Earth vs. the Spider directed by Bert I. Gordon
As I believe I have mentioned elsewhere, there was more than one reason why Wisconsin-born producer/director/special FX wizard Bert Ira Gordon was popularly known as Mr. BIG. Of course, his acronym alone might have ensured him that title for life, but it was rather the series of remarkable cinematic entertainments that Gordon came out with starting in 1955, many of them dealing with oversized monstrosities, that resulted in this loving appellation. And what a string of films it was: King Dinosaur (’55), Beginning of the End (’57, and dealing with giant grasshoppers), The Cyclops (’57), The Amazing Colossal Man (’57), Attack of the Puppet People (’58, and going small for a change), War of the Colossal Beast (’58), Earth vs. the Spider (’58), Village of the Giants (’65), The Food of the Gods (’76) and Empire of the Ants (’77, and supposedly Joan Collins’ least favorite film of all the many that she has appeared in). This viewer has fond memories of most of those films, but Earth vs. the Spider was one that I had no recollection of whatsoever. I had seen the movie for the first time back in the very early ‘90s at NYC’s great revival house Film Forum, which showed it on that occasion paired with the very suitable The Screaming Skull (the film that Earth vs. the Spider was originally shown with as a double feature when it first opened in September ’58). A recent viewing of Earth vs. the Spider has only served to remind this viewer of what a marvelous entertainment it remains, now more than 60 years after its premiere. Often derided and inevitably compared to the somewhat similar Tarantula, Jack Arnold’s admitted masterpiece from 1955, the film reveals itself to be a genuine hoot all these many years later.
The film wastes no time whatsoever in getting started, and indeed, its entire 73-minute length is fairly compact and fast moving. We see Jack Flynn, a resident of the mountain town of River Falls, driving down a road in his truck before goggling in terror at something in the path ahead of him. The next day, after Flynn fails to return home, his daughter Carol (June Kenney, 25 years old here but playing a high school student nevertheless) and her beau Mike Simpson (24-year-old Eugene Persson) institute a search. They find Flynn’s truck wrecked on the side of the road, and enter a nearby cave to see if the possibly injured man had wandered therein. But in that cave they find something else: the skeletons of men, as well as an enormous spider web, into which they fall. And thus, not even 20 minutes into the film, we get to see the titular monstrosity, an enormous tarantula that has been living in the cave for who knows how long. The two narrowly escape and report their findings to the town’s Sheriff Cagle (Gene Roth, a sort of poor man’s Lee J. Cobb), who of course fails to believe them. But when they tell their story to friendly high school science teacher Art Kingman (Ed Kemmer), and show him a strand of the silky substance that had caused Flynn’s truck to crash, an investigation of the cave is mounted. Flynn’s body is found in a desiccated state therein, his body drained of its juices, and the monstrous spider is attacked with streams of DDT, apparently killing it. The beastie is brought back to the high school and mounted in the gymnasium, pending transport to a local university for further study. All seems to be well … until, that is, a group of teens starts to practice its rock ‘n’ roll number in that same gymnasium, waking the dormant beast and causing it to go on a rampage throughout the town, in classic ‘50s monster fashion. And matters get even worse, when Carol & Mike return to that cave to search for a dropped bracelet, and the spider decides to return likewise…
Putting Earth vs. the Spider over the top are three salient factors. The first is a no-nonsense script from Laszlo Gorog (who had previously worked on 1956’s The Mole People and 1957’s The Land Unknown) and George Worthing Yates that dives us right into the action and wastes no time on unnecessaries. Yates, at this point, was very much an old hand at this kind of entertainment, having also worked on such films as It Came From Beneath the Sea (’55), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (’56), The Amazing Colossal Man, Attack of the Puppet People, The Flame Barrier (’58), War of the Colossal Beast and Space Master X-7 (’58); quite a resume!
And speaking of film credentials, the film also boasts some surprisingly solid acting from a cast that had a fairly good background in this sort of entertainment. Kemmer, possibly the most familiar name in the cast, had distinguished himself playing Buzz Corry from 1951 – ’56 on TV’s Space Patrol, and had recently appeared in Giant From the Unknown (’58). June Kenney had appeared in Gordon’s Attack of the Puppet People, and Gene Roth had appeared in The She Demons (’58) and would soon be seen in Attack of the Giant Leeches (’59). Sally Fraser, who plays Kemmer’s wife here, a woman who is trapped in her home with a young baby while the giant tarantula bangs on the walls from without, had appeared in It Conquered the World (’56), Giant From the Unknown and War of the Colossal Beast, while Hank Patterson, playing the unfortunate high school janitor Hugo, had been seen in what is probably the greatest of all the giant-bug movies, 1954’s Them!
And, in addition to its tight script and more-than-decent thesping, Earth vs. the Spider gives the viewer some exceptionally pleasing special FX, courtesy of Gordon & Co. The real-life tarantula that was employed here is nicely photographed in close-up and cleverly placed into its background surroundings, and its rampage through the town is a memorable one. (The fact that I did not remember this wonderful scene from my 1990 viewing is a convincing argument for me to start taking ginkgo biloba to improve that memory!) During that rampage, one unfortunate townswoman gets her dress caught in a car door, and is stuck screaming there while the spider looms over her; it is a wonderful moment in the film! But perhaps even better than the FX used to bring life to the film’s monster are those used to convey the cave system that our protagonists wander through and get lost in. Apparently, stills from the enormous Carlsbad Caverns system in New Mexico were utilized for exceptionally convincing and otherworldly backdrops, while Bronson Caves in L.A. (the site of at least 15 famous 1950s sci-fi films, most notably 1953’s Robot Monster) was used for some other shots. Taken together, the no-nonsense script, the acting by the film’s principals, and the better-than-average special FX result in one surprisingly decent motion picture. Throw in a few gross-out moments (those skeletons, those desiccated corpses), some rock ‘n’ roll, some exciting music from Albert Glasser (‘53’s The Neanderthal Man, Beginning of the End, The Cyclops, The Amazing Colossal Man, War of the Colossal Beast, ‘58’s Monster From Green Hell), fine B&W cinematography from Jack A. Marta (Beginning of the End, War of the Colossal Beast), and some pleasing touches of humor (for example, the movie theater that Mike works at is showing a double feature of The Amazing Colossal Man and Attack of the Puppet People, which Mike avers “sounds pretty wild”!) and you’ve got a film that is perfect entertainment fare for both young and old!
The picture, of course, is hardly a perfect affair, and some problems do inevitably crop up. Foremost for this viewer is the fact that no explanation is ever given for how this oversized creature came to be, an oversight certainly not to be found in Tarantula or Them! Yes, Kingman does mention how important it is that the spider be dissected and studied to ascertain its genetic makeup and thus learn how it came to exist, but that never happens, and the creature’s origin ultimately remains a mystery. So no mention of radioactivity or evolutionary mutation or anything like that. It’s as if Gorog & Yates could not be bothered with this aspect of their story and just wanted to get to the action … which they fortunately do. And then there is the matter of the film’s hyperbolic title, Earth vs. the Spider. Unlike Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, in which our fair planet really did seem to unite to combat an extraterrestrial menace, here, the only ones fighting the titular monster are a dozen or so residents of River Falls. Still, I suppose a title like A Dozen Folks From River Falls vs. the Spider just doesn’t have the same ring to it, right? Thus, the film’s alternate title, The Spider, might be more in the way of truth in advertising. But these are quibbles, really. Earth vs. the Spider is a splendid example of 1950s sci-fi fun, and one that I was very happy to reacquaint myself with.