Starring: John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll
DIR: Jack Arnold
Blurb (imdb): A spider escapes from an isolated desert laboratory experimenting in giantism and grows to tremendous size as it wreaks havoc on the local inhabitants.
Scene 01: We open, before credits, on a windswept desert landscape. We pan across a dirt tract full of tire marks, despite the wind on the soundtrack focusing on a man shambling and stumbling in exaggerated fashion.
He falls to the ground, and we see that he’s dressed in his pajamas still. Our guys gets up and his face is looking rather roughtrade… kinda like Monster on the Campus, actually.
Twisted Neander-stud forces himself to his feet to shamble a few more steps only to collapse again. Ominously for him, buzzards circle overhead. On the ground, he paws at the sand with his misshapen hand. Finally he stills, seemingly for the final time, unless you want to count that upcoming trip through a buzzard’s digestive tract.
Commentary: I do so enjoy how our unfortunate result of some Experiment Into Things Man Wasn’t Meant To Know [because what other kind are there] had the presence of mind to slip on his socks and shoes before his ill-fated desert trek.
And my god, Universal, what was up with you and the bombastic brass horns in your opening titles?
Scene 02: Back from plain credits under bombastic horns, we watch a private plane come in for a landing.
Scene 03: Our pilot, decked out in his business suit, stops in front of the Desert Rock Airport sign where he’s greeted by a single man in work clothes. Our pilot is a doctor, Matt Hastings, who is returning from delivering twins.
Commentary: Oh sure, he says that his name is Matt but I think we know better. Surely this is Doctor Cheezy-Grin Agar.
Scene 04: Matt returns to town in his convertible. When he returns to the office building/hotel in town where he keeps an office, the desk clerk tells him that the Sheriff has been burning up the phone trying to reach him.
Scene 05: Once the Sheriff is connected, the exhausted doctor is summoned on an important matter over to the Sheriff’s office. As he’s heading back out, desk clerk mentions that the Sheriff sure sounded worried. Matt tells him one of these days, he’s going to overhear something that he doesn’t like. The desk clerk asks if he is being accused of listening into the call, which Matt grinningly and bluntly says yeah to.
Scene 06: Over in the Sheriff’s office, the man informs the doctor that they’ve got a body that hasn’t been identified yet, but that the cause of death appears to be something that the Sheriff has never seen before.
The Sheriff goes on to say that he appears to be the local biologist, Jacobs, but his face is malformed in some way that the law enforcement officer would just like the doctor to look at.
Scene 07: The duo make their way through town, discussing Professor Deemer -- the local egghead who lives off in the desert and hasn’t much contact with the townsfolk. In the funeral home, Matt takes a look at the unfortunate found in the desert.
Matt tells Sheriff that the body couldn’t belong to Jacobs as whoever he is, he’s had his condition for years. At that moment, Deemer comes in, asked by the Sheriff to see if he could confirm the body’s identity before Matt returned to take a look.
To Matt’s shock, the professor identifies the corpse as that of Jacobs, a man he’d worked with for 30 years.
Scene 08: The Sheriff, Matt and Gerald return to the front parlor. The case of Dr. Jacobs is discussed where the professor makes the startling claim that all of the damage that they’ve just seen, which Deemer confirms is a case of Acromegaly despite its unheard of rapid onset, occurred in only the past four days.
Deemer suspiciously refuses the Sheriff’s suggestion that an autopsy be performed to ensure it is really Jacobs. Gerald insists that he’ll sign the death certificate himself [which, uh, I don’t think just any ol’ doctor can do on their own whim… isn’t the coroner required for that?]. He takes his leave, though his manner causes Hastings suspicion.
The Sheriff immediately takes Professor Deemer’s side because of his age and experience, but Hastings is insistent that Gerald’s claim of Jacobs’ Acromegaly is ridiculous.
Scene 09: Gerald returns to his home lab, where he immediately puts Jacobs’ death to the side and returns to his life’s work. This involves stimulating injections on various small animals which is inducing giantism.
The star attraction of the Professor’s work is… not-surprisingly… a Tarantula which has been receiving treatments for 20 days.
Scene 10: As Deemer is retrieving a monkey, another gnarly hand creeps around a doorway. We see another man suffering the same effects as we saw in poor Jacobs.
