Spiders are, to this day, one of the most common phobias that people have (technical term: arachnophobia). Even normally fearless individuals can be reduced to quivering wrecks by the sight of a tiny house spider lurking in the bathtub, and even those of us who don’t have a terror of all things eight-legged would admit that it’s pretty unnerving to see a spider dangle from a web in front of your face or scuttle across the floor while you sit watching TV.
So it’s little surprise that filmmakers have long used spiders, big and small, to terrify audiences. Even the mention of the word has often been enough – many spy thrillers and serials from the twenties to the fifties had villains who were known as ‘the spider’, and even today, the name conjures up images of dark, sinister figures in films like Along Came a Spider. The term was also applied to femme fatales, whose seductive techniques of ensnaring men was seen as similar to the way spiders catch flies. Some, like 1947 spy movie The Black Widow, were a mix of both styles.
As early as 1920, in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, John Barrymore was assailed by a bizarre spider-man creature in his bed:
In 1944, Sherlock Holmes battled the sinister seductress Gayle Sondergaaard in Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman, and the character was popular enough to be revived in a sequel, The Spiderwoman Strikes Back, two years later. This follow-up was, in fact, something of a cheat: although Gayle Sondergaard returned, her character was an entirely different one to that which pitted wits against Basil Rathbone’s Holmes, and the film is a simplistic and uneventful horror filler, with evil Zenobia (Sondergaard) feeding blood to mysterious plants.
All these ‘spider’ movies were notable for their lack of arachnid action. It would be the 1950’s before the scary potential of the spider would be realised, and even then, it was in the form of the giant monster. The Fifties were the heyday of overblown nature gone berserk, usually as a result of radioactive mutation. We had giant ants in Them!, a giant octopus in It Came From Beneath the Sea, and even giant grasshoppers in The Beginning of the End!
Giant spiders on the moon (now there’s a potential movie title!) threatened the astronauts who eventually encountered the Cat-Women of the Moon (1953).
A year later, arachnids controlled by Killers from Space made a brief appearance in the talky movie of the same title but one of the most screen’s most memorable of mutant monsters was about to arrive: Tarantula, shot by Jack Arnold. The film follows the standard plotline of the time: a giant tarantula is rampaging across a desert in America, and eventually invades a small town, where the army are called in to deal with the threat. The story also diversifies to feature the dangers of atomic research, a scientist Leo G. Carroll’s experiments go wrong, resulting in hideous human mutations.
Not to be outdone, Bert I. Gordon – Mister B.I.G. – added The Spider to his roster of outsize creations which included The Amazing Colossal Man and sequel War of the Colossal Beast, Attack of the Puppet People and – in the 1970’s – Food of the Gods and Empire of the Ants. In The Spider – also known as Earth vs. The Spider, which is something of an exaggeration – the world’s oldest high school students stumble upon the lair of a giant tarantula while out searching for their missing father. The spider is killed by the local police… or so it seems. But while on display at the local school, it’s revived by the lamest rock ‘n’ roll band in history and runs amok. The film is pretty bad, even by Gordon’s not-exactly high standards, but has proved evocative enough to be ‘remade’. However, the throwaway 2001 version of Earth vs. The Spider bears no resemblance to the original film. Instead, it’s a horror movie take on the Spider-Man story, combined with elements of Cronenberg’s The Fly: a bookish student injected with radioactive spider venom gains superpowers but also starts to mutate into a half-man, half-spider with dodgy appetites!
The science-fiction boom of the Fifties also saw astronauts encountering giant spiders in outer space (such as Missile to the Moon, the jauntier 1958 remake of the aforementioned Cat-Women of the Moon), in much the way that jungle adventurers like Tarzan and Jungle Jim had previously done.
Yet, the most outrageously camp spider movie of the decade was unquestionably the legendary Mesa of Lost Women, shot in 1953 by exploitation master Ron Ormond. This jaw-droppingly bizarre film features astonishing narration by Lyle Talbot and a truly amazing story: Addams Family star Jackie Coogan plays a mad scientist who is creating a race of amazons – and gimpy, malformed men – by injecting his subjects with spider venom! With an eye-popping performance by Tandra Quinn as exotic spiderwoman Tarantella, this is sleazy cheesecake sci-fi at its best!
