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The Giant Spider Invasion (1975)

SYNOPSIS: Life in an ordinary Midwestern small town is shattered by the freak appearance of enormous, man-eating spiders. As the townsfolk struggle to survive in the face of monstrous predators, a pair of heroic scientists try to find an answer to their troubles, and an end to the nightmare.

The universe: over 13 billion years old, stretching 93 billion light years from side to side and growing every day. Across this vast expanse spin over 70 sextillion stars-that's 70 thousand million million million. Our own star, the sun, is large enough to fit 109 Earths laid end to end across its diameter-and the sun is a runty little thing by cosmic standards. Sometimes, when one of these stars dies, its enormous mass collapses in on itself, all of its energy and strength crushed down to a single infinitesimal point. And when all of that gravitational power is compacted into a space no larger than the period at the end of this sentence, the concentrated, amplified force permits no escape. There, within walls too small to even contain a mote of dust, the laws of Nature are repealed. They call these things black holes. And, in 1975, one of 'em fell into some farmland in the Harrison Hills area near Gleason, Wisconsin.

This pesky black hole ripped a new one in the fabric of space and time, and through this hole some evil spiders from an alternate universe scrambled into our own, where they took to eating livestock and naked women. Luckily, some of Northern Wisconsin's top astrophysicists were alerted to the phenomena (when it started to interfere with the Gleason Days carnival) and were able to close off the dimensional rift before its pernicious effects were able to spread, you know, to places like Irma.

There are works of visionary science fiction whose greatness lies in the ability to take grandiose ideas and render them in a familiar, domestic context that makes the abstract real, the fantastic believable. And then there are those works of science fiction that misunderstand basic concepts of science and stager everything on a domestic scale because it's all they can afford. Guess which one is The Giant Spider Invasion?

Let us, for a moment, set aside our disbelief that a parallel world would be populated by malevolent spiders who travel inside geodes, or that such things would come out of a black hole. Let us also extend our generosity to forgive the crazy idea that a black hole, one of the cosmos' most bewitching marvels, would happen to fall to earth and end up in a cow pasture-even though this means that astronomers, who must typically search the heavens for black holes using the most sophisticated technology, were now able to look the thing up on a map and go drive to it in a Ford truck! But, once we afford the filmmakers even this much slack, we are still left with the unanswered question of why, of all places, this one-of-a-kind occurrence would happen in Gleason, Wisconsin.

Oh, no, wait-there is an answer. According to Dr. Jenny Langer (Barbara Hale) in the film, "With a billion black holes in our galaxy, it's a wonder it hasn't happened before." See? There you go! And she oughta know, as her lab is outfitted with the latest in bubbling test tubes and chemistry equipment (don't all scientists have those?) Of course, this is like arguing that since the American economy has $14 trillion dollars coursing through it, you should be a millionaire.

To be frank, the only reason giant spiders invaded Gleason was that director Bill Rebane happened to live there at the time.

Rebane used to live in an airport, more or less, jet-setting between Chicago, Los Angeles, and various points in Europe where he eked out an existence in the periphery of the film industry in whatever capacity he could find work. Tiring of that lifestyle, he decided to settle down somewhere nice and quiet-and a vacation to the region convinced him that Wisconsin fit the bill. It was certainly more of a reason to wind up in Wisconsin than the black hole had.

Rebane converted a farmstead (located off Highway J between Irma and Gleason, for those of you Star Maps folks) into a studio he called The Shooting Range. Fully equipped with production equipment and technical staff, the Shooting Range kept busy with corporate and industrial clients, while Rebane nurtured thoughts of making features.

The 1970s film industry offered but one avenue for independent filmmakers to find audiences: the exploitation circuit of drive-ins, grindhouses, and states' rights theaters in the South. To make a feature outside of Hollywood in those days nearly always meant making a monster movie. Anybody with a camera and a cockamamie monster idea could get their picture, no matter how shoddily made, seen-to which Rebane said, "Me too!"

