Monday, April 24, 2023

Cardboard Science: I was a teenage arachnophobe


Directed by Bert I. Gordon
Written by Laszlo Gorog and George Worthing Yates

Spoilers: moderate

Here's a factoid: Earth vs. the Spider was not marketed under that title.  Thanks to the success of The Fly, released a couple of months earlier in 1958, it was marketed instead as just plain The Spider, and, yes, I get it, though it sucks and it puts a scowl on my face.  I suppose it's not totally implausible that AIP blinked at the prospect of releasing a movie called Earth vs. the Spider that doesn't remotely live up to thatthe film being rather more along the lines of Some Hick Town and a Couple of Teens vs. the Spiderand while I doubt they had that kind of shame in them, it is possible.  I prefer the "real" title anyway (hey, that hick town is indeed on Earth, and the teens, earthlings); and Bert I. Gordon didn't change his title sequence, which continues his new tentative explorations of the possibility of doing anything whatsoever with his title sequences, a process only begun in earnest with Attack of the Puppet People earlier in the year.  This time it's an atmospheric exercise in graphic allusion, involving a slow, spooky, somewhat-cheesy push-in into a spider's web, at the center of which rests Earth's nemesisan emblematic arachnid that doesn't much resemble the trained tarantula of the filmwhich pulses with an unearthly light that kind-of suggests a radioactive origin for the monster that the movie itself neither confirms nor denies, insofar as it really does not give a shit how a giant spider came to menace our world, only that it has.

And while that's not wholly unexpected given we just looked at The Cyclops, it's still an oddness, given the popular conception of the genre it's in: of the entire wave of big bug movies, Earth vs. the Spider is one of the few that doesn't care about doing allegory about the novelty of atom power, while even The Cyclops only ever insisted it was about naturally-occurring uranium deposits. So, sure, maybe this new horror is radioactivebut maybe it was simply always there.  There is in fact a line that suggests the caves the spider calls home have a long-standing ill reputation amongst the settlers of this Rocky Mountain town, but for that reputation to have redounded so far into hill legendry, it would seemingly need to have predated Trinity.  It's practically Lovecraftian, thenthere's also much wandering around in corridors here!though I suppose Lovecraft would've come up with something more creative than a big-ass tarantula.  That doesn't mean it's not science fiction the way Puppet People effectively wasn't.  Ultimately, it's somehow more jaundiced about science than even an explicit atomic allegory would be.  The "moral" of the storynodded to in a joking line, if not necessarily stressedis that all this carnage was caused by the reckless drive to know something that ought to have just been mindlessly destroyed.  Which is a terrible moralhell, it's probably as much a result of structurally copying (perhaps not even consciously) King Kongbut it'll have to do.

Unavoidably, the prior Gordon film it most reminds you of is Beginning of the End, his other big bug movie of the 1950s, which was an atomic allegory; but I appreciate how two movies that should be basically identical wind up so distinct, despite treading similar ground (on six legs or eight, as the case may be), and with each film even having its own negligent science hero belatedly trying to correct his mistakes.  Yet where that one actually was world-encompassing in its scope, and accordingly was played as a bureaucratic procedural conducted at the level of generals and scientific advisors, Earth vs. the Spider is its perfect complementso ruthlessly determined to keep it local that it's frankly implausible how fully it succeeds at doing so, concerned solely with the community from which it draws its unlikely heroes.  And thus for his last sci-fi movie for a whileafter seven of them, Gordon was chomping at the bit to do anything besides [insert giant thing here]Gordon winds up with something of a hybrid: it's a sci-fi yarn, horror fable, and even teen adventure.

Arguably the last most of all.  I don't know if Gordon arrived at this independently (he had not previously shown much interest in the youth qua the youth, though he appreciated it when they showed up for his double-features), or if AIP honchos James Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff advised him on the matter; but AIP had recently struck upon a whole new exploitable subgenre of sci-fi a year earlier when they'd merged their teen movies into their horror movies with I Was a Teenage Werewolf.  This had been followed up toot-sweet with (obviously) I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, and subsequently with fare that wasn't just I Was a Teenage Non-Copyrighted Universal Monster, with the memorable-albeit-not-good Invasion of the Saucer-Men.

It is not a very beloved subgenre, to be clear, not as far as it goes for the 1950s, having stemmed off from another genre that I'm mainly aware of from reading about Roger Corman rather than actually watching any, and that genre is earnestly obscure now.  But of the 50s' various efforts to put teens in science fiction, it's pretty much The Blob and The Blob alone that's achieved any kind of broad fame, whereas most everything else has struggled to even obtain aficionado affection.  It does not help that they tended to be cheap even for B-moviesbut it is exploitation, after all.  I will say this: as far as big bug sci-fi goes, Earth vs. the Spider is second-tier, perhaps not even as good as Beginning of the End; yet in terms of teen sci-fi, it's potentially the second-best-remembered of that movement within a movement, and possibly the second-best, period.  For the record, it's not not cheap, but at least it's Mr. B.I.G. cheap, and by 1958 that was a promise that it would have significant special effects overreach but in many other respects would still be a real motion picture.

Things begin, as such things often do, late at night on a winding country road, where we find Jack Flynn (Merritt Stone) returning to his town of River Falls with a gift of jewelry for his daughterprobably, as we'll learn later, something of an apology for his general drunken negligence.  His drive is cut short in one startling application of gore for a 1958 sci-fi film.  The effect is essentially the same as the air combat deaths in Flying Tigers and films of that nature, with Stone splattered with a black, inky liquid that reproduces as "blood" on black-and-white filmstockhe's splattered with a great deal of itwhile he screams and crashes his truck.  The cause, however, is a strand of tough material curiously strung across the road.  When his daughter Carol (June Kenney) and her boyfriend Mike Simpson (Eugene Persson) go to investigate where the former's dad might be, they find this, and when they bring it back to their high school science teacher Mr. Kingman (Ed Kemmer), he confirms what we could have told them from the get-go: it's silk, a spider's silk.

They're already quite aware of that, because they've already met the monster that spun it, for when they checked out the nearby caves to see if, just maybe, Mr. Flynn had holed up there for the night, they fell quickly into the monster's web and only barely escaped getting eaten.  The strand of silk is their only proof, and Sheriff Cagle (Gene Roth) isn't really having itI mean, a giant spiderbut he's not so obstructionist he won't let Kingman bring along a rich mix of DDT.  And a good thing he did: for as soon as they find the elder Flynn, now a grotesque mummy of a corpse drained of his precious bodily fluids as is a spider's wont, they find the spider.  The DDT brings her (presumably her) down, and Kingman claims the body for science, housing it at his school.  But she is not, as he assumed, dead, and soon enough proves that all Kingman's done is bring a giant spider into downtown River Falls where she can rampage.  Cut off from the outside world by the spider's destructive flailings, they scramble to seal her back up into the hillside, and right when they accomplish their goal they realize, whoops, they've sealed Carol and Mike in, too, who, believing the caves were safe now, had innocently returned to try to retrieve Carol's last present from her dead dad, dropped during the initial confrontation.

There's not much wrong with this screenplay, jointly credited to Laszlo Gorog and Gordon's own frequent writer, George Worthing Yates; the big thing is how utterly desperate Gorog and Yates are to keep things from spilling out much beyond the city limits of River Falls, sohaving shot themselves in the foot with a story that's already surrendered the reliable old "doubting authorities" device well before the fourth reelthey instead indulge in some silly cheats, notably that Kingman spends the second act safekeeping a giant spider's presumed corpse in his high school gymnasium on behalf of a far-off "university" which the screenplay asserts might not actually be interested in studying a giant mutant spider.  (I'm not sure they bother notifying any governmental body at all.)  There's also the occasional screenplay beat which Gordon simply mishandles as a director, most obnoxiously in a phone conversation between Mike and Carol's friend Joe (Troy Patterson) and Mike's father (Hal Torey) where it appears that Patterson has never quite decided for his character whether he knows who's on the other end of the line with him at the sheriff's office, which is important since the subject of their conversation is "your son never returned my automobile after the spider crisis, and I haven't seen him since."  But I don't knowmaybe I like that the teen's chief concern might actually be his car.  (Spoiler: the car is fine.)  Well, Patterson is merely bumbling, but Gordon repertory player June Jocelyn, as Carol's mom, feels like nobody told her her husband is dead, though it is the subject of several lines of her dialogue.

But that screenplay allows Gordon to get up to some cool stuff.  There is the matter of the caves, a beneficiary of a deal made with the Parks Department that I expect resulted in a little bit of footage of the world-famous Carlsbad Caverns, though it might as well have been a deal with the caverns' postcard manufacturer, since that's what we mostly wind up with, Gordon and his wife Flora going wild with their contact-printing compositing techniques to paste together strikingly elaborate still photo dioramas of the beautiful caverns for Carol and Mike to wander around in; if it's definitively more "charming" than "good" that doesn't mean it's not kind of good, and it's hellaciously charming.  (It is, if nothing else, rather well-integrated into the soundstage sequences where Mike and Carol bump into creepy skeletons and last messages from lost prospectors, Gordon's cinematographer Jack Marta striking upon a high-contrast "light for dark" aesthetic that's eventually "explained" with bioluminescent cave algae, but overall looks nice: in one shot of the kids caught in the web it offers the frightening sensation of hanging over a glowing hellish abyss.  That sensation is lost rapidlybeneath the web is a drop of, like, three feet, into some pebbles, and from any other angle the web looks like what it is, ropesbut it's a horrific image while it lasts.)