In 1958, even the English countryside wasn’t safe from giant centipedes, insects and an enlarged spider in The Strange World of Planet X (aka Cosmic Monsters). These abominable critters were the result of meddling by a mad scientist whose evil experiments invited the visitation of an alien invader, almost as if The Day the Earth Stood Still stood again so soon.
Another film which combined scantily-clad dancing girls and spiders was 1959 German production Horrors of Spider Island. On the face of it, this one has the lot: glamour girls stranded on a mysterious island a giant spider god, and a mutant spider monster, created after a man is bitten by the afore-mentioned giant spider and transformed into a three-toothed, hairy creature with a taste for strippers! This was a sleazy offering – originally titled It’s Hot in Paradise – that focused on nylons rather than webs and monsters. Unfortunately, the re-edited US tame version is a disappointment.
The wildest spider film of the 1960’s was undoubtedly Jack Hill’s magnificently eccentric Spider Baby. Shot in 1964, the film – also known bizarrely as The Liver Eaters and Cannibal Orgy – plays liked a particularly demented take on The Addams Family. When two members of the Merrye family arrive at a large mansion to claim their inheritance, they meet a variety of oddball relatives kept in check by chauffeur Lon Chaney Jr. Amongst them is Virginia (Jill Banner), the ‘spider baby’ herself. Her fixation with spiders plays out in a remarkably, unsettling sexy scene where she attempts to seduce her cousin Peter during a game of ‘spider’ – given that the rules of the game have him playing the fly, tied up in a ‘web’ while the sexy ‘spider’ prepares her sting (to be provided by a couple of knives – it’s unsurprising that she has few willing playmates!
Totally unique, Spider Baby developed a growing cult following as it languished in obscurity during the 1980’s and 1990’s, and was finally released on Blu-ray in Spring 2013. If you only buy one film mentioned in this feature, Spider Baby should be the one!
In Son of Godzilla (1967), a giant kaiju spider named Kumonga joined the ranks of Japanese studio Toho’s rack of monsters. He was back again in Destroy All Monsters (1968) but this time helping to save the world. Kumonga’s final, albeit brief, appearance was as one of the many ‘guest’ kaiju monsters in the 50th anniversary movie Godzilla: Final War (2004).
‘Fear of Spiders’, the 1971 episode of Rod Serling’s television series Night Gallery, starred Patrick O’Neal as a pompous writer who is punished for his self-obsessive nature by his arachnophobia. It was based on a short story “The Spider” by Elizabeth Walter.
In Italy, Renato Polselli’s Nude for Satan (1973) led the way with a large – albeit not giant – fake spider with lurid red eyes and legs that clearly didn’t move.
But, gradually, there was a brief revival of eight-legged horror. A couple of TV movies also showed the way. Dan Curtis’ above-average 1977 film Curse of the Black Widow was a deliberately old-fashioned yarn, inspired by films like the original Cat People, in which twin sisters are mysteriously tied up with a series of strange deaths. One of them turns out to be a lethal spider woman, transforming into a supernatural giant spider!
The same year, Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo was a less interesting effort: very much a disaster movie, the film had South American tarantulas unleashed in California after a plane crash. It has potential, but is unfortunately hampered by TV movie restrictions, and proves to be forgettable.
From Britain came Venom, also known as Legend of Spider Forest. The 1971 debut from director Peter Sykes (Demons of the Mind; To the Devil a Daughter), the film is a strange, uneven affair, set in rural Germany and telling the story of artist Paul Greville, who becomes ensnared Anna, a young woman who the locals claim to be cursed by a venomous spider. The truth behind the myth is a convoluted tale of Neo-Nazis and superstition, but it’s never dull and packs plenty of sex and violence into the story.