Rebane's first attempt to mint his own horror feature went a little awry, and the end result wasn't even full length. The Wizard of Gore, Herschell Gordon Lewis, however, happened to be the cinematographer, and he had a hunch he could make the scraps into something else. Lewis took the thing, padded it out with some extraneous footage, and sold it as Monster A Go-Go (1965). Having learned some valuable lessons, Rebane was able over the coming years to turn out ten or so wild-n-woolly pictures like The Alpha Incident (1978), about an alien invasion of the Midwest, or The Capture of Bigfoot (1979), about the hunt for a legendary beast in... the Midwest. The Giant Spider Invasion, about another alien invasion of the Midwest, stands as Rebane's most... well, you could really finish that sentence with just about any adjective you'd like.

For all that is wrong with The Giant Spider Invasion, it has an irreducible charm. You expect movies to come out of Hollywood, and so to find one emerging from Gleason, Wisconsin has a certain cachet. It's like finding a couple of kids who've set up on their curb a stands that sells, not lemonade, but sushi. Sure it's not very good, but you gotta give 'em points for trying.

Rebane rallied his community around his pictures with a local-boy-makes-good zeal. His cast may be faded has-beens, but hey, they are famous and here they are in our little town! His "giant spiders" may be a ridiculous special defects nightmare, but hey, those spiders are landmarks of local achievement, memorials to a fleeting taste of Tinseltown glamour. The spiders stand today as memorials (you can see them yourself at Kris Hill's and Lori Stine's The Living Room store). This is a film that had its world premiere at the Grand Theater in Wausau!

Like Robert Altman's Popeye (1980), The Giant Spider Invasion is one of those rare moments in cinema where every single creative decision was made poorly, but where the cumulative effect of so many bad ideas piled on top of each other create a critical mass of enjoyment: a thousand wrongs making a single right.

A different filmmaker perhaps might have opted to play up the small town setting, emphasizing the ironic predicament of a sheriff used to no greater challenge than the odd bar brawl suddenly confronted with the imminent end of civilization. But that would have taken some effort, so why not just cast Alan Hale as the sheriff and let him yuk it up with some wisecracks instead? Hale's very first line in the film is, "Hi, little buddy." His first line! No effort is even nominally made to efface Hale's past on Gilligan's Island, and why not? We all loved Gilligan's Island, right?

Top-billed Steve Brodie and Barbara Hale take a different approach to their performances, playing their roles as astrophysicists with gravitas. Both in their fifties, Brodie and Hale play the romantic leads of the picture: they meet cute, banter playfully, and get the final freeze frame on their climactic embrace. Boy meets girl, boy kills giant spider, boy gets girl. Oh, and along the way, the two ageing stars tumble head over heels down a hillside in a clumsy, indecorous stunt no director with even a passing respect for his cast would have left in the final cut.

Then again, a director with a passing respect for anybody wouldn't have subjected them to the sight of his so-called "giant spiders." The thing about actual spiders is that many people find them creepy-those sticky webs, the way they ensnare and torture their prey, their broods of baby spiders-but none of these unsettling characteristics show up in the movie. The monsters of the movie aren't especially spiderlike, and are only threatening because of their size. The original plan was to have the critters about ten feet across-pretty darn big for a spider, you have to admit, and something probably within the reach of the $10,000 they had in the budget for special effects. However, producer Brandon Chase of the distribution company Group One insisted that if they were to compete seriously with Steven Spielberg's Jaws, released that same year, they would need a competitively sized menace. You are free to mull over the insanity of that remark on your own time. To assuage his backers, Rebane turned to special effects designer Robert Millay and asked him to make the spiders even more ginormous. Millay had a stroke of pun-addled genius: a Bug-bug! He stripped a pair of Volkswagens to their frames and had local welder Carl Pfantz attach spider legs on to the beams. They wrapped "fun fur" around the result, and fitted red globes to the headlights to act as eyes.

Despite having built their monsters from cars, the Volkspider couldn't drive properly without assistance. In scenes of mass panic, some of the fleeing townsfolk seem to be running very slowly, and hovering awfully close to the thing they are supposed to be running from - when in fact they are pushing it!

Meanwhile, there were nine teenagers huddled on a makeshift board on the inside of the Spidermobile, whose task it was to wriggle the legs to make the things seem slightly less car-like.

