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Monday, July 29, 2013

Earth vs. the Spider (1958) review


Ed Kemmer (Kingman), June Kemmy (Carol Flynn), Gene Persson (Mike Simpson)

Directed by Bert I. Gordon

"Oh, Carol, not today. My dad just got in a new picture and I haven't even seen it yet... something about puppet people. It sounds pretty wild."--the teenage protagonist looks forward to a Bert I. Gordon movie at the local bijou.

The Short Version: It's still a 'B' picture, but Bert I. Gordon's tale of a small town arach-attack by a jumbo spider living inside a local cavern is some of the B.I.G. man's best work. The title is a bit of a cheat -- unless the name of the town is Earth since that's the only locale and its inhabitants our creepy web-spinner does battle with. The effects are predominantly what you'd expect, but for its microscopic budget, you get far more action and thrills than what crawled across the screen in Jack Arnold's more expensive TARANTULA (1955). Some mild gore, genuine suspense and a creepy theremin tinged score enhance this potent SciFi-horror potboiler.

While looking for a missing person, two teenagers unwittingly discover a gigantic spider living inside a nearby cavern. The outsized arachnid is eventually subdued by a powerful dose of pesticide. Believing the eight-legged monstrosity to be dead, it's taken back to town and put on display in the River Falls school auditorium. During a band practice, the spider is awakened and goes on a rampage of the town before heading back to its dank, dark home. The sheriff and a few others decide to blow up the entrance to prevent it from getting out again. After the dynamite is set off, they learn that two teens are trapped inside the cave with the monster spider.

Bert I. Gordon, for better or worse, is a legend in the Science Fiction film genre. He's often pigeon-holed as a hack director with a resume full of bad movies. While there's no denying the multitude of his repertoire proudly wore its 'B' movie badge with reverence, there's also no refuting that Gordon was frequently a one-man-show behind the scenes. Often writing, producing, directing, and even performing (the almost always poorly achieved) special effects duties, the man obviously loved his craft even if the finished result was less than stellar.

Amidst Gordon's films of creatures great and small, EARTH VS. THE SPIDER (1958) ranks among the best. And in the best 'B' movie fashion, the picture gets right to the action from the start. Astonishingly, the first 30 minutes builds, and maintains a considerable amount of suspense. New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns provide a spooky backdrop for the action; not to mention at least half the running time takes place there. However, it's questionable just how much, if any of the actual film was shot in those caverns since the bulk of this footage appears matted into frame with actors behind what appears to be photos, or postcards of the caverns superimposed onto the image. Remember those photos of buildings the giant grasshoppers were climbing all over in Gordon's BEGINNING OF THE END (1957)?

Mr. B.I.G.'s stock in trade were his trademark optical effects that, more often than not, failed to believably showcase creatures of enormous size; especially noticeable when settings and actors are matted into the frame. If it wasn't bad matte superimposure, it was patches of transparency dotted along various spots on the monsters body. 

It was what his pictures were infamous for, and his giant spider invasion movie is a typically mixed bag. One of the worst shots in the film involves the police subduing the beast with massive doses of DDT. Both the actors and live-action spider are composited into the screen, but the matte lines never connect the DDT death spray with its target (see insert pic). As the scene plays out, it looks like the spider simply rolls over onto its back, curls up and goes to sleep as opposed to receiving a lethal dose of pesticide. Aside from that, the one major problem with the opticals involves the scale of the spider. It's as big as a house at times, and at others it's the size of a truck. 

Jack Arnold's bigger budgeted, fondly remembered TARANTULA (1955) utilized similar effects to greater success; although the spider seen there always appeared onscreen as a silhouette even in daytime scenes. The shots of Gordon's spider only occasionally appear this way. The assault on the town (Arnold's giant tarantula never made it to the highly populated destination of the films finale) is well done and easily the most accomplished FX of the entire picture. The destruction is minimal and confined to the beast destroying a house (a replication of a similar scene in TARANTULA). We do get a rather grim tracking shot showing the aftermath of suburban destruction resulting in mangled cars, homes and strewn corpses. The shot ends on the sight of a crying, seemingly bloodied little boy left alone in the street.

