Earth vs. the Spider/The Spider (1958) -***½
What do you get when you hire Bert I. Gordon to rip off Tarantula for Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson? You get The Spider, that’s what. And what do you get when Arkoff and Nicholson notice how much more money a re-release of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is making than their movie is? That’s right, you get the main title design and promotional artwork redone to read Earth vs. the Spider. I know this kind of thing still goes on today in the direct-to-video market (notice how little time it took Roger Corman to slap together Carnosaur when it became clear just how much fucking money Jurassic Park was going to make), but somehow it just isn’t as much fun when it isn’t happening in the high-visibility environment of theatrical release.
Now, as a title, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers makes some sense; “Earth” and “the Flying Saucers” seem like they belong on opposite sides of “vs.” from each other. Earth vs. the Spider, on the other hand, is a bit like “Alfie the Paper Boy vs. the Smog Monster.” The one seems wildly excessive as a counter to the other. And given the new title’s origin, it should come as no surprise that it’s more than a little inappropriate to the film from a truth-in-advertising perspective. In much the same way that It Conquered the World (also paid for with Arkoff’s and Nicholson’s money, by the way) plays more like “It Conquered Beechwood”, Earth vs. the Spider plays more like “The River Falls High School Class of ‘58 vs. the Spider.”
It’s clear from the very first shot that Gordon retains the appreciation for rapid pacing that he displayed in The Beginning of the End. It’s late at night, and a lone man is driving on a deserted road through what looks like semi-arid hill country (this is going to become a continuity problem later). Without warning, his windshield shatters as he drives at speed into some sort of cable stretched across the road.
Cut to a small-town street scene. A boy named Mike (Bloodlust!’s Gene Persson) and a girl named Carol (June Kenney, from Attack of the Puppet People) are walking to school; Mike is trying to court her, but her mind is clearly elsewhere. It seems her father has gone missing, that he drove off to a neighboring town the night before and never came back. Hmmm... the man in the truck from the last scene was holding a small jewelry box with a note reading, “For Carol-- love, Dad,” inserted in it. Is there a connection? Of course there is. After school, Mike and Carol go to their friend Joe (Troy Patterson, also from Attack of the Puppet People) to borrow his hot rod, and drive off in search of her father. Out in the hills, they find what looks like a thick, sticky rope lying across the road, surrounded by broken pieces of automobile glass and that jewelry box I mentioned. Carol then notices a wrecked pickup truck in the trees at the bottom of the hill, a truck much like her father’s. (Remember that continuity problem I alluded to earlier? Well, here it is. I swear the landscape in the first scene looks little short of a desert. Yet here, when Mike and Carol go to investigate the smashed truck, they are in the middle of a lush deciduous forest.) Not far from the truck, (which is empty of anything resembling Carol’s father) is a cave (the interiors of which, as the opening credits proudly trumpet, were filmed in “the famous Carlsbad Caverns”). No one ever gives any details, but this cave apparently has a bad reputation, and Carol is not particularly interested in going inside. However, when Mike suggests that her father might have gone inside for shelter from the cold last night, she follows him in-- I guess hanging around the mouth of the cave alone would be even worse.
Mike and Carol are not prepared for what they find within. First, they run across several human skeletons. Then, they fall into a net-like contrivance, made of the same material as that cable they found in the road. Finally, while they struggle to free their clothes from the gluey strands of the net, they spot a tarantula roughly the size of a small, one-story house crawling towards them. Ah... now it all fits together, doesn’t it? The two teenagers manage to extricate themselves from the web, and run like hell back to the car.
Back home, a strange and amazing thing happens to Mike and Carol-- adults believe their story!!!! They had the presence of mind to bring a piece of the giant spider’s silk (cut from the strand on the road) home with them as proof, and it’s enough to convince Mr. Kingman (Ed Kemmer, of Giant from the Unknown), their high school science teacher, that there may be something to their tale, and he in turn convinces the kids’ parents and the local sheriff (Gene Roth, from The Giant Leeches and The She-Demons). The sheriff rounds up a posse to check out the cave, and to our astonishment, the spider cooperates by attacking the party! Not only that, they find the body of Carol’s father, which is in exactly the state that one would expect of a man who had been killed by a gigantic spider. The deputies pump the spider full of lead and hose it down with DDT until it seems to be dead. The science teacher then makes arrangements for its carcass to be brought to the school. He intends to sell it to the state university so that they can study it, and hopefully figure out why it exists in the first place. (Radiation? Just a guess...)
The bug never gets to the university, though, and the reason why is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in a movie. The school administration decides to store the spider in the gym until the university’s movers show up. This doesn’t sit too well with Joe, whose rock and roll band needs to rehearse for their performance at the school dance. (“If we don’t swing solid, the kids won’t have a blast!” Joe protests when he learns that the gym is off-limits for the moment.) They can’t rehearse in the auditorium, because the drama club is using it, so they end up talking Hugo the janitor into opening up the gym. They set up, and just before they start playing, the drama club stops in to listen-- I guess the play sucks so bad even they don’t want to see it-- and it’s an instant party. “Play loud enough to wake the dead!” Joe tells his band, and they certainly do. That’s right, rock and roll brings the spider back to life!!!! The huge arachnid smashes its way out of the school and sets off to do the same to the town.
After a few scenes of fairly straightforward atomic buggery, the spider is led out of town by the science teacher, who heroically risks his life and his really swank ‘58 Plymouth decoying the thing back to its cave. But there’s just one problem. You see, before the spider returned from the dead, Carol noticed that she had once again lost the necklace that her father had died giving her. Horrified at this development, she talked Mike into borrowing Joe’s car again and taking her back out to the cave to look for the necklace. They’re still there when the spider comes home, and they’re still there when the sheriff and his deputies come out with a local engineer to dynamite the entrance to the cave in the hope of trapping the monster inside. Race against time, anyone?
Before we leave Earth vs. the Spider, I want to draw your attention to something about the titular monster. Now, as most reasonably observant people know, spiders don’t make any noise, and for a very good reason-- they lack any kind of vocal apparatus at all. Like all terrestrial arthropods, they breathe through rows of large pores in their flanks, and thus a lungs-and-vocal-cords system like we use is clearly out of the question. Furthermore, spiders have no wings to rub together (like crickets and other Orthopterids), nor do they have cicada-like vibrating membranes or big, hard lumps on their abdomens to knock against things like a death-watch beetle. But silent monsters are no fun, so of course the spider makes lots of noise. I wish I could type for you an approximation of its call, but unfortunately, the Latin alphabet is wholly unequal to the task. But more important than the sound of the spider’s call is the fact that it’s clearly being produced by a human voice! The entire time that the spider was on the screen, I found myself picturing Bert I. Gordon standing in front of a microphone, screeching and gibbering like an idiot. If there’s anything in Earth vs. the Spider that’s funnier than the mechanism of the monster’s resurrection, it’s this. Those two points alone are reason enough to watch this movie.