The Spider Review

Some of you may recall my raving, some weeks ago, over a delightfully bad 1950s monster movie called War of the Colossal Beast. If so, you might be wondering whether I could possibly get my hands on anything worse. Well, I'm delighted to inform you that I have and it's a little number called The Spider - or possibly Earth Versus The Spider as it was originally called in Britain and is still called on the disc itself and on the opening credits of the film. Let's face it, if not even the distributor can decide what their film is called then the omens for a quality evening's cinema are not good.

The Spider was directed in 1958 by Bert I.Gordon, the man who unleashed War of the Colossal Beast upon an astonished world. Like most of his horror movies, it concerns something suddenly getting bigger, breaking its confines and parading around as much of the world as the budget of $50.73 would allow. In this case, the unusually tumescent creature is a "perfectly normal bird spider". A more vulgar writer than myself might speculate that Mr Gordon has certain size issues that are obsessing him - and the sexual connotations run rampant in this movie - but I won't go there. Especially since he has, once again, collaborated with his wife on making it as big as possible and then forcing it to explode all over the place. The, er, spider that is. While Bert shoots the shit out of the script, mercifully concocted by someone else, his good lady wife gets involved with the special effects and the incredible results have to be seen to be believed. The system of rear back-projection and enlargements was fairly unusual in its day and you have to give the Gordons some credit for ingenuity, even while you're busily deducting marks for every other aspect of the film. It's an obvious rip-off of Jack Arnold's excellent Tarantula but as rip-offs go, it's really rather enjoyable.

The setting is New Mexico, the time is 1958. A man is driving through the mountains when, suddenly, he slams on the brakes and something hits him messily in the face. This isn't a bad opener - I mean, it's not Night of the Demon but it's efficient enough and mildly intriguing. Cut to a small town street where high school sweethearts Mike (Persson) and Carol (Kenney) are walking along discussing her father's mysterious disappearance. It's a mystery all right, almost as gripping as the one which concerns the viewer; namely, why do Mike and Carol look to be in their mid-thirties ? As we ponder what could be another level of science-fantasy - some wondrous ageing drug perhaps - the film takes us into a classroom where a science teacher, Mr Kingman (Kemmer) is explaining, at great length, something to do with magnetism. Forgive me if I can't be more specific but I was distracted by the fact that every student in the class looks the same age, or possibly older, as Mike and Carol. The only person in the room under 25 seems to be Mr Kingman and he's married with a baby.

Mike borrows a car from a friend called Joe (Patterson) - who features later on even though you think he's only got one scene - and the young lovers drive into the mountains to find out what has happened to Carol's dad. Carol looks around hopefully, commenting "He could be around here somewhere, " to which Mike helpfully responds, "He could be, but he isn't !" Resisting the temptation to brain Mike with his retainer, Carol notices a big cave and says mysteriously, "People have gone in there and... never come out again." Naturally, Mike is immediately trecking in there, having ordered Carol to stay outside. In a small victory for feminism, Carol refuses to wait for him and follows, much to Mike's vocal chagrin. The cave appears to be some kind of Tardis type affair, since it keeps getting bigger - "This cave is meant to go way back under that mountain forever" says Mike, obviously not a man to use one word when five will do. There is a lot of spine-freezing back projection which clashes attractively with the papier mache rocks. Suddenly, a suspiciously phallic stalagmite (or is it stalactite, I can never remember) nearly penetrates the all-too obviously virginal Carol, shortly before she finds herself covered in a lot of strange sticky material that she can't seem to escape. This turns out to be part of an enormous spider's web and a strange series of animalistic screams suggests that the spider might be coming back to see what's on the menu.

At this point, I should perhaps point out that spoilers will be included in what follows. If you think this could possibly diminish your enjoyment of The Spider then you might want to jump down to the disc portion of the review.

Our suspicions as to the source of that roaring are, of course, totally correct. A very big spider indeed is on its way to the larder. Well, to be accurate, it's a normal-sized spider that has been photographically blown up to appear very big, but you have to give Mr Gordon marks for effort. Some directors, aware that their special effects aren't noticeably special, would have artfully hidden their monster off-camera but Bert isn't remotely ashamed of his film's shortcomings. In fact, quite the opposite; he flaunts them ! The pesky spider chases them through the caves but, at the last minute, our dynamic duo discover the way out and manage to escape. Upon hearing their extraordinary story, Mr Kingman informs the Sheriff, who is characteristically dismissive - "You know these teenagers as well as I do". Science teacher gets cross and insists, "I didn't ring you up to investigate abnormal insect life !" Or, indeed, abnormal arachnid life. His inability to distinguish between insects and arachnids is one of the several factors which render his status as a teacher somewhat worrying.

The hunt begins, despite a certain lack of community spirit from the Sheriff; "Hey, this is a waste of time !" he complains, having obviously read the script. Once in the cave, Mr Kingman puts his specialist knowledge to good use - "You naturally expect to find a lot of wildlife in a cave" - and Carol finds her dad, now drained of life and looking rather like David Dickinson after a heavy night. Before she can get too upset, the spider returns and is liberally sprayed with industrial strength DDT so it can be killed and taken back to the town for 'further investigation". As one might expect, this last suggestion doesn't thrill the Sheriff, who doesn't want his town used as a holding bay for the corpses of giant arthropods, but his obstinacy sends the teacher into a rant about the horror of giant spiders taking over the world - "You realise how easy it would be for them to overcome us humans ? ... They'd be our masters and live on us !!" I don't know about you, but in the present world political climate the thought of a giant spider being in charge doesn't strike me as all that fearsome. Anyway, they dump the giant spider in the school gym and put a notice up warning impressionable teenagers not to go inside. "It's a little unhandy !" sighs a disgruntled teacher, a master of understatement, but the Mr Kingman is incandescent with intellectual curiosity - "Somewhere in that mammoth carcass are the genes that promote growth !" But is the spider really dead ?