Kiss of the Tarantula (1976) released to UK cinemas as Shudder, was an effective, if unremarkable shocker. The film tells the story of Susan Bradley, a shy and isolated teenager who lives with her parents in a mortuary and collects tarantulas. When she discovers that her mother is plotting to murder her father, Susan uses her spiders to cause a heart attack, and then goes onto use them to extract revenge on her classmate tormentors.
Bill Rebane’s The Giant Spider Invasion (1975) is a real hoot. A throwback to 1950’s big bug films, the movie is endearingly inept in all aspects – the giant spiders can clearly be seen as static dummies mounted on cars, and the film is laughable in the extreme… but great fun if approached with the right attitude (and possibly plenty of booze!).
The same year saw Kingdom of the Spiders, in which a stellar B-movie cast including William Shatner, Tiffany Bolling and Woody Strode in tale of rampaging tarantulas, directed with efficiency by John ‘Bud’ Cardos. More a nature-gone-wild film than the more popular giant spider shocker, the film was nevertheless good fun. A 3D remake was announced in 2010, but has yet to appear.
In the 1980’s, spiders played a part in a couple of Italian movies. Joe D’Amato’s Conan copy Ator The Fighting Eagle had muscle-bound Miles O’Keefe as the title character battling a spider cult who worship a giant tarantula amongst his many foes.
More effective was Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond in 1981. This classic shocker has many seminal moments, but one of the most unmemorable is the scene where spiders advance upon a hapless victim and proceed to eat his flesh. The fake spider effects are laughingly awful, and the supposedly graphic images of flesh-tearing are a joke.
At least The Editor (2014), a deliberately retro Italian giallo spoof from Canada’s Astron-6 team, had the decency to use real tarantulas when the referenced The Beyond.
In Wes Craven’s 1981 puritan religious-themed shocker Deadly Blessing, a young Sharon Stone’s character is forced to eat a tarantula!
Less memorable was 1983 Swiss film The Black Spider, based on an old legend about a pact with the devil which is reneged on. To take his revenge, the devil unleashes a spider to spread death throughout a village. And just to prove the international appeal possession story, in which a woman is plagued by dreams of spiders, and whose friends start to die in mysterious ways.
In 1990, the spider monster movie went big budget with Frank Marshall’s Arachnophobia. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the film was little more than a glossier revamp of Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo.
This time, it’s a “very aggressive new species of spider” that is shaped like a tarantula that sneaks into the USA and crossbreeds with a local species to create a deadly new hybrid. Soon, a small town is besieged by thousands of these bloodthirsty critters. As much a comedy and action-adventure film as horror yarn, Arachnophobia is not without its moments, but invariably suffers by attempting to please as many people as possible.
More basic were 2000’s Spiders and it’s sequel Spiders II: Breeding Ground, shot a year later. These direct-to-video movies were pretty bad, but amusing if approached with the right attitude – and it’s reassuring to see B-grade monster movies have found a new audience on video.
Spiders tells the story of secret government experiments on dead astronauts which eventually leads to a giant spider being created! The sequel has no real connection with its predecessor, other than the general theme – this time, survivors of a ship wreck are rescued by a passing vessel, only to discover that it is run by a mad scientist intent on breeding – yes, you guessed it! – giant spiders.
The 2002 film Eight Legged Freaks is a tongue-in-cheek retread of The Giant Spider Invasion, with chemically mutated giant spiders rampaging across a small mining town.
This deliberately camp film is pretty amusing, and it’s fun to see big name stars like David Arquette, Kari Wuhrer and Scarlett Johansson battling it out with huge spiders!
The last few years have brought us the likes of Arachnid (2001), Arachnia (2003), Ice Spiders (2007), Arachnoquake (2012), Spiders 3D, Christopher R. Mihm’s Fifties homage The Giant Spider (2013), plus Mike Mendes’ Big Ass Spider, and Lavalantula, suggesting that the desire to see monstrous arachnids clambering up buildings is one that is not going to go away.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to figure out how to get that spider out of my bathtub before it sneaks off to start mutating…
David Flint, Horrorpedia (with additional info by Adrian J Smith)
NB. Spiders also creep out movie characters with minor appearances in films such as Rush Week (1988) and The Faculty (1998).
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