Giant Spider Invasion (1975) ***1/2
Director: Bill Rebane
Runtime: 1h 24m
Film-making in America is often viewed as synonymous with Hollywood, for reasons that are obvious. Hollywood films have been the most conspicuously visible products in American cinema almost all of the last century. However, in the classically can-do American attitude there have been marginal cinemas across the nation, existing and in some cases flourishing despite their distance (physically and spiritually) from the central hub. Bill Rebane is one of those marginal filmmakers toiling ceaselessly in fly-over obscurity. His success is owed mostly to the marketability of horror films in regional drive-through, after all something had to play while young couples are buys making out. This is why Rebane’s best-known films are horror films despite his distaste for the genre. Personal misgivings aside, Rebane reliably churned out pictures that stretch the limits of his technology and budget, often fantastically. For this reason I salute him, anyone with this commitment is worthy of respect. I also salute him for how wildly entertaining those films are, even if they are impossible to defend aesthetically. This is certainly the case with his best known film: Giant Spider Invasion.
The main thrust of Giant Spider Invasion follows a family of hicks living in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin. A more unpleasant and frankly, filthy, family would be difficult to imagine. The patriarch is Kester, an overweight, middle-aged farmer sporting a goatee and a girdle. He divides his time between verbally abusing his wife, making passes at his sister-in-law, screwing a local prostitute, and cultivating a crop of marijuana on his land. His wife, Ev, who gives as good as she gets in the verbal abuse department, is a drunk who routinely trades sexual favors for booze from the proprietor of the local café. She also amuses herself between drinks by flirting shamelessly with her sister’s boyfriend, a reporter at the local newspaper. The only sympathetic member of the household is the above-mentioned sister, Terry, who unsurprisingly is desperate to get out of there.
Their depressing lives are interrupted one night when a black hole crashes into their property. Now, in real life, a black hole, even one the size of a grain of sand, landing in Wisconsin would be a disaster unprecedented in human history. Indeed, it's doubtful that the earth would survive such a collision. Fortunately this is a crappy horror movie, and in crappy horror movies black holes are not super dense masses, but instead portals that open to different dimensions. Unfortunately for our wretched white-trash family, this black hole is a gateway to the Spider Dimension, and it isn’t long before the natives start to pour through into our world. The spiders come through in eggs made out of diamond, and are about the size of tarantulas when they hatch. From there they grow, and grow until they get about as big as a small house. Kester and Ev witness the crash, which judging from the kaleidoscope of psychedelic footage that Rebane projects across the backdrop, must have tossed a considerable amount of LSD into the atmosphere. The next day they investigate, finding that most of their cattle has been slaughtered by some unknown predator. Kester isn’t overly worried, he plans to butcher the slaughtered meat and pass it off to the owner of the local café, just as he always does. If the meat was tainted, well that’s just the cost of screwing your supplier’s wife. How he plans to do this though, when most of the remains are little more than skeletons is beyond me, but hey, he’s the dairy farmer not me. More interesting to Kester are the diamonds he discovers at the foot of a massive crater. He takes them in to his equally odious (no mean feat) cousin in town to have them appraised. The cousin informs him that they are industrial grade, and have some worth but only in large quantities.
The proper authorities have not completely missed the fact that a black hole is currently sitting somewhere in Middle America. After it’s impact the town’s sheriff is beset by a series of calls from citizens complaining about problems with their cars and radios. The sheriff, like most small town cops I’ve met, is determined to do as little as possible to help. He directs the citizens to the local repair-shops and dismisses the whole mysterious occurrence with little more than a shrug. He only allows himself to be goaded into action after reports of missing persons begin to filter in. Fortunately the physics professor at the local university, Jenny Langer, is a little bit more on the ball. After detecting some inexplicable meteorological disturbances she promptly contacts NASA. Normally this correspondence would be disregarded, but the US military has recently lost a plane in the region and they suspect that there is a connection between the two events. However, the economic malaise of the mid seventies must have impacted government budgets more than I suspected, as NASA is only able to dispatch a single scientist, Dr. Vance, with no military escort or even so much as a lab assistant to carry his papers.
