It's October and you know what that means, spooky-themed movies!
SAMANTHA GLASSER: Earth vs. The Spider (1958) AKA The Spider, not to be confused with the more serious The Spider from 1931, is a delightful low-budget thriller about a giant spider living in a cave off the coast who preys on humans. It can be added to a long list of big bug movies including Them!, Tarantula, The Black Scorpion, The Deadly Mantis, and The Fly.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: I’m going to go all controversial here and say that this film may be more enjoyable (notice I didn’t say better) than any of the films that you just listed, as long as you suspend reality while you watch it. Mike and Carol (the “young” lovers in the film) aren’t exactly the smartest kids in their class. I mean, why else would they continually go into the cave that the giant spider lives in, especially when they know that the spider ate Carol’s dad? Who does this? Not kids with any sense of critical thinking skills, that’s for sure. But then again, their high school science teacher thought it was a good idea to put the spider on display in the school gymnasium. And Gene Roth is the sheriff, who doesn’t really believe any of it, even when he sees the giant spider. Maybe it’s because he hates “eggheads” (as he notes), but are any of these people actually “eggheads”? I dunno. Maybe I’m reading into this too much.
SG: The real hero of the movie is the guy standing in the cover of the doorway to the sheriff's office yelling, "Get inside! Take cover! Get off the streets!" You know that if the spider started chasing someone in that direction, he would have slammed the door in his face and left him to his fate.
RB: Even at this point, the sheriff doesn’t seem to really believe what’s happening in town. The spider is running rampant through downtown and he just kind of chuckles and says something like “These darn kids”.
SG: The “boy” the couple borrows the car from looks like he is 40 years old. It is obvious these aren’t real teenagers, though June Kenney has an adorable button nose. The novice might accuse Kenney and Eugene Persson of being bad actors, but I think the culprit is the awkward script by Laszlo Gorog which causes characters to abruptly change emotions and intentions. In one scene Mike offers to buy Carol a replacement bracelet for the one lost in the cave. She declines, saying it wouldn't be the same, and then he admits that he is broke anyway.
RB: Persson, who portrays Mike, was 24 when he did this film, and actually had a pretty spectacular career as a producer on Broadway. He co-produced and co-created You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, which is one of the most popular plays in Broadway history. He even worked with Tennessee Williams during the 70’s and in an earlier life had portrayed one of Ma and Pa Kettle’s kids in the first three films in that series. That’s a pretty varied career in my book, and one that surprised me greatly.
SG: The film is a product of its time, from the men in full suits who go exploring in the dirty cave to the rock and roll dance break at the high school. The authorities order massive doses of DDT to kill the spider. Babies of the 80s like me will get a gasp just from the mention of the toxic substance that almost eradicated the bald eagle, a topic we studied many times in elementary school. They also repeatedly talk about blowing up the cave to kill the spider with no regard to the entire ecosystem living there. The hubris of the fabulous 50s only adds to the hilarity.
RB: A quick note on DDT--I was shocked to discover while researching this film, that while the use of this product is banned in the US, it is used in other countries still, even with the endorsement of the World Health Organization, which recommends it for use indoors in countries where malaria is
considered a major health problem. I had no idea.
SG: WHAT?!? I had no idea either! Of course I'm aware that the things taught to schoolchildren are greatly simplified, so I shouldn't be surprised. It also blew my mind when I discovered that not everything you throw into the recycle bin is recyclable.
RB: Of course, blowing up caves and spraying pesticides known to have major risks for both wildlife and humans is just par for the course in this sort of film.
SG: The movie took about a month to shoot and completed filming the week of June 4, 1958. Portions were shot in Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico while others were shot on the Universal backlot. Part of the fun of watching movies like this is imagining how we could have made a similar such movie. With ropes arranged like a spiderweb, a greenscreen, some homemade costumes, and a cool-looking and docile tarantula, you too can make a legitimate monster movie.
RB: Bert I. Gordon did the special effects for this, and that’s the sort of thing he excelled at. I used to host a monthly movie party here at home, and used films that he worked on a lot, particularly his AIP films like this one, Amazing Colossal Man and War of the Colossal Beast. Not the best special effects, but they definitely have charm.
SG: Promotions followed a similar homespun pattern. The Carver Theatre in Rock Hill, South Carolina boasted creating a spider and web display in their lobby that cost only forty cents to make. American International hired expert exploiter Terry Turner to promote the movie and one strategy he used was to place ads on television for the film, a relatively new concept.
RB: AIP boasted that this film is a “never to be forgotten thriller of a lifetime” in their trade ads, and even managed to plug both Amazing Colossal Man and Attack of the Puppet People (and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine) in this movie! Their showmanship seems to only be surpassed by William Castle.
SG: Harrison’s Reports said this film and its double-feature partner “are routine science fiction-horror films, no better and no worse than most other similar films distributed by this company as a double-bill package.”
Film Bulletin wrote, “The Spider expertly pulls out all stops in the special effects department, giving to this crawling beast the full and eerie measure, from graveyard organ tones in the score to a bleak and barren countryside over which the star marauds after crashing out of a cave where it had lain entombed for centuries.”
This movie is a treat. It promises gentle scares, obvious camera tricks, and lots of laughs. It is the movie equivalent to a carnival ride; part of the fun is that it is so slapdash and simple. Three point five rollicking stars.
RB: As if it wasn’t obvious, I had a lot of fun watching this movie and the 35 year-old high school students, weird special effects and obnoxiously stubborn Gene Roth as the sheriff add to the proceedings. If this sounds like a good time to you (and it should) make sure you see this three and a half star gem soon. It’s a hoot.