“That’s the trouble with you eggheads – you jump to conclusions!”
I grew up on 50’s genre movies. They always seemed to be running on some cable channel – probably TBS – when I was at my Gram’s on the weekends. There I got to know Godzilla and Gort, found out the people of Earth are idiots, and that even a gill-man could fall in love with Julie Adams. I know a lot of people have a hard time getting into older black and white films, but I love ’em. They’re like comfort food.
Last night I was feeling the siren call of 50’s monster movies. In particular I was hoping to find something I haven’t seen. This does narrow things considerably – especially as there seems to be a dearth of 50’s genre films available via the usual streaming services. Oh, if I want to watch classics like Them! or Tarantula I have options (and blu-rays of both downstairs), but lesser known films like The Monolith Monsters or The Black Scorpion are harder to find. There’s a cable channel called Comet! TV that actually shows a ton of retro films from the MGM catalogue, but it’s inevitably edited for time and/or content and is sometimes in the old 4:3 TV aspect ratio as well.
Anyway, I spent so much time looking for a film that I ended up not having a lot of time left to actually watch one! I’d decided to dig out my copy of The Incredible Shrinking Man (which is more science-fiction, but that end sequence in the basement always horrifies me) when I finally ran across a title on Amazon that I hadn’t seen. I’d heard of Earth vs the Spider, but somehow managed to miss seeing it before now. (FYI – I use The Spider and Earth vs the Spider interchangeably below. Because I’m lazy and because the film uses both names.)
Streaming on Amazon Prime. The quality was fine, though not HD. I don’t see a US blu-ray release of Earth vs the Spider anywhere either.
Less than a minute into The Spider I thought “Mystery Science Theater must have done a riff on this,” and of course most of you probably know that they did. (My MST3K viewing is sadly limited.) This is also a Burt I. Gordon joint, which means matte shots of varying quality. I’m generally entertained by the man’s films, but you can always tell the size of his budget by the number and quality of the effects shots.
A man driving a pickup at night, engaging in the 50’s equivalent of distracted driving (looking at some jewelry and a note) crashes into some weird, furry rope. The next day the man’s daughter, Carol (June Kenney), is concerned that he never returned home. Her boyfriend Mike (Eugene Persson) opines – in an understated 50’s way – that Carol’s old man is a bit of a lush and this ain’t the first time he’s gone on a bender and failed to return home. Carol is (rightly) a bit peeved at Mike’s lack of concern for her day (and her feelings), but that’s Mike. Sometimes he’s a decent guy, sometimes he’s a dick.
I’ll be honest – it took me a bit to get settled into the film. These early scenes are pretty “Leave it to Beaver” hammy with a heaping helping of “is that guy who looks older than the teacher actually supposed to be a high school kid?” Once I got into the groove I… still made fun of it in my head, but had a decent enough time anyway.
Carol and Mike head out looking for her dad and find his old pickup down an embankment as well as the jewelry – a bracelet for her birthday. They also find that weird, hairy rope – but no dad. Thinking that he might have gone into a nearby cave (clearly marked as dangerous). They investigate the brightly lit cave but have no luck finding him. They DO, however, find an enormous web – and a gigantic tarantula to go with it!
It’s Bert I. Gordon, so this attack is mostly matte shots of a real tarantula and some photographs of Carlsbad Caverns, but it’s not too shabby and never mind that tarantulas don’t tend to weave circus nets. The screech of the spider is disturbing, but only because it sounds like someone trying to breathe past an obstruction. Some tarantulas actually DO make noise. It does not sound like this. Nothing should sound like this.
Back in town a 50’s miracle occurs: an adult actually believes the kids! Not all of the adults – the smug local sheriff is all “kids, whatcha gonna do!” Their science teacher, Mr. Kingman (Ed Kemmer) is on their side, however, and with no actual ‘eggheads’ to insist on sciencing the shit out of things, he’ll have to do. The sheriff actually does get around to ordering a truck full of DDT to arrive, however, just in case. They had that stuff just lying around in the 1950’s. (‘Safe enough to eat!’) They’ll need it.
Much to Carol’s horror they find the exsanquinated corpse of her father, along with a number of other skeletons. Then the spider attacks – killing one poor deputy before being overcome by the DDT (and not that rifle shot, no matter what the sheriff tells his buddies at the local store later). Mr. Kingman convinces the authorities to preserve the spider – FOR SCIENCE – and they take it to the high school until more sciency (sciencey? sciencestest?) trained professionals come and get it.
There the spider lays – until an impromptu sock-hop brings it back to life! Ahahaha! (Waves fingers maniacally.) I’m actually not sure if the band and dancing bring it back, but I guess it’s not as important as the spider breaking out of the building and terrorizing the town. These scenes are all kindsa fun, even if they’re full of ridiculous moments like the woman with her skirt caught in a car door. The handle is like… RIGHT THERE LADY. The spider eventually meanders into the residential neighborhoods and threatens Mr. Kingman’s wife and child. He manages to lead the spider away in his car and it eventually returns to the cave.
Which is bad news for Carol and Mike, who have returned to the cave looking for Carol’s last gift from her dad – a spatula. I mean that bracelet. They do find it, but then proceed to get lost. Meanwhile the authorities show up with a bunch of dynamite and blow the cave entrance closed. Sure, the kids are still inside with the spider, but you’re always going to have collateral damage with these sorts of things. Just feel lucky nobody had to taste a pool of spider venom like in Tarantula.
Of course they can’t leave the kids in the cave – so a rescue mission is mounted and Mr. Kingman finally does get to science the shit out of something, with a plan to use high-voltage lines to electrocute the beast. Everyone enters the cave hoping to find the kids – before the spider does.
The Bottom Line
The Spider is never going to be one of my favorite 50’s giant monster flicks, it’s not even going to be one of my favorite Bert I. Gordon flicks, but there is cheesy fun to be had in the depths of unnamed dangerous cave. The matte shots aren’t always perfect – there are a few scenes in which the tarantula is partially transparent – but in general the effects are decent for an independent creature feature of the time. If you like 50’s monster movies you should find something to enjoy here. And if you don’t, well, there’s always MST3K.