When the radiation-spawned giant ants of Them!
swarmed over American screens to become one the most successful films of 1954, it didn't take long for the rest of the insect kingdom to follow suit. The best of these mutant bug movies is Jack Arnold's giddy Tarantula
, with Leo G. Carroll as a scientist whose experimental, radiation-treated nutritional supplements transform the title creature into a rampaging monster. The hungry arachnid graduates from rabbits to cattle to people as it grows and creeps across the barren countryside in search of food, dwarfing the desert hills in simple but unsettling special effects shots. John Agar plays the square-jawed doctor who tries to warn the local populace of the impending menace and Clint Eastwood has a bit as an Air Force pilot called in to bomb the now mountain-sized spider. It's an essentially silly story with plenty of heroic dashing about and monster-movie tropes ("See its mandibles crush cars like a tin cans!"), but Arnold, one of the most talented and thoughtful genre directors of the 1950s (It Came From Outer Space
, The Incredible Shrinking Man
), creates a surprisingly eerie mood with his austere visual style and winds the film up with his tension-building rapid pacing. Composer-playwright Richard O'Brien liked the film so much he immortalized it in the Rocky Horror Picture Show
: "Leo G. Carroll was over a barrel when the Tarantula took the hills." The film still straddles the line between nostalgic goofiness and smart sci-fi thrills. --Sean Axmaker