The Giant Spider Invasion / Invasion of the Giant Spiders (1975) -***˝
Odds are you have absolutely no idea who Bill Rebane is. That’s okay— I’d never heard of him by name either. That lack of exposure is an unfortunate thing, however, for Rebane has a number of films to his credit that are sure to warm the heart of any aficionado of the wretched and misbegotten. This is the guy who made a slasher movie starring Tiny Tim; a monster movie about a giant, humanoid frog guarding sunken treasure at the bottom of a lake in Wisconsin; the 70’s Bigfoot movie that all the other 70’s Bigfoot movies give wedgies to on the playground. But if it can be said that Rebane is known for anything (obviously a dubious proposition), it would probably be for directing The Giant Spider Invasion. This truly unforgettable film was given a boost by no less a personage than Stephen King, who marveled at length over its unabashedly budget-conscious monster effects in the chapter on awful horror movies in Danse Macabre, and while some points of King’s description are either exaggerated or just plain mistaken, the various gargantuan spiders— created by Richard Albain (who went on to have an actual career) and Robert Millay (who did not)— are indeed pretty incredible. But as is so often the case with the best of the worst, the fabulously shitty monsters are only the beginning.
Now given that this is supposed to be a giant spider invasion we’re dealing with, rather than merely an attack or an infestation, you might surmise that the spiders doing the invading hail from someplace slightly more exotic than an island in the South Pacific or the laboratory of some demented scientist. You would not be wrong. Rebane establishes his contempt for our so-called “production values” immediately by confronting us with a bright white light streaking via post-production magic across one of the movie world’s higher-profile stock starfields. The object barrels across space in the direction of Earth— because, let’s face it, where else is a thing like that going to go?— and sets down hard in rural Wisconsin. The sheer insignificance of the settlement outside which the thing from space lands can be inferred from the fact that virtually the whole population is gathered that night at the first session of the three-day revival being conducted by some obnoxious preacher (Frankenstein Island’s Tain Bodkin) whose name we never will learn. His function for the rest of the film will be to bellow a bit of the old hellfire-and-brimstone right before something really horrible happens. There are a few people who will not be in attendance, however. Sheriff Jeff Jones (The Crawling Hand’s Alan Hale Jr., best remembered for his long-running gig as the skipper on “Gilligan’s Island”— and yes, the first words out of the sheriff’s mouth are indeed, “Hey, little buddy!”), naturally, has his law-enforcement obligations. Rookie newspaper reporter Dave Perkins (Kevin Brodie) has a hot date with Terry (Diane Lee Hart, of Bummer! and The Pom Pom Girls), the neighborhood’s most eligible teen slut. Terry’s big sister, Ev (Leslie Parrish, from Missile to the Moon and Invisible Strangler), has a busy night of solo drinking ahead of her. And Dan Kester (Robert Easton, who was this movie’s main screenwriter in addition to having appeared in The Touch of Satan and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), Ev’s husband, professes to be going to the revival, but will actually be spending his evening cheating on Ev with Helga (Christiane Schmidtmer, from Hot Bubblegum and The Big Doll House), the waitress at the local diner. Dave and Terry experience some of the strange atmospheric effects that accompany the landing of the thing from space, Sheriff Jones is kept busy dealing with the effects of the electromagnetic pulse that heralds its arrival, and Ev and Dan will actually witness the impact. In fact, the mysterious stellar body crashes to earth in the Kesters’ cattle pasture.
Dan and Ev go to look for the impact site the following morning, and when they do, they discover that something has slaughtered their entire herd of cattle. Note, incidentally, that Dan claims not to be overly troubled by this gigantic setback, as he will still be able to butcher the carcasses and sell the meat to Dutch (Bill Williams, from Lady Godiva Rides and Joel Reed’s Night of the Zombies), the owner of the diner where Helga works. I personally would have thought that the near-complete skeletonization of the animals would act as an impediment to any such endeavor, but I’m not in the cattle-ranching business, so what do I know? In any case, the Kesters’ attention is soon diverted from their mangled livestock, for Ev notices that the pasture is now strewn with strange, almost spherical rocks which become thicker on the ground the closer they get to the big, ragged hole which the filmmakers attempt to pass off as an extraterrestrial impact crater. Nice try, guys. Strangely, Ev does not notice the equally exceptional proliferation of large spider webs in her back field, which in light of the title is likely to prove a much more significant development. Then again, since a hand-sized tarantula crawls out of one of the spherical rocks when Dan cracks it open by dropping it on his kitchen floor (the spider gets away before either of the Kesters sees it), perhaps the stones and the webs do deserve equal billing. But once again the Kesters’ minds are elsewhere— specifically, they’re focused on the diamond-like crystals lining the inside of the geode-egg from outer space. Dan thinks he’s about to be rich, and not even a visit to his cousin Billy (Paul Bentzen, of The Alpha Incident and Invasion from Inner Earth), who runs “the rock shop” and who assures Dan that the diamonds are of industrial quality only, can dissuade him.
