Friday, July 20, 2012

Jack Arnold Builds a Better Big Bug in Tarantula (1955)



I like big bugs and I cannot lie. From Them! to the Mimic trilogy, these giant creepy-crawlers always fascinated me with their M.C. Escher-esque distortions of scale. On the other hand, finding big bug movies that are actually worth watching can be a challenge, since the overwhelming majority of them are low-budget, low-talent rip-offs of better movies.

Jack Arnold's Tarantula is one of the better big bug movies from the 50s, the second best movie of its type after Them!. I can't add much more to what has already been said about the quality of Tarantula as a movie, but I've decided to post about it anyway to look back at its impressive effects work. In our modern era where Hollywood's overreliance CGI technology has drained the creative spark out of many horror and sci-fi titles, Tarantula stands as a textbook example of how talented people can make a simple optical illusion yield amazing results. Read on for my complete retrospective, which includes video clips.

The big bug movies of the 50s brought their macro-monsters to life by using one of three methods: scale-sized puppets, stop-motion animation, and/or shooting real bugs with miniature sets and then compositing that footage with human actors and human-sized sets through techniques such as rear-screen projections and traveling mattes. Them! and The Deadly Mantis used the first method, and The Black Scorpion used the second method. Arnold used the third method in Tarantula--as did another filmmaker, Bert I. Gordon, during the same decade for the giant monster movies he shot. The end results from both filmmakers couldn't be more different, as you can see in the clips below.

Arnold's Tarantula:



Gordon's Beginning of the End and Earth vs. The Spider:



Arnold would later build upon his experience with distorting the size of a spider in The Incredible Shrinking Man, where he had to reduce actor Grant Williams from human-sized to microscopic:



On the other hand, Gordon shot so many giant monster movies during his career that earned the nickname "Mr. Big", but his creative output strongly suggests that he never learned to refine his trick photography techniques. For example, the giant ants in his Empire of the Ants look just as hokey as his grasshoppers in The Beginning of the End, even though the films were shot two decades apart:



Not all of the spider shots in Tarantula are perfect. A spider's leg simply vanishes into thin air in one shot, while the spider appears to be walking over--and not on--the desert's surface in another shot. The spider's exact size also shifts between shots, and it never casts a shadow on the desert no matter how big it gets. In spite of these drawbacks, the overall effect works much better than you think it should.

I believe that a lot of the film's success is due to how well the spider is placed within the shot and how the spider remains opaque, even in daylight desert shots. By keeping the details of the spider's body concealed, it forces the viewer to concentrate on the spider's body motion instead of the smaller details that could give away the spider's true scale. Then again, the spider's slow, creeping motions suggest a creature of a large size and weight; these motions build a sense of impending doom whenever it closes in on a victim. Compare that to Gordon's bugs, whose twitchy, jerky motions betray their actual sizes. Furthermore, compare Arnold's work in Tarantula to other movies where the "giant" insects, spiders, and lizards--and even rabbits--are shown in complete detail and in full lighting in composite shots with actors, and the difference in quality becomes apparent:





For a special effects technique that is comparative simple in terms of both concept and execution, it's still amazing that Arnold remains one of the few directors to actually get it right. (Of course, having a solid script also helps, since Tarantula is also better written than most of its counterparts.) Tarantula may not be the best creature feature ever made, but it's a welcome respite for horror fans who have reached their limit of CGI effects and want to see an example of when a filmmaker's knowledge of photography, scale and illusion could produce amazing results on a modest budget.




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