Cinema Arachnida: Of Spiders and Men

TARANTULA 1955: Spiders in the moviesBy now one cannot help be aware that The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the latest entry in the rebooted Marvel Comics film franchise, is currently playing in theaters and doing good–if not “amazing”–business at the box office. The five Spidey films released by Columbia/Sony since 2002 have taken in over $1.47 billion in just the U.S., though, so I doubt that studio heads are complaining much (so much for Stan Lee’s publisher telling him back in 1962 that readers wouldn’t be interested in a “bug”-themed superhero).

Yes, moviegoers everywhere love watching a crimefighter that “does whatever a spider can”…but what about the depictions of spiders themselves? They may be handy in the real world for eating flies and mosquitoes and providing us with their own type of silk, but arachnids have tended to be unfairly stigmatized as antagonists and, with few exceptions, are rarely portrayed as sympathetic characters in motion pictures. And when Hollywood finds a way to turn the little guys into over-sized monsters, you can be sure few if any will be rooting for the spider. The following is a nostalgic and by no means encyclopedic look at the cinematic heritage of those talented, plucky, and often very hungry arthropods:

Dracula (1931) — After passing through–and not disturbing!–the many webs covering his castle’s stairway, Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) pauses and waits for his “guest” Renfield (Dwight Frye) to hack his way through them, sending a not-particularly realistic-looking spider scurrying for cover. “The spider, spinning his web for the unwary fly. The blood is the life, Mr. Renfield,” says the Count. Renfield takes this advice to heart, because it’s not long before he’s a maniacally giggling asylum inmate looking for “nice fat spiders” to chow down on.

KING KONG 1933: Spiders in the moviesKing Kong (1933) — One of Hollywood’s first depictions of man versus spider, sadly, no longer seems to exist. In the Skull Island scene when an angry Kong shakes the sailors following him off of a log and down into a ravine, effects creator Willis O’Brien crafted a sequence where giant spiders would come out of the ground and devour the unlucky seamen. Cut before the film’s general release because it was felt that it slowed down the pace of the action (and, perhaps, because it made preview audiences squeamish), the “spider pit” footage has yet to resurface, although the photo on the right was published in an issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Later, 2006 remake director Peter Jackson managed to re-create the scene for inclusion on the original Kong’s DVD release as a bonus feature.

The Thief of Bagdad (1940) — In the Korda Brothers’ colorful revamping of the silent Douglas Fairbanks fantasy, title purloiner Sabu sneaks into a temple atop the highest mountain in the world to steal a fabled jewel. the All-Seeing Eye, from a statue. Guarding the premises is what a MovieFanFare guest reviewer’s article charitably described as “one of the worst giant spiders ever dangled from a wire and shaken around a bit.” It’s still an effective scene, though, particularly with the octopi-filled pool sitting below a web-trapped Sabu.

SPIDER WOMAN (1944): Spiders in the moviesThe Spider Woman (1944) — Very loosely based on the Arthur Conan Doyle stories “The Sign of Four” and “The Speckled band,”  this whodunit from Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series featured the detective (Basil Rathbone) and Dr. Watson (Nigel Burke) on the trail of a cunning murderess (Gale Sondergaard) who swindles wealthy men out of their life insurance policies and then uses her deadly “pets” to do away with them. The studio must have liked Sondergaard’s performance, because it brought her back to play another arachnid-happy antagonist in an unrelated follow-up thriller, The Spider Woman Strikes Back, two years later.

Tarantula (1955) — “They don’t want the classic horror films anymore,” Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi tells Ed (Johnny Depp) in 1994’s Ed Wood. “Today it’s all giant bugs. Giant spiders, giant grasshoppers…who would believe such nonsense”? Well, plenty of folks believed–or at least saw–this Universal sci-fi thriller which found scientist Leo G. Carroll’s growth experiments on animals resulting in the creation of a gargantuan spider that preys on a small Southwest desert town. Good thing an Air Force jet squadron–led by a young Clint Eastwood, no less–was there to napalm the beast into so much tarantula goulash.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) — One of the most fondly remembered science-fiction films of the ’50s, this genre landmark showed how radiation and chemicals mixed to steadily diminish title everyman Scott Carey (Grant Williams). Trapped in his own home’s basement at just a few inches tall, Carey uses a straight pin to–like a Roman gladiator battling a lion– fight a ravenous spider in order to get at a few crumbs of cake on a window sill.

Earth vs. the Spider (1958) — Cashing in on the earlier success of Tarantula, American-International Pictures and producer Bert I. Gordon swapped out hot-rodding teens for that film’s scientist leads with this story of yet another elephant-sized web-spinner. Thinking they’ve killed the spider with massive amounts of DDT (!), authorities move it from its cavern home to the local high school gym, where–wouldn’t you know?–it’s revived by rock and roll music played by some students.

