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Fury of the Congo (1951)

Directed by William Berke
Written by Carroll Young
Starring Johnny Weissmuller, Sherry Moreland, William Henry, Lyle Talbot, Joel Friedkin, and George Eldredge

Odds are that if you know about Johnny Weissmuller at all, you know him as an actor who played Tarzan. Maybe you even know about his pockets full of Olympic gold and record-setting competitive swimming career. If you read my last review, you also know he faced a giant spider in Tarzan’s Desert Mystery. Well, my friends, today you’ll learn about his second encounter with a big damn spider, as Jungle Jim in Fury of the Congo.

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Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (1943)

Directed by Wilhelm Thiele
Written by Edward T. Lowe Jr. from a story by Carrol Young
Based on characters by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Starring Johnny Weissmuller, Nancy Kelly, Johnny Sheffield, Otto Kruger, Joe Sawyer, Lloyd Corrigan, and Robert Lowery

There are movie series that feature giant spiders in recurring roles. With heavy-continuity franchises like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, it can be tricky to figure out how to handle the review. It’s a lot easier with the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films, which are largely unconnected apart from basic character facts. For the 8th installment, Tarzan’s Desert Mystery, all you need to know is that there’s a guy named Tarzan (Weissmuller) who wears a buttflap. He has a son named Boy (Johnny Sheffield), who is also averse to clothing. Forget about Jane. She’s in England, helping out by working as a nurse.

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Kiss of the Tarantula (1976)

Directed by Chris Munger
Written by Daniel Cady and Warren Hamilton Jr.
Starring Suzanna Ling, Ernesto Macias, Herman Wallner, Patricia Landon, Beverly Eddins, and Jay Scott

I like independent movies. Sometimes they’re derivative, trying to cash in on whatever made a lot of money recently, but they can also allow creativity to flourish outside of the scrutiny of corporate oversight. In some cases, these films can rise above the setbacks of low budgets and inexperience before and behind camera to give us a refreshingly novel approach. I’d like to make the case that Kiss of the Tarantula is such a gem.

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L’araignée d’or (1908)

aka The Gold Spider
Written and Directed by Segundo de Chomón


This one is a special treat. Not only is it the earliest big spider movie I’ve heard of, but it’s also one of the oldest surviving representations of a spider on film! It’s only eight minutes long, and one shot is badly damaged, but L’araignée d’or is a splendid example of early narrative film and special effects.

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Checkpoint Telstar: Earth vs The Spider (1958)

The Cold War movie review site Checkpoint Telstar is running a series of horror reviews this month for its HubrisWeen celebration — 26 reviews (A to Z) leading up to Halloween.

Day 5 is a review of the classic Big Damn Spider movie “Earth vs The Spider”, directed by serial BDS user Bert I. Gordon. It’s one of our favorites here in the Web, and Telstar is one of my closest friends, so I hope you’ll give it a read.

“Earth vs The Spider” on Checkpoint Telstar

See ya in the Web!

Camel Spiders (2011)

Written by J. Brad Wilke and Jim Wynorski
Directed by Jim Wynorski

Early into the US occupation of Afghanistan, a photo of soldiers was widely circulated in which a pair of camel spiders hung grotesquely in the foreground. For a week or two everyone shuddered at the thought of those humongous Middle-Eastern spiders, and then we collectively forgot about the whole thing. Inevitably, Roger Corman produced the movie “Camel Spiders”. The only real surprise was that it took almost a decade for him to get around to it.

That green is nature's way of warning viewers to avoid the film.

That green is nature’s way of warning viewers to avoid the film.

The film opens during a firefight in Afghanistan. American troops are pinned down by rebels (extras in street clothes, some of whom are literally wearing towels), who are likely meant to be Taliban forces. In a way, it doesn’t matter. Partly this is because they’re all about to die horribly, but mostly it’s because they are irrelevant to the plot.

What is relevant to — and indeed is — the plot, is how these Afghanis die. Pale spiders, about the size of cats, crawl over the combatants and fang them to death. They then drag away two of the bodies before the American troops eventually notice the lack of returned fire and investigate.

The medic determines that it was death by beshbesh — camel spider. These are deadly desert spiders that can outrun men and inject a powerful venom with their bite1. Captain Sturges (Brian Krouse, of “Sleepwalkers” and the TV series “Charmed”) is more concerned about his own side’s single casualty.

Corporal Plot-Device has been killed in the bullet exchange, and the lightly wounded captain assumes responsibility for taking his body home. Despite ample photographic evidence of the stately manner in which the bodies of our soldiers are transported, the corporal is crated up with a few rodent-sized camel spiders and shipped to a military base in Arizona, where it’s put on a truck transporting munitions.

The driver of the truck is Sergeant Underwood (Melissa Brasselle2), and the clumsy sexual tension between her and Captain Sturges will be an uncomfortable feature of the rest of the film. Fortunately, it’s broken for the time being by an accident.

The local sheriff (C. Thomas Howell) is in hot pursuit of some guy. I didn’t write his name down because, like so many characters in this movie, his only purpose is to cause trouble through his demise. Seconds after his introduction, this presumably naughty person runs into the sergeant’s truck.

