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[whitespace] 'Tarantula!' Run for It! The poster for 1955's 'Tarantula!' tells viewers everything they need to know.

Fangs for the Memories

Eight legs, hair all over, caustic venom--no wonder we love spider-attack movies

By Richard von Busack

Dedicated to John "Boris the Spider" Entwhistle.

The new horror spoof Eight Legged Freaks is, as those over 14 know, only the most recent in a long and distinguished line of spider-attack flicks. Spiders always stop a show. They're cheap to hire, and if they step out of line, you can step on them back. They have no pressure group, and will not complain if they are misrepresented onscreen.

Spiders make all-weather villains, as ready to devour Nazis (Tarzan tosses German soldiers to a giant spider in Tarzan's Desert Mystery) as they are to chomp on Woody Allen in Annie Hall, where the "major spider" attacks. "Whaddya want me to do, capture it and rehabilitate it?"

For some help rating and remembering giant-spider movies, we contacted Doktor Goulfinger, host of a late-night horror show on Berkeley's Community Media Channel 25 (www.Goulfinger.com). As far as Eight Legged Freaks goes, Goulfinger notes, "I'm not going to race out to see it, especially since the people who made it are involved in the Godzilla debacle and Independence Day. But maybe it'll turn out to be fun."

Rating Guide:
1 A frisson of fear, no more
2 Hand me the Raid
3 You're sleeping with the lights on

Cryptozoology of Cinematic Spiders

The Giant Cave Spider, a.k.a. "Shelob" (due to appear in one of the upcoming Lord of the Rings movies). A huge spider puppet makes an early appearance in the mind-roasting Hal Roach production The March of the Wooden Soldiers, along with midgets in pig masks, and an attack monkey in a zeppelin. The giant spider goes on to star in a series of films and ends his career with a cameo on Gilligan's Island.

Cute Female Spiders

1 Charlotte's Web (1973). Miss Charlotte has a bunch of children, but what happened to Mr. Charlotte? She ate him.

1 James and the Giant Peach (1996). Susan Sarandon voices Miss Spider as a kind of eight-legged Greta Garbo. Though I've crushed a few bugs, this was the first bug I got crushed on.

3 Spider-Baby (1964). Jill Banner plays Virginia, a demented Merrye's Syndrome case in Jack Hill's drive-in classic of 1964. Wandering around in a sad old nightgown, she tells her victims, "You look like a big juicy bug!"

1 Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) stars William Hurt maundering about old movies until a vengeful Sonia Braga, fangs dripping with venom, breaks into his cell for the amazing special-effects revenge finale that was strangely deleted before distribution to baffled art-house audiences.

Runners-up: Theresa Russell in Black Widow! She mates, she kills, and then makes some half-hearted goo-goo eyes at Debra Winger, but nothing comes of it. Gale Sondergaard as the Spider Woman battling Sherlock Holmes. Tallulah Bankhead as the Black Widow vs. Adam West's Batman on TV.

Cartoon Spiders

The Fleischer Brothers' The Cobweb Hotel, from 1936, is as distressing as their wig-tightening Betty Boop cartoons. It's set in a hotel in which all the pigeonholes are full of flies, wrapped in webs, and bellowing high-pitched cries for rescue - this, years before the hapless fly in The Fly ululated, "Helllllp meee."

Runners-up: The "Robot Spy," a giant spider-shaped drone constructed by Dr. No rip-off Dr. Zin on TV's Jonny Quest. Also on Quest: scientist Chu Sing Ling's giant spider, bred on Moy Tu island; the creature is later overcome by Dr. Benton Quest, Benton's longtime companion Race Bannon, Johnny, and his very close friend Hadj, proving once again the old Spartan rule: an army of lovers can never be defeated.

