June 18, 2011

Evil in a Sequined Evening Gown

The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946)

First, let's talk about truth in advertising. The title sure makes this film sound like a sequel, and an interesting one at that-- who is this mysterious Spider Woman? Who is she striking back at, and why? Any amateur IMDb sleuth would quickly discover that The Spider Woman played by Gale Sondergaard tangled with Universal's Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) just a couple years before, but to paraphrase the great detective, "it's not so elementary my dear Watson."

Truth is, Universal had planned to cash in on the earlier film's reputation with a whole series to be helmed by Ford Beebe and featuring the deliciously evil character.  But studio politics and/or financial concerns scuttled the project, with the exception of Strikes Back. Universal obviously wanted to recoup some of the money they'd sunk into the ostensible sequel, but delayed shooting for several months while they scaled it back. 

Further evidence of the studio's lack of faith in the film can be seen in the IMDb entry, where half the credited cast are noted as having "scenes deleted." It seems to have been downsized both before and after cameras started rolling. It's a wonder it survived at all-- the end product clocks in at 59 minutes, short by even B programmer standards. What the poor misled moviegoers did get for their hard-earned money was a spider woman of sorts played by the same great Sondergaard, but Holmes and Watson were nowhere in sight.

In spite of the faux Sherlock Holmes association thrust on it, The Spider Woman Strikes Back is a decent, if low rent, horror-thriller programmer with one rich, ripe performance (Sondergaard), a plucky heroine-in-peril (Brenda Joyce), and "Brute Man" Rondo Hatton skulking around for good measure. Given the studio's careless handling, Strikes Back has its flaws-- it drags in places (even in a 59 minute running time!), and there are more than a few continuity lapses and plot holes due to the hack edit job. But it has a couple of scenes of jaw-dropping, gothic campiness that make for a very good time if you're in the mood.

It all begins with chic Jean Kingsley (Joyce), arriving by bus in the small rural community of Domingo. It seems she's come to town to be a companion/assistant to wealthy recluse Zenobia Dollard (Sondergaard), a botanist who lost her sight in the jungles of Central America. Inexplicably dressed in an expensive fur coat (later we find out she quit her merchandising job for more peace and quiet), she discovers that she's missed the last taxi for the evening. By coincidence, she runs into ex-boyfriend and rancher Hal Wentley (Kirby Grant), who is more than happy to drive her out to Zenobia's. Jean is grateful, but a little peeved-- she obviously doesn't have room for old beaus in her new life.

Jean wonders what she's gotten herself into.
As they drive up to the house, Jean remarks on how dark and quiet it is. Hal reminds her that Zenobia is blind, so she doesn't need the light. Jean gets a second bad feeling when they're greeted at the door by Zenobia's mute, dour, and world-class ugly manservant Mario (Hatton). The doubts seem to be dispelled, however, when the mistress of the house greets Jean in the parlor. Even though she tells Jean she wasn't expecting her until morning, nonetheless Zenobia is dressed in an elegant, formal evening gown. "I do hope you like me and will be happy here Miss Kingsley," she says, smiling sweetly. When Jean declines her offer of dinner, Zenobia insists that she at least drink a glass of milk. Zenobia is a very firm believer in a glass of milk before bed -- a little too firm -- but Jean brushes off the eccentricity and dutifully drinks it.

It turns out that in this house, milk before bedtime is not such a good idea. At first, Jean is captivated by the elegant, worldly woman with her stories of adventure and exploration in the wilds of Central America. And as she interacts more with the locals, everyone she talks to (including rancher Hal) have only the nicest things to say about her kindness and generosity. But gradually, Jean's suspicions build again. For all her kindness, Zenobia seems to have had bad luck in keeping companions for very long. A letter for Jean's predecessor, who was supposed to have quit to get married, comes to the house. Jean writes back to the forwarding address, but that letter is returned. And in spite of all those wholesome glasses of milk before bed, she finds herself lethargic and unable to get up at a decent hour-- something that's never happened to her before. It doesn't help that she hears strange tapping sounds coming from behind the wall of her walk-in closet, or that every time she turns around in a long, dark hall, the frightful Mario seems to be following her.