I won't bother to try and keep you in suspense. It's still alive, somehow, and waits quietly for an opportunity to break out of its scholastic prison. Meanwhile, Carol is mooning around at home missing her dead father. Her mother, obviously a brisk sort, distracts her with an exciting alternative to grieving - "Forget about it dear. You have your homework to prepare for tomorrow." Mike calls her up and suggests a trip to his dad's cinema to see Attack of The Puppet People - another Bert I.Gordon creation - which he claims is "pretty wild" (and he's right) but Carol isn't keen. She's dropped the bracelet her dad gave her somewhere in the cave and wants to go back to find it. So good old co-operative schmuck Joe lends his car to Mike once more and the young lovers go in search of Carol's keepsake.

However, at this point the story become almost interesting. Mike and Carol having been moved out of the way, it's time for Joe to take centre stage. Joe, you see, may look a bit like a chartered accountant contemplating retirement but he's actually one cool dude. It transpires that he is a member of a band called "The Cats" - seven students with a combined age of 374 - who are eager to practice before their gig at the Saturday night hop. So they persuade the caretaker to let them into the gym and begin to practice - and, my god, do they need practice. But they leave the doors open and loads of 'crazy kids' - pile in to perform physical gyrations which might, to an untrained eye, pass for dancing. It's not so much "Saturday Night Fever" as "Friday Night Diarrhoea". Unsurprisingly, the spider is having none of this and the appalling music causes it to wake up and rampage out of the gym. Upon hearing of this calamity, the Sheriff bursts into action, delegating the rest of his important civic responsibilities to a loyal deputy - "You ! Stay here and answer the phone !"

The spider's rampage is decidedly low-budget, something not helped by the fact that the body of the monster keeps becoming oddly transparent. Tension is notably absent, although the spider's raid on Science teacher's house is good for a laugh. Music lovers will also be delighted to note that the noises made by the spider are a dead ringer for that deeply distressing voice featured on "Mouldy Old Dough" by Lieutenant Pigeon. For reasons best known to itself, the spider makes its way back to the cave, so the assembled intellectual giants from the town have to decide what to do. One enthusiastic redneck informs us that "I could blow up half that hill if you want me to", something not guaranteed to reassure anyone. Unfortunately, Mike and Carol are still wandering around the cave looking for that pesky necklace and getting lost. Budgetary restrictions come to the fore here as it's obvious that about 5 square meters of cave set has been built, bringing a surreal subtext to Carol's line "I've never seen this bit of the cave before." Can Mike and Carol find the bracelet and escape before the redneck unleashes $10,000 worth of explosives upon them ? Will Carol's mum show the slightest degree of concern for her daughter ? Can we believe the Sheriff when he says "I don't want anyone to get hurt", despite having amassed more weapons of mass destruction than even a British civil servant could make up ? Why does Mr Kingman want to know if anyone has a set of tools and a rubber glove ? All these questions and more are answered in the final reel of The Spider.

The Disc

Another in the Direct Video Distributors "Arkoff Film Library", The Spider looks pretty damn good on DVD. The disc itself isn't great and has a big flaw if you're a collector of this sort of thing, but at least some effort has been put into it.

The film is presented in a full frame monochrome transfer. As I said in my review of War of the Colossal Beast, widescreen films of this period - especially exploitation movies - tended to emphasise any Scope process in the advertising and there isn't any obvious cropping or pan and scan to be seen. It's a very good transfer with excellent shadow detail and fine contrast. The blacks are nicely full and there isn't any serious artifacting or grain problem. Some print damage is evident, but less than on the aforementioned disc, and I think that Direct Video can be quite pleased with their work here.

The soundtrack is the original mono track and it's perfectly acceptable. Dialogue and music come across very well and there is no distortion to be heard.

The main criticism I have of this disc is only a problem if you plan to buy any of the other discs in the 'Arkoff Film Library'. It's that the extras are the same on this disc as on all the others. You get nine trailers for the films in the series - How To Make A Monster, The Brain Eaters, The Spider, War of the Colossal Beast, The She Creature, Blood Of Dracula, The Day The World Ended, Voodoo Woman and Reform School Girl - and the highly entertaining Guardian Interview with Samuel Z.Arkoff. The latter is presented as an audio only extra. Both of these are very enjoyable features in their own right but it's a shame that the films in the series don't have any unique extras to make them more attractive as a collection. I've given them the same mark I gave them in my previous review but be aware of the duplication.

There are 9 chapter stops and subtitles in German and Dutch, but sadly not in English. The package also contains 9 collectible postcards of posters for films from the collection.

The Spider is awful but it's awful in such a fun way that it would be churlish not to acknowledge its entertainment value. It's the kind of bad film which really is as enjoyable as bad films are meant to be, but frequently aren't. The DVD is well presented and certainly worth a purchase if you're a fan of terrible 1950s monster movies.

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