Compare And Contrast: TARANTULA vs THE SPIDER

I’ve been asked about a phrase I used in an earlier post re one motion picture being a better film while another was a better movie. This kind of distinction can be made in any art form, any media, but for English speakers “film” and “movie” describe two ways of enjoying a motion picture.

I could blather on, but rather than discuss the matter in abstract terms, I’ll use two perfect examples to illustrate my point: The giant monster movies Tarantula (Universal 1955) and Earth Vs. The Spider (AIP 1958) a.k.a. The Spider.

CnC TvS a2

They’re similar enough yet different enough to demonstrate my thesis. Both hinge on the same basic plot: Giant arachnid threatens remote community.

But each is significantly different.

Tarantula is a Universal production directed by Jack Arnold, Universal’s go-to guy for 1950s sci-fi. It’s well written, well produced (a B-picture from a major studio), well cast[1], and with good make-up and special effects[2].  The Spider, on the other hand, was a Bert I. Gordon production for AIP. Story is minimal bordering dumb, cast (aside from a pair of stalwart minor supporting characters) is merely adequate, and the effects are not-so-special.

Of course, it’s tons o’fun and far more entertaining than the Universal film.

Now, it’s fair to point out much of The Spider’s entertainment value comes from its campiness (such as twentysomethings playing high school students), but the truth is it’s a much faster paced and exciting movie.

Tarantula offers some handwaveum explanation for its big arachnid[3], The Spider skips all that: Their audience just shelled out sixty-five cents to see a movie about a giant spider so there’s no need to waste time with explanations where it came from.

For that same reason, there’s no futzing around by the characters, wondering if there’s a giant monster on the loose or not: The teen heroes convince their high school science teacher and the local sheriff with remarkable ease and they all go to confront the beast in her cave with a tanker truck full of DDT.[4]

This refreshing head-on approach is what gives The Spider its goofy charm: Twenty minutes into the film and they’re already at a point it takes Tarantula the better part of an hour to reach.

Once they think they’ve killed the damn thing, they drag it to the local high school gym[5]. Of course the monster revives midway through an impromptu sock hop and goes on a low budget rampage through town.[6]

The quality of The Spider’s effects are pretty minimal -- mostly a real spider walking in front of a still photo of the live action location -- but there’s a lot more of ‘em and they show her doing a lot more than Tarantula ever did.[7]

The Spider’s rampage is a remarkably effective piece of low budget film making and includes one of the really great iconic moments in 1950s sci-fi: A woman gets her dress caught in her car door as the spider bears down on her and in her very realistic hysterical panic doesn’t think to open the door so she can escape.

animated trapped woman in The Spider

Gordon also stretched his budget by showing more of the aftermath of the giant spider’s rampage (i.e., junk and bodies strewn in the streets) before moving on to his climax in which the heroes electrocute the big bug (sic!) in her cave.[8]

Tarantula’s characters (an admittedly higher caliber cast) are adults with boring grown up concerns; they never really connect with the audience. The Spider’s central characters are the teens, and everything in the movie orbits back to their teenage concerns in some fashion. Because of that, they and their problems are much easier to identify with.  Tarantula may do a better job of explaining where its big spider came from, but The Spider sucks us along for the ride.

So, in the end, which is the “better” motion picture?

Oh, c’mon, get serious: They’re both giant spider movies, and the difference between a really good giant spider movie and a really bad giant spider movie is negligible.

You make movies with your head, and you make movies with your heart, same as any other creative expression. Use both, but if ya gotta go with one over the other, go with your heart.




[1] Clint Eastwood shows up unannounced at the end as the jet pilot who saves the day.

[2] Arnold and his crew recreated the film’s live action landscapes on a sandbox covered with white cloth then guided a real tarantula’s performance by squirting air at it from a rubber bulb. Not only did their tarantula create its own traveling matte, but it threw a realistic shadow when superimposed on the live action footage. Arnold was ingenious in this manner: To simulate water drops hitting The Incredible Shrinking Man’s match box house, he had technicians drop water filled condoms on the set. When asked by Universal’s accounting department why he had purchased one gross of condoms, Arnold’s straight faced reply was “I throw a hell of a cast party.”

[3] Leo G. Carroll was experimenting with making big critters small and small critters big because, hey, science!

[4] The Spider may be dumb but it sure ain’t stoopid.

[5] Because, hey, science!

[6] Which is a hell of a lot more than Tarantula ever accomplished: A few stray cattle and cow boys, a mid-century modern ranch house, and that’s it. She’s a mile or more out of town when Clint finally fricassees her.

[7] Bert I. Gordon -- affectionately known as “Mr. BIG” by B-movie fans -- is Arnold’s chief rival among sci-fi directors of the 1950s, at least in terms of the number of films he made. Like Arnold, Gordon was a clever innovator of special effects, and while his films may fail due to lack of time, talent, and taste, there’s nothing in the raw materials that prevented them from rising higher. Indeed, when finally afforded an adequate budget and schedule, Gordon produced the entertaining children’s fantasy The Magic Sword. An extra week spent on any of his other films would have made all the difference.

[8] This is an example of the rule of three in low budget film making: Always try to get a minimum of three key scenes out of each major location; this stretches the budget and shortens shooting time.


Papa Says Bite The Bullet...

Thinkage [updated]

Thinkage [updated]