A celebration of spiders in the movies

News Matt Compton 6 Dec 2011 - 13:53

Whether they’re bigger than a bus or smaller than your fist, spiders are commonly feared. Here’s Matt’s celebration of arachnids in the movies…

It is one of life's great mysteries, at least for me, that there aren't more films made about spiders. Preferably great big giant ones. They constantly top the lists of ‘most scary things ever’, and so, in an era of horror movie-making where directors turn to such unlikely quarters as pool cleaning robots and Teddy Ruxpin for our frights (Paranormal Activity 2 and 3 respectively), why are spiders not exploited more in the movies?

There are, of course, plenty of reasons why nobody (other than SyFy and The Asylum, who both seem to have an almost fetishistic fondness for all things spider and shark-related) is particularly interested in making these movies. The main reason being that generally, they're just not very good. There's not a great deal you can do with improbably enormous arachnids, other than have them lumber around deserts and small towns eating the occasional human victim.

Unfortunately, that storyline was pretty much exhausted back in the 50s. Every now and then, though, some arachnophile filmmaker gives us another webby gem to add to the not entirely glorious canon of spider-movies. Here are some of the best (I use the term 'best' extremely loosely) examples of spiders in the movies.

Arachnophobia (1990)

This is actually a genuinely good movie, and it's aged surprisingly well too. It may not have any traditionally giant spiders in it, but what its hairy stars lack in size they make up for with sheer numbers. 

The story concerns a new and deadly species of spider being accidentally transported from its Venezuelan habitat to that most favoured of horror movie locales, the small American town. It proceeds to mate with a local spider like a sailor on shore leave, and spawn hundreds of lethal and aggressive mutated arachnids (which is an awful lot less like a sailor on shore leave).

As the new strain of spiders begin showing up in town, we’re treated to countless wonderfully creepy set pieces, with spiders hiding in unexpected places like football helmets or popcorn bowls, just before some oblivious sucker puts their head/hand/whatever in. They menace small children, old ladies and grown men with equal gusto, tapping into all sorts of primal fears, and being all the more memorable for it.

The house invasion at the film’s climax is another fantastic set piece, with hundreds of the deadly critters swarming over the building and descending from the ceiling on webs, as its occupants desperately try to escape without being bitten. It’s made all the more effective by the knowledge that just one bite will mean almost immediate death.

Kingdom Of The Spiders (1977)

William Shatner versus thousands of tarantulas. I reckon that if you were to pitch this film even today it’d get the go ahead. And for bonus entertainment value, all of the spiders used during the shoot are real. Who could resist that?

Well, it turns out that quite a few people could, actually, and I guess that is one of the reasons I’m not a Hollywood movie producer. That aside, however, this movie is great fun. There are still no giant spiders to be seen, but there are plenty of pretty juicy specimens on offer. The real fun is in spotting when the reactions of the actor being covered in loads of arachnids the size of dinner plates is real and when it’s acted. There are some wonderful moments when you can clearly see the panic in the Shat’s face as he gets too close to his creepy co-stars. There’s even a few unmanly little yelps here and there to really seal the deal.

The film itself is pretty much your usual 70s sort of fare, with a slightly more unusual nihilistic and downbeat ending than you might expect. It’s definitely worth a watch, however, and it beats Michael Caine versus killer bees in the much more rubbish The Swarm hands down.

Tarantula (1955)

The granddaddy of all giant spider films, and a wonderful example of all that is beautiful and sublime about 50s sci-fi. This has it all – mad scientists, swooning women, desert locations, atomic science gone wrong and, of course, an absolutely massive tarantula or, as the poster so sensationally puts it, a “crawling terror 100ft high”.

The effects are surprisingly impressive for the time this was made (well, some of the time anyway), and easily surpass the lovable but distinctly dodgy attempts at bringing giant ants to life in the similarly themed Them! If mutated scientists and giant spiders aren’t enough to satisfy, it’s even got a very early, uncredited appearance from Clint Eastwood as a fighter pilot. What more could you want?

Webs (2003)

Despite being a purely trashy low-budget affair of the like that is most often seen on certain cable channels, Webs is rare among its ilk by virtue of being somewhat entertaining. Its basic concept concerns a device which opens gateways to parallel realities. This may be fairly standard sci-fi fare, but the way it’s used is neat and interesting enough to warrant a second look.

