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.
Written Directed by Brett Piper
Starring Erin Brown (as Misty Mundae), Julian Wells, Rob Monkiewicz, Erika Smith, Michael R. Thomas, Caitlin Ross, and Sylvianne Chebance
If you’re setting out to review every big spider movie commercially available, you’re going to eventually have to deal with sleazy movies. I’m talking low-budget films with lots of gratuitous nudity and sex, simulated or otherwise. When I did a movie podcast years ago, the episode that broke me was about Jess Franco’s Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula. Two of my friends took my displeasure as a challenge and watched for themselves. One said he’d seen worse but agreed it wasn’t good. The other sent a messenger to kick me in the junk for him. At least I’d earned it.
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
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!
Directed by Josh Becker
Written by Josh Becker
It’s 1991, and video stores have made Bruce Campbell a low-budget celebrity. He and his friends at Renaissance Pictures seem to have what it takes (the company had five films to its credit and was still in business!). Their latest film “Darkman” had been a legitimate success within the studio system, and maybe it was the breathing room that afforded them which let them turn back to a small budget for their next project. After all, it’s more fun when the big boys aren’t involved.
Josh Becker had directed and co-written the company’s third feature “Stryker’s War” (1985, aka “Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except”) and had worked with Ted Raimi and Bruce Campbell on short films before that. Becker wrote and directed “Lunatics: a Love Story”, Bruce Campbell signed on as an actor and producer (with Sam Raimi and Robert G. Tapert as executive producers, of course), and Ted “Theodore” Raimi got the starring role.
As the opening credits roll, we’re treated to the sleazy meanderings of a saxophone. As soon as the title appears, the music collapses into a mix of hip-hop and jazz that promises fun, funky times ahead. The composer is none other than Joseph LoDuca, who had started to work with the Raimi crew on Evil Dead and would go on to write memorable themes for their Xena and Hercules shows (along with plenty of other TV and movie scores).
After the credits, we get an establishing shot of L.A. followed by a pan from a lingerie billboard ad to a tenement across the street. A mail carrier enters the building, and residents come out to deliver exposition. (Only one ever appears again, and only for a moment, so there’s really no point to this scene. All of the relevant information we clumsily receive here is given later.) we learn that the guy in 206 is crazy. He screams in the night. He has food delivered. He moved in six months ago and never leaves his apartment.
The walls in 206 are covered in tinfoil, movie shorthand for crazy. The place is unkempt, and boxes and papers are strewn everywhere. Still, it’s spacious, and it’s got a lovely view of the lingerie billboard. Hank Stone (Ted Raimi) is enjoying a more cramped space. He’s underneath his bed, clutching his head and whimpering. It seems that there are spiders in his brain, as we see in a nifty bit of stop-motion animation.
Hank also has Bruce Campbell on his mind, as should we all! In Hank’s case, though, Campbell is a maniacal surgeon who wants to perform unspecified but certainly unseemly operations on him. Tinfoil seems to help keep the mad doctor at bay, because crazy, and we’ll see a lot of Campbell and tinfoil over the 1 hour and 27 minute running time.
Bruce Campbell also plagues the movie’s love interest, in the form of her sleaze-ball boyfriend Ray. Nancy is played by Deborah Foreman, known in my circles for portraying Muffy in the original “April Fool’s Day”. In that, she had a juicy, low-budget role, getting to play the mysterious hostess of a rapidly unravelling island vacation. Here, she is relegated to cringing and looking gooey-eyed as events require, and to Foreman’s credit she plays the part like a trooper.
More on that later. The important thing, plot-wise, is that she feels responsible for everything that goes wrong around her. So these are the promised lunatics: a paranoid schizophrenic (I guess?) and a self-appointed scapegoat. Notice that one is an incurable psychosis and the other is, at best, a deep but treatable neurosis.
After Ray dumps Nancy, stranding her in L.A. with no money and an unpaid hotel bill, she winds up wandering the streets until she runs into a gang that wants to rape her. Managing to hide in a phone booth, Nancy winds up answering the phone. On the other end is Hank, who thinks he’s contacting a prostitute. Thus the lovers are set on their lunatic path.
