Earth vs. the Spider (1958) **1/2
Director: Bert I. Gordon
Runtime: 1h 13m
At the start of Gojira (1954) audiences were treated to one of the most arresting and iconic moments in the history of Monster movies: A terrible, inhuman roar issuing from the darkened screen. Gojira’s roar is midway between a wounded animal and a mechanical engine. The sound would become iconic, though it’s harsh edges were softened somewhat as Gojira made the transition from walking metaphor for the horrors of atomic war to friend of all children. Yet even in the midst of some of the most shoddily made and downright goofy sequels it never entirely lost its punch. Gojira’s roar is one of those things that sticks with you, something dignified yet deeply chilling. Here, it is useful as a point of comparison, as the titular monster of today’s film also has a very distinctive roar. Far from the carefully refined terror of Gojira’s roar, the unnamed spider lets out a noise that could probably be made by a bored eight-year-old boy who has suddenly gone off his ADD medication. It yammers and screams and gurgles in a fashion that the written word is quite incapable of capturing. It’s all good fun, but those of you who demand serious social commentary from your monster movies, al la Gojira, had best look elsewhere for your fix.
The first thing we see after the opening credits is a man driving down a lonely mountain road in a snazzy 50s pickup truck. Modern trucks have little to offer beside their brute functionality, but I could see someone picking up one of these retro models based on aesthetics alone. Indeed, all the cars in this film will be gorgeous exemplars, suggesting that director Bert I. Gordon was aiming to cater to the teen hot-rod subculture. Anyway, the above-mentioned pickup belongs to Mr. Flynn, who’s hurrying back to the small town River Falls with a bracelet for his daughter’s birthday. We don’t see what happens next, only that there is a sudden crash and great deal of blood. Mr. Flynn never makes it back home.
The next day in River Falls, Flynn’s daughter Carol is fretting over her father’s disappearance. Nobody else seems much concerned though, even her own mother, as Mr. Flynn had a bad habit of disappearing for days at a time on benders with his cronies in the neighboring towns. Carol strong-arms her boyfriend Mike into borrowing a car from a mutual friend, Joe, and has her take them out looking for her missing father. Joe, incidentally, has got to be the oldest looking movie teen I’ve ever seen. Passing off a craggy-faced 26 year-old as a High School student is par for course in 50s movies, but Joe looks like he’s pushing middle age. Indeed, this movie is rife not only with ancient Teens, but with youthful adults. Mr. Kingman, who teaches science at the River Falls High School looks younger than several of his pupils. More troubling still is the fact that the actress playing Kingston’s wife is a scant few months older than the actress playing his student Carol. Sure the former dresses like a housewife while the later dresses like a teenager, but there’s no disguising their plainly similar ages. The perverts watching at home will immediately jump to the worst possible conclusion: That the River Falls science teacher is a pedophile with a freshly acquired child-bride.
Carol and Mike find Mr. Flynn’s wrecked pickup truck on the side of the road along with the bracelet he picked up for Carol’s birthday. Mike figures that Flynn must have taken cover in the nearby cave, but he’s reluctant to venture inside and even more reluctant to have Carol follow him. There are a lot of stories about ghosts and monsters circulating in town about these caves. Mike doesn’t really believe them, but he doesn’t really disbelieve them either. Still Carol is plainly the ones calling the shots in the relationship, so into the caves they go. For his shots of the caves, director Bert I. Gordon, super-imposed footage of the two teens on stills of Carlsbad Caverns. The effect is pretty cheesy but certainly looks better than any soundstage Gordon could hope to afford whatever paltry budget AIP reluctantly granted him. Mike and Carol are either unusually brave or unusually foolish because they continue to descend into our ersatz Carlsbad Caverns even after finding a pair of skeletons, presumably the mortal remains of lost spelunkers. It isn’t long after that that they run afoul of the titular monster, a hulking spider that promptly chases them out of the caverns while emitting the same absurd shriek I mentioned above.
