Friday, 3 March 2017

Earth vs. the Spider (1958)

A cheap, brisk, enjoyable and cheesy fun film

Directed by Bert I. Gordon
Produced by Bert I. Gordon
Written by László Görög, George Worthing Yates
Music by Albert Glasser
Cinematography: Jack A. Marta
Edited by Walter E. Keller
Distributed by American International Pictures
Running time: 73 minutes
Budget: $100,000


Ed Kemmer as Mr. Kingman
June Kenney as Carol Flynn
Eugene Persson as Mike Simpson
Gene Roth as Sheriff Cagle
Hal Torey as Mr. Simpson
June Jocelyn as Mrs. Flynn
Mickey Finn as Sam Haskel
Sally Fraser as Mrs. Helen Kingman
Troy Patterson as Joe
Skip Young as Sam (the bass player)
Howard Wright as Jake
Bill Giorgio as Deputy Sheriff Sanders
Hank Patterson as Hugo (high school janitor)
Jack Kosslyn as Mr. Fraser (camera club teacher)
Bob Garnet as Springdale pest control man
Shirley Falls as switchboard operator
Bob Tetrick as Deputy Sheriff Dave
Nancy Kilgas as a dancer
George Stanley as one of the men in the cavern
David Tomack as the power line foreman
Merritt Stone as Jack Flynn (Carol's dad)
Dick D'Agostin as the pianist

Film Excerpt

In our own age of gross hyperbole, overstatement and exaggeration, the title, “Earth vs. the Spider” makes perfect sense as a means to achieving a particular end. After all, who would want to go and see a film titled, “Small town of River Falls takes on big spider?” Strip away the bullshit and what are we really left with? As far as Earth vs the Spider is concerned, read on to find out…..

Spoilers follow below:

The film opens with credits appearing over a spider web graphic towards which we are drawn in ever closer to the spider in its centre. “’Will you walk into my parlour? said the spider to the fly!’”

The first scene begins one night with a pickup truck making its way down a deserted rural mountain highway. The driver, Jack smiles as he examines a birthday present intended for his daughter. In the box, there is a handwritten note that reads, "To Carol with Love, Dad" together with a bracelet. Suddenly, Jack notices something on the road ahead, just before his windshield is shattered as he drives into a cable stretched across the road. Jack screams and his face is covered in blood. We next hear the sound of his car crashing somewhere off the road.

The next morning the scene shifts to the small town of River Falls. 

Notice how many of these films seem to be set in small town mid-west America! I guess cost and convenience are factors in the choice of location. Then there’s a possible interesting aspect of the American psyche to consider. For instance, what could be more poignant than to picture in the mind, a small isolated community being besieged by powerful forces beyond their control and hell bent on their destruction? I’d bet that despite being armed to the teeth and bristling with unimaginably powerful weaponry, many Americans might still harbour a belief that their own community and even the whole nation is somehow a lone isolated bastion surrounded by hostile forces hell bent on bringing down their way of life! Certain politicians would certainly like to foster such fears and beliefs – not mentioning any names, of course!

Anyway, back to the age of hot rod jalopies, ponytails, poodle skirts, blue jeans and college jackets, where we learn that Jake’s teenage daughter, Carol is concerned that her less than perfect role model father didn't come home last night. As they walk to school, Mike gives Carol a little birthday gift. Carol clearly has other things on her mind and she returns the gift after they have a petty argument.

In the classroom, Professor Art Kingman is giving his students a lesson on electricity. Unlike youngsters of today who would use electrical devices and tech to communicate in class, we see Mike and Carol employing old school surreptitious methods of communication by passing a note between each other.

After school, Mike and Carol head off to their friend, Joe to borrow his hot rod to use in their search for Carol’s father. Out in the hills, they drive along the road her father most likely would have taken the night before. They eventually discover a thick, sticky rope-like material attached to a tree and lying across the road, together with broken pieces of automobile windshield glass. Carol then locates a box on the road, opens it and finds the note written in her father's own handwriting.

Carol then notices a wrecked pickup truck in a ravine and she and Mike go down to get a closer look. The truck is her father’s but they can find no sign of him. Not far from the truck, they spot a cave entrance and walk over to it. Mike soon finds a battered and torn up hat which he hides behind his back when Carol approaches and then drops it out of sight so she can’t see it. It’s all to obvious why.

Mike starts to enter the cave and suggests to Carol that her father might have gone inside to shelter from the cold last night. After following him in, Carol calls out for her father which causes a stalactite to become dislodged, almost striking the two teenagers.

Further into the cave, Mike and Carol discover the gruesome skeletal remains of two unfortunate individuals. Carol then falls through an opening followed by Mike and both land on a net-like construction made of the same sticky material as that cable they found on the road. 

As they struggle to free themselves from the sticky strands of the net, they hear a strange screeching sound and then spot the cause of the din - a huge tarantula intent on turning the young couple into entrees. Before the spider can execute his Master Chef plans, Carol and Mike manage to extricate themselves from the web and beat a hasty retreat to the car.

