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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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The Giant Spider (2013)

The Giant Spider (2013)
Written and Directed by Christopher R. Mihm
Starring Shannon McDonough, Daniel Sjerven, Billie Jo Konze, Michael Cook, James Norgard, and Mark Haider

Homage movies can be a challenge to review. More than most movies they are meant to be seen in the context of a particular genre and/or period of filmmaking, depending on the audience having at least passing familiarity with the sources. It’s similar to the spoof, which relies on audience expectations built from one or more previous movies. They can be hard to distinguish at times — much of the humor of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavracomes from deliberately crafted flaws, typical of the movies it emulates — but in general the homage seeks to tell a story more than to poke fun. Such a film is The Giant Spider

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The Giant Spider Invasion (1975)

Directed by Bill Rebane
Written by Richard L. Huff and Robert Easton
Starring Steve Brodie, Barbara Hale, Robert Easton, Leslie Parrish, Alan Hale Jr., Bill Williams, and Diane Lee Hart

giantspiderinv_title

A lot of horror movies have misleading titles. The Monster That Challenged the World, for example, merely bothered a small boat. One thing I can say in defense of The Giant Spider Invasion is that its title is not technically a lie. There are spiders that are ecologically invasive, and one of them is indeed effing huge. That’s about the only thing impressive about it. The spider, I mean. More on that later.

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The Spider Labyrinth (1988)

Directed by Gianfranco Giagni
Written by Riccardo Aragno, Tonino Cervi, Cesare Frugoni, and Gianfranco Manfredi
Starring Roland Wybenga, Paolo Rinaldi, Margareta von Krauss, and Claudia Muzi

Spiders sold separately.

Spiders sold separately.

There are certain things I just know I have to watch. Giant spider movies, naturally. Italian horror is another favorite. I can’t say no to noir, especially the sort where investigation leads to doom. Anything with Ray Milland in it. So when I learned that The Spider Labyrinth was an Italian horror-noir about a spider cult, I nearly fainted with joy. Good thing Milland wasn’t in it!

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The Devil Rides Out (1968)

Directed by Terence Fisher
Written by Richard Matheson, from a novel by Dennis Wheatley

Hammer Films dominated horror in the 1960s, with their stylish Gothic approach and stable of charismatic actors. Their Dracula and Frankenstein franchises were particularly lucrative, and while it would be stretching things to say that they could do no wrong during this period, it’s reasonable to expect a certain high degree of quality. The stakes get raised when considering the creative team behind The Devil Rides Out.

The opening titles are a wash of swirling smoke and green symbols of the occult.

The opening titles are a wash of swirling smoke and green symbols of the occult.

Terence Fisher had directed several of Hammer’s hits, including The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Richard Matheson had helped turn his own book I Am Legend into the famed movie The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price. He’d written the screenplays for Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations The Raven, The Pit and the Pendulum, and Tales of Terror. Between them, Fisher and Matheson brought an impressive resume to the table.

Then there’s Dennis Wheatley, an English author whose writing influenced Ian Fleming. His first published novel, The Forbidden Territory (1933) featured the Duke de Richleau. The following year saw the release of both a movie version and the second in what would be an 11 book series of the Duke’s occult adventures, The Devil Rides Out. Still a best-selling author in the 1960s, it could be assumed that Wheatley’s works would have been familiar to British audiences for this adaptation.

"Please, this time -- just listen to what I'm telling you!"

“Please, this time — just listen to what I’m telling you!”

It’s clear that Matheson relied on this familiarity. Characters have relationships that are glossed over, as though unnecessary to explain. The Duke just happens to know everything about the occult, and his knowledge is explained with a terse comment about his studies. It feels like several scenes are missing, and in fact there are — an entire book’s worth! The result is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s kind of realistic that we don’t get a lot of context. People are busy fighting Satan and don’t have the time to re-establish their relationships. Yet it distances the viewer a bit as well. There’s a tight central group of characters, and we’re on the outside. It’s frankly a little off-putting.