He slips up to Gerald and tries to kill him. During the altercation, he slams a chair through the glass holding back the Tarantula and chases the Professor with murder and vengeance on his mind.
Scene 11: As the two are having their confrontation, our subject arachnid strolls out the back door and into the desert.
In the meantime, Paul throttles Gerald unconscious and then sticks him with the growth injection meant for the monkey. He leaves him lying on the floor in a heap, worryingly close to an electrical fire if he wants Deemer to suffer his same fate.
Paul stumbles out into the hallway before having a collapse.
Commentary: I liked the way this scene was handled in general, but the soundtrack is a bit too loud for me, and we’re again bombarded by the horn section. But this scene was welcomed over the “neighborly townsfolk” scenes and Agar’s inability to stop grinning maniacally, even though he’s the good guy.
What I also don’t understand is how two of the Professor’s assistants were repeatedly injected, but allowed to wander the house. I’m going to assume right now that they actually volunteered for human trials despite how silly that seems but we really need to have this confirmed because otherwise it seems ridiculous that they’d allow themselves to be guinea pigs to Deemer’s mad science while not either running or fighting a lot earlier.
It’s also a bit weird to me that if Jacobs was “delirious” before the end and Paul is suffering the same symptoms, that the Professor wouldn’t have him secured as he attempted to help him -- or so the Professor claimed to be trying as he was being attacked… for not securing Paul….
Scene 12: Back in the lab, Deemer comes around as the fire starts to spread and noxious smoke fills the animal cages. He’s able to get a nearby extinguisher and tries to save the lab, not realizing yet that he’s been given a dose of agent.
Scene 13: After the fire is out, half of the lab is in ruins to Gerald’s despair. He returns to Paul in the hallway to check on his condition and retrieve the syringe in the other man’s stiff hand. To be fair, he does seem mildly upset that Paul is apparently dead.
But he changes his mind as he’s about to call for help from town.
Scene 14: Instead, we see him out in the desert night covering a shallow grave for his second dead assistant. As he’s brushing a branch over the site to hide evidence, a shadow elongates behind him.
[Right, because this elderly scientist could totally dig a grave and drag a giant dead weight out through the desert without a collapse of his own.]
This turns out to be the terrified monkey returning to his care [by being tossed at Leo from off screen].
Commentary: I’m always so nervous when I see actors handling undomesticated animals like this - monkey’s can be unpredictable no matter how well trained and Leo is doing a lot of handling of him. And the animal always seems very antsy about not being held onto, it’s just distracting.
Scene 15: The following day, Hastings drops in on Sheriff Andrews again to talk about Jacobs’ mysterious death. He’s returned from the Medical Library in Phoenix, and as he suspected there has been no cases reported anywhere of supposed Acromegaly developing suddenly as Deemer claimed happened.
Andrews can barely believe that the professor could’ve lied. Hastings is stuck on the fact that Deemer was so adamant about an autopsy not being performed on Jacobs but the Sheriff doesn’t appear to find this troubling in the least.
Hastings then turns attention to the fact that nobody knows what the science group is working on in the desert but again the Sheriff doesn’t appear in a rush to ruffle any feathers by bothering the good biology specialist.
Before the conversation can continue with Matt trying to manipulate Jack on pressing Deemer for answers on what he’s up to in the middle of nowhere, the Sheriff spots busybody newspaper editor Joe Burch marching across the street toward the office. The sheriff mentions to the doctor that he’d forgotten to drop a dime to their local newsman about Jacobs’ death.
After extended conversation, Burch offers to shake the trees out at the professor’s place in the interest of the story on behalf of Matt and see what he sees. Matt laughs that after Burch has driven the professor crazy, maybe the secretive scientist will find it relaxing to talk to him.
Commentary: I really don’t like this scene in the least. I don’t like the way it’s directed with the simple back-forth camera work on the two men, I loathe the way the sheriff is portrayed as almost dimwitted in his utterly implausible disinterest and I hate how apparently a research scientist can override the town’s medical personnel in the subject of autopsies for mysterious deaths.
The whole thing is really badly thought out script wise, and it’s just not plausible that even if the non-autopsy order stood, that the Sheriff wouldn’t at least be visiting the site where Jacobs was found and dropping in on the professor for follow-up/final report clarifications.
