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The Spider

by Glenn Erickson Jun 27, 2020

 

Bert I. Gordon rides again, with an excellent encoding of one of his more popular sci-fi monster-ramas.  Pert ‘n’ perky June Kenney is so brave that she keeps going back to ‘that old cave outside of town,’ despite not knowing how many giant spiders are on the loose. Teenagers in their thirties and their bebop-crazy rock ‘n’ roll are no match for Gordon’s titanic, screaming arachnid. This spidey is just plain shifty, the kind of unscrupulous fiend that colors his crayons outside the (matte) lines … in crimson B&W blood! June Kenney’s mom knows her girl only two well: “… I hope she hasn’t gone back to that cave.” With some excellent extras, namely about a million rare behind-the-scenes stills from Tom Weaver.


The Spider
Blu-ray
Scream Factory
1958 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 73 min. / Earth vs. The Spider / Street Date June 23, 2020
Starring: Ed Kemmer, June Kenney, Gene Persson, Gene Roth, Hal Torey, June Jocelyn, Mickey Finn, Sally Fraser, Troy Patterson, Skip Young, Howard Wright, Bill Giorgio, Hank Patterson.
Cinematography: Jack A. Marta
Editorial supervisor: Ronald Sinclair
Special designers: Paul and Jackie Blaisdell
Special Effects: Bert I. Gordon, Flora M. Gordon
Original Music: Albert Glasser
Written by Laszlo Gorog, George Worthing Yates story by Bert I. Gordon
Produced and Directed by Bert I. Gordon

Our attitude toward Bert I. Gordon has softened over the years, as we return to his films more often than we might admit. Even among their low-budget ‘fifties peers they have humbling weaknesses. Gordon imitates rather than innovates — three of his pictures are simply about men grown to giant-size. His screenplays are slack and his special effects mostly something to laugh at. Yet for a couple of years BIG-Gordon confected exactly the kind of drive-in films that American-International’s James H. Nicholson and Sam Arkoff wanted: teenagers and monsters attracted less censorship flak than juvenile crime & drug pix.

Bert Gordon can definitely be praised as a self-made man. His first 35mm effort King Dinosaur had barely the production values of a home movie yet won a national release through Robert Lippert. His self-produced follow-up The Cyclops fielded an all-name cast — and then didn’t bill them prominently. Its release was held up for a year. Bert’s biggest break came when he was bankrolled by a company formed by ABC TV and Paramount Theaters, to make his giant grasshopper invasion story Beginning of the End. That led to his deal with American-International, which stretched to four more features.

 

A generic product for the drive-in market, The Spider was Gordon’s fourth and last A.I.P. show of the 1950s, filmed as the craze for monster fare was beginning to wind down. The short-duration feature has retained one sterling quality: nostalgia appeal. Gordon’s story, fleshed out by writers Laszlo Gorog (The Mole People) and George Worthing Yates (Them!) has a dashed-off feel that matches the haphazard direction of Mr. B.I.G..

Something bad happens to Mr. Flynn when driving back to River Falls with a birthday present for his beloved daughter Carol (June Kenney of Sorority Girl and Teenage Doll). After school the next day, Carol talks her boyfriend Mike (Gene Persson) into taking her out to look for her father. They find his wrecked truck and the birthday gift out on the road, and then investigate a cave, which turns out to contain several human skeletons, a giant spider web and finally, the title monstrosity itself. High school professor Art Kingman (Ed Kemmer) guides Sheriff Cagle (Gene Roth) in zapping the spider with DDT. It ends up displayed in the recreation room at River Falls High, where a rock band led by Joe and Sam (Troy Patterson & Skip Young) are about to hold a rehearsal. What could go wrong?

Professional production values give the live-action scenes of The Spider a veneer of quality. With A.I.P.’s backing Gordon rented the Big Street set at Universal City, and for a few shots populates it with perhaps forty extras. (Eighty? I’m a bad estimator). It looks very much like the modest town on view in Pleasantville. The High School and backlot sets come right from TV-land; a trashed residential street with an abandoned crying boy matches an exact angle of destruction seen four years later in A.I.P.’s Panic in Year Zero!