Adding to the intrigue, she hears gossip at the local dry goods store / post office about the terrible luck that the local ranchers are having. Cattle are mysteriously dying, and a local boy is sick from drinking suspect milk. The problem is so bad that many cattlemen are packing up and leaving for greener pastures. Rancher Hal thinks the cows are eating some kind of poison weed new to the area, and calls in an agriculture agent (Milburn Stone) to help investigate.

"You're going to die Jean, just like the others..."
Meanwhile, back at the old dark house, Jean gets a shock when she quietly observes Zenobia concentrating on collecting spiders from the leaves of a plant, and realizes that her employer is not blind after all. Mario, seeing everything, tries to warn his mistress in sign language that she's been spotted. Jean faints (or pretends to faint), and the unflappable Zenobia feigns concern and fusses over Jean as she comes to. Jean's eyes are now wide open concerning her duplicitous employer. She soon learns that night after night, as she's lain in bed drugged, Zenobia has been draining her blood to feed to her prize carnivorous plant. The plant in turn supplies Zenobia with deadly blossoms that she's using to secretly poison the local cattle and drive the ranchers off the land once owned by her family.

More truth in advertising: moviegoers who expected to see large, venomous tarantulas crawling around, killing unfortunate victims in their sleep were no doubt disappointed. The "Spider Woman" here is more of a "Carnivorous Plant Woman," who needs spiders and human blood to keep her strange, precious pet happy. But when you're famous for being the Spider Woman, you go with it. Gale Sondergaard went with these exotic, villainous roles more than she cared to. Years later she told an interviewer:
They thought they would do a series starring me as the Spider Woman and it had nothing to do with the other one. Well, I almost had hysterics at one time out of just hating it so, I remember. It came out, and people still talk about it, think it's great. And I'm all right… I've seen it, and it isn't anything to be ashamed of, but I didn't like it when I did it. (Quoted in Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946, 2nd ed., Weaver, et al.)
Dahling, you look absolutely mahvelous!
Having won the very first best supporting actress Oscar for her debut performance in Anthony Adverse (1936), I suppose she can be forgiven the frustration she felt at the kinds of cartoonish roles she was getting ten years later. However, around the same time as The Spider Woman Strikes Back, she sufficiently impressed Hollywood and audiences with a supporting role in Anna and the King of Siam (1946) that she was nominated again (she lost to The Razor Edge's Anne Baxter).

Rondo Hatton (Mario the mute manservant) is a tragic story. Deciding to pursue a military career as a young man, he ended up in the trenches in France in World War I and was exposed to poison gas. Pensioned, but still needing to remain active, he became a reporter for a Tampa, Florida newspaper. During that time he developed the rare syndrome acromegaly, which causes deformation of bones, swelling of the soft tissues of the head, hands, and feet, and swelling of internal organs. (While acromegaly is a disorder of the pituitary gland, speculation was rampant that the poison gas was ultimately responsible for Hatton's condition.) Hatton, covering the shooting of a movie in the Tampa area, was noticed by director Henry King, and ended up being lured out to Hollywood in 1936.

He secured a contract with Universal, and earned notoriety for portraying a succession of bogeymen in cheap thrillers. Like Sondergaard, he has a Sherlock Holmes connection-- perhaps his best known role is that of "The Creeper" in Universal's 1944 Holmes entry The Pearl of Death. Hatton died of a heart condition brought on by the acromegaly a month or so before The Spider Woman Strikes Back was released. (Another story related in Universal Horrors is that during filming of Strikes Back, Sondergaard thought Hatton's looks were the product of the studio's make-up department!)

Strikes Back is worth seeking out if only for Sondergaard's deliciously evil hamming. Who can resist The Spider Woman, decked out in a slinky black evening gown, her eyebrows arched, declaring triumphantly to the cowering heroine: "You'll die Jean, just like the others. But it won't be really dying… you'll live on in this beautiful plant!…"?

The Spider Woman Strikes Back is available on DVD-R from Sinister Cinema (the print from 16mm is watchable, but degraded in spots).

Wealthy recluse Zenobia Dollard (Gale Sondergaard) and her mute manservant Mario (Rondo Hatton) feed the "beautiful creatures" in her basement laboratory: