The Cinematic Evolution of the Giant Spider – By Timothy Martinez

 There are few things that will cause a huge, muscle bound man to run and cry like a baby, but spiders have been known to do it (in addition to the question “do these pants make me look fat?” but that is a whole other discussion). I’ve seen it happen first hand with some of the larger male members of my extended family. There is just something about them that makes the skin crawl on numerous people…the spiders, not my family. The bigger the spiders are, the worse it can be and a more panicked, not to mention comical, reaction can be evoked from the poor sap who encounters them. With such a basic fear ingrained into so many people, it only seemed natural that the idea of giant spiders took root in Hollywood and has never really gone away. Let’s take a look at a few classic examples.

King Kong (1933) What’s that you say – King Kong was about a giant gorilla and not giant spiders? Very true, but the film did feature other large beasties that called Skull Island home, such as numerous species of dinosaur and one very large spider. What’s that you say now – you don’t remember seeing a giant spider in the film? Truth be told, I don’t either…and I’ve seen the film dozens of times. There is a very good reason for this…that giant spider was cut from the movie. It originally played a part in the scene where the sailors, in pursuit of Kong and Ann Darrow, are attempting to traverse a fallen log that stretches over a chasm. The big guy shakes the log and causes several of them to fall into the deep pit below. Rather than falling to their deaths as the suddenly cut short screams would have us believe, originally the men that fell survived the plunge only to be devoured by more horrible critters…including the giant spider. This spider was brought to life in much the same fashion used for Kong and his reptilian neighbors: stop motion photography by Willis O’Brien. Test audiences were horrified at these gruesome deaths and the scene, along with a few other shots throughout the film, were excised in order to make the movie less horrific. In the years since, most of those cut scenes have been restored, but the footage of the giant spider has been lost forever. The closest we can get is Peter Jackson’s re-creation on the recent DVD release for the original film in addition to a similar sequence filmed for his remake from last year.

Tarantula (1955) Gargantuan bugs spawned by radiation or science gone bonkers was all the rage in the 1950’s. After the surprise hit Them! in 1954, about a colony of ants mutated into giants by residual radiation from atomic bomb tests, it seems about every creepy crawly that ever sent a shiver down anyone’s spine suddenly found itself super sized faster than an order of fries from Mickey D’s. Since spiders cause instant heart failure in more than one person (myself included) they were a natural choice for such treatment. In this film from Universal studios, the tarantula in question escapes from a desert lab where scientist Leo G. Carroll has been conducting experiments with a growth serum, hoping to increase the world’s food supply. Quite typically, such altruistic intentions go hideously awry and before you know it there is a stadium-sized spider roaming the hills, roaring like a lion and stripping the flesh from everything it comes across – horses, cattle, farmers and poor homeless bums. Its up to country doctor John Agar and the plucky new assistant to Carroll’s scientist, played by Mara Corday, to solve the mystery and warn others before the spider gets too big for even widescreen to contain. For it’s day, the special FX used to make an ordinary tarantula appear so big was actually pretty damn good, and blows away just about anything that came along in later decades, including cars masquerading as spiders and the ubiquitous use of CGI that has taken a strangle hold of Hollywood in more modern times. Sometimes simple is better and there is no point in fixing what ain’t broke.

Earth vs. the Spider (1958) Inevitably the success of the big studio, decently budgeted films centering on giant bugs spawned a wave of cheap imitators hoping to cash in on the trend. Enter Bert I. Gordon, cheapie movie-maker extraordinaire with an obsession for films about anything gigantic – King Dinosaur (1955), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Village of the Giants (1967) just to name a few. After having already unleashed a swarm of huge grasshoppers on the city of Chicago in Beginning of the End (1957), Gordon decided it was high time that the silver screen was presented with another giant spider to menace people. The people in this case were a group of teenagers played by 30 year olds, hoping to attract the lucrative youth market for which nearly every film put out by American International Pictures was aiming. The spider in this instance was just your run of the mill average giant spider, with no real explanation given as to why it was so damn big. Indeed, there was no explanation forthcoming as to why it sounded like a hoarse drunk after an all night drinking binge, either. This spider called a large cavern system it’s home (one of the most naturally bright caves ever seen on film if the movie is to be believed) and popped out on occasion to snag a snack from a nearby roadway. After some people go missing, its up to those 30 year old teens to solve the case and in short order the spider has been gassed, presumed dead and dumped in the high school gym for safe keeping. Alas, giant spiders hate rock and roll, so when the local band uses the same gym to practice…all hell breaks loose as the spider gets up and decides to high tail it back to it’s cave, opting to take the scenic route through town. Cheap FX (the spider is partially transparent in many cases), loads of talking and an “electrifying” ending ensue.