You could ask why Rebane did not delegate his special effects responsibilities to someone more experienced in the field, who could maybe have suggested better, more effective techniques, or at the very least to someone who wasn't spending more time drinking than he was attending to the job for which he'd been hired. The obvious answer is that the Gleason-Merrill-Wausau-Irma area was not really a hotbed of effects pioneers. Maybe people in sunny Southern California have time to imagineer such things while they sip their appletinis by the pool, but folk in the hardscrabble Midwest are an earthier, more pragmatic people. You need a spider? OK, go weld some legs onto a car and get on with your day. You need to make a movie? OK, round up your friends and family-they'll do.

In addition to directing, Bill Rebane also composed the soundtrack and designed the sets for The Giant Spider Invasion. His daughter Jutta was the set decorator, while wife Barbara served as unit production manager and second AD. Star Steve Brodie's family pulled their weight, too-his son Kevin served as first assistant director and took a role in the cast. Sue Brodie did the makeup; Robin Brodie did the costumes. Barbara Hale's hubby Bill Williams joined the cast, too. Moviemaking as pot luck-what could be more Midwestern?

What does it take to make a movie? Deep pockets, bankable movie stars, industry connections, technical know-how, or even a particularly good idea? No. Apparently all you need is gumption. And with millions of practical, git-er-done-ites all across the Midwest, it's a wonder it hadn't happened before.

by David Kalat

Sources:
Dave Coleman, Interview with Bill Rebane, Bijouflix.com
Gene Dorsogna, "The Spider Was a Beetle, or: Pardon Me But Your Chassis is Showing," Horror-Wood.com
Bill Rebane, BillRebaneNews.com
John Thonen, "Bill Rebane's Giant Spider Invasion," Mania.com
Cory J. Udler, "Reliving the Invasion," video documentary.

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The Giant Spider Invasion (1975)

Stephen King's rare foray into nonfiction writing in 1981, Danse Macabre, pays tribute to some of the influences and memories that have guided him as America's most popular horror writer. And wouldn't ya know it, one of those formative B-movie experiences was Bill Rebane's The Giant Spider Invasion (1975). But King didn't need to call it out by name like this-the influence of Giant Spiders on King's imagination can just as well be charted in his 1980 short story The Mist (yes, it's a movie now, too). Small town setting, a dimensional portal through which giant critters come, a fire-n-brimstone Christian preacher convinced the monster shenanigans portend the Biblical apocalypse - King took The Giant Spider Invasion apart and reassembled its pieces into something better.

Of course, it's grossly unfair to compare the near-amateur production of The Giant Spider Invasion to Stephen King. They aren't quite playing the same game. Bill Rebane had dreamt of making dramas and comedies, but found himself relegated to the horror/science-fiction genre because that was the only way for an independently made feature in the early 1970s to reliably find profit-making distribution outlets. So, knowing this, Rebane took a jaundiced look at the field's standard-bearer, Roger Corman, and tried to distill a basic Cormanesque exploitation movie formula. This he then gave to writer Richard Huff, a Madison-based scribe who hadn't worked on a film before and never would again, who cooked up the basic idea of monster spiders attacking Wisconsin.

Based on Huff's story, Rebane went ahead and cast the film, contracting Hollywood veterans like Alan Hale, Steve Brodie and Barbara Hale. The performers arrived, and Rebane was scheduled to start shooting-the only problem was that Huff had yet to turn that idea into an actual workable script. Alan Hale suggested to his director that he might be well advised to bring on Robert Easton, a professor of English at the University of California known to the acting community there as a reliable dialogue coach. In other words, Easton was a man of letters who knew the film industry and could be counted on to help shape the material into something usable.

Easton arrived and was tasked with churning out ten to fifteen pages a day, an absurd deadline. To keep the man on task, says Rebane, "the producers took Robert and locked him in a cabin by the lake and told him that he had to finish so many pages a day or they wouldn't feed him. Now, Robert likes his food. He's really a genuine connoisseur, so him not getting any food was just an unbelievable thought to him, but the line producer held his ground."

Under these conditions, Easton did generate the script pages-which would then be forwarded to Huff for his revisions, then to the producers for review and approval, then back to Easton, and only then on to the set. Meanwhile, during this crazy cycle, Rebane had to keep shooting, filming a movie whose ending had yet to be decided.

