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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Earth vs. The Spider

Bert I. Gordon did not rest after his giant man trilogy. The last, War of the Colossal Beast was in theaters in June of 1958. By September, Gordon was back with his own version of Jack Arnold's Tarantulal. The big bug sub-genre had pretty well run its course by this point in the decade. Gordon's garage-tech special effects are a bit better by this point. There's little that makes Earth vs. The Spider (EvS) a science fiction tale. The script offers no science explanation for the existence of the giant spider. It simply was. This makes Gordon's film more of a monster movie than sci-fi, but it is usually classified as sci-fi. It ran as the "A" feature, actually, over The Brain Eaters.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Carol's dad is returning one night with a birthday gift. His pickup hits a rope stretched across the highway. The next day, Carol and her boyfriend Mike go looking for him. They find the wrecked truck and go looking in a cave for him. They find a giant spider web and a 30 foot spider (tarantula). They escape, but no one believes their story except their science teacher. He prods the sheriff into investigating. They find the dad dead, all fluids sucked out of him. The spider attacks, but they spray it with DDT. It "dies". Science teacher has it hauled up to the school auditorium. The University is to come get it the next day. That night, however, the teen's rock and roll band practices in the auditorium. The loud rock wakes up the spider. It begins rampaging around the town. Death and destruction. Spider then heads back to its cave. Trouble is, Mike and Carol went back in the cave to look for her present. She dropped it. The find the bracelet, but must flee the returning spider. The townsfolk arrive at the cave and blow it up to seal in the spider. When everyone finds out Mike and Carol are still in there, a rescue tunnel is dug. The spider chases Mike and Carol onto a dead end ledge. Just as it's lowering itself for the kill, Mr. Kingman arrives on the other side with two lightning rods, each wired to a heavy cable. He throws one (and rubber gloves) to Mike. The utility worker throws the switch. Huge arcs leap between the lightning rods, through the spider. It screeches and drops dead. The kids are safe. The rescue tunnel is blown up too. The final shot is of the spider impaled on a tall stalagmite. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Arnold's Tarantula was fun, so a second episode is fun for the same reasons. Gordon's usual special effects tricks work better than usual.

Cold War Angle
It would be a bit of a strain to find Cold War symbolism in the giant spider. The script suggests no parallels. Any symbolism draws from the same well as traditional monsters.

More Big Bug -- Even though the big bug sub-genre had pretty much run its course by 1958, it still had enough draw for one more installment. Many of the big bug scenes are (by this point) customary -- such as the rampage down the city street.

Bugs and Photos -- Gordon repeats his trick of having regular bugs crawl on photos of buildings, as he did in The Beginning of the End ('57). Here, it works better. If you can, stop the movie where the spider is in town, about to "get" the sheriff. Note the split screen with the sidewalk tree in the center. Live action on the left, tarantula crawling past a photo of storefronts on the right. It works pretty well for a low-budget effect. Notice, too, in the later cave scenes, that Gordon had photos of the Carlsbad Caverns columns cut out and set in front of a full photo, so the tarantula could walk between them. Viola! Giant spider in a cave.

Dang Rock Music -- An interesting bit of social commentary is that the teenagers' loud rock and roll music (practicing for the big dance) awakens the stunned (not dead) spider being stored in the school auditorium. Rock music awakens the demon within, they always said. Here's proof!

Hot Rod -- An fun bit of 50s atmosphere is hot rod belonging to Joe (the 30-year-old high school senior). It's a black highboy Model A convertible with chopped windshield and bobbed fenders. Quite a sweet ride to be loaning out so freely.

Earth vs The Spider? -- Originally, the title was to have simply been "The Spider". This was changed in production to "Earth vs. The Spider" for a clearer sci-fi draw. To coattail on the success of The Fly, released just a few months earlier, the movie was promoted as simply "The Spider" (as in the posters). The longer title was already produced in the credits footage, and no time or budget to redo them. Hence the two titles. But "The Earth"? At best, it's a big spider vs a dozen people in a remote small town. Kingman wants to study the spider's genetics to see why it got so big. Why? Because a batch of such huge bugs could devastate the "whole earth", he said. Scientists needed to understand to mount a defense.

Product Placement -- Gordon was fond of promoting his own work in his movies. In EvS, Mike works at his father's theater. The full size poster is for The Amazing Colossal Man. Mike is reluctant to take Carol to the cave because his father just got in a new movie that he wanted to see -- "something about Puppet People."

Star Gazing -- June Kenney stars as Carol. She starred as Sally in Gordon's Puppet People, which makes MIke's desire to see that movie an amusing detail. Also look for Gene Roth as the bombastic sheriff. He was the villain Vultura in the early 50s serial Captain Video.

Bottom line? Fans of the big bug sub-genre won't find anything particularly new in EvS. There is more of what made the big bugs famous -- a giant creepy bug menaces people and tears up a town.

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