Augmented by some strategic shrubberies, the middle cave of good old Bronson Caverns serves as the entrance to spidey’s hideout. The production throws a few fake boulders into the mix as well. Other scenes are practically a guide showing how to reach the Bronson Caverns quarry. Mr. Flynn’s car accident happens on the main access road — we can tell because paved roads in Griffith Park all have curbs. It’s nice that rural River Falls, thirty miles from the next town, is connected by a fully-curbed highway. [The same shot-in-Griffith-Park giveaway is evident in the ‘remote country roads’ in Hubert Cornfield’s Plunder Road.]

Then, a number of scenes take place on the dirt access fire road adjacent to the Caverns. Bert organized a really tight shoot: no far-flung locations, thank you.

 

Bert Gordon also invested in some large cave wall sets that more than suffice for the level of realism needed for his ‘let’s stroll into the spider’s lair’ fantasy. The main titles proclaim that scenes were filmed in the famous Carlsbad Caverns, but that’s not quite true: Gordon’s main visual trick is to over-matte scenes with photographs, producing cut-out composites with the live actors limited to only part of the frame. Although the artifice is easy to spot, these scenes get a solid B+ for execution. Some of the setups are fairly artful, a word that doesn’t crop up much in a B.I.Gordon movie.

The cast features a couple of favorites, a reliable standby or two, and various faces from Gordon’s regular stock company. Good actress Sally Fraser (It Conquered the World) is stuck in a part with just a few domestic scenes with a baby and a withered spider leg prop. Cute June Kenney has a lot of screen time but spends most of it cringing at offscreen effects. Her main emotion is remorse over her missing father, a sadness that comes and goes from scene to scene. But it’s enough to motivate a second trip to the cave. Poor Mike pretty much bends to whatever Carol asks.

Top-billed Ed Kemmer’s high school professor delivers the dubious ‘science’ chatter. He demonstrates an electrical setup that (surprise) sees use later on, and all but intuits the certainty of a giant spider before the fact. Gene Roth has the biggest part, as his Sheriff gets to tell a lot of people what to do. His official response to a spider devouring River Falls is to sit by the phone waiting for outside help. Skip Young (familiar from the Ozzie & Harriet TV show) and Troy Patterson are severely over-aged high schoolers. Troy could almost be the father of a teenager. Both he and Nancy Kilgas have backgrounds as dancers. And there’s always old Hank Patterson, who plays janitors or technicians in several Bert Gordon movies. The anonymous ‘woman screaming by car’ deserves some kind of an award — her showcase shot all but screams, ‘put me in the trailer.’

Bert Gordon’s story is serviceable, but his direction barely connects the dramatics to the monster material. In a dank cave with corpses and a giant bug, Carol and Mike never seem as scared as they ought to be — Albert Glasser’s haunted-house music score enforces the appropriate spooky mood. The Felony Under-Reacting seen elsewhere reaches absurd levels. After his deputy is crushed to death before his eyes, Sheriff Kagle is still behaving as if directing traffic on main street. When a giant spider strolls through downtown River Falls, the men in the Sheriff’s office stare out the window as if a parade float were going by.

 

Only a monster movie can achieve a surreal dislocation this profound. The human response to the outrageous spectacle is all wrong — you’d expect those men to sink to the floor and cringe in a corner. Or what about that giant spider ‘corpse’ on display in the recreation room: the astounding creature has no precedent in human history, yet the teens and teachers gawk like it was no big deal.

I guess all the silliness is part of the appeal. The screenplay often sounds like a radio play, which might be intentional considering that only the soundtrack was likely noticed by that part of the drive-in audience furiously necking in the back seat. When looking for her father, Carol and Mike are really slow on the draw:

Carol: “What’s that down there?”
Mike: “It’s just an old pickup truck.”
Carol (sudden realization): “That’s what dad was driving!”

When the pair gets stuck in something very much like a giant spider web, they talk like a developmentally-challenged Hansel & Gretel:

Carol: “What’s this thing we fell in?”
Mike: “Awfully sticky, though.”