And now I can already tell that the News Editor is going to grate on my nerves and make me want him to meet a giant tarantula.
Scene 16: Sometime later that day, a bus pulls into Desert Rock from Phoenix. This would be the arrival of Stephanie Clayton, also known by the moniker of “Steve”.
She’s arrived to travel out to the Deemer place but finds that in a burg as small as Desert Rock, transportation is spotty this late in the afternoon. There aren’t any more buses for the day and the only cab driver in town is out on a run and won’t be back for a few hours. The desk clerk at the hotel - which is where the bus stop is located - suggests she sit in the lobby and wait, as that is pretty much the only option.
They have some “amusing” small talk until Matt Hastings comes out of his office. You remember that Matt’s office is off of the hotel lobby, right? Well, anywho, he and Steve meet and greet and since the doctor is dropping in on the professor, she hitches a ride.
Scene 17: In the car, the two exchange names and talk about Steve’s interest in the Deemer place. It turns out that she’s a graduate student in biology and was invited to intern by Doctor Jacobs due to a paper she wrote about nutrition in expanding populations.
It falls on Matt to inform her that Eric Jacobs died the day before.
Scene 18: As the doctor’s car rushes past and on its way, we see the Tarantula - now a big bigger than said car, walk across the roadway. Unfortunately for everyone, Matt Hastings doesn’t look into his rearview mirror.
Scene 19: At the Deemer place, nobody answers to Steve’s inquiries at the door. Since Burch’s car is in the driveway, Hastings tries the door and they both enter on finding it unlocked.
Scene 20: The silence was caused by our reporter/editor and the professor surveying the fire damage in his lab. It’s obvious that the professor has been lamenting the losses, but Burch is obviously more interested in the dramatic death of his co-worker, something which the professor insists he is done speaking about.
Stephanie and Matt walk in on the exchange as Professor Deemer is telling Burch’s photographer to stop snapping the flashbulb in his face. Joe and Ridley (the picture snapper) leave.
Introductions are made and while Clayton convinces the professor that she’ll be of value in his work, should he continue it, it comes out that Steve knew Paul Lund and had heard that he was actually here working with Deemer.
Gerald plays the addle-minded professor and quickly moves on from Paul’s absence with a simple “he’s no longer with us”. He turns attention to showing Stephanie his lab… or what is left of it. As they look around, Gerald says that he’s sunk all of his money into his research. Matt asks about the beaker of fluid in a containment box which Deemer identifies as a non-organic nutrient supplement that he’s been working on.
We see it’s the stuff creating giants.
The professor goes on to explain the problems that come with an expanding human population, while the food stores remain static. He sees the growing food shortage as causing the disease of hunger and like any disease fears it will spread as the global population increases. He’s been working on synthesizing an inexpensive nutrient that will stave off this coming global food shortage.
The professor goes on to share that they’re using an anionic atom to act as the bonding agent for the synthetic solution’s atoms. But further details are interrupted by a phone call.
Scene 21: The phone is actually for Matt. He’s got to leave to check on a patient, but before going he again brings up the strange case of Eric Jacobs. This time when the autopsy idea is broached, it’s Deemer who brings it up. He explains that he was upset at the death of his friend and colleague and that he now has no objections to Eric’s body being examined. Matt promises to share with the professor his findings.
Scene 22: Later that day, the Sheriff drops in on Matt and the funeral home director just after the autopsy is completed on Jacobs. Hastings has to admit that the professor’s supposition that he died as a result of his sudden-onset Acromegaly was correct. Nothing else suspicious was found during the examination.
For some reason, the fact that the professor wasn’t apparently lying leads the Sheriff to being angry that Hastings even suspected that something was amiss. He snorts and pisses and walks out with orders to get on with the internment of Eric’s body.
Commentary: Y’know, despite the lack of giant spider action I don’t have any problems with the story or the pacing. The characters are carrying things and the dialog has been good when it comes to Hastings’ confusion over Jacobs’ condition. So, it isn’t the lack of the monster rampage that is bugging me. It’s the Sheriff’s character that is really annoying.
He feels like his motivations for his personality quirks aren’t really explained, his reactions seem out of proportion to events thus far, and I think that Nestor may even be over-pantomiming his physical acting.