The giant spider is mostly visualized as a real arachnid macro-enlarged to appear massive. On a few occasions, a feeble live-action spider leg (apparently a minor contribution from monster maker Paul Blaisdell) is used in close ups and seen briefly during the siege on the house where a woman and child are trapped. Again, this is another instance of grossly misjudged scale of the title monster.

The performances are standard 'B' movie fare; not bad, but not great. Unlike Gordon's THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN (1957), there's no stand out performance from anyone in the cast; and you don't expect one in films like this. The spider arguably turns in the best performance; and we get to see quite a lot of it. The filmmakers even give the beast its own roar, or screech, or whatever you'd call it. It's an eerie sound effect and, along with Albert Glasser's theremin thick score, suits the scenario perfectly.

Another aspect of Gordon's movie that adds to its SciFi fun factor are the in-jokes to two other Gordon pictures in release at that time. The local theater is showing ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE (1957) while advertisements out front, and lobby cards list THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN (1957) as coming soon. What makes this sequence humorous is when the protagonists girlfriend calls him to take her to look for the jewelry she lost at the cave, the boyfriend would prefer to sit in on the PUPPET PEOPLE showing! 

When you put these teens vs. monster movies in perspective (and there were a lot of them in the 1950s), they're essentially the slasher movies of their era -- modified though they may be, they operate on much the same level. One of that sub-genres staples is an unstoppable killer. In the case of Gordon's spider movie, the creature is "killed" on more than one occasion, but proves to still be alive. It's smothered in large quantities of DDT, crushed in a massive cave-in, and finally -- third time is the charm here -- electrocuted in spectacular fashion.

In the early 2000s, a handful of AIP cheapies received remakes via the Cinemax cable channel. EARTH VS. THE SPIDER was among these. The 2001 remake was, like the others, an in name only affair and had little to recommend it.

Despite the obvious fakery of Gordon's (modestly) special effects, these scenes are still exciting and mildly creepy for such an antiquated production. The shots of shriveled spider corpses are among some mild gore shots (like a splatterly opening moment) that are effectively rendered. The sustained suspense of the first half, the assault on the town, and the creative finale all add up to a tightly woven web of low budget thrills that never overstays its welcome at just under 73 minutes.

This review is representative of the Lionsgate DVD paired with WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST (1958).


dfordoom said...

Sounds like a movie I'd love. Unfortunately I've heard that the DVD release isn't in the correct aspect ratio?

venoms5 said...

I've no idea about the correct aspect ratio, D, or if it was intended to be shot flat. Incidentally, I've always heard it was shot full frame. IMDb lists it as 1.85, but they're rarely accurate there, either. The R2 is also a full frame presentation. But it appears to not be missing any information. However, there's at least one shot in the cavern where I saw a boom mike pop in and out that could have been eliminated by matting the frame. It was barely noticeable, though.

The US disc paired with WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST is a fine, if standard purchase. No trailers, just the movies, but worth it for 50s SciFi fans -- at least till the price goes up again.

Maynard Morrissey said...

Silly fun, but in terms of spider-awesomeness I definitely prefer "Tarantula" because it's way more tense, and the effects look far better IMO.

venoms5 said...

TARANTULA is good (Mara Corday being in it helps a lot!), but tedious much of the time to me. But I concede the effects are better (the live action spider shots aren't much better, actually), although Gordon's movie has a lot more action.

I just wish the damn Tarantula of Arnold's picture had reached the town and done some damage instead of teasing us with it, lol.

Speaking of TARANTULA, Harry. I used to have this Universal Monsters lunch box when I was in pre-school and it had Leo G. Carroll's deformed face on it with the Tarantula logo beside it. Till I saw it, I never understood what that particular make up job signified. I assumed it was the result of a spider bite or something, lol.


I do really like this one,but to be honest,some years ago,back in the vhs days,I would lie on the couch and put this on when I wanted to fall asleep,and it always worked!!

venoms5 said...

It took me a couple viewings for it to properly sink in. Compared with other B.I.G. movies, it's one of his best, and slickest works, imo. It moves and has a lot of fun things to recommend it.

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