The Eatons, with young Peggy hanging on Uncle Rex. They also call de Richleau uncle, so who knows if they're even actually related to anybody?

The Eatons, with young Peggy hanging on Uncle Rex. They also call de Richleau uncle, so who knows if they’re even actually related to anybody?

Fortunately, the film stars Christopher Lee in the crucial role, here very slightly renamed as Duc de Richleau. Lee’s authoritative manner makes de Richleau seem more than capable of besting Lucifer at anything from magic to snooker, which somewhat mitigates the absence of back story. On the downside, he frequently leaves to conduct research, and nobody he knows can follow simple instructions. This allows the dastardly Mocata (played by the deliciously fiendish Charles Gray) to do pretty much anything he wants.

"I'm safe so long as I don't run into de Richleau -- or that damnable Bond!"

“I’m safe so long as I don’t run into de Richleau — or that damnable Bond!”

What Mocata wants is to add two members to his coven to bring their number up to the requisite 13. He’s accidentally selected Simon Aron (Patrick Mower), who de Richleau and his close friend Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) have sworn to watch over. The other recruit turns out to be the fetching Tanith Carlisle (Nike Arrighi), with whom Van Ryn falls madly in love. Aron and Carlisle’s minds are already under Mocata’s control, so there’s nothing for it but that de Richleau and Mocata battle for their souls. It’s all very much like a serial, with the villains and heroes dashing after each other fruitlessly until the climax.

So how does a giant spider figure into this movie? Simon is placed under the protection of de Richleau and the Eatons (a nice couple, related to somebody) inside of a magic circle. If they can prevent Mocata from claiming Simon overnight, he’ll be safe. The first gambit Mocata tries is to send a giant tarantula to prowl the edge of the circle. When that somehow fails to make anyone leave the protection of the circle, young Peggy Eaton enters the room for the spider to menace.

Duc de Richleau was renowned for his creative party games.

Duc de Richleau was renowned for his creative party games.

The approach chosen was a mixture of filming a tarantula on a miniature set and matting it in when it needed to be seen with the actors. This is a difficult trick for color film, and the complicating factors of the lighting in the room do not work in the effect’s favor. Nonetheless, it’s largely effective. In most of the sequences, it works well. The worst lighting problems occur when interacting with Peggy, when suddenly the tarantula is too bright. It could have come off as a game attempt if not for the inclusion of footage of the spider “rearing”. While tarantulas will rear up, it’s generally because they feel threatened. This one seems to be merely testing the glass wall in front of it. Much like the ants climbing into the air in Empire of the Ants, it re-engages disbelief with a quickness.

In Hell, spider squishes you!

In Hell, spider squishes you!

Also quick is Mocata’s escalation of attacks, but that’s getting into spoiler territory. Let’s just say he jumps straight from “dare” to “triple-dog dare” in direct violation of the Queensbury rules. He’s sort of a jerk that way.

It’s a pretty neat movie. I understand why many people consider it to be one of Hammer’s best. Lee and Gray, though sharing only a few scenes, ground the film with the power of their palpably clashing wills. Although the effects are sometimes less than spectacular, the menace they serve to reflect is stronger than in most plots about Satanism. Partly, this is due to Mocata’s mental dominance over all but de Richleau, but really it’s how far Mocata is able and prepared to go for victory. I refer to the aforementioned untoward escalation. This isn’t your garden-variety cultist.

Even The Devil attends Mocata's parties.

Even The Devil attends Mocata’s parties.

The biggest problem I think the movie has is its ending. Without revealing anything, I’ll just say that it doesn’t make immediate sense. Just as with his script for the excellent The Legend of Hell House (based on his own novel Hell House), Matheson underplays the critical part of the reveal. One or two more sentences from the Duc de Richleau would put it all together, but while the explanation we get is reasonable, it isn’t until ruminating over it much later that I came to accept it as more than a flimsy cheat. Maybe I’m inordinately dense, but while the conclusion makes perfect in a 1930s adventure sort of way, it just doesn’t seem direct enough for the style of story it is.