Isn’t it interesting how in many films and indeed in real life, threats and potential enemies are often made out to be of enormous proportions, magnified and of an order of magnitude almost beyond comprehension. The established authorities are then made out to be unaware or disbelieving of the nature of the threat being posed and need to be prodded into action. Who better than the expert hero scientisty-type person to do the prodding? However, all too often in real life, expert consensus is simply ignored if it’s politically or ideologically unpalatable.

Mike and Carol return home with a piece of the giant spider web thread cut from the strand on the road as proof of what happened to Carol’s dad and of what they witnessed. After examining the strand, Kingman concludes that it appears to be a large piece of silk. He finds the teenager’s story to be somewhat incredible, but decides that the Sheriff ought to be notified. Mike informs him that they already did so while Mr. Simpson notes that the Sheriff did not believe their story. Kingman then phones the Sheriff himself.

The phone rings as Sheriff Cagle is playing checkers with his deputy Pete Sanders. Kingman wisely uses the incident of Carol’s missing father instead of the story about a giant spider in order to propel the Sheriff into action. Cagle agrees and sets about forming a posse to search for Flynn. Kingman also suggests that the Sheriff call a pest control company and bring adequate quantities of DDT:

“Well, speaking of spiders - are you sure rifles are just the thing? Insects have a pretty simple nervous system, sheriff. You could plug holes in one all day and never hit a vital spot. If you want to be on the safe side, call the pest control people in Springdale and have 'em send out all the DDT they can find.”

We now shift location back to the ravine leading to the cave where a pest control operator suggests using a two to four percent solution for spiders, but Kingman insists on the use of a fifty percent solution. We all know why, don’t we? Cagle leads a group of people including Mike and Carol who are to provide directions. Suddenly, Carol screams, and the rest of the party run to find her sobbing in Mike's arms, along with the desiccated remains of her father.

A sceptical Sheriff Cagle wants a coroner's report made out with the cause of death stated as being "cause unknown" and that they should “let the coroner worry about the rest.”

After the body of Mr Flynn is removed from the cave, The Sheriff and Kingman continue searching the caverns and manage to locate the giant web. Cagle orders the DDT be deployed.

Perched on the sticky web, the deputy and the other men begin spraying. Not surprisingly, the spider bursts on the scene only to be greeted by rifle fire. The bullets have no effect though and Deputy Sheriff Pete Sanders is soon killed by the spider.

The spider receives a hail of bullets and a drenching in DDT until it is apparently rendered lifeless.

I remember the days when DDT was the chemical weapon of choice used in humanity’s war against plant-eating critters, that is until its devastating ecological and environmental consequences were recognised. Now we just from time to time throughout our history unleash chemical holocausts on our own species in the form of such innovations as agent orange; mustard and chlorine gas; sarin and VX nerve gas and other lethal agents that are deemed necessary by tin-pot dictators, nation states, cult and terrorist groups. You can bet there are plenty of stockpiles around the world to deal with the potential threat of……..well, certainly not giant spiders! 

Upon exiting the cave, Carol, notices that the box she had in her pocket is missing. She concludes that she must have dropped it in the cave. She is unable to re-enter the cave as it is now full of gas. Mike tells her they can come back later to retrieve it. Cagle tells Sam Haskell, the Road Foreman, to make arrangements to seal the cave entrance. Kingman, however, wants the spider for scientific investigation, but that is the last thing on Cagle’s mind.

Science teacher Kingman has indeed managed to make arrangements for the giant spider’s body to be brought to the school and stored in the school’s gym. He intends to send photos and a report to the State University and then send the carcass off to them so that they can study it, and determine how and why it exists. Unlike most similar films of the time, no explicit reason is given for the giant spider’s existence.

Kingman identifies the giant specimen as a Bird Spider when suddenly It moves and strikes a young man by the name of Fraser, knocking him to the floor. Kingman assures him that it is in fact dead and that its movement was only the result of a muscle contraction or Galvani's reaction.


The arrangement favoured by Kingman doesn’t go down too well with Joe, whose rock and roll band needs to use the gym to rehearse for their performance at the school dance. They can’t use the auditorium on account of the drama club using it. Hip cat Joe declares, “If we don’t swing solid, the kids won’t have a blast!”

If there’s one character who deserves to wind up as a desiccated husk, it’s that twerp who looks like he’s a 35-year-old playing the part of a 17-year-old. Joe protests when he learns that the gym is off-limits for the time being. Anyway, he and the band manage to convince Hugo the janitor into opening up the gym.

After the band sets up, they start to “play loud enough to wake the dead!” and we see Joe dementedly flailing his arms about while his legs are busily going every which way in an attempt to…. well, you work out what he’s doing! The result is a session of rock and roll complete with teenage dancers. This of course brings us to the kind of audience this film is pitched at. Nothing different to what modern films do that feature teenage and prepubescent stars tackling all the problems in the universe.

