Julien Neaves, Sci Fi Head Writer
It has been a minute since I have reviewed a Sci Fi film from the golden age of the 1950s. I had watched Earth vs. the Spider awhile back and thought it would be cool to pair it with a fellow giant spider flick, the very popular Tarantula, in a double review. But if something is nice why not do it thrice? So, then I looked for another similar movie and came across British Sci Fi horror The Strange World of Planet X (known as Cosmic Monsters in the US) which featured a gargantuan spider (among other enlarged bugs), so I threw it into the mix as well.
And here we are. I thought of including The Incredible Shrinking Man, but I’ve already reviewed it and that is a shrunk down man fighting a regular-sized spider, so it does not really fit. With that caveat and a gigantic SPOILER ALERT let’s dive right into this triple feature of giant spider creature features!
Cosmic Monsters aka The Strange World of Planet X (1958)
After reviewing so many 50s Sci Fi films from the US it was refreshing to check out one from across the pond. And though originally titled The Strange World of Planet X, the American title Cosmic Monsters actually makes more sense. The first title makes it sound like the plot is set on an alien planet. In reality, everything is set on earth (a village in south England to be specific) and Planet X is just a media placeholder name for a speculative planet amidst alien invasion fears. And the enlarged bugs are affected by cosmic radiation making them “cosmic monsters.” Why not “Cosmic Creatures” though? Did someone not like alliteration?
The titular bugs, however, only feature in the third act of the film and the practical effects are kinda hokey even for that era. But we do get the female love interest trapped in the web of a giant spider and see insects bloodily munching on some hapless cops, so the creature feature itch gets some moderate scratching.
The movie spends most of its time on obsessed physicist Dr Laird (Alec Mango) and attempts by American scientist Gilbert Graham (Forrest Tucker), woman computer expert Michele Dupont (Gaby Andre) and government officials to figure out whether his magnetic field experiments have resulted in weird side effects affecting the village, namely a freak storm, people going homicidal and the giant bugs. The experiments also draw the attention of the alien “Smith” played well by Martin Benson.
The performances all around are very good, especially from leads Tucker and Andre. And director Gilbert Gunn (any relation to James Gunn, I wonder) must be commended for building up the mysteries of Smith and the giant bugs. But Cosmic Monsters tries to do a little too much in its hour and 15-minute runtime. Mad scientist, military defence talk, a love triangle, another romance, a homicidal vagabond, weird weather, flying saucers and alien invasion fears, actual alien visitor, and THEN giant bugs. The homicidal vagabond and alien subplots could have been easily cut out and the story would have been tighter and more focused. It was still a decent watch though.
Editor Jules’ Score: 6.5 out of 10
Earth vs. the Spider aka The Spider (1958)
This one also came out in 1958 and again the alternate title makes a whole lot more sense. Earth vs. the Spider makes it sound like a global battle against an arachnid. It’s not the world, or even the country of the United States or even an American city. Nope. It’s a very small town in Nowhereville, USA. But there is a spider, so I am fine with The Spider. If I was to name the film, though, I would call it Stupid Townspeople vs. the Spider.
Things start off pretty promisingly with Jack Flynn (Merritt Stone) driving his truck down a lonely highway and looking at a bracelet he bought as a birthday present for his teenage daughter Carol (June Kenney). But then suddenly the vehicle hits a massive silky thread made by, you guessed it, an enormous spider, specifically a tarantula. Carol and her whiny boyfriend Mike (Eugene Persson) go looking for her dad and discover his crashed truck and bracelet near a cave. The two dummies then decide to search the cave themselves which just happens to be the tarantula’s home and he chases them out. With the help of science teacher Mr Kingman (Ed Kemmer) they return, find Jack’s dried-up corpse and flush the cave with DDT apparently killing the spider.
But Kingman is also not the sharpest tool in the shed, and instead of having the monstrous bug buried under tons of concrete (or at least properly secured) decided to have it put on display in the high school gym. And he is apparently a crap science teacher as he does not even confirm it is dead! The spider (surprise surprise) is very much alive and gets woken up by a practicing band. Is this town only populated by idiots? Mr. Tarantula then menaces the school and the town before returning to its cave where Tweedledum and Tweedledotish aka Carol and Mike have returned to find Carol’s lost bracelet. Yes, the same cave where they almost died hours ago. They then have to be rescued by Kingman and the authorities and the poor spider is finally killed. Or so we assume. Can’t be too sure with these morons.
On the positive side, the effects are pretty good and there are genuine moments of suspense. But with characters so unlikeable and writing so formulaic it is almost impossible to get invested in what is happening. And I actually found myself kind of rooting for the spider. That is definitely not a good sign. The movie also features the spider heavily, so we do get our money’s worth in that aspect.
Editor Jules’ Score: 5 out of 10
Tarantula came out three years before the other two entries on this list and is easily the best of the bunch. And it is not surprising given the pedigree of its director Jack Arnold who also helmed It Came from Outer Space (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Like Cosmic Monsters, the film’s titular arachnid is also created through science but unlike that entry the plot is very straightforward and easy to follow.
In the vein of the excellent Them!, which was released a year earlier, we have a slow burn mystery before things boil over into full monster madness. Investigating this mystery is the inquisitive and very likeable small-town doctor Matt Hastings (John Agar) and the gruff and very skeptical Sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva). I enjoyed Hastings’ battle of wits with the inscrutable scientist Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) and romancing of the prof’s effervescent and lovely new assistant Stephanie Clayton (Mara Corday). If I had one complaint, it would be that the science mystery goes on a bit too long and Professor Deemer is never taken to task for hiding the animal size-increasing experiments which unintentionally places the entire Arizona town in danger. And the practical effects on the degenerating Deemer and his two assistants do look rubbery and not very realistic. But these are small quibbles.
I enjoyed everything else here. Great actors, unnerving music and some of the best visual effects of the era that hold up to this day. The giant animals in Deemer’s menagerie look very believable and is doubly the case with the tarantula, making it all the more terrifying. Adding to the terror factor is the chittering noise made by it and the “spider POV” camera effect of seeing animals and humans through its fangs right before being devoured. Yikes! The laboratory attack and its slow march upon the town in the final act were two scenes that best show off the movie’s visual effects magic.
And, unlike The Spider, I actually cared about these townspeople making the tension all the more palpable. The explosive finale is also quite the blast, and it was cool seeing Clint Eastwood as the uncredited jet squadron leader. Tarantula just spins such an entertaining experience and is definitely one of the best creature features of the era. Eight and a half thumbs up!
Editor Jules’ Score: 8.5 out of 10
So those are my reviews. Which of these films is your favourite? Which 50s creature feature should I tackle next? And you can check out more golden age Sci Fi content below:
Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an award-winning writer. I say things like “13 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.