The film as a whole is enjoyable, and I recommend it particularly to fans of Hammer or of old-fashioned adventure films. Just stay on your toes and repeat to yourself “it all makes sense” until you understand why. Or, you know, understand it the first time. Whatever works.

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!

Have Rocket — Will Travel (1959)

Written by Raphael Hayes
Directed by David Lowell Rich

Writing a review of The Three Stooges is an interesting challenge. Narrative coherence is irrelevant when the story only exists to provide an excuse for eye-gouging and set-wrecking. Dialogue doesn’t need to be more eloquent than an angry “Why you!” I’m not even certain that normal standards of acting apply. But, since there’s a giant spider in their film “Have Rocket — Will Travel”, I’m prepared to work through all that.

Let’s start with the title. If it doesn’t sound familiar, it should. Stooge titles tend to be plays on expressions or titles of other works. In this case, it’s a reference to the popular western show “Have Gun — Will Travel” that began airing in 1957 — two years before the release of this film. There’s no other connection to the show, but the reference is reinforced with a title song that is sung by the Stooges over the opening credits.

I'll watch your movie. Just please stop singing.

I’ll watch your movie. Just please stop singing.

Speaking of credits, the Stooge line-up for this outing is Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Joe DeRita (Curly-Joe). Curly-Joe gets some guff for being the second substitute Curly, who himself replaced Shemp. (Being the third Stooge was seemingly as fatal as drumming for Spinal Tap1.) Curly-Joe does a decent enough reproduction of Curly’s routines, and he provides some genuinely entertaining moments, so I’m not going to dump on the guy. I think he just suffered from being cast at a time when the Stooges were just re-enacting stale clones of their previous routines.

Speaking of clones, I should give a quick rundown of how the set pieces stitch together.

We start with a rocket test by the National Space Foundation (NSF). This is their 4th launch, and there’s a monkey on board — because I guess in the 1950s it was mandatory to put a monkey in space movies. The test fails, and the rocket crashes. The Stooges, who are the maintenance men on the base, are put in charge of guarding the fallen rocket. This leads to the Stooges chasing the monkey all over the rocket until it accidentally rights itself.

Here’s where things get unnecessarily complicated. Dr. Ingrid Naarveg, lead (and apparently only) scientist at the NSF, is nice to the Stooges. They see her as a daughter and want to help her keep the project alive. In order to do that she needs to find a better fuel. Stooges to the rescue! In the course of a night they brew up a more powerful fuel (the secret is sugar!) and load it into the rocket.

The head of the NSF, angered by the Stooge’s nocturnal activities (and the inevitable ancillary destruction), manages to chase them into the rocket and launch it into space. Our promised space travel is under way at last!

Once on Venus, the Stooges encounter a talking unicorn, a giant spider, and a tyrannical robot (that makes clones of them because it likes their form). They also sing more of the title song. On their return, the Stooges are hailed as heroes. They leave the clones in their place and run off with the talking unicorn to sing more of that infernal song.

You don’t have to be a Stooge fan to find their rise to fame predictable. It’s a given in American comedy that experts are fools and fools are experts. Opposites attract, experts are unmasked, the simple are rewarded, and there’s probably a wedding.

In this case, the wedding is between Dr. Naarveg and the base psychiatrist. Barely in the movie, their roles consisted primarily of 1) Dr. Naarveg providing unnecessary motivation to the Stooges and 2) the psychiatrist repeatedly telling her that she’ll only find happiness by marrying him and abandoning her career. He finally convinces her with a sudden agarring2. It was, after all, 1959, and while a comedy could make a woman the lead scientist in a space program it would also make certain to put her back in her place by the end.