But it’s here also that I’m starting to worry about the rest of the film. I was expecting Hastings to discover *something*, probably something small but anomalous that would lead him back to Professor Deemer’s place with another inquiry. The fact that this basically kills Matt’s continuation in the story leaves me confused as to why he was left with nothing to justify his continued interactions with Deemer… until it hit me… Steve is still at the professor’s lab and obviously there’s going to be another 1950’s love arc mashed into this thing… ugh.
Scene 23: At the professor’s, he’s walking Steve into the basics of lab assistance as they continue working on the synthetic nutrient formula. We don’t know how long we’ve been at this, but from the professor’s compliments to Clayton, some time has passed since her arrival and start in the lab.
The professor goes on to tell Stephanie that the formula hasn’t yet been perfected, as each batch that they developed has been plagued by instability, causing one batch of formula to act radically different from following batches.
The professor then shares some data about a rabbit he’s keeping. The bunny is only six days old, but appears to be four months. In addition the professor states his tests are showing the bunny to be healthier and stronger than the baseline. But he warns her that they mustn’t act too quickly or be in a rush to claim success until such time as the instability is understood and overcome.
He says that once they lick the instability problem, they’ll be ready to move to human trials but there mustn’t be a mistake this time. As he is advising caution to Steve, his right arm is experiencing painful aching.
Commentary: It’s interesting that the dialog was treated this way, and I like it. In this commentary and advise to Stephanie, Gerald is basically telling us what happened with the two dead assistants. And, he’s hinting that maybe he wasn’t up-to-no-good, but that they’re premature exposure to prove their invention may have been a tragic mistake. Perhaps it was even a conscious, self-inflicted mistake.
I’ve really enjoyed the professor character and Leo’s performance. He’s been both suspicious, but also graceful and good humored which has kept him from coming across as the bold-type villain, while also keeping us from trusting him. We’ve seen him hiding evidence of wrong doing, but at the same time he’s not gone out of his way to block people from coming to the lab or hiding the nature of his work.
I can almost buy him as a tragic character being blinded by his altruistic need to improve the human condition, if not for that tiny observation about all of his personal assets being invested in this work. I’m definitely getting more of a shade of gray [possibly dirty, dark gray though] in Leo’s performance than a black hat vibe which I like. But, I really do need an acknowledgement about his not mentioning that lab spider’s escape into the wild… that seems like a detail, even more than hiding his assistant’s body, that really pushes him over the moral line for me. Now maybe he assumed that it would never find the food reserves necessary to keep it alive - and that’s fine, as far as it goes, but I need the character to mention it at some point because right now, it feels like the professor just kinda forgot that he had a tarantula the size of a dog hanging out in the lab that’s now missing.
Scene 24: Later that day, Steve is leaving to go into town. The professor tells her that they’ll be running some tissue samples when she returns from her outing and goes back to his note taking.
As he focuses his attention on his microscope slides, he continues rubbing at his arm. We see that the knuckles of his hand are looking more bony than they should….
Scene 25: In town, Matt is updating instructions to the hardware owner about his wife’s ailment. It doesn’t seem too serious. The Hardware Owner mentions that it’s been weeks since the two of them have flown off on a day-fishing trip, but before they can arrange it, Matt spots Stephanie out shopping.
When he learns that she’s not expected back at the lab at any specific time, he takes the opportunity to invite her to sit in the park for a bit, which she accepts.
Matt’s concerns aren't totally in striking up a relationship with her though, as he asks about Deemer. Steve is very excited to be working for the doctor, and shares the news about the six day old rabbit that has reached maturity… blabbing on as Matt’s amazement turns to looks of concern.
After her convenient data dumping, she says she really must be going and he offers her a ride out to Deemer’s.
Commentary: We can take from this scene that Steve has been working for the professor for about 5 weeks at this point, so I like that the timeline isn’t unrealistically compressed. I also like that Matt’s inquiry isn’t heavy handed… he’s not exactly suspecting villainy from the professor, he’s just still puzzled by things that haven’t been adequately explained.