Needless to say, the strain on the production team showed. The Giant Spider Invasion's biggest thrill sequence was to see the giant spiders attacking the town, in a recreation of the kind of classic scenes typical for 1950's era monster flicks. The filmmakers announced that the sequence was to be filmed in the nearby town of Merrill, and advertised for interested Merrillites to apply as extras. It became the cause clbre of local life-with extensive print and TV coverage by the Merrill press of the event, which was kicked off by political luminaries like a Wisconsin Senator and the Mayor of Merrill making official speeches. The crowd had been worked up, but as the appointed hour dawned there was yet no sign of the crew or the spiders. The hours dragged by, and only later that night, when all but the most hardcore wanna-be extras had long since departed and the patience of those who remained had been thoroughly exhausted, did the ludicrous spider props appear. The cameras had been loaded with film stock in anticipation of the midday shoot, and as a result the finished scene is badly underexposed and grainy, and the crowd is visibly agitated and bad-tempered.

Later, the time came for Rebane to film a stunning explosion of one of the spiders. The effects team covered the prop with gunpowder and dispatched a crew member (history does not record his name, if he was on Star Trek he'd have been wearing a red shirt) to drop matches onto the spider from above. Match after match fell to the gunpowder-dusted creature without igniting any flame. Hoping to get something started, the lowly crew member lit the entire pack of matches and dropped them all at once-still nothing. Despairing, Rebane called "cut." And at that moment, as the film stopped, the spider went up in a massive explosion that singed the hair off Mr. Red Shirt. As the ruined spider smoldered, so did Rebane, his one-time effect lost.

It is part of the curious nature of this oddball movie that it has its share of genuine production value: helicopters, exploding cars, giant spiders, fleeing mobs. Yet for all this it never feels anything other than cheap.

Indeed, the whole shebang cost no more than $250,000 (that's the equivalent of roughly a million dollars today). As The Giant Spider Invasion made its way through the drive-ins and exploitation houses, and then to the CBS Late Night Movie, though, it found an appreciative audience and managed to recoup a staggering $22 Million in return ($89 Million in today's figures).

Fellow Wisconsinite Mike Nelson knew the score. He lampooned The Giant Spider Invasion on Mystery Science Theater 3000 but in the spirit of a roast. In 2005, Nelson hosted a film festival in Rebane's honor, which helped spark a revival of interest in The Giant Spider Invasion. Made to feed an exploitation market's ephemeral hunger, here the movie still stands, unbowed by time, and here it is screened on cable's most prestigious movie channel. Hardly surprising, then, that Rebane has started talking about a sequel, which Rebane believes would benefit from more professional-looking CGI effects. For something not so far removed from an amateur production, that's quite an accomplishment.

by David Kalat

Sources:
Dave Coleman, Interview with Bill Rebane, Bijouflix.com
Gene Dorsogna, "The Spider Was a Beetle, or: Pardon Me But Your Chassis is Showing," Horror-Wood.com
Bill Rebane, BillRebaneNews.com
John Thonen, "Bill Rebane's Giant Spider Invasion," Mania.com
Cory J. Udler, "Reliving the Invasion," video documentary.

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The Giant Spider Invasion (1975)

Ask Bill Rebane what he thinks of his magnum opus, The Giant Spider Invasion, and he's likely as not to call it "The Giant Spider Disaster," for all the production headaches he endured in its making. It is the kind of film that brings out former TV stars like Alan Hale, the Skipper from Gilligan's Island, and Barbara Hale, Perry Mason's secretary Della, and puts them alongside actresses whose sole task is to take their tops off. That would be Diane Lee Hart, as jailbait teen Terry.

Robert Easton, who plays farmer Dan in the movie and helped write the script, was a strange kind of actor. He coached actors like Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck. He provided voices for Gerry Anderson's sci-fi series Stingray (1964). He appears in The Red Badge of Courage (1951), The Loved One (1965), and Paint Your Wagon (1969). And, he taught writing at the University of California. We're talking about a serious person here. So, he comes onto The Giant Spider Invasion as a script doctor and proceeds to write himself a role as a sleazy sex-obsessed crooked cow rancher in a back brace who puts the moves on his own sister-in-law!