Additionally, while the pompous head of the NSF gets a humiliating take-down, remember that three bumbling clods managed in one night to produce the breakthrough in fuel that eluded Dr. Naarveg. That’s got to hurt.

Some of the Stooge routines were painful, too. Interestingly, it wasn’t due to the performances. A classic routine is a classic routine, and old and fat as they are the Stooges are skilled physical comedians. I place the blame on the director, David Lowell Rich. Rich was a workman director, the bulk of whose career was spent in TV. B-Movie fans may have seen the TV movie “Satan’s School for Girls” (an Aaron Spelling production), but his most remembered work is possibly “The Concorde — Airport ’79”, the final nail in the coffin for the Airport franchise.

It’s clear that Rich and cinematographer Ray Cory had no idea how to film the Stooges. These are guys who mastered their craft on the stage, and when they went to film they largely kept that full view ethos. They fill the screen with broad movements and large messes. Here, the camera often slows things down, breaking the frenzy of action into careful and discrete pieces. It just doesn’t work well, and (as in “Yellowbeard” and “The Villain”) the humor doesn’t survive filming.

That isn’t to say that nothing works. A few scenes work very well, mostly because the close shots are mixed well with larger fields of chaos. Two of these are standard Stooge set pieces: the bedroom and the ballroom. The first shows the unusual morning routine of the Stooges, and everyone wrestles with appliances, clothing, and furniture. The second, of course, winds up in a pie fight.

The society ball is where Curly-Joe shines. While the others are dancing enthusiastically with their new admirers, Curly-Joe just wants a piece of cake. His doomed effort sends the soirée flying face-first into its pie-filled fate, while he calmly accepts what is left for him. It’s a sequence that’s both entertaining and oddly reassuring.

The other fun scene was the invention of the rocket fuel. Dr. Naarveg’s lab becomes a kitchen as the Stooges start mixing ingredients in a large vat. Much of the ensuing business is familiar, but it’s less pat than the other scenes. There’s something delightful about Larry intently brewing coffee over a bunsen burner, like the Walter White of caffeinated beverages. Of course, not even Larry tried to cook with the flame-throwing giant spider.

That’s right: flame-throwing giant spider.

Pretty much my worst nightmare.

Pretty much my worst nightmare.

Almost immediately after disembarking on Venus, the Stooges are threatened by a giant tarantula (courtesy of forced perspective shots and editing). Then the film stops, and a light beam is drawn in, emanating from the tarantula. Flame pursues the Stooges as they run away.

I’d like to tell you that there’s no real reason for there to be a flame-throwing giant spider on Venus. The crazy part is that there is a terribly convoluted reason.

You see, despite all the nonsense about making fuel, the rocket is launched by igniting a lengthy fuse. It’s a strange plot point, requiring the base commander to accidentally (and angrily) light the fuse to send the Stooges on their voyage. Mysteriously, there is some fuse left for the return trip, and it’s up to the flame-throwing giant spider to reignite it.

I fault screenwriter Raphael Hayes for the clumsy movement of the script, but I have to admire his fierce devotion to the fuse gag — a device that backed him so far into a narrative corner that only a flame-throwing giant spider could get him out of it.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

  • While rocketing to Venus, the Stooges turn on the communication console and get a TV Western. They change the channel and tune in the NSF lab, where Dr. Naarveg and her suitor are engaged in a dramatic scene in the style of a soap opera. I really liked the thought of the console having been installed so the monkey could watch his favorite shows.
  • The robot is delightfully ill-constructed. It looks like the prop guy just stuck a bunch of crap on a box until he ran out.
  • The Stooge snore gag works every time.
  • There’s a keyhole at the base of the rocket. I find that charming, for some reason.

FOOTNOTES

1. To be fair, Joe Besser didn’t die “in office”, as it were.

2. agar, v.t. to kiss the bejeesus out of a co-star. Named for John Agar, the grand master of the technique.