Let’s talk about the giant spider. It’s why I watched it after all, and it’s more pleasant than other things I have to say. The spider shows up near the climax, when Hank has actually left his apartment in order to find Nancy. Nancy has run away from him, because he knocked her out in a delusional fit and is generally, you know, unstable.
You know what? I’ll get to the spider in a bit, but I have to deal with the elephant in the room, because this movie makes me hate myself. This is a Nice Guy story. No matter what he does, no matter his failings, no matter his prospects, no matter his sanity, Hank will win the girl like a prize for simply not being completely horrific. As a young man, this type of thing appealed to me a great deal. I’d actually get upset at movies where the heroine didn’t fall for the Nice Guy simply because he was present. How dare Andie pass on Duckie simply because she wasn’t attracted to him?
Nice Guy movies enforce this notion that women have no agency; that their love goes to those who simply aren’t horrific. This is different from Chaplin in “City Lights”, who goes to great lengths to cure his love’s blindness but then avoids her because he doesn’t want to burden her with his poverty. It’s different from Moranis in “Little Shop of Horrors”, who gives up everything he believes makes Audrey like him in order to save her. These men misjudge the women, who already love them for who they are. Nice Guys just have to be in position for a woman to land on them.
What he have in Hank is a horror show of a Nice Guy. He’s a jobless shut-in with a serious psychosis, who acts out violently during delusional episodes. On the plus side he writes truly awful poetry. After chasing Nancy out of his apartment, stalking her, and needing to be saved from a garbage truck by her (we’ll get back to that), Hank manages to knock out the lead gang member. For this one act Nancy is his. Nancy, who managed to elude and often defeat all threats until the finale, is a trophy Hank earned by leaving his apartment.
I could dismiss this as simply inept writing (which it is) but for the fact that I know I would have loved it if I’d seen this when it came out in 1991. It’s Ted Raimi being silly! Haha, crazy people! Happy ending — woot! My disappointment in my younger self is so great that I simply can’t remove it from discussion of “Lunatics: A Love Story”. I can’t be objective and leave it at saying that the script is built on clumsy cliches and expectations and that the humor is droll at best and plodding in general. I can’t distance myself enough to just say that the movie treats Nancy poorly. I can’t, because the movie puts my cultural misogyny in my face and expects me to find it funny. It’s repellent to me in a way that mere shoddiness and laziness of craft never achieves.
So, now that I’ve explained why I would never recommend this film to anybody, I’ll move on to the part I mostly liked. Hank is running around looking for Nancy, who’s running away from the rape gang. When he leans up against a wall, an insectile leg reaches down toward him. It’s a big goddamn spider, and it chases Hank down the street in some neat stop motion sequences. In reality, Hank is running away from a garbage truck, and why Nancy shoots at it for him I will never figure out.
I won’t say that this scene made the movie worth it, but between it and the trio of rappers who appear in Hank’s apartment I at least had a few moments of genuine enjoyment. I love stop-motion, and this is better quality than the movie required or deserved. It’s done by David Hettmer, who also worked on “Army of Darkness” with Renaissance. The animation is fun, and while the “spiders in the brain” scene is more memorable (by virtue of being over-the-top) it’s a treat watch the giant spider chase Hank down the street.
I can’t wrap this up without expanding on the rappers in Hank’s apartment. While the animated spiders were cool, the highlight for me was when these guys showed up. Early in the movie, Hank turns on his radio and these guys appear in his living room performing the LoDuca penned “Saran Rap”. This is a delightfully specific song about the spiders crawling in Hank’s mind, and I wish to hell that it was available to purchase. It’s a more threatening delusional episode than a mad surgeon, because it’s basically Hank materializing people to mock and berate him. Accusing yourself is a big part of mental illness, so I was glad to see the movie veer somewhat near the neighboring state of authentic symptomatology, if only for a moment.