Alien Spiders

2 Cat Women of the Moon (1953). Lunar spiders assault Sonny Tufts in Cat Women and its remake, Missile to the Moon. Later, the alien spider emigrates to Venus to co-star with the Three Stooges in Have Rocket, Will Travel. Still not satisfied, the beast moves to Mars and mutates into the dreaded rat-bat-spider of Angry Red Planet ("Nightmare stuff!," Goufinger enthuses). It shrinks to normal giant-spider size and attacks the Earth of the 2200s in World Without End.

Good Bad Spiders

3 Goulfinger recommends Tarantula (1955). "I knew Leo G. Carroll / Was over a barrel / When Tarantula took to the hills." "Science Fiction Double Feature," The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

One-hundred-foot spiders, stimulated by quick-grow food from scientist maudit Carroll's lab, attack livestock and local yokels until they are fire-bombed into mulch by cameo fighter pilot Clint Eastwood. Especially risible are the scenes in which leads John Agar and Mara Corday remain resolutely oblivious to the enormous beast poking its legs out over nearby rock formations.

"Tarantula works because big, black fuzzy spiders are inherently scary as shit," Goulfinger notes.

Jack Arnold also directed The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), which climaxes with a memorable combat between the belittled hero, armed only with a pin for a weapon, and a life-sized basement-dwelling spider. On the other hand, the normal-sized tarantula that crawls up 007's shoulder in Dr. No is no slouch, even if in a few angles you can see the pane of glass they laid down on Connery to protect him from the critter.

3 Arachnophobia (1990) goes for scads of bug-wrangled normal-size verminal. The more frightening because, well, they're just like the ones under your woodpile.

Bad Bad Spiders

2 Earth vs. the Spider, a.k.a. The Spider (1958). Produced by Bert I. Gordon, who also tried his hand with giant grasshoppers laying waste to Chicago in The Beginning of the End. (Goulfinger observes, "How much more terrifying it would have been had the producers unleashed a horde of Jiminy Crickets, driven mad by gigantism, chasing down panicked crowds of shrieking humanity and demanding, 'Let your conscience be your guide!!! Mwaahahaha!'")

One does sympathize with the title monster: at first blitzed with DDT and declared dead, the comatose arachnid is hauled into a classroom, where a high school rock band awakens it with a headache.

"Let me tell you a little bit about myself. I drive a truck, I'm butt-ugly, and I hate spiders." Tom Servo parsing Earth vs. the Spider on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

1 Giant Spider Invasion (1975). Goulfinger reminds me how the giant spiders came to Wisconsin: via a black hole -- top that, Eight Legged Freaks! The attack consists of parade floats fashioned from VW beetles with Styrofoam legs. Meanwhile, recycled celebs such as Barbara Hale (Perry Mason) and Alan "The Skipper" Hale Jr. fear the worst. Hale, viewing the devastation, makes with the typically nautical metaphor: "Remember that movie with Jaws? This thing makes that shark look like a goldfish!"

3 Mesa of Lost Women (1953). The flamenco guitar and piano-noodling soundtrack later turned up in Ed Wood's impres-sive Jailbait, signifying a film deep in the Wood orbit; indeed, Mona McKinnon from Plan 9 From Outer Space is also aboard.

Mesa is set in Mexico's Muerto Desert ("The Desert ... of Death," the helpful narrator explains), where the evil Dr. Aranya (yes, it's Spanish for "spider") has been working on a race of jumbo spiders and spider-oid women, including the voluptuous Tarantella (Tandra Quinn), who dances up a storm in a gratuitous cantina sequence. The flash-back-laden plot is more difficult to summarize than Mulholland Drive.

Goulfinger notes that the spider movie will always be around, as a source of "honest-to-god terror, because of that whole change of perspective when a merciless spider gets big. It's not out to kill you - it's just that you're only food."

My own interest in spider attacks is more misanthropic. It's mankind's fault! We opened doors that weren't meant to be opened; we dumped chemicals; we let our egghead scientists cosset the beasts; and now we'll get our just deserts!

Giant spiders teach us that famous lesson from Sir Walter Scott: "What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!"

To contact Richard von Busack: rvonbusack at metronews dot com

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From the July 25-31, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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