One of the first scenes Easton wrote for himself highlights his tense, hostile relationship with drunken wife Ev (played by onetime Golden Globe nominee Leslie Parrish). She asks him what the revival's sermon was about, and he answers, "Sin." Ev asks, "What did the minister say about it?" "He was against it," is Dan's reply. Or rather, that was President Calvin Coolidge's reply, as the entire exchange is a famous quotation from the legendary "Silent Cal."

With stuff like this, Easton and Parrish very nearly steal The Giant Spider Invasion from its titular monsters and top-billed cast. Eventually, these greedy bastards get their moral comeuppance at the mandibles of some giant arachnids, leaving the screen's central place for Steve Brodie, one of director Rebane's buddies and a veteran of even worse B-movie garbage. A man with The Wild Wild World of Batwoman (1966) and Frankenstein's Island (1981) on his CV has to forfeit something in the dignity department.

As a friend of Rebane's, Brodie surely knew what was coming. Rebane's illustrious career as a filmmaker has gifted the world with such treasures as Invasion from Inner Earth (1974) in which spooky red lights attack! Then there's The Capture of Bigfoot (1979), the title speaks for itself. Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake (1975) involves a frog-man living in a Midwestern lake, while The Demons of Ludlow (1983) depicts a demon that has possessed an antique piano! Monster A Go-Go (1965) starred the world's tallest man as a monster, while Tiny Tim popped up in Blood Harvest (1987) as "Marvelous Mervo." Rebane keeps busy today writing novels which he sells through his own web site.

by David Kalat

Sources:
Dave Coleman, Interview with Bill Rebane, Bijouflix.com
Gene Dorsogna, "The Spider Was a Beetle, or: Pardon Me But Your Chassis is Showing," Horror-Wood.com
Bill Rebane, BillRebaneNews.com
John Thonen, "Bill Rebane's Giant Spider Invasion," Mania.com
Cory J. Udler, "Reliving the Invasion," video documentary.

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The Giant Spider Invasion (1975)

"In spite of the title, there is really only one giant spider, but we don't feel cheated because it's a dilly. It appears to be a Volkswagen covered with half a dozen bearskin rugs. Four spider legs operated by people crammed inside this VW spider, one assumes, have been attached to each side. The taillights double neatly as blinking red spider eyes. It is impossible to see such a budget conscious special effect without feeling a wave of admiration."
- Stephen King, Danse Macabre

"Veteran cast can't do much for this tacky horror opus filmed in Wisconsin."
- Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide

"There hasn't been a movie with special effects so bad since The Giant Claw [1957]. Different-sized spiders jump out of "black hole" and terrorize a small town. The big ones are stripped-down Volkswagens with legs and eyes added. Lots of laughs..."
- Michael Weldon, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film

"This throwback to early science-fiction pictures such as Tarantula [1955] is moronic, plain and simple...The title is self-explanatory, except that the spider eggs are mistaken for diamonds by Wisconsin farmer Easton. Come on now, no one in the Midwest is that dumb."
- TV Guide

"...this film is clearly a displaced item from the fifties cycle of radiation (and such like) mutation movies...But, whereas the fifties films were at least a direct reflection of their times, this ineptly mounted offering has no such backdrop."
- The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, edited by Phil Hardy

"Bill Rebane's backyard wonder is a hilariously hokey throwback to the giant-monster flicks of the 50s, while taking its only pseudo-scientific conceit from the mid-70s trend of popular "black hole" theories, combining these two elements to create pure bad-movie heaven."
- Cavett Binion, AllMovie Guide

"This one you've gotta see for yourself; it's one of the all-time worst...The terrible moments are legion, mostly supplied by an embarrassed cast of washed-up has-beens and drive-in nobodies and some of the tackiest special effects on record.."
- James O'Neill, Terror on Tape

"Rebane jumbles comic strip with genuinely unsettling horror [with a] monumentally stilted script which provides many a chuckle."
- Time Out Film Guide

