Quickly, the giant, floating head of Galactic Alliance Command Admiral Jimothy Moon appeared in front of me. "Nanu Nanu," I declared. "What was that Commander?" Admiral Moon responded. "Nothing, sir, just clearing my throat *cough*"
In the fabled land of B movies, the name Bert I Gordon casts a giant shadow, and rightly so considering his cherished oeuvre of scifi cheapies largely involve ordinary things growing to colossal size or sometimes human beings miniaturised and menaced by now monster-sized mundane fauna. This is the auteur who brought us such enduring classics as The Amazing Colossal Man (giant bloke goes bananas), Beginning of the End (giant grasshoppers try and scoff America) and Attack of the Puppet People (shrank down to puppet size folk... er… attack). Therefore it's no coincidence his initials even spell out BIG! Mr Gordon's cannon, however, has been largely derided over the years, for infamously B.I.G. shunned fancy-schmancy effects such as mechanical models and stop-motion, instead using rear-screen projection and matting to create his giant monsters.
I'm a sucker for giant arachnids, so I selected 1958's Earth vs. The Spider. On its original release, this little movie actually went out under the shortened title of just The Spider. The exact reasons for this are somewhat unclear; some sources theorise that the name change because it was possibly a little too legally close to the 1956 Harryhausen/Schneer production Earth vs The Flying Saucers, but others claim that it was a change designed to cash in on one of 1958's blockbusters, the seminal scifi/horror The Fly. Whatever the truth, it's fair to say that the shortened moniker is perhaps more accurate, as the movie is hardly the combined forces of planet Earth going toe to giant hairy leg with the titular beast; strictly speaking it's more Small American Town vs. The Spider, but hey, where would B movies be without some ridiculous hyperbole!
While driving home in the gloom of a pre-credits-sequence night, an average gent is dowsed with what I really hope is venom as his truck collides with something huge and monstrous. The next day his teenage daughter is wondering where he is and so persuades her boyfriend to go searching for him. They soon find his crashed vehicle and suspect he may have taken shelter in a nearby cave. Inside the cave, however, they discover a gigantic web, desiccated skeletons and, of course, a spider of titanic proportions. Our teen leads manage to escape the monstrous arachnid, but of course you can't just leave a giant spider loafing about countryside and so soon the high school science teacher is taking the local sheriff and a posse on a big bug hunt.
First things first, Earth vs. The Spider is a very cheap movie and the effects work can only be kindly described as patchy at best. For example, the spider changes size throughout the course of the film, and not because it's growing ever more huge, but because the various tricks to make a common Red Kneed Tarantula gigantic don't pay the slightest attention to keeping the beast in the same scale. Hence, in one scene our arachnid is running amok in the town streets and is the size of a truck, while in the next shot, it is considerably larger and clambering over buildings. Furthermore, at several points parts of the spider turn invisible thanks to poor matte work and the one main physical effect, a prop hairy leg, doesn't exactly match the ones possessed by the real spider. Then again, even the filmed spider isn't consistent as it's clear that Gordon had a whole roster of arachnid actors in the role.
Time is a great leveller, nonetheless, and even decently-done, big-budget special effects from the '50s can look hopelessly hokey these days. To be fair, some of the spider visuals do look good and the bodies of its drained victims are still creepy. When they don't, well, that's just part of this movie's charm. While B.I.G. may not have been an original visionary of genre cinema, he certainly knows how to tell a cracking story. Plot wise, it's the standard monster-movie template without any frills or innovations, but Earth vs. The Spider dashes along at an entertaining pace, packing plenty of action into its seventy-odd-minute running time. It may not be the most-original giant creature tale ever told, but it is tons of fun.
This is not, I hasten to add, just because of the typical unintentional hilarity we find in juicy el-cheapo creature features like this. There are laughs to be had at the strange shrieks the spider makes, the curious role rock'n'roll plays in the man-arachnid conflict and one of the most middle-aged looking teenagers ever to grace the silver screen, but these are just the icing on a rather fine B-movie cake, for Earth vs. The Spider is surprisingly well paced. Unlike many vintage genre films, there's no long first act with lots of expository dialogue and no action, or patience-testing longeurs between the monster attacks. Instead Gordon hits the ground running and doesn't stop until the end.
For example, you may be wondering what caused this spider to grow to such enormous proportions. Had the local caves been used as a dumping ground for radioactive waste? (Remember folks, back in the '50s, radiation didn't cause your skin to drop off in scabby lumps and kill you, but instead made you grow to giant size, especially if you happened to be an anthropod. ); or perhaps you may be thinking, especially given the planetary-scope title, that silver-suited saucer men had zapped the eight-legged critter up to the size of a bus as the first stage of an invasion plan; or possibly if you're an aficionado of vintage SF, you might be looking out for some mad/misguided scientist with a world-hunger beating growth formula – after all that was the recipe for another giant spider rampage, the classic Tarantula, which Gordon is obviously cashing in on... I mean, homaging in this feature.
Well surprisingly, it's none of those three favourite tropes of mid-century SF movies – B.I.G. instead brings out a fresh, new plot device, one that is almost dazzling in its visionary post-modernism! We discover that the spider has become gigantic for NO GOOD REASON AT ALL! That's right, our resident boffin never does discover what caused this awesome mutation of nature and neither do we.
On one hand you might hold this up as part of the same silliness of plotting that has a tarantula building a web or a science teacher referring to a spider as an insect, but I rather think Gordon doesn't provide us with an explanation because the story simply doesn't need one. Narratively speaking, there's no point in the plot where the characters could find out the spider's origins without inserting scenes that would break the flow of the action.
While it would be easy to simply label Earth vs. The Spider as a so-bad-it;s-good flick, the truth is that the movie is actually surprisingly well crafted. Alright the effects are cheap, but they are done with enthusiasm and ambition, but more to the point, the story itself is remarkably engaging. Gordon manges to build likeable characters, packs in as much action as possible and even pulls off a few scenes that you might find a little disturbing even today.
All in all, it's pretty much a master-class in pulp cinema storytelling. Indeed the makers of the endless stream of movies with titles like Parrotosaurus vs. Megadildo that are currently oozing onto our screens could learn an awful lot about pacing, plotting and characterisation from this movie.