What I don’t like is John’s inability to stop grinning in almost every scene! It’s almost like his face is stuck in a cheezy rictus grin… like the g’ddamned Joker. I also don’t like the way that they had Steve just blabbermouth the entire database of information about the professor’s experiments. Not only is data dumping in the most clumsy of ways, but it’s highly irregular for there not to be some sort of secrecy clause that she would be violating by discussing every frickin’ detail about the professor’s work. Even as a grad student, she should know better than to freely share information about any work that she is involved in without express consent of the professor, which makes her look irresponsible and untrustworthy.
Scene 26: On the drive through the desert, Steve is overtaken by the beauty of the vista. She asks to stop for a bit so she can just soak it all in.
The two get out and walk over to an outcropping of boulders and formations, where Matt gets philosophical. In the meantime, high above them, rocks begin to move and shift. The two are only just able to get out of the way before being buried in a rock slide.
After the initial shock, Steve laughingly says she’s had enough for the moment and they proceed on their way. They barely miss seeing the giant tarantula crawl up over the top of the outcropping of rock.
Commentary: The only thing that is really bugging (hah!) me about the spider scenes… and no, believe it or not - this isn’t about how few scenes the monster has been in… is the friggin’ blaring horn that accompanies it. The threat-horns are really overdone, and in fact, I’ve generally found the entire musical score to be intrusive - even in the quieter moments when ambient sound was doing the job just fine. I wish they’d used the music track more judiciously and cut down the decibel level of the “warning blares”, if not cut them out completely.
Scene 27: In the car, Stephanie opines in puzzlement that something must’ve caused those rocks to fall nearly crushing them both. Matt tells her that you can’t second guess the desert.
Scene 28: When they return to the professor’s, she invites him inside to take a look at her rabbit… um… the professor’s rabbit… uh… that rabbit in the cage that is mature despite only being six days old. Meanwhile, Professor Deemer watches them pull up suspiciously from inside and then rushes away before they come in the front door.
In the lab, Steve is distressed to find the rabbit has doubled in size and is suffering shaking fits. She rushes over to check on the baby rat they’d injected that morning before she left for her shopping trip to town. She finds it has also doubled in size in less than a day.
Scene 29: Upstairs, the professor is listening in and looking nervous. The phone jarringly rings in the hallway.
Once again, it’s for the doctor and once again he’s needed to check in on a patient. He jokes with Steve that one of the penalties of being a doctor is that he never gets to finish a conversation, but her mind is on the ridiculous growth rate she’s just seen.
He leaves after some flirting.
Scene 30: Steve grabs up her purchases, while the professor is waiting for her on the staircase. He confronts her on bringing Hastings uninvited to his laboratory without his permission [Hah -- if only you knew everything she’s been blabbing about your work, Doc!].
Stephanie finds it difficult to answer, as her attention is focused in fear on his misshapen chin and glaring eyes. He reads her the riot act for breaching the confidentiality of his lab space [Hah! See my last observation] until she mentions his face, at which time he dismisses her gruffly to return to her room, while he heads to the lab.
Commentary: I loved this dialog! Whatever the professor’s reason for turning nasty, he was completely right in that she had no business offering guided tours to the public in his lab and that it shouldn’t have needed to be explicated to her that any research she was involved in would be assumed to be confidential unless he told her otherwise. It was pretty awesome to see her dressed down for this lack of propriety.
But what really made the scene for me was the acting between Leo and Mara in this scene. Both of them did some very nice work as he tried to ignore what is happening to him, while she was so taken aback by the changes in his appearance as to be unable to respond. The face acting especially from Mara was wonderfully expressive and she really did feel like a grad student being berated for messing up from her mentor and boss, while also struggling with the fact that something has clearly happened while she was away.
Just some great acting between these two in this confrontation scene.
Scene 31: In the lab, Professor Deemer grabs a mirror to look more closely at his face. He recognizes the changes that he saw before in his assistants and picking up a syringe, he looks at it in thought… and perhaps a despairing acceptance over what must’ve happened during his lost fight with Paul.
Commentary: Again, this is some really solid face-acting from Leo G. Carroll that tells us everything we need to know about what is going through Gerald’s mind without any dialog.
Scene 32: Meanwhile, Matt has returned to the rockslide because he’s still bothered by the incident, too. He’s startled by the arrival of the Sheriff out to some old ranch owner’s who was in a state on the phone and claiming that something was eating his cattle.
He invites Matt along for the company.