"It seems there's something about spiders, more than any other invertebrate, that fires the imaginations of really lousy filmmakers. Even with that in mind, however, The Giant Spider Invasion is something special. It isn't often that Alan Hale Jr. puts in the most credible performance in a movie, nor is it common to encounter a film that will offer up something as ludicrous as a black hole crash-landing in a cow pasture with a straight face. The most incredible thing of all, however, may be the simple fact that The Giant Spider Invasion was not by a long shot the worst movie Bill Rebane made."
- Scott Ashlin, 1000 Misspent Hours

It's apparent that nobody involved is sure how seriously to take the subject matter, so the script by actor Easton and Robert Huff tends to veer between cringeworthy humour and cringeworthy drama, often in the space of a few lines...Pretty much ridiculous from start to finish, The Giant Spider Invasion is really only valued for the unintentional humour it inspires.
- Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image

"Bill Rebane has a creative resume that would make most filmmakers choke on their own embarrassed bile...So it's no surprise then that this typical giant insect pic is so pathetic. Instead of focusing on the monsters for this movie, Rebane is too intrigued by the bevy of bilious characters he's created. Between the soiled back-brace hickness of Robert Easton's Dan Kester to the non-stop alcoholism of Leslie Parrish's Ev, the extra gravy heft of Alan Hale's portly policeman to Steve Brodie's human heart attack Dr. Vance, the individuals instilled with selling this insane insect shtick are downright depressing."
- Judge Bill Gibron, DVD Verdict

Compiled by David Kalat

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The Giant Spider Invasion (1975)

SHERIFF (Alan Hale): Hey, what's that gizmo?
DR. VANCE (Steve Brodie): It's a Geiger counter.
SHERIFF: Geiger counter? Well, we don't have any Geigers around here! Never did have in these parts!
DR. VANCE: No, Sheriff, you misunderstand-you see, Doctor Geiger invented this to count-
DR. LANGER (Barbara Hale): No, Vance, I have a feeling the Sheriff is putting you on. I'm sure he's taken physics.
SHERIFF: Oh, I used to take physics, but now I find that prunes do the better job for me!

DAVE (Kevin Brodie): What's a space warp?
DR. VANCE: A space warp is a gravitational pull so intense that it makes a black hole in space.
DR. LANGER: There's only one thing I know of that could cause a warp like this--
DR. VANCE: A miniature black hole.
DR. LANGER: Mm hmmm.
DAVE: Could it happen?
DR. LANGER: Well, with a billion black holes in our galaxy, it's a wonder it hasn't happened before.

EV (Leslie Parrish): Nine dead animals ain't gonna cost us nothing?
DAN (Robert Easton): You're so dumb you wouldn't know rabbit turds from rice krispies. I'll butcher up the meat like I always do and I'll sell it to Dutch's Caf!

DR.VANCE: Hi!
DR. LANGER: Hello.
DR.VANCE: Hi, I'm Dr. J.R. Vance from N.A.S.A.
DR. LANGER: Oh, I'm so glad you're here, Doctor. I'm Jenny Langer.
DR.VANCE: Nice to meet you. I have an appointment with your father.
DR. LANGER: Oh, no no. He passed away in 1962
DR.VANCE: Oh, I'm so sorry, then the appointment must be with your husband.
DR. LANGER: I'm not married.
DR.VANCE: I'm NOT sorry. Then it's probably with your brother.
DR. LANGER: No, my brother's an interior decorator in Oshkosh. You see, Doctor... Vance. I'm afraid your appointment is with me. I'm DOCTOR Jenny Langer.

DR. VANCE: I've never seen so much fouled up data in my life! It's against every known law of physics!

DR. LANGER: Looks like our black hole has turned into an open doorway from Hell!

SHERIFF: I don't know but I'll tell you what-he may work for God but he sure hollers like the devil!

EV: Sometimes the only way I know you're still alive is when I hear you flush the toilet.

SHERIFF: Ever see that movie Jaws? Well, it makes that shark look like a goldfish!

DR. LANGER: VAAANCE! VANCE!
DR. VANCE: What happened?
DR. LANGER: Spiders came out of the briefcase! They're coming from the geodes!
DR. VANCE: The WHAT?
DR. LANGER: Gee-ODES!
DR. VANCE: Gimmie that!

Compiled by David Kalat

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