The Fly (1958): A look at spider in moviesThe Fly (1958) — Remember why human-headed fly-man hybrid David Hedison was screaming “Help me! Help me!” in this shock classic? Because he was trapped in a spider’s web and about to be turned into dinner, until Hedison’s brother (Vincent Price) and a police inspector (Herbert Marshall) step in and do the merciful thing. Looking back on the film years later, Price said that this dramatic scene needed multiple takes to complete because, whenever he and Marshall would see the tiny animatronic figure stuck in the web, they couldn’t contain their laughter.

Dr. No (1962) — One of the very first on-screen “death traps” faced by iconic British spy James Bond featured a (normal-sized, thank you) tarantula left in 007’s Jamaica bungalow. When Bond (Sean Connery) wakes up in bed to find the critter crawling up his arm, he calmly waits until it moves onto a pillow before dispatching it with his slipper. Now, most tarantula bites are not fatal, so it wasn’t a particularly deadly death trap, but if was a suspenseful sequence nonetheless.     

Son of Godzilla (1967) — Kumonga (known to American audiences as Spiga or Speiga) is a giant spider who battles Godzilla and his relatively pint-sized progeny Minilla in this eighth film in the original Japanese series. A bad guy here (and seemingly destroyed), Kumonga turned up hale and hearty on Monster Island and helped defend the planet from alien invaders in 1968’s Destroy All Monsters.

CHARLOTTE'S WEB 1973Charlotte’s Web (1973) — See, not all movie spiders are bad guys…or guys, for that matter. Debbie Reynolds supplied the voice of the barn-dwelling Charlotte, who uses her web-spinning prowess to save Wilbur the pig from winding up on the farmer’s dinner table, in Hanna-Barbera’s cartoon adaptation of the E.B.White book. Julia Roberts voiced Charlotte in the 2006 animation/live-action remake.  

The Giant Spider Invasion (1975) — When is a beetle a spider? When it’s a Volkswagen that the industrious crew of this low-budget, made-in-Wisconsin shocker dressed up with artifical legs and black fur (the car’s taillights served as the creature’s red eyes) and drove in reverse to serve as the title alien invader (along with a few dog-sized puppet spiders and some regular-sized comrades).

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) — No, the hairy, weird-looking menace in this “B” thriller wasn’t star William Shatner’s toupée! It was a horde of tarantulas that descends on an Arizona town and starts turning it into their own two-legged buffet. The plot borrows heavily from 1975’s Jaws and has been called by some an “inspiration” for producer Steven Spielberg’s Arachnophobia (see below).

THING, THE 1982: A look at spider in moviesThe Thing (1982) — It’s not technically an arthropod, but how you can ignore the extraterrestrial ’80s monster movie fave featured on the right?

ARACHNOPHOBIA: A look at spider in moviesArachnophobia (1990) — The “deadly breed of Latin America spider makes it to America and goes nuts” type of story that served as fodder for such made-for-TV films as Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo was played for both scares and laughs in this Jeff Daniels/John Goodman “thrill-omedy” from Disney’s Hollywood Pictures division. A previously unknown–and lethal–variety of arachnid travels from the Venezuelan rain forest to a small California community and breeds with the local spiders to create some very dangerous offspring.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) — Having left their small-town home from the original film for New York, stars Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates are plagued by a new army of the malevolent creatures, including one that ingests arachnid serum in Christopher Lee’s genetics lab and is transformed into a gremlin-spider hybrid. Good thing Gizmo the Mogwai is able to channel his inner Rambo and save the day.

Eight Legged Freaks (2002) — A chemical spill turns ordinary spiders into truck-sized predators that take up residence in a small town (in Arizona, again) in this “big bug romp” that, like Arachnophobia, plays down the horror and plays up the comedy…or, at least, that was the plan. David Arquette and a young Scarlett Johansson (who, ironically, would gain fame a decade later for playing a character named Black Widow) starred.

HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBERRETURN OF THE KINGHarry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)/Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) — What are the odds that two long-running fantasy film franchises, both based on a series of popular British books, would each have entries come out a year or so apart in which the protagonists must battle evil giant spiders? In Chamber of Secrets, Harry and pal Ron Weasley enter the Forbidden Forest near Hogwarts and come face to fangs with Aragog and his fellow “acromantulas” (“Spiders the size of carthorses, eight-eyed, eight-legged, black, hairy, gigantic,” the novel helpfully explains). And when their way to Mt. Doom is blocked by the man-eating Great Spider Shelob in Return of the King, Frodo and Sam need all their courage–and the Elven blade Sitng–to escape with their lives. J.R.R. Tolkien seemed to like using spiders as foes, since they also turn up, regular- and giant economy-sized, in the first two Hobbit films.

Big Ass Spider! (2013)–‘Nuff said!

Did we miss your favorite eight-legged film friend? Spin us a line about your top spider movie moment in the comments below!