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Kumonga's Western Antecedents

by Michael Bogue

(Slightly revised version of an article that originally appeared in G-FAN #54: Jan./Feb. 2002 Issue)





Kumonga! Greatest of Toho’s towering arachnids! (Because it is, in fact, Toho’s only towering arachnid.)  But the silk-spewing, multi-legged kaiju was not the first super-spider to menace movie protagonists.  Long before Kumonga’s 1967 debut in Son of Godzilla, other enormous eight-orbed monstrosities stalked the silver screen – on the other side of the Pacific.

In the West, the Big Bug Movie became a staple of sci-fi cinema back in the 1950s.  Nastiest of the colossal creepy-crawlies may have been the oversized arachnid.  After all, there’s something distinctly unsettling about spiders – their alien scuttlings, their multiple legs, their unsavory feeding habits.  And when you super-size one of the little beasties, how much more potent their innate creepiness becomes.

Of course, Western movies had already depicted giant spiders prior to the fifties.  For example, Sabu battles a huge, amazingly well-articulated puppet spider in 1940’s Thief of Baghdad.  A less believable giant spider appears in 1943’s Tarzan’s Desert Mystery.  And a monstrous stop-motion arachnid was filmed for but ultimately edited from 1933’s King Kong (the “censored” spider pit scene).  Still, prior to the 1950s, spiders never grew to the size of greyhound busses and such.

Even during the fifties, most giant spiders remained car-sized or smaller.  Bear witness to the unconvincing “tiger spider” of the otherwise well-made World Without End (1956), a prop that later appeared in the sci-fi spoof Queen of Outer Space (1958).  Or the lunar spiders of Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) and the spider marionette that appeared in Missile to the Moon (1958).  Or the stop-motion spider than convincingly chases a boy across the floor of an underground cavern in The Black Scorpion (1957).  

(Some might also include the frightening arachnid that menaces Scott Carey [Grant Williams] in 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man.  But technically, the spider wasn’t giant – rather, it was Carey having grown so small that made the normal-sized spider appear to be as large as a Volkswagen Beetle.)

Larger arachnids than these also crept across American theatre screens in the 1950s, albeit usually fleetingly.  Killers from Space (1954) includes a titanic spider – along with a number of other enormous bugs – in a rear-screen projected sequence; a house-sized arachnid momentarily appears in The Cyclops (1957); and The Three Stooges spoof Have Rocket Will Travel (1959) briefly spotlights a giant, flame-throwing spider on the planet Venus.

But two American films of the fifties, Tarantula (1955) and Earth vs. the Spider (1958), featured gigantic arachnid monstrosities as the chief menace. The spider stars of these two low-budget thrillers clearly anticipate Kumonga in size and creepiness, though neither is quite as big. 




TARANTULA

Radiation may have enlarged the marauding ants of 1954’s Them!, but it was bountiful box office receipts that enlarged the coffers of releasing studio Warner Brothers.  Warner’s success with Them! inspired Universal-International to produce Tarantula the following year.  The movie keeps Them!’s “radiation-creates-giant-monsters” theme, but gives it a slightly different angle.

Kindly scientist Dr. Deemer (Leo G.Carroll) spends his time at his isolated desert laboratory developing a new food nutrient.  Intended to produce an abundant food supply for the world’s ever-growing population, the radioactive nutrient has the side effect of turning Deemer’s lab animals giant and giving human beings the disease acromegaly.

Dying from acromegaly, one of Deemer’s lab assistants injects the well-meaning scientist with the fatal nutrient.  While Deemer and the lab assistant struggle, the laboratory’s overgrown tarantula (about five feet across at this point) escapes into the desert.

Deemer continues his work with a new assistant, Steve (Mara Corday), unaware that the escaped tarantula is literally terrorizing the countryside, growing larger the more it eats.  Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar) becomes involved with Steve and eventually realizes a giant spider is indeed loose in the Southwest desert.

When the now mountainous tarantula attacks Dr. Deemer’s secluded mansion, the scientist is killed.  Matt and the local police try to blow up the enormous spider with dynamite, but the explosion has little if any effect on

the advancing arachnid.  The monster is now inexorably creeping towards the small town of Desert Rock.  Fortunately, Air Force jets (commanded by Clint Eastwood) arrive in the nick of time, frying the giant spider with blasts of napalm.  Quickly consumed by flames, the arachnid perishes – much to the relief of Matt, Steve, and the other townspeople.

Tarantula was directed by acclaimed fifties sci-fi movie director Jack Arnold.  Arnold was responsible for most of Universal’s best SFantasy movies during the decade of Elvis and car hops, his notable roster including It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge of the Creature (1955), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and Monster on the Campus (1958).  Arnold specialized in making the most of bleak or alien landscapes, and this talent shows itself during many of Tarantula’s desert sequences.