In addition, the everyman electrician characters who find the dimension gateway work much better than the usual scientist and soldier types. These guys don’t know how the machine works, and they’re not natural fighters, so their situation feels a lot more perilous. On top of this, the world they find themselves in is very nicely portrayed. It’s a parallel-universe version of a Chicago, but it’s deserted and covered in webs (you know, like in the movie’s title).

As our heroes wander this strange new land, they gradually discover that most of the population has been mutated into human-spider drones in service to an evil spider queen. There’s some shamelessly low-budget effects work here, but it’s hard to complain about, because it’s so enthusiastically done using practical models and prosthetics. It’s all absolute nonsense of the highest order, of course, but it sure is fun. 

Spookies (1986)

Surprisingly, it doesn’t work enormously well when two separate half-finished movies are joined together to make a new one. That might seem like a fairly obvious statement to most, but that didn’t stop the producers of the completely mental 80s schlock horror Spookies from doing just that.

Part of the film’s bizarrely disjointed narrative concerns a group of young(ish) people exploring an old mansion chock full of an impressive variety of different monsters. Most impressive among these is the lady who lives in the rather expansive basement with her pet spiders.

Despite initially looking like an attractive young woman, she soon shows her true nature by inflating her head into a huge pulsating carapace with a distended jaw full of enormous fangs and sprouting massive spider legs out of her sides. The best part about the scene is that it’s all created using gloriously gooey practical effects.

Sadly, we don’t get to see much of this particular spider-lady due to all the other beasties vying for space in the film (including an animated grim reaper statue, an electric demon and zombies buried in the wine cellar which fart uncontrollably as they attack). She is onscreen long enough to catch the most annoying character in the film in her gigantic web and suck his (suspiciously rubbery) head empty. Lovely.

The Mist (2007)

“There’s something in the mist!” yells an old man with a bloody nose as he scrambles into the supermarket for safety from the rapidly encroaching fog. He isn’t wrong, and as it turns out, there’s lots of somethings out there in the gloom.

Among the Lovecraftian beasts and behemoths that populate Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the Stephen King story are a bunch of possibly the nastiest spiders on this whole list. Not satisfied with making them the size of large dogs, King has equipped them with the ability to shoot a highly corrosive acidic web out of their body powerful enough to eat through flesh and bone in seconds.

Added to this is their unpleasant habit of using humans as breeding chambers for their hundreds of offspring. This shit makes John Hurt’s birthing process look positively serene by comparison, as swarms of baby demon spiders literally explode out of some poor schmuck’s body. To top it all off, they’ve got heads which look like grinning skulls. Maybe it’s just the 12-year-old kid inside me, but that’s simply awesome.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

One of the most iconic and enduring images in sci-fi cinema is that of Grant Williams, armed only with a slender iron spike, facing off against a monstrous spider. Of course, the spider is actually a normal-sized house spider and the iron spike is a needle – it is the man who is out of proportion here, not the beast.

Though the battle with the voracious spider is only a small part of the film, it is an absolutely fantastic climax to a brilliant story (written by Richard Matheson) and an outstanding example of early special effects work used perfectly to tell a story as well as supplying arresting imagery. Watching this on television is actually one of my earliest memories. This could quite conceivably explain a lot.

According to Wikipedia, there’s a remake in development starring Eddie Murphy. I think you can supply your own comments on that.

Other arachnids of note:

Eight-Legged Freaks – the movie that should have been Arac-Attack. Cool effects in places but hampered by a slightly lame story, squeaking spiders and not taking itself seriously enough. And David Arquette.

Ice Spiders – remember those 80s comedies set in ski resorts? Well, this is kind of like one of those but with much less nudity, virtually no ‘cool’ characters wearing shades, and no big fat party animal character.  Oh yeah, and loads of god-awful giant CGI spiders.  

Starship Troopers – absolutely brilliant sci-fi satire with loads of blood, boobs and big guns. Made even more fantastic by two things: Doogie Howser MD himself (Neil Patrick Harris) and massive spidery things with a clear talent for tearing countless faceless marines into small red chunks.

Spiders 2 – the sheer unashamed audacity of using footage of real spiders crawling over a toy boat interspersed with slightly dodgy CGI giant spiders on an actual boat mark this one out for greatness.

Arachnid – sort of like if Predator was a big alien spider instead of a dubiously-mouthed Rastafarian with a penchant for murder.

The Giant Spider Invasion – who would have thought that dressing up a Volkswagen Beetle as a spider could be so convincing? Well, nobody, because it’s a bloody stupid idea. Nobody except for the makers of this wonderfully crap movie, that is.

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