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Thursday, September 16, 2021

Throwback Thursday - Exploring the Shelves: The Giant Bug movies

 edit: I've not done a Throwback Thursday in a couple of years so I thought it was time to dig into my archives and pull something out. This is an article that I wrote for Grindhouse Purgatory a few years ago. You may notice that the formatting doesn't match what I normally do here. I thought about changing it, but then decided that I wanted to keep it as close to how it originally appeared in print as possible. Enjoy!


I own way too many movies.  Really, I’ve reached the point where I can sit in my movie room starring at the 4,000 plus DVDs, Blu-Rays, VHS, and Laser Discs and don’t have a clue what to watch.  It drives my wife crazy.  Truth be told I know that there are movies that I want to watch but they just seem to get lost in the stacks of stuff.  So it occurred to me that if I had a reason, say writing a piece for Grindhouse Purgatory, it would help me get motivated.  So that is how I came upon the idea for Exploring the Shelves.  Not only do I get to organize myself enough to grab a movie to watch but I get to write about it as well.  Seems like a win win situation. 

So now comes the hard part.  What should the theme of my first Exploring the Shelves be?  Okay actually it wasn’t that hard because something came to mind right away.  See I’m a child of the ‘70s and I grew up watching the late-night horror host shows.  In addition to the classic Universal movies, they also played a lot of ‘50s Science Fiction.  Growing up some of my favorite creature features involved various giant bugs smashing everything in sight.  I can’t think of a better theme to start with than giant bugs.  Time to dig into my collection and knock the dust off a few classics and some maybe not so classic (but still fun damn it!). 

First up from 1957 we need to talk about the Deadly Mantis.  After a brief voiceover explanation of radar defenses (which plays into what happens later) we get to the good stuff.  The story here follows a prehistoric mantis that breaks loose from the ice and wakes up.  It is a bit chilly for him up north so he starts to make his way south.  Along the way he makes short work of an airplane, military outpost, and a few other items before the army and air force pull out the big guns to take care of him.  The mantis meets his end in a tunnel surrounded by wrecked cars.  We even get a good fake out at the end to give us one final scare.

Unlike some of the other giant bug movies this one isn’t afraid to show us the big guy right away.  In fact, we get a still of it right in the opening credits!  They were obviously very proud of the effects work and how the creature looks on screen.  I have to say for the ‘50s it does look really good.  They do a decent job mixing in the stock footage of jet fighters, navy ships, and artillery.  This is going to be a common theme in many of these movies and while it doesn’t match perfectly that is part of the fun.  Toss in a bit of ‘50s sexism with the lone female character and you have a quintessential example of the subgenre.

On a personal note this movie has always been a favorite of mine.  I remember watching it on our local Friday night movie show Big Chuck and Little John.  The end of the movie, which takes place in a creepy fog, really scared the heck out of me.  Sitting on the couch with my Dad being scared of what would happen next is one of my earliest movie watching memories.  Might be my nostalgia talking but I’d give The Deadly Mantis a solid 3 out of 4 stars.

The next movie I want to talk about is Them! from 1954.  The story starts with a couple of New Mexico Highway patrolmen responding to a call about a little girl wandering in the desert.  They find her and what is left of her family’s camper.  A few more bodies pile up and soon an FBI agent (James Arness a couple years removed from his turn as the alien on The Thing from Another World) along with scientists are on the trail.  Seems some giant ants have come out of the wilderness to challenge man as the dominant species on Earth.  Much mayhem ensues and eventually the bugs (are ants bugs?) are destroyed.

Here we have another common theme from ‘50s Science Fiction movies.  The giant ants in Them! are spawned by the nuclear tests conducted in the desert.  If you know anything about the ‘50s it is that everything was either credited to nuclear power or blamed on nuclear bombs.  I’ve also always thought that the cast in the one was stellar.  Arness is really good in his role as the FBI agent.  The rest of the cast is solid as well and includes Edmund Glenn (Miracle on 42nd Street, The Walking Dead with Boris Karloff).  Even old Daniel Boone himself Fess Parker has a brief but memorable appearance.

Them! also does a wonderful job of creating some genuinely scary atmosphere and tension as it keeps the audience from seeing the ants for a good portion of the movie.  When you do get to see them it is worth it.  Clearly they are puppets but they look great.  In fact this is one time where the on screen creature looks much better then what is on the poster.  I mean seriously what is up with those goofy eyes?  This movie hit early on during the monster craze of the ‘50s when the studios were spending some good money and taking these movies seriously.  It shows in quality of cast, writing, and effects.  This is the gold standard of the giant bug movie and deserves a 4 out of 4 stars. 

Let’s move forward a bit for 1975’s The Giant Spider Invasion.  This has the most unique origin story for our large stars.  A meteor or something like that hits Wisconsin.  Somehow its impact creates a black hole.  Honestly, I'm not trying to be vague about this because that movie doesn’t explain the details.  So, the black hole becomes a doorway to another dimension.  One apparently populated by giant spiders.  They start off in eggs that look like geodes and are filled with diamonds.  When they hatch, they are no bigger than tarantulas, but eventually get the size of a house.