The rock ‘n’ roll band has an orchestra leader. His teen hipster talk is just a teeny bit forced:

Joe: “The cats will have a blast if we don’t swing solid.”

Carol’s mother (June Jocelyn) intuits that her Carol has a thing for scary caves:

Mrs. Flynn: “I hope she hasn’t gone back to that cave.”


Oh, those special effects…

I’ll try to do this without sounding like the nerd in grade school who thinks he has all the answers. Bert Gordon did his homework for The Spider and can be commended for producing screen-able effects without the expensive optical matte work seen in Universal’s superior Tarantula two years before. Universal’s work had its little goofs as well, but depicting a giant spider attacking a town in broad daylight is a tall order.

Gordon uses in-camera bi-pack mattes for some shots of the crawling spider, which results in the expected partial transparencies. But most scenes place the spider in front of photos of streets or cave backgrounds. If the spider is the same size as the one on the Sheriff’s desk, 14″ by 20″ photo blow-ups might have been big enough.

 

These effects are limited by Bert and Flora’s skill with scissors. A couple of shots split a photo in half horizontally at the level where the spider will walk. ↑ The trick falls apart: the matte line looks like an open wound, and the focus on the lower foreground is softer than the part above. Considering that these shots require no optical work, they’re darn clever. They work much better in the cave scenes, where we expect the scenery to be static. They’re essentially a ‘reality sandwich’ of the kind that Ray Harryhausen accomplished, but with cut-out still photos instead of live-action rear projection. Perhaps this is why Gordon bills the work as ‘special technical effects.’

Gordon gets into more trouble when he combines these spider-diorama scenes with live-action footage. His composite matte shots look like crude photo-pasteups done with too much glue. Cutting a matte around a tree or right through a roadway yields some real eyesores. (I believe the photo just below ↓ has been touched up.)  We’re so busy wincing at the result, we forget to notice the spider changing in size between shots. In the gym interior it is maybe twenty-five feet across. When on the town it’s as big as half a city block.

 

Always getting a guaranteed laugh is a grossly mismatched spider leg prop that serves as a foreground object in some scenes, and waggles through a window when menacing Sally Fraser and her baby. (Two photos down. ↓ ) That wiggly leg prop and two shriveled corpses were fabricated by Paul and Jackie Blaisdell, a pioneer ’50s monster-making team that got paid pennies for creating the creatures that made monster movies memorable. Did Paul base the leg on the poster concept of a garden-variety spider, not knowing that bulbous-legged tarantulas were being used?

The cartoonish corpses do what they’re supposed to do, provide a moment of surprise. The Sheriff’s search team is pretty cavalier about carting Mr. Flynn’s body out of the cave, right in front of his daughter. We really expect old Jake (Howard Wright) to express relief that he doesn’t have to work hard: “Hey, that spider really sucked every drop out of this stiff — he’s as light as a feather!”

I remember that one of the Blaisdell corpses saw service as a ‘mystery photo’ in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland.   The first issue is used as a prop in one scene, indicating that A.I.P. smelled the publicity possibilities in Forrest J. Ackerman’s magazine right from the start. FM #1 came out in February of ’58, seven months before The Spider’s debut.


 

I don’t watch movies like Spider to exercise my heckling talents, but just the same a great many things in Gordon’s picture make me smile… or maybe wonder, ‘did they know this was a bad idea?’  Here are a handful of observations, not in any way meant to be snarky.

I like it when the entire cast climbs down the hill to get to the wrecked truck, surely wiping out any evidence that might still be there. And Mrs. Flynn inexplicably climbs down into the cave at the end, an unlikely event for sure. When the rescue engineer suggests entering the cavern by digging from the top, we’re reminded of the unnecessary rescue shaft drilled through solid rock in the Billy Wilder classic Ace in the Hole. Boy, if Kirk Douglas had called the engineer in this movie (Mickey Finn?), poor Leo Minosa would have been out of that Navajo cave dwelling in twenty minutes.

I want Joe’s hot rod, the one that Mike borrows. I hope it’s bright red.

