she wasn’t in the crucial opening scenes. It would’ve been better to have her at the lab from the beginning, already suspicious of Deemer’s experiments, and already hooked up with Hastings. That would free up some time for the tarantula to began its slinking about earlier.
The tarantula itself comes across fairly well, despite most of its appearances showing it just superimposed on the scene. It’s decidedly menacing, literally carving people up. For once, it might’ve helped having some more preparation for the denouement; the air strike comes unexpectedly.
Tarantula is entertaining, but struggles somewhat to maintain the pace (and interest) of the first part. The premise worked well for the most part (the exception being the horror motif of the mutants), and the acting measured up.
Farmermouse naturally liked the big rats; he’ll give Tarantula seven fighter jets. 7/10.