For the most part, one or more real tarantulas were used for Tarantula’s onscreen realization.  Considering the movie’s strapped budget, Clifford Stine’s special effects are quite good.  The gargantuan spider often casts a shadow beneath its ebony bulk, adding to the realism.  Probably the best sequence shows the tarantula poised for an attack atop a hill while a corral of understandably upset horses panic below.  The arachnid then moves in for the kill, creating audience animosity towards the pitiless predator.  Another good scene has the gigantic spider chase down two unfortunate prospectors.

A model spider was built for Tarantula, but the film uses it only sparingly.  A famous publicity still for the movie makes this less-than-convincing construction appear to be literally floating through the clouds!  Tarantula also employs a full-size prop of one of the spider’s fangs, used during the destruction of Dr. Deemer’s house.

G-FAN readers over forty will no doubt recognize two of Tarantula’s leads – John Agar (Matt) and Leo G. Carroll (Dr. Deemer).  Agar appeared in a number of sci-fi films during the fifties and sixties.  His credits include Revenge of the Creature (1955), The Mole People (1956), The Brain from Planet Arous (1958), Invisible Invaders (1959), Journey to the Seventh Planet (1961), and Hand of Death (1962).

Leo G. Carroll, who invests the role of Dr. Deemer with grandfatherly sincerity, was one of Hollywood’s best character actors.  Carroll is probably best remembered as Ingrid Bergman’s mentor in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) and as Robert Vaughn’s superior in TV’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68).

For giant monster fans, the only real letdown in Tarantula is the featured star’s failure to wreck any towns.  The original poster art shows   the super-spider demolishing buildings galore as terrified humans flee in panic – but alas, no such destructive havoc occurs in the actual film.  (When I first saw this movie over thirty years ago, I was at least hoping the gargantuan arachnid would flatten the small desert hamlet of Desert Rock before its inevitable demise.  I was, of course, disappointed.)

Though its low budget keeps it from being as spectacular as it might have been otherwise, Tarantula is still a top-notch, old-fashioned “monster movie” in the best sense of the term.  Some scenes have you yelling at the characters, “Get out of there, now!  Run!  Run!”  This audience participation makes the movie a fun experience, one suitable for all but the youngest members of the family.




EARTH VS. THE SPIDER (aka THE SPIDER)

American-International Pictures (AIP) was a studio that always made the most of low-budget exploitation trends.  AIP is largely credited with creating the “teen flick” in the fifties, and in 1958 the studio jumped on the Big Bug bandwagon with its release of Earth vs. the Spider (or, as the ad art called it, simply The Spider).  Despite the grandiose title, the featured arachnid doesn’t engage the world, but instead menaces a small, sleepy, isolated town, the kind that frequently appears in fifties sci-fi/horror movies.

When a teenage girl’s father fails to show up in town, his daughter Carol (June Kenny) and Carol’s boy friend Mike (Gene Persson) go out of town to investigate.  The two teens find the abandoned truck of Carol’s father near a cave.  Mike and Carol decide to search the cave, only to discover a gigantic, shrieking spider waiting for them inside.

Rushing back to town, the teenagers enlist the aid of high school science teacher Mr. Kingman (Ed Keemer), and soon Kingman, the two teens, the local law officials, and a couple of exterminators explore the cave.  Carol screams when the group discovers the mummified remains of her father, and soon the not-so-merry band happen upon the giant spider, which incessantly shrieks as before.  One of the exterminators sprays the aggressive arachnid with DDT, causing the spider to go belly up.

Assuming the spider is dead (a pretty big assumption), Kingman has the mammoth monster transported out of the cave and moved into the high school gymnasium.  (This is not shown, but only explained – sort of – in dialogue.)  Soon, a teenage rock group practicing in the gym awakens the slumbering spider.  The cranky arachnid then goes on a (literal) tear of the town, wailing hoarsely all the while.

Meanwhile, Mike and Carol have returned to the spider’s cave.  Carol had earlier lost a gift from her father there, and she is determined to find it.  But . . . the couple quickly find themselves lost.  Naturally, the super-spider chooses that time to return to the cave.  Confident town authorities proceed to dynamite the cave’s entrance shut.  Shortly, however, they realize Carol and Mike are inside -- trapped with the king-sized spider.

The authorities dig a new hole into the cave.  Using the current from electrical power lines, Kingman conceives of a way to kill the spider.  He soon finds Mike and Carol cowering on a cavern ledge as the massive spider, now dangling from a giant strand of silk, moves towards them.  Kingman throws Mike one of the line’s electrodes, clutches the other one himself, yells for the juice to be turned on, and soon electrical current crackles through the hapless spider.  Fried, the giant arachnid plunges earthward, impaling itself on several stalagmites, apparently dead at last.

Earth vs. the Spider was one of producer-director Bert I. Gordon’s many fifties monster movies.  Called “Mr. Big” by his fans and inept by his critics, Gordon specialized in making low-budget films that featured massive menaces.  Depicting everything from gargantuan grasshoppers to giant radioactive men to voracious oversized rats, Gordon’s monstrous repertoire includes The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), The Cyclops (1957), Beginning of the End (1957), War of the Colossal Beast (1958), The Magic Sword (1962), Village of the Giants (1965), The Food of the Gods (1976), and Empire of the Ants (1977).