The meeting of the two scientists is one of the most groan inducing and amusing moments in the whole film. You see Vance, cannot believe that his counterpart at the university is a woman. Upon meeting her he asks if Dr. Langer is her father, finding out that the man has been dead for more than a decade, he assumes the scientist must be her husband and finally her brother upon hearing that she is not married. I would argue that by playing with such confusion Giant Spider Invasion is harkening back to the earlier giant bug movies, but that isn’t accurate. You see, both Them! (1954) and Tarantula (1955) have female scientists and none of the characters are particularly surprised to see women in these roles. Even the misogynistic scientists in The Strange World of Planet X (1958) don’t seem surprised at the mere existence of a female scientist, only that she is beautiful and charming. In this case, Rebane seems to have aimed to capture more the popular image of 1950s monster movies, than create an accurate replica. In his time 50s movies were viewed as being full of anachronistic sexism, and Rebane reproduces that here, even if it isn’t strictly speaking true. The scene is successful in that it adds to the overall retro-monster movie vibe, but those who don’t pick up this current will doubtlessly find it baffling and even a touch offensive. I mean really, what kind of reactionary buffoon hasn’t heard of a female scientist in 1975?
Back on the farm the situation is deteriorating rapidly. Harassed night and day by the spiders, Ev has ratcheted her drinking up well beyond her normal excess. Kester, who is evidently blind as well as stupid and cruel, thinks the spiders are nothing more than alcohol-induced hallucinations, but he has worries of his own. You see, the spiders have moved on to other pray than the farm’s cattle, Kester found the body of a motorcyclist near the crater one day while foraging for more diamonds. Fearing the police would discover his drug crop and his mysterious source of diamonds he hid the body and the motorcycle in the underbrush and called it a day. In the case of the dead body, and the cow carcasses, Giant Spider Invasion is aided by the poor quality of the film it’s using. The graininess, and the ugliness of the footage covers the amateurish special effects and give it an air of authenticity that is surprising given the rest of the film’s goofiness.
One night, when Kester is away visiting his girlfriend, things come to a head for Ev. She turns in for the night with a bottle of whiskey, oblivious to the spiders that are crawling around under her sheets. The music ratchets up to eleven (which is to say it adds another tone to the same five cords that play whenever the film has been trying to build tension) and we are sure that the spiders are going to get her right there and then. In a neat bit of inversion though Ev abruptly climbs out of bed and the musical build up ceases completely. She walks to her underwear drawer, opens it up and *Bam!* eight hairy legs leap out her. Ev might be able to handle the tarantulas, but there’s no way she’s going to tangle with a spider that’s the size of a house-cat. She high-tails it out of the house and runs straight for the barn; because that’s definitely the smart choice for those who want to avoid spiders. Of course, there is a still larger spider, this one a person in an impossibly shitty costume, lying in wait for her there. The ridiculousness of the costume is partially covered by the darkness of the barn and the shortness of the scene. Those who are watching the film on DVD will want to pause it here and crank up their TV’s brightness. Kester isn’t long for this world either, while gathering still more diamonds from the crater the next day he’s attacked and eaten by an even larger spider (or possibly the same spider after a growth-spurt). How convincing is the attack? Let me put it this way, not since The Creeping Terror (1964) have I seen a monster get so much help from his potential victim.
The next step for spider conquest of earth is attacking a scantily clad Terry and demolishing once and for all the seedy farmhouse Kester and his clan lived in. It’s here that we get our first real look at the titular monster, and boy is it crappy. The legs resemble massive pipe cleaners, the same kind (if on a larger scale) as the ones you give to children for arts and crafts projects. The body of the spider is roughly the size of a car, but what really makes it stand out are the eyes. The big, goofy white eyes have a distinctly Muppet-like vibe to them. All they are missing is two industrial-sized googly eyes to complete the ridiculousness. All the same the scene is wildly entertaining, given the discrepancy between the destruction wrought by the monster and it’s comic appearance. At the last minute Terry is saved by her boyfriend, and the couple drives back to town to sound the alarm and get the proper authorities. Up until now Vance and Langer have been passing their time in idle speculation and theorizing, but they are ready at last to take the fight to the spiders and hopefully close the portal to the spider dimension once and for all. The spiders, for their part are not going to stay idle; the largest one is already descending on a county fair, sending the townspeople fleeing in terror reminiscent of the low-budget Middle American adaptation of Gojira (1954).
Part of the charm of Giant Spider Invasion is it’s hopeless anachronistic nature. Rebane seems to have intentionally set out to make a 1950s monster movie in 1975. The formula, stock-characters, and special effects seem largely unchanged those employed by Them! (1954). Though despite the loving homage, are a fair number of illustrative differences. The redneck family, for instance, is far sleazier than anything you would see in a mainstream release circa 1955, though cult movies of that vintage were frequently even more disgusting, see The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1959). The scale of the destruction is also much smaller than any 1950s monster movie, save for Earth vs. the Spider (1958), and this is owning to much the same reason. In both cases the filmmakers were laboring under such budgetary concerns that made swarms of giant spiders destroying a metropolitan center a financial impossibility.