Saturday, October 10, 2015

Hubrisween 2015 :: E is for Earth vs. the Spider (1958)

On a lonely country road, a grizzled truck driver takes his eyes off the pavement just long enough to check a small package on the seat next to him, but when he looks back he barely has time to scream before whatever is suddenly blocking the road violently knocks the vehicle into the ditch and then sprays the occupant with something corrosive. Cut to what would’ve been his eventual destination, where the driver’s daughter, Carol Flynn (Kemmer), frets over his overdue arrival. Seems he was on his way to pick up her birthday present, and despite some subtle hints that her father was a drunk known to disappear for days on end, Carol manages to talk her boyfriend, Mike Simpson (Personn), into borrowing a jalopy to go and look for him.

They find the wreck (and the present) and follow a debris trail into a nearby cave, where the couple finds several human skeletons picked clean and eventually fall into a giant web, which can only mean one thing: a ginormous spider destroyed her father’s truck and in all probability ate him. When the gargantuan proof screeches into view, the teenagers manage to extricate themselves from the web and the cave and tear back into town.

Knowing the sheriff will never believe them, they confide in their science teacher, Professor Kingman (Kemmer), who not only convinces Sheriff Kagle (Roth) to follow up on his students outlandish claims but to bring all the DDT in the county with them -- though I think someone should check his teaching credentials since he keeps referring to the spider as an insect. All of the scoffing stops when the cave is breached and the biggest scoffer-of-all falls into the same web and is devoured. The search party also manages to find the dried-out corpse of Carol’s father before beating a hasty retreat and then saturating the cave with pesticide. After, the giant spider carcass is then drug into town and put on display in the high school’s gymnasium.

Meanwhile, a distraught Carol once more convinces Mike to return to the cave to recover the present her father had bought for her (-- which she had dropped and isn’t as self-serving as that sounds. Well, sort of.) Meantime, ignoring the quarantining cordon, several hipsters break into the gym for band practice. Unfortunately, the cacophony of sounds they produce shocks the spider out of its stupor and it attacks. All efforts during the ensuing bedlam to stop it fail. And once the town is sufficiently trashed and picked clean, the satiated spider heads for home, where Carol and Mike continue their search completely unaware of what is coming...

The pride of Kenosha, Wisconsin, Bert Ira Gordon was the undisputed king of really, really big (and semi-transparent) stuff that rampaged across traveling mattes and scenic postcards and drive-in screens back in the late 1950s, beginning with King Dinosaur (1955), The Cyclops (1957), and my personal favorite, Beginning of the End (1957), where giant grasshoppers overrun northern Illinois until an artificial siren love call lures them into Lake Michigan where they all dry-hump each other until they drown. A virtual one-man filmmaking army, often serving as producer, director, cinematographer, writer and F/X man, Gordon was soon on the radar of a certain upstart independent film company looking to expand.

Gordon first met Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff at the funeral of a mother of a mutual friend. All parties were familiar with each other, and the brass at American International Pictures sent out feelers to see if Gordon would be interested in working for them. He eagerly signed a four-picture deal with AIP, which netted them some of their biggest money-makers to date: The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), War of the Colossal Beast (1958), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), and Earth vs. the Spider (1958).

The film was co-scripted by George Worthing Yates, who would write most of Gordon’s ‘giant thingies gone amok’ films. Yates had also penned the screenplay for the seminal giant bug classic, THEM! (1954), and would go on to basically rewrite that script for the next five years. Here, he went back to the well one more time, adding some rock ‘n’ roll and teenie-boppers to the mix. It should also be noted that Yates got a credit for Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), too, which may or may not have had an influence on this film’s ever-evolving title.

See, one of the more confusing aspects of this picture is its exact title. It began life as The Spider – a riff on Universal International’s Tarantula (1955) to be sure, but at some point it was punched up with the more exploitable Earth vs. the Spider. But when Kurt Neumann’s The Fly (1958) hit the box-office, the decision was made to change it back to just The Spider. And while all the posters and promotional materials reflect this, no one bothered to change the title card on the print; hence the confusion. 

If Bert and the boys had stuck with the Earth vs. tag that would have really pushed the credulity meter to the limit -- even for the gang at AIP, as the giant spider only crawls out of its cave long enough to attack a small mountain town. And I’m not even sure it is attacking, or just trying to get away from the horrible jam-session that revived it, still hungover on the DDT roofie, trashing everything in its path as it beats eight-feet back home to the cave.

For those cavern sequences, Gordon had wanted to shoot on location at Carlsbad Caverns but the National Park Services wouldn’t allow him to use any lights inside the cave, fearing a microbiological outbreak would upset the delicate ecosystem. So Bert did the next best thing and, apparently, bought a bunch of postcards of the caverns and then cut them up for some fairly effective (but not quite effective enough) forced-perspective angles and trick-shot dioramas.

As for the other F/X, this is probably Gordon’s most sound picture this side of The Magic Sword (1962) as the rampage scenes are spliced together without any glaring gaffes. (And in the usual cost-saving manner, a lot of the action is relayed second-hand or we merely see the aftermath.) Jim Dannaldson was the head spider-wrangler, and there are many disheartening tales floating around of several of the creatures being roasted alive under the hot-lights needed to keep them in focus. Paul and Jackie Blaisdell pitched in with a ratty spider-leg prop for the close-ups, but fared much better with the exsanguinated corpses they keep uncovering. And Albert Glasser – with a theremin assist from Samuel Hoffman – glues the whole thing together with another bombastic score that has the audience in lock-step until the bitter end.

Although littered with ‘forty-something’ teenagers and hampered by a monster that keeps changing size (and species) to fit whatever shot was needed, I think The Spider or Earth vs. the Spider or whatever met its creative goals, low they may be, and there's a lot of fun to be had, here, and not just at the movie's expense (budget), making it another solid win for Team B.I.G.. As always, Gordon delivered what the posters promised – and when stacked up against those old American International one sheets that is saying ah-lot. Earth vs. the Spider would also be the last picture Gordon would do for AIP for nearly two decades as he would file a lawsuit against the studio shortly after the film’s release, claiming Nicholson and Arkoff were skimming profits and cooking the books to cheat him out of his share. He would make a triumphant return to form with Food of the Gods (1976) and Empire of the Ants (1977), which proved just as terrible but no less entertaining than his earlier work. 

Other Points of Interest:

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[Earth vs.] The Spider (1958) American International Pictures / EP: James H. Nicholson, Samuel Z. Arkoff / P: Bert I. Gordon / AP: Henry Schrage / D: Bert I. Gordon / W: Laszlo Gorog, George Worthing Yates, Bert I. Gordon / C: Jack Marta / E: Bert I. Gordon / S: Ed Kemmer, June Kenney, Eugene Persson, Troy Patterson, Sally Fraser

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