Becker went on to a minor career, directing episodes of “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “Jack of All Trades” as well as the TV movie “Hercules in the Maze of the Minotaur”. He co-wrote and directed the Bruce Campbell vehicle “Alien Apocalypse” and directed “Harpies”, starring Stephen “Not Alec” Baldwin–both of which play occasionally on SyFy instead of content. What I’m suggesting is that his work is serviceable but neither outstanding enough for bigger movies nor expedient enough for steady work. It’s hardly surprising, then, that “Lunatics: A Love Story” is a rough without any diamond.
Written by David Duncan and Robert Blees
Directed by Edward Ludwig
Giant critters were a staple of the drive-in fare of the late 1950s. “Tarantula”, “Them!”, “The Beginning of the End”, and so many others — the genre consisted largely of forced perspective filming, footage of animals super-imposed over actors, and the occasional puppet. In these standard techniques “The Black Scorpion” falls squarely on its drooling face. Where it excels is in the superb use of stop motion animation for the majority of its creature effects.
The film opens on stock clips of volcanos and earthquakes as a narrator ponderously explains the setup. He tells us that before forces that are “the most violent of modern times”, the people of Mexico can only pray. (Cue prayer footage.) A new volcano is formed, he tells us, and it grows 9000 feet in only a few days!
When the opening credits end, we see a jeep hauling a small trailer through the wasted landscape. The vehicle stops, and our male leads climb out to drop some exposition. Hank Scott is an American, visiting Mexico through the courtesy of Professor Artur Ramos. They are geologists who’ve driven through the destruction for three days to reach the new volcano. Amid all the waste lies a literal sign of life: a road marker which (if somehow still close to its standing position) indicates that they are 117K from Mexico City1 and only 12K from San Lorenzo. There are also indications that at least one other vehicle has been through here recently.
Continuing their journey, Ramos and Scott come upon workers repairing phone lines. These men affirm that San Lorenzo is near but haven’t heard how the town has fared in the wake of the disaster. The bridges might be out, they warn. A police car that headed that way never came back, though, so it’s possible that the route is clear2. The geologists thank them and continue their thrill-a-minute drive.
They locate the police car in a tiny deserted village. The car, and pretty much everything nearby, has been demolished. They can’t tell by what, but it may be related to that buzzing sound… Scott and Ramos find one survivor (a baby) and one victim (the police officer). They use the police radio to call in their discoveries then continue on to San Lorenzo, where military assistance should arrive the following day.
A crowd greets them in San Lorenzo, and after handing the baby to a nearby woman our heroes join Father Delgado for some dinner and expository dialog. It seems that in the aftermath of the eruption there have been other disappearances and unusual destruction. When victims have been found, their bodies are bloodless and their faces frozen in fear. Largely fueled by rumors from local caballeros, the masses believe it to be the work of a demon bull3.
Of course, none of this dissuades our intrepid duo from heading ever closer into danger. The following day, against the advice of Major Corsio (head of the newly arrived army unit), our action geologists continue driving toward the new volcano. They meet up with Teresa Alvarez, owner of the Alvarez ranch (whose cattle herders have fled, fearing the demon bull). Ramos discovers a sheet of unearthed shale, and after a lot more exposition and a meal the plot finally lurches begins in lugubrious earnest.
If you think I didn’t care for this movie, you’re partially correct. The pacing is atrocious, the plot meandering, and the direction tepid. I’ve seen far worse, but on a scale of “Unwatchable” to “Play It Again Now!” I would give it an honest “Well I’ve Seen That Now”… except. Ah, except for the wonderful, animated scenes of giant scorpions and other critters!
The great Willis H. O’Brien (“King Kong”, 1933) designed and supervised the effects, and his protegé Peter Peterson handled the actual animation. There are a few major set pieces, and they are a joy to behold: the lost underground world, the train tracks, and the stadium. The scenes at the train and stadium feature a lot of giant scorpion on vehicle violence and even the grisly demise of a few animated people. They’re a fun treat for fans of stop motion animation.
The reason I’m writing about this movie is what happens deep underground. Amid all the seismic activity of the eruption, an entrance opened on a world that had been sealed underground since pre-history — an enormous set of caverns in which monsters live brutal lives. It’s down here that Juanito meets a trap-door spider roughly the size of a brown bear.4
“Wait”, you cry. “Who’s Juanito?”
Remember Teresa Alvarez, whose caballeros believed in a demon bull? Juanito is a servant boy on her ranch, and it is truly unfortunate that he stuck around. Whenever he’s told to stay put, he immediately sneaks off to run straight toward the scorpions. It’s amazing to me that nobody ever thought to tie Juanito down.
Naturally, when Ramos and Scott decide to descend into the crater via a lowered cage, Juanito tags along. This, immediately after being discovered hiding in the jeep, whereupon he had once again been told to stay the hell put. Somehow, two scientists fail to detect the child during a twenty-minute descent in a cage the size of a closet. Once they reach the bottom, the men tramp off, leaving Juanito to find some danger — which he does with a quickness!
Juanito leaves the safety of the cage and wanders directly to the lair of a big damn spider. This kid is so determined to die that he actually tugs at the spider’s trap door! Naturally, Ramos and Scott must rush over to save him. Mercifully the action soon moves to Mexico City, and the plot is no longer propelled by Juanito’s self-destructive urges.
This spider is an odd one. For one thing, it only has six legs. That’s assuming that the front appendages with pincers are pedipalps, which they would be on a scorpion. Additionally it doesn’t exactly leap out of its tunnel, which sadly allows Juanito plenty of time to get running. If we’re to assume any attempt at historical accuracy it could be that this arachnid is from a lost family of the sub-order Mesothelae, but it seems unlikely that much thought went into it.
With limited time and budget O’Brien and Peterson put the main effort into the scorpion models, which are excellent. The spider and another creature (a sort of worm with arms) are left over from O’Brien’s work on King Kong! They were two of the monsters at the bottom of a ravine, in one of the most famous cut scenes in the history of cinema. It’s neat that they were pressed into service again a quarter of a century later, but their design esthetic does not sit well alongside the more modern work.
Budget is the enemy of many films, but its lack is painfully visible here. The super-imposing process of the 1950s was labor intensive, and there was just too much to do. The result is a number of scenes that show the silhouette of a scorpion over running crowds. This is the matte over which the animation was to be placed, and it doesn’t look good on its own.
The other thing that looks bad is the scorpion head used for close-up shots. O’Brien supposedly supervised all of the effects, but he must have been looking elsewhere when this puppet was made. All of the realism and artistry of the animation models is completely absent here. It has a goofy, gaping maw that’s constantly drooling and googly eyes, and it looks nothing like the creatures taking apart trains and pulling helicopters out of the sky.
Hampered by a meandering script and budgetary constraints, “The Black Scorpion” nonetheless marks a high-point in arachnid cinematic effects. Far superior to most puppets and better than low-budget CGI, it’s a shame they weren’t part of a worthier movie.
1. It is actually far from ludicrous to imagine a volcano appearing so near Mexico City. The city lies in the path of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, which forms a roughly latitudinal line across the country. There is even an active volcano only 40-some miles away. I will not speculate as to the odds of the spontaneous generation of such a massive new volcano in the region, but I think that the side effects of such an event would be catastrophic enough without adding giant prehistoric scorpions into the equation.
2. Whenever a character thinks that someone never returning is a good sign, I can only marvel at their innocence. If I go two hours without hearing from someone, I assume they’ve been eaten by dingoes.
3. Sadly, the legend of the demon bull is largely glossed over. It seemed far more plausible than the actual danger presented.
4. Nope. I’m not invoking the scorpions-are-arachnids clause to justify including this movie in the Big Damn Spider canon, although scorpions are way closer to spiders than whatever the heck this creature is. It only has 6 legs, so maybe it’s an escapee from “Camel Spiders”.