Speaking of the intended audience, there is the scene in which Carol phones the local movie house where Mike works for his father who is the owner. She pleads with Mike to take her back to the cave so she can find her bracelet. The movie theatre in which Mike works displays a film poster not too subtly advertising The Amazing Colossal Man. The film currently running at the theatre is Attack of the Puppet People, which “coincidentally” stars June Kenney. Amazingly, both films were also directed by none other than Bert I. Gordon!

So, kids, make sure you go along and see these two films! But that’s OK. We’re all too familiar these days with shameless mutual product advertising and product placements in films. Raised laptop lids with partially eaten apple logos anyone?

It turns out that our big daddy-o arachnid likes to bop as the music seems to have reactivated it. With great alacrity, everyone exits stage right leaving poor old pops Hugo to deal with the situation. After locking the door on the spider, Hugo shuffles over to a payphone to call Kingman at his home. Just as Kingman answers, Hugo screams and drops the phone as the spider breaks through the wall and kills him. Hugo….a-go-go, Hugo, a-gone….

In the meantime, Mike and Carol have returned to the cave, unaware the spider is now on the loose in the town causing mayhem and panic. Tell me, who among the fleeing frightened townsfolk would stop to pay attention to Kingman calling out through the open door of the Sheriff’s office for them to get off the streets and find shelter?! Really helpful. Meanwhile, Sherriff Cagle has been trying to call the state capitol for help but the long-distance lines are down. 

Having learned that the giant spider is now “down on Maple Street" which is where he and his family lives, Kingman races off home fearing for the safety of his wife Helen and their infant son.

As luck (or the writers) would have it, the spider sets about besieging Kingman’s home and its occupants. Kingman drives his car into the spider and survives because you see in those days, cars like Kingman’s ‘58 Plymouth were made out of good ‘ole US steel and were built like tanks.

The spider having taken exception to this decides to pursue Kingman’s car back to the cave. Kingman manages to evade his hairy-legged pursuer and drives back home to find his house wrecked, but his family safe and well.

While all this is going on, those two dang fool kids, Mike and Carol manage to get themselves lost in the caverns after having located the missing bracelet. As they wander around with the spider gradually approaching, Sheriff Cagle and a party of men arrive at the cave entrance and start unloading the dynamite. Eventually, Mike and Carol manage to locate the web and the right way out of the cave, but of course they get stuck.

Mr. Simpson and Mrs. Flynn who have come to warn the Sheriff that the teenagers might be in the cave, spot Joe's car just as Haskell dynamites the cave entrance. The blast triggers a partial collapse of the cavern Mike and Carol are in. When Cagle learns that the teens are in the cave, he gets Haskell and his men to begin an excavation. Brainiac Kingman suggests that they try to electrocute the spider using power lines. Ah Ha! Practical application of science classroom theory. Always pays to pay attention in class!

Mike and Carol are shaken up after the explosion but are not seriously hurt. Outside the cavern, the excavation crew have struck bedrock and will need to use dynamite to create an opening. Mike and Carol, however, are trapped on a ledge with the spider close-by. Finally, the excavation crew breaks through the rock and lowers a ladder down which Kingman comes armed with power cables and electrodes.

While Kingman makes his way toward the teenagers by using their cries for help to guide him, the spider has been able to position itself between Mike and Carol on one side and Kingman and Cagle on the other. Cagle throws one of the electrodes over to Mike, while Kingman hangs on to the other electrode. As power surges through the cable, the spider is caught between the two electrodes and an arc of electricity passes right through its body causing it to fall off the cave wall.

After Carol and Mike are rescued and reunited with their parents, the cave is once again resealed with dynamite. The film closes with a shot of the giant spider impaled on a stalagmite.

Points of Interest

A fact about spiders (which are not insects by the way) is that they don’t make any growling or screeching noises and being an arthropod, they don’t possess lungs and vocal-cords like we mammals do. 

When the 1958 film, The Fly was and released became a blockbuster, the title of Earth vs the Spider was shortened to just The Spider on all the advertising material. The original screen title, Earth vs. the Spider however, has remained and is the title by which it is known.

Some of the cave interiors made use of stills from Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, while live action scenes were filmed at Bronson Caves in Griffith Park near Los Angeles.

At least the action and pace of the film more than makes up for the very ordinary special effects (another rear projection superimposed giant bug crawling over miniatures!), the routine story line (a rip-off of Them 1954 & Tarantula 1955) and the mediocre acting performances.

One thing has definitely changed over time in terms of sci-fi (and other genre) movies. I’m not referring to improved technical aspects or production values, story structuring, characterisation and so on. While these aspects have vastly improved over the course of sixty years, this has often been at the expense of pure fun and enjoyment. So much of a sense of fun and wonder has been squeezed and sapped out of film-making while we are expected to wring our hands over things like intense inter-personal relationship wrangling and whatever social issue and politically correct world view happens to be the current flavour of the month. We just take ourselves too damn seriously!

So, despite the some of the shortcomings of their films, thank you to those pioneer film makers like Bert I. Gordon who without spending amounts equivalent to a small country's GDP, gave audiences a ripping good yarn with bucket loads of pure fun and entertainment.

©Chris Christopoulos 2017

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