Three things happen:

  1. Our speeding driver either dies or is carted off to a hospital. His impact on the plot done, he is quickly discarded.
  2. The truck is damaged, which ensures that the captain and sergeant have to stick around.
  3. The corporal’s coffin falls out of the truck, introducing camel spiders into the Arizona wilds3.

The truck can still move a bit, so the sheriff guides our nascent couple to a motel. Captain Sturges calls the base and arranges for a pick-up the next morning. Then he and the sheriff head to a diner, leaving the sergeant to guard the semi-broken vehicle with its corpse and munitions.

The diner is filled with characters, and from the attention given them it is clear that they are to become the primary group of survivors and victims for the remainder of the film. There’s the bickering couple with a distanced teenager; the owners of the diner; a pair of investors, who want to tear town the diner and build a casino; the waitress a heart of gold; and two guys so into their own jaded skepticism I can only assume their journey to Las Vegas is ironic. There’s also the minority chef, whose death signals the arrival of the camel spiders.

Santa Moose and his eight camel spiders come for the naughty children.

Santa Moose and his eight camel spiders come for the naughty children.

From this point the movie centers on survival, as the group attempts first to escape then to wait out and finally to destroy the 8-legged, Afghani invaders. Families come together, jerks get a clue, villains get theirs, and the innuendo-fueled romance of Sargeant Underwood and Captain
Sturges inexplicably blossoms.

There are two other groups of people who appear early in the film. Their paths never intersect that of the main characters. In fact, this isolation is so complete I suspect that at least one of these sections was added after principal shooting stopped. Given that the movie only clocks in at 79 minutes, I’m almost certain of it.

It would be wrong to call “Camel Spiders” cheap; it’s budget-conscious. Over decades of working for Corman, Wynorski has learned how to spend effectively. The sound and image are clear, because it pays to spend on recording. It doesn’t pay off as much to costume extras that only have a few minutes of screen time. He skimped on the Afghani rebels, and I honestly didn’t even notice that the first time I saw it. Characters are left as broad, archetypal strokes. Any investment in them comes from our associations with the familiar roles. A remark now and then reminds us where they all are on their usual path to redemption or spider chow.

Likewise, the CGI effects are mediocre at best. The spiders aren’t convincing, and they often fail to interact with the environment. Blood sprayed frequently but unrealistically. You’d think that here is where the money should be spent, to make the central menace believable. I’d think so too, really. I’m inclined to believe that Jim Wynorski agreed. It’s likely that with the volume of effects this was as good as could be provided by the budget. Given the choice of quantity over quality, well… this is a Roger Corman production.

The large number of spiders is a pretty good trade for quality. The demands on the actors and script are significantly reduced by the frequency of spider appearances. There’s some screaming, a lot of running, then a pause to drop some clumsy character beats — that’s the basic pulse of the movie. The rhythm never becomes frantic, but it’s active and never let’s the movie lose you entirely. In fact, it’s a lot of fun without being any good at all.

A case in point is what I call Chekov’s spider4, a spider shown in the first act that comes into play before the end of the movie. This is as close as the movie comes to a real payoff for paying attention. Shortly after the coffin falls out of the truck, a camel spider crawls into a car through its open sun roof. Almost immediately, someone takes the car to go get help but arrives safely. The spider, apparently, is napping. Much later on, long after the audience has given up on that particular plot point, someone else sticks his head in the car window and gets a face-full of spider. The delay is almost clever, and as such it sticks out in a movie that asks so very little of its audience.

Give “Camel Spiders” a minimal amount of your attention, and in return it will give you all it’s got. As little as it has, that’s a pretty even trade.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

In fact, camel spiders are not “true spiders”. They’re related arachnids belonging to the order Solifugae. The movie alludes to this with the constant refrain of “It’s only got six legs!” In fact, camel spiders have eight legs.

Two camel spiders hitch a ride with the corporal’s body. However many there were by the time of the car accident (whereupon every last one fled for the desert), they all had to fit in the coffin. A few hours later, there were dozens of them at the diner. By the following morning, hundreds swarmed the abandoned facility, and some were the size of a person! These are breeding and growth rates that don’t just defy reason — they walk up to reason, break its cane, take its wallet, and give it a good kick before running away laughing down the street.

Why do the experts always walk right up to get bitten? Don’t they cover that in the introductory classes?

There’s a locked door in the gypsum plant. We never find out what’s behind it, and it’s sort of driving me nuts.

FOOTNOTES

1. Camel spiders are non-venomous, grow to about 6″ max, and top out at about 10 mph.

2. Melissa Brasselle is not only a Corman regular but has worked almost exclusively with Jim Wynorski. Out of a few dozen appearances, no fewer than 17 have been in his films.

3. While this particularly fictional breed of camel spider is indigenous only to the Bronson Canyon region of Afghanistan, real camel spiders are present throughout the world in sandy environments.

4. Yeah. I referenced Anton Chekov in the review of a crap spider movie.