August 6, 2020

“Welcome to my parlor,” said the spider to the sci-fly

Arachnophobia is an abnormal or pathological fear of spiders. I don’t happen to share that fear, but I understand it. Spiders, especially in magnified close-up, look positively unearthly. They don’t have faces, per se, they have way too many legs, and many are bristly and hairy and have wicked-looking fangs. They look like they’ve been engineered to grab and eat other living things in the most nightmarish way possible.

Public domain image, an impressive looking arachnid
"You look absolutely mahvelous dahling!"

I love weird things, so I’m more fascinated by spiders than afraid. I suppose this won’t reassure arachnophobes, but house spiders are great at pest control, consuming ticks, fruit flies and cockroach larvae.

Like most things in nature, if you leave it alone, it will leave you alone (and maybe work doubly hard at consuming the truly irritating household pests). Plus, the chances of accidentally being bitten by a honest-to-goodness venomous spider are vanishingly small.

Keep repeating: "spiders are our friends, spiders are our friends..."

Because of their size, “hairiness,” and menacing look, tarantulas have gotten a particularly bum rap in popular culture. There are some tarantula relatives in Central and South America and Australia that are more aggressive and highly venomous, but by and large tarantulas are shy creatures who bite only as a last resort, and even then may only deliver a “dry” bite absent any venom. Most venomous tarantula bites are very treatable -- you don’t want to get one, but they’re not usually life-threatening.

When I was a kid, tarantulas often popped up in movies and TV, and in every case the implication was that one bite meant instant death. Villains were always turning their pet tarantulas loose on people as they slept or on heroes chained up in some dank dungeon. These scenes were guaranteed to make people’s skin crawl, but it’s hard to think of a more inefficient way to kill a person.

A high point for tarantulas in the movies (or low point, from the tarantula’s perspective), may be the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, when one of the villain’s henchmen slips an evil-looking specimen into Bond’s bed. The poor creature, a pink-toed tarantula, gets the brush off and the heel of a slipper for its troubles, even though that particular spider has small fangs, is reluctant to bite, and is not dangerous to humans.

"The name is Antula... Terry Antula."

Whereas Dr. No’s eight-legged would-be assassin seems feeble in hindsight, vintage sci-fi doubled down on the misunderstood tarantula’s skin crawl factor and blew it up to fearsome proportions, to the point where venom was an afterthought -- these gigantic creatures could literally eat you alive. Some were space-age cousins hiding out in caves on the moon, and others were terrestrial, their gigantism the result of radiation or some other misbegotten experimentation. And one was an ordinary house spider dwelling in a basement, patiently waiting for some mysterious radioactive cloud to turn a human into bite-sized prey for him.

Here are clips of some of my favorite retro sci-fi arachnids. As always, this is a select list. If I’ve overlooked any of your favorites, please share in the comments!

The astronauts of a pioneering moon mission discover a cave on the dark side of the moon with breathable air, but the cave also comes with not one but two (count ‘em!) giant, man-eating spiders!

Missile was a remake of Cat-Women (both distributed by Astor Pictures). The giant moon spider in this one makes his appearance much later in the movie, but the thing’s comically bulging eyes and huge, elongated mouth make it worth the wait.

Okay, so this is more of a rat-bat-spider hybrid, but I love how the astronauts at first mistake the creature for an odd-looking Martian tree. See also an earlier blog post with details about how Rat-Batty was brought to life by the effects artists.

Earth vs. the Spider (aka The Spider, 1958)

In a nod to The Blob, teenagers alert a rural town to the threat of a monster -- in this case, a giant mutant spider. Check out the monster spider’s web, which looks more like a net used in a circus high-wire act.

Tarantula (1955)

The King of ‘50s sci-fi monster spiders! This is one of the more effective scenes, set at night, with the added suspense of the horses sensing danger. At first the monster is only seen in silhouette, then it advances menacingly on the stable.

"Hey, go find your own sewing project!"

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