There is likewise the classic "awakening the spider" scene, which is simply perfect camp, Joe and a bunch of other teens talking their way past the janitor (Hank Patterson) into the forbidden gym not even to gawk, but so their cool combo can rehearse their tunes; the spider essentially goes on her rampage because rock music made her grouchy.  (Troy Patterson's awkward glance over his shoulder after he instructs the band to "play loud enough to wake the dead" is pretty fun, and the bass player getting so lost in his groove he doesn't immediately notice the giant spider is just one of those iconic moments.)  Structurally, anyway, Gorog and Yates are clever about shifting protagonistic duties across their three principals, Carol, Mike, and Mr. Kingman, and while the latter obviously winds up with the most plot-essential material, the teen-ness of Earth vs. the Spider is bone-deep.  Not so much visually, what with its average cast age of 30 (Kenney is at least adorably short), but I don't think there's anything I love here more than Persson's hyper-teenaged performance as Mike, which fascinates me.  Persson is not, actually, a nobody, though his fame is almost entirely down to being the first Mr. Shirley Knight and his successful career as a Broadway producer.  For our more limited purposes here, I almost want to say he's bad, but in ways that somehow describe a more interesting character and serve the movie better than being merely conventionally good.

A very representative image of Mike.

It's a defiantly oddball approach to a character that in practically any other circumstance would be either a functional block of teen masculinity or, if the movie were more actually about him, a put-upon underdog.  The movie's not about him, so it's almost distracting, but Persson doesn't notice that, somehow chewing the scenery by going awkwardly small, with a portrait of teen diffidence that is basically nothing besides constant cluelessness and a collection of whines about, e.g., not getting to see the new Bert I. Gordon film (oh, Bertram) and transparently weak attempts to manage Carol's nascent panic, and even more importantly his own, so he barely refrains from blurting out "your father is dead" or "we are going to die," but only by mumbling more optimistic alternatives that he delivers with a profound absence of any conviction.  I don't know if Gordon actually cultivated this, or if Persson was doing Method in a role that didn't ask for it, or if it was just some total accident.  But it winds up nearly turning Earth vs. the Spider into the quietest, meekest hero's journey on Mike's behalf, and it's great.

I belabored the violence of the opening for a reason, too: perhaps this movie sounds larky and breezy, and it can beupon arriving upon another skeleton after getting lost in the cave, for instance, Carol and Mike mutually remark that they're suddenly hungrybut Earth vs. the Spider finds Gordon, for the first time in his filmography, successfully playing with tone.  The in-your-face horror of the first scene gets doubled-down on after the spider rampage, whereupon Gordon takes us on a brief tour of the wreckage she's left behind, a convincingly apocalyptic suburban street that's not been exactly annihilated but is strewn with debris and bodies and, again, oil that might indicate the oil from the smashed cars but looks like Mr. Flynn's blood, and finally we come across a squalling infant, covered in what we are invited to assume must be its mother's blood.  That's one heavy image for a movie that also includes the joke, "much like your parents, giant spiders hate rock 'n' roll," but Gordon manages tone here like a champ.

Overall, it's a well-built film: take an early scene in Kingman's science class, with the kids not-so-surreptitiously passing notes, that invests in a lateral dolly and Marta's thoughtful "afternoon in a school" lighting scheme to sell this rather modest scene as something active, dynamic, and interestingand maybe it's not praiseworthy in itself that a director is directing, but it is praiseworthy in the context of a teens-and-monsters programmer.  I could say the same thing, even more forcefully, about Albert Glasser's customarily-overpowering score (now he's discovered the theremin!).  I wish I could say the same about the special effects, and I could say nice things if I tried, but the negative predominates, from little stuff like "I sure wish you'd gotten higher-resolution still photos of the spider that didn't have enormous grain globs in them," to rather more important stuff, like how upon their monster's escape, the Gordons lose their sense of proportion completely, so that the spider that emerges from the gymnasium can get up to an easy five times larger than she was beforehandtowering over buildings!and not even consistently that, as she occupies several points in between.  Tapping the expertise of unsung creature creator Paul Blaisdell, Gordon deploys a puppet for his finalea rather predictable finale, were you paying attention to Kingman's random science lecture about electricityand I suppose I would have forgiven everything if they'd set that puppet on fire, but, unaccountably, they didn't.  Neverthless, having gotten delayed writing about it, and so winding up watching this goofy thing three times in two weeks (one being the MST3K presentation, but still), yet still not being bored by it, that's testament to something working here.

Score: 7/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • I really have no idea if that electrical arc thing would work.  It's nuts how many factoids I have and how little actual, useful knowledge.
  • Don't pull on the seams, but what is the ecosystem that supports this spider?  "Random drunks" can't account for everything.
  • I wonder if Gordon was disappointed that he couldn't unleash dozens of giant spider offspring.  I mean, huckster, yes, but I don't think he'd have come up with the title Earth vs. the Spider if he hadn't meant it.
  • Spiders can hold personal grudges and will target your family.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • So Carol's dad dies and she goes back to school the next dayher mom even reminding her to do her homework.  No, I don't believe you, not even in the 1950s.
  • Stop thinking!  Kill!
  • I probably should've been scared at some point by the spider, right?

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