Meanwhile, the thing in Kester’s field has attracted notice from outside. The locals aren’t the only ones who endured untoward atmospheric conditions as the object fell to Earth— a US Air Force B-52 flying over the area was knocked out of the sky by the electromagnetic pulse. (Luckily for all concerned, the stock footage shows the bomber in question to be one of the D models modified for the conventional bombing offensive in Vietnam. Imagine how much worse things would have been with 60,000 pounds of unsecured nukes on the loose too!) Now off the top of your head, you might expect the Air Force to be the agency charged with handling such situations, but apparently you’d be mistaken. Instead, NASA astrophysicist J. R. Vance (Steve Brodie, from Donovan’s Brain and The Wild World of Batwoman) gets the job of flying out to the Wisconsin countryside to see what’s what. Once at his destination, Vance gets in touch with Dr. Jenny Langer (longtime Perry Mason sidekick Barbara Hale), who oversees the local planetarium (and whose laboratory is inexplicably packed with chemistry-related doodads even though she’s supposed to be an astronomer), in order to compare notes. Langer tells Vance that she’s picking up incredible radiation readings from just outside of town, saying something about a “ground-level x-ray source” so powerful that the only earthly thing she can think of to account for it is a nuclear explosion. With an H-bomb obviously ruled out on the grounds that she’s alive to discuss the situation in the first place, that leaves only some kind of astral body— a meteor, most likely. Actually, the thing in the field proves to be much more exotic. Airborne photos reveal distortions in the atmosphere around the crater that could only be caused by a space warp. That in turn means that the object from the void has to be a miniature black hole! On second thought, maybe a shitload of nukes would have been less troublesome after all.
Now in the real world, black holes are collapsed stars, hyper-dense objects of such vast gravitational pull that not even the speed of light is sufficient for escape velocity. In shitty sci-fi movies, on the other hand, black holes are invariably portals to a parallel universe. And in case this wasn’t yet obvious, the parallel universe to which this particular black hole links up appears to be inhabited mainly by giant, killer spiders. They hatch out of those geodes at tarantula size (as we have seen) and just grow and grow and grow. How big do they get? Well, one night while Dan is out boning Helga again, Ev has just about finished drinking herself into another stupor when she opens up the top drawer in her dresser and a whole bunch of huge, hairy legs come spilling out at her. Sobers her up right quick, that does. Ev flees to the barn, but that isn’t a very good idea. There’s another spider in there, and it’s as big as she is. It drops limply from the rafters in one of the most desultory monster attacks ever filmed, and that’s the end of Ev. It’s only the beginning for arachnid gigantism, however, and the next spider we see is easily as big as a respectably sized car— undoubtedly because at least one of the several full-scale mock-ups used to represent it very clearly actually is a car underneath all the fur and legs. Panic ensues, mobs of armed dumb-asses take to the streets, and it’s up to Vance and Langer to find a way to close that damned black hole before something even worse comes wandering through it.
It seems there’s something about spiders, more than any other invertebrate, that fires the imaginations of really lousy filmmakers. Even with that in mind, however, The Giant Spider Invasion is something special. It isn’t often that Alan Hale Jr. puts in the most credible performance in a movie, nor is it common to encounter a film that will offer up something as ludicrous as a black hole crash-landing in a cow pasture with a straight face. Similarly incredible is that as late as 1975, The Giant Spider Invasion recommissions that hoary old gag in which the male scientist can’t wrap his mind around the idea that the colleague whom he’s traveled halfway across the country to meet is a woman. Damnit Bill, the expiration date on that joke ends in “BC!” This movie also has some of the most wonderful fleeing-crowds footage since Reptilicus, and a few shots of the main monster eating people which are on nearly the same exalted plane of gross technical overreach as their counterparts from the latter film. For my money, the actor-eating spider is even funnier than the spidermobile that attacks the carnival, if for no other reason than that we get a much better look at it. The eight-legged pervert hiding in Ev’s underwear drawer is a hoot, too. The most incredible thing of all, however, may be the simple fact that The Giant Spider Invasion was not by a long shot the worst movie Bill Rebane made.