Spiders have too many goddamn legs. This simple truism has led the arachnid to being one of the chief villains in countless horror films over the years, and during the 50s era of big insect attack films a movie called Tarantula (1955) was one of the better of that genre. It was this “magic” that director Bill Rebane tried to recapture with his film The Giant Spider Invasion. Sadly he didn’t quite capture it, but he certainly made a film one won’t forget seeing, no matter how hard you try.
The movie opens over a star field as something streaks through the depths of space. Is it an alien spacecraft? Could it be a laser attack from a distant world? Or is it a collapsed star on a collision course with Earth? The last one turns out to be the case and though I am certainly no science expert I’m betting a spider invasion would be the least of our worries if a black hole crashed into the Earth. What is even more worrying is that the town where it crashes has Alan “The Skipper” Hale Jr. for a sheriff, and as the film goes on you almost wish Gilligan was there to help as even he seems more competent than this guy.
We then meet Dr. Jenny Langer (Barbara Hale), who runs the local observatory when she isn’t boring highs school students with lectures on the types of stars, informs NASA of a heavy gamma shower, an incredible fast drop in barometric pressure, an aura with no sun activity, and an extremely potent unknown x-ray source nearby. Certainly sounds like a black hole strike to me. NASA sends Dr. J.R. Vance (Steve Brodie), their top scientist and sexist idiot, to investigate.
This all may sound insanely dumb but in all fairness to Bill Rebane he was working mostly without a script as the two writers he had didn’t talk to each other, so he was shooting a movie without a clue as to where it was going, but some of the characters and dialog in this film are pretty atrocious and inexcusable. Case in point Dr. Vance’s sexism; we get the standard cliché that when he goes to meet a Dr. Langer he assumes he will be meeting a man, but when he finds Jenny Langer working in the observatory we get this scintillating piece of dialog…
Dr. Langer: “I’m so glad you are here Doctor. I’m Jenny Langer.
Dr. Vance: “Nice to meet you. I have an appointment with your father.”
Dr. Langer: “Uh no, he passed away in 1952.”
Dr. Vance: “Oh I’m so sorry, than the appointment must be with your husband.”
Dr. Langer: “I’m not married.”
Dr. Vance: “I’m not sorry. Then it’s probably with your brother.”
Dr. Langer: “No, he’s an interior decorator in Oshkosh. You see Doctor Vance, I’m afraid your appointment is with me. I’m Doctor Jenny Langer.”
Dr. Vance: “Ohhh?”
Now this is supposed to a “meet cute” but all it does is paint the hero scientist as a bit of an asshole. Sure she didn’t immediately identify herself as a doctor but she was working on a telescope and wearing a white lab coat. Did he think she was the maid dusting the equipment?
Question: Do astronomers even wear white lab coats?
When the movie isn’t focusing on Dr. Langer and Dr. Vance, as they spout scientific gibberish that would give Neil deGrasse Tyson laughing fits, we spend much of the time at the Kester farm. It’s at this farm that the black hole landed. The patriarch of this family is Dan Kester (Robert Easton) who lies about visiting religious revivals so that he can have an affair with a local waitress. Dan’s wife is Ev Kester (Leslie Parrish) has but a sole character trait, aside from not liking her husband but then again nobody likes him, and that is she is an alcoholic. When she isn’t browbeating her lazy good-for-nothing-husband she’s downing booze as if prohibition is about to return. Then there is her teenage sister Terri (Diane Lee Hart) who both her husband and her husband’s cousin routinely hit on. This comes across as both creepy and sad. Terri is also not the sanest person in the world as she tends to wander into the kitchen naked, have a heated conversation with her brother-in-law’s pervy cousin, but not tell the asshole to get the fuck out.
These are the kind of people you are surprised have lived long enough to be killed by a giant spider. The day after the black hole hits behind the Kester farmhouse Ev is finally able to get her lazy husband to go out and investigate, but instead of a huge crater they find almost a dozen mutilated cows. Dan’s first impulse is to quickly chop up the mangled cows and sell the meat to the local cafe, but then they discover some geodes lying around that when broken open reveal what looks like diamonds inside. What they failed to notice is the spider that crawled out of it first.
How did this meteorite/black hole open up a doorway to another dimension? Will these eight legged nightmares decimate this small town? What kind of a people would elect The Skipper as sheriff? All these questions and more are answered in this nail-biting science fiction thriller…well it may not be exactly nail-biting but some of the tarantulas were creepy, and the effects could make you laugh so hard you will cry.
This film is very low budget. At a total cost of $300,000 dollars they only had $10,000 set aside from the effects budget, and so the bulk of this 85 minute movies is just Dr. Vance and Dr. Langers wandering around spouting scientific gibberish with the occasional cut to the Kester farm and the idiot goings on there. Not a whole lot of giant spider action, but just how tight was the budget? Well they couldn’t even afford to supply Sheriff Jones with an undershirt.
When we finally get to see a giant spider attack first it’s just a dog sized puppet that springs out at Ev, and then she is jumped in the barn by one that is about the size of a person. We never do get a scene showing spiders growing as mostly we see real tarantulas crawling around only to then randomly cut to an attack by a bad puppet.
Note: The intended size of the spiders was to be just about dog size but the producers insisted that Rebane provide bigger and bigger spiders to compete with the monster hit film Jaws. That they thought a low budget film could compete with a major studio blockbuster is just adorable.
Of course this demand for a larger spider did lead to one of the greatest/goofiest puppets in the history of cinema (The Giant Claw still holds the crown for the goofiest movie monster), as with only $10,000 dollars available for the effects budget they decided their best option was to cover a Volkswagen Beetle with fake fur, attach eight legs to it, and then stuff nine teen-agers inside to puppeteer the thing.
This is certainly one of the films that is charming in its cheapness. Among the cast the acting runs from passable to downright atrocious; Steve Brodie heads the group of “has been actors” and he is clearly phoning in his performance, but Barbara Hale on the other hand seems to be giving this performance more than it deserves. At one point she even doubled for Leslie Parrish who refused to be jumped by the spider for her death scene. But speaking of phone in performances Alan Hale Jr. spends much of the film at his desk providing us with some of the worst “phone acting” since the movie A*P*E* and whose attempts at humor falls flatter than a steamrolled pancake. They even have him call Terry’s boyfriend Billy (Paul Bentzen), “Hey, little buddy” in case we forgot his most notable role was The Skipper on Gilligan’s Island. There is comedy in this movie but it’s mostly unintentional; the sight of our aging two leads rolling down the hill to escape the spider, an angry mob of local extras trying to replicate a similar scene from Jaws, or really any shot that features the giant title creation.
Director Bill Rebane once dubbed the film “The Giant Spider Disaster” referring to how problematic the production was, and though the end result is probably less than he desired I must say he certainly brought joy to many people across the country. Now the film may be listed on The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made‘ in the book The Official Razzie Movie Guide, but it also must be mentioned that it was the 50th top grossing film that year. So even though Rebane may have lost a portion of his mind making this film he certainly didn’t lose his shirt.
The film was been beautifully lampooned on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and is available to watch on youtube. So if you are in the mood for some goofy fun you should really check it out.