Do not be deceived. The worst thing to come out of the Cold War era was not a Ronald Reagan budget, or even a Ronald Reagan film. It was the slew of B-movies that preyed upon our fears of nuclear testing by showing us the giant dinosaurs that could be awakened from deep in the ocean, or the giant mutant whatevers that might result from particle fallout. Yet, those movies were so bad they were as campy as Jellystone. They were also so much in synch with the comic book world that had reached its zenith during those years of A-bomb shelters (and held an unprecedented hold on American children not matched today), that they were lovingly embraced, flaws and all.
That seems to be the spirit of the Creature Features revival of those B-movies from a by-gone era. The temptation is to parody something that deserves it, because why would you deliberately make a bad (I mean, "B") movie, clichés and all? But just as HBO shocked us with "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos," they set about the bold business of reacquainting America's youth with those old B-movie horror classics, updated, with straight faces, no less.
In the case of "Earth vs. the Spider," it's not so much an update as it is a total make-over. Or rip-off. The original 1958 film was typical of the genre, because the premise was outlandish. A giant spider (what else?) was discovered in a cave, and for some inexplicable reason (in B-movies, logic never prevails) it's put on display in, of all things, a high school gym. Then comes a sock hop, and the loud rock ‘n' roll music brings the creature back to life. Before you laugh too hard, you should know that the previous year we were treated to a very young Michael Landon in "I was a Teen-age Werewolf," and as late as 1966 the B-machine was still cranking out bad, goofy horror "versus" stuff like "Billy the Kid vs. Dracula." In the "earth versus" category, you could always count on scenes of our military lined up like dragoons of old, firing missiles and bazookas at these giant creatures until the militia was stomped or overrun. There was, of course, lots of screaming, and shades of any small town bureaucracy, there was only one expert who knew enough to be able to tell the U.S. government how to stop the creature.
The 2001 TV-remake has no military in it, and cynics might suspect it's because it costs more these days to use so many extras in full soldier regalia. There's also no scientific expert or, for that matter, rock ‘n' roll. The new version is a mutation itself: a cross between "The Fly" and "Spider-Man," with a doo-wopless dollop of "Little Shop of Horrors" thrown in for good measure. Quentin Kemmer (Devon Gummersall, from "My So-Called Life") is the quintessential nerdy nice guy who works as a security guard at a lab complex, though he and his screen-watching companion are only armed with a small container of Mace (B-MOVIE ALERT, suspend all logic!). He has the hots for a hot-looking neighbor, Stephanie (Amelia Heinle, from "The Limey"), and of course when he walks the streets with her he's unable to protect her from neighborhood riff-raff. Quentin is a comic book freak, the biggest "Arachnid Avenger" customer that Han (John Cho) has at his little shop of comics. At the lab, he peers through blinds with his partner to soak up the sight of quasi-scientists extracting fluid from one tarantula and injecting it into another. "So, what is it about you and those comic books?" his partner (Mario Roccuzzo) asks. "My kid used to read that crap when he was ten." Quentin openly talks about wishing he could be a hero of the arachnid sort. Then, one day, there's an attack on the lab, and something bad happens to his partner and five others. At that point, he's inexplicably fired (huh?) for not figuring out how to use Mace against guns, and even more inexplicably a bad cop who thinks he kept him from helping his partner is allowed to punch and kick him. The bad cop has just as little respect for his superior, Jack Grillo (Dan Aykroyd), and shows it by attempting an affair with Grillo's boozy, floozy wife (Theresa Russell). Meanwhile, shades of Jeff Goldblum sprouting more than ten o'clock shadow, the serum starts to take effect.
How good or bad is it? Well, it's played absolutely straight, with every cliché worn like a badge of honor. That's the first surprise. The second is that despite all of the illogical things in this film, the one logical aspect might be its major expansion of the "Spider-Man" plot. Peter Parker gets to be the good guy superhero, but while Quentin starts out that way, the arachnid serum that turns him into a spider does so more completely, as in "The Fly." As a result, because he's more arachnid than man, he has a harder time fighting off those arachnidian impules, and viewers watch him wrestle with that throughout most of the film. Just as the line between good cop and bad cop are thin, so too is the line between hero and monster. Though there's no earth versus anything, only Aykroyd poking around like a paunchy Columbo, the production values are decent, Stan Winston's special effects ("Jurrasic Park III," "Aliens") are okay, and the performances are as good as can be expected, given the parameters of these cardboard characters. The monster is hokey, but that's also true to the genre. You want depth? Rent an A-movie.
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen OR full screen, the picture quality is decent, with a softness that gives the film a slight noir look, without the smoke and mirrors. Even in low-lit scenes showing the spider's lair, there's good color definition and clarity.
"Earth vs. the Spider" is digitally mastered in English and French 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround, and the sound is quite good. There are moments when the sound effects to accompany the physical changes that Quentin undergoes, and the Foley moments that serve as flashbacks, come at you with the force and bright clarity of DTS. Excellent transfer.
There isn't much in the way of special features. The world's shortest "making-of featurette" is really nothing more than a glorified teaser, and lasts just about as long. Likewise, the "filmographies" section only includes entries for Aykroyd and special effects wizard Winston. One surprise was the photo gallery, which too often is a throw-in to pad the extras. This time there's a handful of monster sketches and about 20 shots of technicians working to build parts of the monster, along with another 25 production stills and 35 behind-the-scenes shots. The latter are the most entertaining, especially shots like a beaming Aykroyd with his arm around the monster, or the staff foisting the head of the monster above them like a scene from "Lord of the Flies." Rounding out the extras are a bunch of trailers, the best of which is one for the Creature Features series. Aside from "Earth vs. the Spider," which was the second release, there's the first release, "She-Creature" (starring Rufus Sewell), "The Day the World Ended" (with Randy Quaid and Natasha Kinski), "How to Make a Monster" and "Teenage Caveman." If you're not familiar with the series, it's a fun collage, and one which will have you thinking that by featuring Winston in these they're doing to him what filmmakers did to Ray Harryhausen years ago: creating a marriage of B-movies and special horror effects made in heaven.
Overall, "Earth vs. the Spider" is actually entertaining. It isn't as slick as "Spider-Man," and it lacks the emotional depth of "The Fly" and the chorus fun of "Little Shop of (FEED ME!) Horrors." But it's better than I expected, and, if the rest of the Creature Features are on the same level, it proves that the first of the B-movie horror flicks might actually be the worst.