Like Tarantula, Earth vs. the Spider rejected puppetry or stop-motion animation and used a real spider (or spiders) to depict the title star.  Gordon certainly puts the South American “bird spider” through its paces, and one can only assume the SPCA was not present when the unfortunate arachnid was doused with insecticide.  One full-size prop, that of  one of the spider’s legs, is used in a few scenes.

Though reviewers frequently revile Gordon’s special effects, his tricks work in Earth vs. the Spider is, for the most part, pretty decent.  The main  problem is the spider’s variable size – sometimes, it appears taller than a three-story building; at other times, it seems only twenty feet or so across.

However, the movie’s sparse split-screens and superimpositions are generally okay. But the spider’s cave web?  None too convincing.  It looks like cords of straight rope instead of oversized strands of silk.

Amusingly, the science teacher calls the monster arachnid an “insect” throughout.  No explanation is given for how the giant spider came into being, which is somewhat refreshing for a fifties monster movie -- for once, radiation is not the culprit.  However, why the colossal arachnid suddenly appears and starts gobbling people up seems of little concern to anyone except the science teacher.

Of course, Earth vs. the Spider is the kind of movie whose logic doesn’t bear up under scrutiny.  For instance, after being stunned by DDT, how was the spider pulled from the cave?  And how on earth did they get it into the high school gymnasium?  It’s obviously too big to fit through any door.  Another brain-baffler: when the sheriff finds out the long-distance lines are down, why doesn’t anyone suggest using a radio to get outside help?

Unlike Tarantula, the super-arachnid in Earth vs. the Spider does get to wreak havoc, albeit only in a small town.  Unfortunately, the budget doesn’t allow for any scenes that show the immense bird spider toppling buildings or crushing cars.  Instead, we only see the destructive spider’s aftermath, which focuses more on horror than spectacle.

Plenty of critics heap on the pejoratives when it comes to Earth vs. the Spider.  But if you can watch the movie in the spirit of a monster-loving  ten-year-old, it makes for a pretty enjoyable 73 minutes of Grade-B (Grade-C?) entertainment.




KUMONGA’S COUSINS

Kumonga’s Western predecessors share several traits with their kaiju cousin.  For one thing, they’re big.  For another, they’re hairy.  Three, they’re ugly.  And four, they enjoy stalking terrified humans.

Another less obvious trait Kumonga’s Western cousins share with the Toho super-spider is being part of a distinctive monster movie milieu.

Kumonga resides within the colorful Toho monster-verse of the fifties and sixties.  As all G-fans know, this Japanese creature feature alternate reality embodies a distinctive look, feel, and tone all its own.  But this is also true for Tarantula and Earth vs. the Spider.

The creature stars of the latter two films clearly dwell within the Western monster-verse of the 1950s American Monster Movie.  Unlike the Toho SFantasies of the fifties and sixties, few American Monster Movies of the 1950s share a joint reality.  But many do share a number of similarities in characters (the scientist hero, the military hero, the teenage couple); setting (the small town for low-budget sci-fiers, the city for larger-budgeted offerings); atmosphere (often black-and-white film, diffuse lighting, and creepy theremin-ish music); plot (usually ritualistic, the danger building in waves as the characters acknowledge its reality); and menace (radiation-enlarged or created creatures of all kinds, prehistoric monsters, hostile aliens).

It’s easy to imagine Them! (1954), The Black Scorpion (1957), The Deadly Mantis (1957), Beginning of the End (1957), and Monster from Green Hell (1958) co-existing in the same world as the arachnid giants of Tarantula and Earth vs. the Spider.  We all know about Godzilla’s many creature clashes in Toholand, and imagine the monster wars a collective Western “Big Bug-verse” might have witnessed – the giant ants of Them! confronting the oversized locusts of Beginning of the End; the horde of monster scorpions from The Black Scorpion tackling Monster from Green Hell’s colossal land-locked wasps; and, of course, Tarantula squaring off against The Deadly Mantis.

As for the means of depicting giant bugs, Japanese monster epics differ considerably from their Western counterparts.  Toho eschewed the real-life spider approach used in Tarantula and Earth vs. the Spider for its own giant arachnid.  Given life by an army of Toho puppeteers, Kumonga is played by a well-articulated marionette in both Son of Godzilla and Destroy All Monsters (1968). (The super-spider’s 1969 Godzilla’s Revenge appearance is stock footage from Son of Godzilla).  Just as in Tarantula and Earth vs. the Spider, Kumonga in Son of Godzilla is partially realized by a full-size prop – the claw end of one of its legs.

Fans of Kumonga will want to give Tarantula and Earth vs. the Spider a look.  True, these two black-and-white 1950s movies don’t much resemble Kumonga’s colorful 1960s kaiju environment.  But the films’ two American arachnid stars do share the same “monster-on-the-loose” spirit as their Japanese counterpart.  And what could be more kumongous than that?



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