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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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 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
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,
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?