River Falls is the most emergency-ready town I have ever seen. Need a quarter-mile of copper cable?  Just stop off at the express office, they’ve got all you need. The same goes for the quarter-mile of rubber hose carried on that tanker truck, which also carries enough of the noxious chemical DDT to give cancer to all of North America.

Ed Kemmer’s Professor Kingman has the craziest speech in the whole movie. His small-town teacher pays a ‘moving van company’ out of pocket to extract a dead giant spider from a deep cave and cart it all the way back to the high school. That’s a real Carl Denham transition, the one explaining how King Kong was somehow transported alive to New York City. The Professor’s Monty Python-worthy punch line?  He wonders out loud if he’ll be reimbursed.

And finally, do you know that Professor Kingman’s house is at the edge of the world?  When he gets out to look at the big spider sitting in his front yard, it’s a down angle. On the other side of a short hedge is nothing, I mean NOTHING, a blank. It’s like the world ends right there. Perhaps Bert Gordon’s The Spider has a profound existentialist subtext that I’m just too stubborn to fully perceive. Like, Far Out.

Bottom line: technically and aesthetically, this a terrible film. I think you’ll enjoy it.


 

Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of The Spider is an excellent encoding of this monsteriffic opus. I wonder if audiences thought its original co-feature The Brain Eaters was better, or worse?  The sharp transfer shows the decent lighting used on the live action scenes, and allows us armchair Douglas Trumbulls to perform a filmic autopsy on all of those special effects scenes. The truth is that the 1:85 widescreen theatrical format takes the curse away from many of them. Gary Teetzel has seen the old flat Lionsgate DVD, and says this is “a huge step up — much sharper and more detailed.”

The movie’s audio track is particularly good. Albert Glasser’s score fits the action quite well, even a ‘Sad Carol’ track with a violin part that sounds like it belongs in Bernard Herrmann’s On Dangerous Ground. The sound effects are excellent, for once. One hard cut from a screaming attack with wailing music, to relative silence, is very effective. The spider’s ‘vocal’ screams are corny but okay, and much less headache-inducing than the previous year’s scorpion scream.

Scream Factory’s extras begin with the MST3K episode of the movie, and a horrible-looking trailer that appears to be ripped from YouTube. It’s so dark and badly compressed we can barely tell what’s going on.

Ted Newsom’s semi-serious audio commentary does the job regarding basic facts about the movie, and his half-kidding casual delivery is basically okay too. He calls Bert Gordon an in-house A.I.P. producer, which is a stretch as he was not a producer-director for hire but more accurately an independent with a multi-picture contract. The commentary bogs down with a weird theory about the number of syllables in the names of various A.I.P. producers, which would seem to be more of Ted’s kidding.

An impressive stills gallery lasts a whopping 21 minutes. It’s credited to Tom Weaver, who also credits Bob Burns. If we regret not having a Weaver commentary for this show, so does he — online he said he never secured a good interview on The Spider from Bert Gordon or any of the stars. Definitely not standard publicity fare, the photos include a ton of behind-the-scenes shots showing Bert in action, directing his thespians on the proper way to react to a giant arachnid. We can see how big and how small Gordon’s sets were. Flora Gordon shows up as well, and there is even a family portrait of Bert and Flora seated in their director’s chairs while Susan stands between them. There are two or three shots of Paul Blaisdell that we don’t recall ever seeing before, hamming it up with his giant spider leg prop. There’s even a color shot of the spider leg, and color shots of some pretty girl posing by some prop spiders that look like they might be from a trade show or a sample of theater ballyhoo.

The most gratifying stills show the stage constructions for the cave interior walls, which aren’t tiny. They back up my theories on what parts of the cave scenes are live-action, and what are still photos taken in Carlsbad Caverns.

Were both big spiders of the ’50s filmed on the same Universal street set?  Tarantula is left, The Spider is right; the image can be opened larger in a new window.
This article written with an assist (and a borrowed disc) from Gary Teetzel

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Spider
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good -minus but much better for monster-fun fans
Video:Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by Ted Newsom, still gallery, Super-8 digest version, MST3K episode for The Spider, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
June 23, 2020
(6297spid)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.