The Giant Spider Invasion (1975) The film could have been more appropriately titled The Stupid Movie Invasion. What we get here is the most technobabble, pseudo-science explanation given for the big spiders that wind up menacing a Wisconsin community: a black hole has opened up and is spewing geodes toward earth. Geodes which by the way, each contain a normal sized tarantula. Naturally, those spiders are not going to stay small and eventually – after much talking, made-up scientific mumbo jumbo, sweaty characters doing sweaty things and a plot that moves about as fast as your bowels after consuming an entire block of cheese – a single giant spider emerges from the dirt to accomplish several things, which includes devouring the greasiest character in the film before instantly pooping out his bones, setting a giant web across a roadway to catch speeders…er…I mean cars, reaching through the windows of a house to fondle a semi naked chick (who knew giant spiders were pervs?) and crashing the local fair before two idiots who call themselves scientists use more made-up gibberish to close the black hole and end the threat (reverse polarity? Gee, I never would have thought of that). More ridiculous than anything else in this movie is the giant spider itself, which is played by a Volkswagen Beetle in a cheesy spider suit, complete with a pair of humongus white eyes that appear to be the biggest Ping-Pong balls ever constructed and eight legs that pump up and down as it rolls down the street, yet never seem to touch the ground. A definite step backwards for the cinematic giant spider.

Eight Legged Freaks (2002) It was just simply inevitable. Hollywood loves a trend, as it allows everybody to jump on a cash cow, even if its for a brief ride. After the resounding success of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), it seems damn near everyone in the film making industry collectively decided that the next “in” thing was to have computer generated imagery in their films…regardless of the quality of such work. CGI dinosaurs weren’t enough, even after a pair of sequels. Among the other critters that received CGI makeovers were ordinary animals (Jumanji 1995), sharks (Deep Blue Sea 1999) dragons (Reign of Fire 2002) and even the Big G himself (Godzilla 1998). So it really should not have come to anyone’s surprise when somebody got the grand notion to do CGI giant spiders. In Eight Legged Freaks we have a multitude of spiders that get exposed to some funky chemicals that are misplaced with the usual lack of concern that accompanies the handling of such dangerous compounds. Another small rural community in the dessert is soon besieged by a literal army of arachnids, which is made up of many different species of spiders – all of them deadly. A small group of survivors barricade themselves into a shopping mall in an attempt to escape the hordes of living dea…wait, wrong film…the hordes of huge creepy crawlies. Despite a high body count, the film is quite often played for laughs, with many of the spiders sporting high pitched, squeaky voices that enable them to emote their feelings. I suppose it’s better than a lion’s roar or a drunk hacking and spitting into a microphone. The CGI is done fairly well, but as is often the case in such films, the monsters brought to life by such methods, while looking fantastic, seem to be lacking that magical spark that makes them truly come alive and causes the hair on your neck to stand at attention.

So there you have it…a quick look at how giant spiders have evolved on the silver screen. One thing is for sure – no matter what method is employed to bring them to life, people will still find the idea of such critters to be very frightening. I have no doubt that in the future there will be giant spiders rampaging across people’s living rooms. Let’s just hope that in such a case, it is because holographic films are the norm and not because some scientist lost control of his experiment or a gateway to a spider world opened up in the skies over middle America. Reversing the polarity definitely won’t work if that happens.