Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Giant Spider Invasion of 1975

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. The title is not meant to suggest I think these films are bad in the least.  Remember - ART IS ART!

Trailers still play on television.  I recall earlier in the Summer seeing a trailer for the reboot of The Mummy...and feeling entirely justified in realizing this big budget, digital abortion was entirely worth missing.  However, the trailers you'll generally see on TV these days are exclusively for the big budget "blockbusters" that Hollywood is convinced the United States wants despite tepid domestic box office.

But, two generations ago you might catch a trailer for some smaller budget fare.  This is evidenced by a number of the special edition DVDs and Blu-rays out there which often include television and radio spots for films. What changed you ask? (OK...I'm assuming you asked).  Well, film distribution, at least of smaller, mostly genre based films was much different decades ago.  Films were distributed by region - sometimes by the same distributor or sometimes by a company that was responsible for a single region (like St. Louis to Memphis for instance).  The upside of this was a film could save money for advertising by not having a 1000 copies of the print made.  For a regional release a film might only need 50 prints. Of course, that changed pretty quickly, only five years after the release of The Giant Spider Invasion, Paramount Pictures picked up the distribution rights for Friday the 13th and at one point it was on 1,100 screens (in the years before the multiplex was a regular fixture).

In October of 1975 I was staying up way too late with my Dad (which was pretty much what I did - I don't recall sleeping a great deal as a child...I've been making up for that for the last couple of years). I don't remember what we were watching, but, I do recall when the trailer for The Giant Spider Invasion appeared on the television.  He and I were both pretty stoked...I mean it had our two favorite things - 1. Giant Spiders and 2. Invasions.  At the end of the commercial the announcer said "starting Friday at a Drive-in or theater near you!"  I assumed it would open at the good old Star-Vue drive-in but was surprised when my Dad checked the paper and found it was playing at the Rialto - the same place I would see Friday the 13th five years later.

Because I watched way too much television with my Dad, I noticed the film had both of my favorite Hales starring in it.  Alan Hale (who was Alan Hale Jr. until his Dad passed) best known for playing The Skipper on Gilligan's Island (my Dad wrote a script for Gilligan's Island that the studio was interested in but, the show got canceled...) and Barbara Hale, better known as Della Street on Perry Mason.  So, with a pedigree like that the film couldn't fail.

Directed by Bill Rebane, this is actually the 2nd Rebane picture I've written about.  The first was a short essay on a film that was a bit hard to defend called Monster A-go-go.  The screenplay for The Giant Spider Invasion was written by Richard L. Huff and Robert Easton.  Easton also stars in the film as Kester and he wrote some of the best lines for himself.  For instance, there is a revival in town during the film and Kester uses this as an excuse to sneak out on the wife and enjoy the womanly ways of a local waitress.  When he returns home, just before we are treated to the arrival of the spiders indicated in the title, Kester and his wife Ev have the following classic exchange.

Ev: "I'm sorry I missed the sermon. What was it about?"
Kester: "Sin."
Ev: "What did the minister say about it?"
Kester: "He was against it." 

Giant spiders aside, the film hit a nerve for me because of the characters in the film.  My grandparents had a farm in Southern Illinois and I'd spend a great deal of time there when I was a kid and I realized the people in the film were spot on representations of the people I'd met in a small town called Elkville (which had no elk to the best of my knowledge) and may explain my general disdain for Southern Illinois to this day.

In addition to the local residents is the Revival Preacher featured in this picture - his fire and brimstone sermons punctuate some of the events of the film.  It is a trope that has been used in other films as well but, its done nicely in this picture too.  Watching this show even now reminds me of the times I got dragged to church with my grandparents and had to suffer through the endless "Altar Calls" because, you know, salvation of your soul should be based entirely on the psychological warfare which is the mid-west Altar call. 

Over the years I've probably seen this film 20 times, and some of the most shocking moments have nothing to do with the spiders.  For instance, Dr. Vance (Steve Brodie) can't wrap his head around the fact that Dr. Langer (Barbara Hale) is a woman (when he meets her for the first time he asks for her father, husband and brother before she finally explains to him that she is the Dr. Langer he is looking for).  I grew up with hippies (for some better and some worse - growing up with small town hippies was good for stories but not stability) but certainly one thing I picked up from all the hippie vibes is that a woman could be whatever she wanted; hard to grasp there was a time when that actually had to be explained...and so this exchange is always a bit off putting (of course, I'm happy I find it disconcerting and not funny - as I suspect it must have been meant to be).  There are a couple of other instances in the film of the same kind of behavior.  I don't fault the film however.  Film is a reflection of a time...good and bad. If we write off motion pictures, music, television.....history because we don't like something that is represented then we might as well just become a hive mind.

Although as a kid I thought the special effects were amazing, the budget of the picture shows now obviously.  Nevertheless, there are some truly effective moments in this film despite the small budget.  The first death caused by the huge spider is still creepy, I always respect the hell out of a picture that can overcome constraints and deliver the goods.  Of course, the exceptional cast is also responsible.

And I'll address the elephant in the room - I understand there have been legal issues regarding this film and some bad blood between various people and Bill Rebane.  Let me just say, I own, and have rewatched a number of times, the Retromedia Entertainment version of this picture - the company founded by Fred Olen Ray.  And, you'll never find a negative word written by me about Fred Olen Ray...ever.  So, I believe that should clear that up.

As I mentioned, I watched the RME DVD with Son of Ghoul's intro, but, I believe this film is available on Amazon's Shudder streaming service as well.  Do yourself a favor, grab a Schlitz and enjoy 1975 all over again.

Miss you Pops

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