By no reasonable measure can anything made by Bert I. Gordon be called good. This, after all, is the guy whose first big hit, Beginning of the End (1957), had “giant” grasshoppers attacking Chicago by showing real grasshoppers crawl around on photos of the Wrigley Building. At his best, he made silly movies that, if nothing else, moved along at a goodish rate and entertained — even if not entirely for the reasons intended. Put in the context of most of the other sci-fi films of the 1950s, Gordon’s work wasn’t really that bad. It was — on a budgetary level — pretty typical of its era, and, frankly, I’d rather watch his Earth vs. the Spider than Universal’s more expensive Tarantula. At least Gordon had no illusion that viewers were there for anything other than seeing a giant spider wreak mayhem, and, in his movie, he got right down to it. Actually, Earth vs. the Spider isn’t a bad little picture and its big bug effects aren’t appreciably worse than those in Tarantula (in both cases, you can clearly see through the monster being superimposed on the backgrounds). And the use of Carlsbad Caverns as the spider’s lair definitely gives the movie a goose in the atmosphere department.
The film is firmly in the teenagers-against-the-monster mode with help from a sole scientific egghead (who never gets much more scientific than realizing the monster is some kind of aberration) and the originally skeptical police department. It fits firmly into a common template of the era, but offers a few nice touches — not the least of which is a teen lead (Gene Persson) whose father runs the local movie theater. To judge by the posters, stills and lobby cards that festoon the movie house, it appears that they show nothing but Bert I. Gordon movies. (Talk about a niche market.) There’s the requisite dose of fairly awful rock ‘n’ roll — only here it’s used to reawaken the supposedly dead monster, which is understandable. Perhaps the oddest thing about the movie is the decision that a giant spider should emit a roar that’s somewhere between a dyspeptic lion and an elephant having a proctological exam. OK, so I can’t prove that a really big, irritable spider wouldn’t sound like that, but I remain skeptical.
War of the Colossal Beast is not one of Gordon’s better works, which, of course, doesn’t keep it from being choice cinematic tomfoolery. It’s a down-and-dirty sequel to the previous year’s The Amazing Colossal Man. Don’t worry if you’ve never seen the first film because, of course, there’s copious footage from it spliced into this one by way of flashbacks. It’s all about Col. Glenn Manning (Dean Parkin — a different actor than the first film, but no matter) who survived a nuclear blast only to have all his hair fall out and grow to a height of about 60 feet. This made him peevish enough in the first movie — ending with his rampage through Las Vegas and being bazakooed to his demise on Hoover Dam — but here — minus an eye and part of his mouth — he’s downright unruly. And he sounds a lot like a giant spider. He has somehow made it downstream to Mexico where he ekes out a bare existence by hijacking food trucks and eating the contents. Well, for one reason or another the U.S. Army knocks him out with a truckload of drugged baked goods (honest, that’s the plot) and drags him back to Los Angeles. This proves ill advised, as well you may imagine. Low-budget mayhem is inevitable, but Gordon has a surprise up his sleeve — pulling out all the stops for the last 40 seconds of the film with an effect so mind-blowing that words won’t do it justice. You will not believe your eyes.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Earth vs. the Spider and War of the Colossal Beast on Thursday, April 25 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.