Friday, October 15, 2021

Earth vs. the Spider (1958)

... aka: Die Rache der schwarzen Spinne (Revenge of the Black Spider)
... aka: Earth vs. the Giant Spider
... aka: L'araignée vampire (The Vampire Spider)
... aka: Spider, The
... aka: Spindeln

Directed by:
Bert I. Gordon

When her father doesn't return home from a late night trip to Pasadena, high school student Carol Flynn (June Kenney) talks her boyfriend Mike (Eugene Persson) into borrowing a car and retracing her father's path. They soon stumble upon an accident site and some jewelry the dad had purchased for Carol lying on the side of the road. Locating the vehicle wreckage over an embankment, they venture on to a cave that's rumored by locals to be cursed. Those who've ignored the "No Trespassing" sign posted out front have a bad habit of never being seen again. Nonetheless, the teens figure the father may have been injured in the crash and wandered inside for shelter. They descend deep into the large cave, finding skeletal remains along the way, and then are almost impaled by a stalactite. After falling over an unexpected drop-off, they find themselves landing on something sticky and silky, which turns out to be a giant spiderweb. They then meet the beast of the title, which is mostly played by a regular sized "bird spider" (tarantula) made to appear giant through Gordon's (cheap and usually unconvincing) rear-projection fx.

Managing to escape from the spider's lair, Carol and Mike make it back to town to try to warn everybody. Their visit to Sheriff Cagle (Gene Roth) is a bust as he doesn't believe them, so they immediately go to their science teacher, Dr. Art Kingman (Edward Kemmer). Art convinces the Sheriff and his men to organize an expedition to search the cave. There, they find the remains of Carol's dad and then run across the spider. Though it kills the deputy, they manage to fill it with lead and hit it with a powerful concentrate of DDT. Now with the spider dead, the Sheriff proposes sealing up the cave entrance, while Art has another idea: Take it out of the cave and give it to the university so they can learn more about "genes that control organic growth." The teacher gets his way and the spider is temporarily transported into town and put on display in the high school auditorium.

A distraught Carol convinces Mike to go back to the spider's cave to help her find a bracelet she dropped (the last thing her father ever got her). Meanwhile, Joe (Troy Patterson) convinces janitor Hugo (Hank Patterson) to let him and his band mates into the auditorium so they can practice. The janitor agrees and then Joe instructs everyone to play so "loud enough to wake the dead." Some drama students wander in and start dancing and then the spider springs back to life... Revived by rock 'n' roll! It then breaks down a wall and then wreaks havoc on the isolated mountain community of River Falls.

After the spider adequately rampages about town, almost getting Art's wife Helen (Sally Fraser, from IT CONQUERED THE WORLD) and their baby in the process, it finally makes its way back to its cave home. Deciding that the Sheriff's initial idea to seal it inside was the correct one, they follow is back to the cave, place some dynamite and set off an explosion that causes a rock slide that closes off the entrance. Good, right? Well, not quite. Unfortunately, Carol and Mike are still inside and have had to make their way out onto a narrow ledge the spider can't access. The pest exterminators then have to turn into a rescue team and find a way back inside to retrieve the kids while also trying to find a way to put the spider out of commission for good.

Spider is part of size-obsessed director Gordon's cycle of schlocky giant whatever films that also includes the titular giant reptile of King Dinosaur (1954), the giant grasshoppers of Beginning of the End (1956), the giant rats, wasps, worms and chickens of THE FOOD OF THE GODS (1976) and the formidable Formicidae of EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977). He also made a bunch of movies featuring extra-large people, like the one-eyed giant of The Cyclops (1957), the radiation-enlarged scientist in THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN (1957) and WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST (1958), and the gigantic juvies of Village of the Giants (1965). For a slight change of pace he also made a miniature person movie called ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE (1958). Aside from Cyclops, Food and Empire (which they probably couldn't get the rights to), all of the other films listed above plus two other Gordon efforts were ridiculed on Mystery Science Theater 3000, which gives Gordon the distinction of being the most covered director in that show's history.

In any case, Spider actually isn't that bad, at least as far as entertainment value is concerned. Sure, the film has some major problems, like stiff amateurish acting from some of the cast (though leads Kemmer, Kenney, Persson and Roth are decent), thirty-five-year-old's laughably being cast as high school students and a plot almost completely lacking in originality. The worst aspect is the completely unconvincing special effects for the spider... and not just because you can sometimes see through it! This film loses an entire half point just for breaking one of my biggest monster movie pet peeves: Inconsistent size. You'd figure a director as caught up with proportions as Gordon would be a little more OCD about such things but, seeing how the spider looks the size of a car in one scene and then towering over buildings the next, that doesn't appear to be the case. Still, I must point out that as bad as the fx are at times, they're still more convincing than the majority of modern B-movie fx in that they used a real spider instead of a computer-generated cartoon one.

Not that this doesn't have its good points. It's pretty fun and upbeat most of the time. It's also seldom given credit for being one of the better-paced 50s monster movies and generally avoids the feeling of being needlessly dragged out. There's even a pretty good sense of humor at times, as well as amusingly shameless self-promotion. Gordon is wily enough to make the Mike character the son of a theater owner and the father a big fan of the director's work. There are posters for The Amazing Colossal Man outside and Mike initially puts up some resistance to taking Carol to the caves cause "My dad just got in a new picture and I haven't even seen it yet. It's something about puppet people. Sounds pretty wild."

Gordon not only wrote the original story and produced, but he also did the special effects along with wife Flora Gordon and Paul Blaisdell, who's given a "special designer" credit. The cave scenes were filmed at both Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico and Bronson Canyon in Los Angeles and Universal Studios backlots were used for the exterior town sequences. This was "remade" (well, they at least reused the title) as a 2001 cable TV movie starring Dan Aykroyd, which was also executive produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff.

Spider played theaters as both a standalone feature and as part of a double bill that also included THE BRAIN EATERS (1958). There were DVD releases from both Lions Gate and MGM/UA as well as a DVD release of the film with MST3K commentary from Shout! Factory, followed by a Scream Factory Blu-ray release in 2020.

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