The local authorities are split on how to handle the situation. Mr. Kingman and Mike’s father Mr. Simpson are both inclined to take Mike and Carol at their word. The Sheriff on the other hand see this as an elaborate prank that he’ll be damned if he’s gonna waste police resources on. Only the continual goading of the other adults induces him to head up to the cave and take a look. He continues to deny the possibility of a giant spider even after his men turn up the body of Carol’s dad, drained completely of blood. To be fair he is the sheriff in a 50s horror movie, he may just be waiting to narrow down which variety of bloodsucking monster he has on his hands. After all, there’s no guarantee that he’s not facing vampires, mad scientists, or mutated fish-monsters. The sight of a giant web convinces the Sheriff that there might be some truth to the teens’ story of a giant spider. He promptly summons the exterminators who roll up with a truck full of DDT. A combination of gas and gunfire brings the creature down and it seems like the only thing left to do is decide what to do with the monster’s body.
Over the objections of the Sheriff, Kingston brings the creature back to town to study and examine it further. He stashes the creature in the only building large enough to house it: the school’s gymnasium. Unfortunately for the town the giant spider is only stunned, waiting for a sufficiently loud noise to jolt it back into consciousness. Worse still, Joe and his band of middle-aged delinquents sneak into the gym to practice playing rock-and-roll. Pretty soon, while the band is playing “loud enough to wake the dead” the monster begins to twitch in rhythm with the beat. Once this prodigious display of stupidity is out of the way the spider’s next move is to tear through River Falls like Gojira through Tokyo, spreading destruction and screaming crowds in its wake. Unlike other monster movies of this vintage Gordon’s films almost never employ stop-motion animation or puppets or men in rubber suits. All these things, particularly the stop-motion animation, cost money, something which Gordon’s taskmaster at AIP were loath to part with. Gordon still wanted to fill his movies with images of giant insects though, so he took the most direct approach possible: He used the insects themselves. On the surface you would think live animal footage superimposed over the regular film would look more realistic. In practice the effect is almost uniformly goofy. Moreover there’s no real way to train a spider or grasshopper as you would a dog, so Gordon’s bugs spend a great deal of time meandering about rather than doing any proper menacing.
Kingston manages to lure the creature away from the town and back into its cavern lair. He buys enough time for the authorities to mobilize and blow the mouth of the cave shut, trapping the creature inside along with anything else that happened to be in there. Only problem is that includes Carol and Mike; you see Carol accidentally left her father’s birthday present, the bracelet from the opening, behind in the cavern. She pulled Mike away from his job at his father’s movie theater (where they are of course showing one of Bert I. Gordon’s other movies – Gordon was notorious for this kind of cross marketing), and made him take her up to the cave to look. So now the kids are stuck inside with the giant spider and no way to escape. If the spider doesn’t get them then eventual starvation or asphyxiation will. The only good news is the authorities figure out their mistake pretty quick and start digging the kids out; but there's no telling if they’ll be able to make it in time.
Now that I’ve summarized the plot astute readers may have noticed something peculiar: That a movie called Earth Vs. The Spider mainly focuses on a spider that terrorizes a small, localized area. This is not the spider promised by the title, it’s not even an attempt to deliver the spider promised by the title. This is not some gigantic arachnid whose body blots out the sun, whose strides across seas. Forget the combined mobilization of NATO and Warsaw Pact forces; this thing is beaten without even calling in the National Guard. So what gives? While it’s another mercenary film-making cash grab, you see Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), a much better film, had come out just before this movie. Since that film made a whole pot of money, Gordon and the producers at AIP they decided to rebrand The Spider as something someone could mistake as a successor to the earlier movie. Never mind that the new title is pretty silly on it’s own and sure to disappoint anyone who actually pays to see it (save for of course the cult of bad movie aficionados).
All told Earth Vs. the Spider is a fairly by the numbers crossbreeding of giant monster movie and teen movie; the kind of teen centered horror movie that AIP began to focus on in the late 1950s (I was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), I was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957), etc). It is distinguished only by its silliness, the monsters goofy screams, and the whole playing rock and roll so loud that it wakes the dead. Incredibly, this is not even Gordon’s silliest film, that honor belongs to his earlier masterpiece: Beginning of the End (1957).