I’m a big fan of regional filmmakers.  The guys that made movies specifically for the drive-in market in the Midwest and South like the director of this movie Bill Rebane.  Movies like this were made on a shoestring budget and were filled with “B” level stars if you were lucky.  The Giant Spider Invasion is an excellent example of this.  The most familiar face in the movie is that of Alan Hale, the skipper from Gilligan’s Island.  In fact, his first line in the movie is “Hello little Buddy” so you know they were cashing in on his appearance.  The other notable face is Barbara Hale from the old Perry Mason show.  Overall, the script is solid but nothing special.  This is a creature feature that was cashing in on the success of Jaws only this time with spiders.  Hell, there is even a line in the movie where someone mentions that the spider makes the shark from Jaws look like a goldfish.  Oh, and there is some stock footage of military jets in this one too (recurring theme…)

Again, I’m a big fan of regional filmmakers and of Rebane’s movies in particular.  One of the things that he does best is getting the most out of his special effects.  Whether it is a Bigfoot costume or building a set to make a ghost attack look good he gets some bang out of his buck.  Here you have a rather legendary bit with the giant version of the spiders being made to fit on a VW Beetle.  Watch in the shots that you never get to see its legs touch the ground when it moves.  If you did then you would see the wheels of the car.  This kind of ingenuity is what has always made me a fan of the independent regional filmmaker.

Okay so while I'm a fan of movies made on a low budget I will say that this one doesn't stand up well when compared to something like Them!.  The cast, story, and effects work on The Giant Spider Invasion while fun aren’t as good as they would have been with more resources.  You have to appreciate this movie for what it is and what it was made to do.  Quickly made for a specific market and to take advantage of the new creature feature craze I can appreciate The Giant Spider Invasion.  But realistically the best I can give it rating wise is 2 ½ out of 4.

Let’s jump back into the ‘50s with another classic Black and White entry into the giant bug genre.  More giant spiders except this time they are from earth and stalk around the desert.  Yep, I’m going to talk about 1955’s Tarantula. 

Familiar face and genre vet John Agar plays a doctor named Matt Hastings with a practice in a small desert town.  After they find a body that seems to be ravaged by a disease that shouldn’t have been so advanced it sets Hastings to investigating the goings on with a local scientist.  In an effort to help feed the world the scientist has created a formula to speed the growth up of animal tissue. After an accident a tarantula escapes and grows and grows.  Much mayhem and destruction ensue. 

This is another really well-made movie.  The special effects are solid if a bit dated.  We get to see the spider tear down a house, toss a truck in the air, and do battle with the air force.  It all looks great on screen.  They do a wonderful job of blending the footage of a real tarantula with the actors.  There are a couple of times that they use a puppet, but mostly they avoid that.  Also, there are some decent makeups on the actors that are afflicted with the disease that first puts the Hastings character on the case that are gruesome looking for the ‘50s.

In addition to the previously mentioned Agar the movie also has another familiar face in the cast as the scientist that causes the whole giant tarantula problem.  Leo G. Carroll makes a rare appearance in a genre movie.  He is much better known for being a favorite actor of Alfred Hitchcock in many of his classic films.  A very young Clint Eastwood makes a blink and you’ll miss it appearance as a fighter pilot dumping napalm on the Tarantula (stock footage of jets again).  The director of the movie is another favorite of mine, Jack Arnold.  Not only did he make some other great sci-fi movies during the ‘50s (Creature from the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature, It Came from Outer Space) but he later made some of the better Blaxploitation movies with Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. 

Clearly there was a lot of talent involved in make Tarantula and it shows.  This is one of the better giant bug movies and played a lot on late night movie shows.  I even recently saw that Svengoolie out of Chicago was playing it on his show, so the tradition continues.  This movie falls in between Them! and The Deadly Mantis.  It doesn’t quite get to the quality of the first but is better than the latter.  I’d have to give this one 3 ½ out of 4. 

Well, the time has come to talk about some Bert I. Gordon movies…  Where should I start?  I guess at the beginning would be as good as any so that would be 1957’s The Beginning of the End. So far, we have seen Spiders, Ants, and a Mantis all trying to replace human beings at the top of the food chain.  What other intimidating insects could filmmakers possibly enlarge to terrorize filmgoers?  Well, I suppose grasshoppers might be a good idea.  Yeah, actually that is probably a terrible idea.

Okay so to be fair they aren’t supposed to be grasshopper but instead are locusts.  They get into some crops that were irradiated with the atom (as all good ‘50s creatures were) and go on a killing spree.  The locusts lay siege to Chicago and the military decides that the only option is to nuke the city!  Luckily our intrepid male lead (Peter Graves playing a scientist) figures out a way to broadcast a mating call to lure the locusts into the lake killing them in the process. 

I really enjoy many of Gordon’s movies but Beginning of the End isn’t one of them.  This is a very early effort from him, and it shows.  The pacing is terrible with the movie being really slow at spots, especially the beginning.  When we finally do get to see the giant insects they aren’t that scary.  I mean grasshoppers…  Really?  It is clear that this was also an early effort at his signature special effects.  Gordon used a lot of photographic plates to put the creatures into the scenes in his movies.  Here it is very crude.  We get to see live grasshoppers crawling over pictures of buildings.  It looks very bad on screen and makes me laugh but not in a good way.

Like I said this is a weak movie.  The only redeeming value for me is getting to watch Peter Graves chew up some scenery.  The fact that he plays it so seriously in such an absurd movie is the only reason that I used to sit thru this when it was playing on TV in the wee hours of the morning.  This is by far the weakest of the movies that I’m going to cover here.  I give it 1 out of 4 stars for Graves’ performance alone.

Gordon returned with another giant bug movie in 1958 with Earth vs. The Spider.  This is a bit of a Tarantula knock off with many of the same scenes lifted and done not quite as well. The story starts off with a man driving alone at night when he sees something in the road.  He screams and there is a crash.  The next day we meet his daughter and her boyfriend.  They go looking for him and find a cave with a giant spider in it (another tarantula!).  The pair head back to town and convince their science teacher that something is in the cave.  They return with the sheriff and sure enough find the spider.  They kill it (or so they think) and bring it back to the local high school.  Sure enough it was only stunned and it wakes up hungry!  Much mayhem ensues as you would expect.

Like I’ve said this as a lot of similarities to Tarantula.  First is the fact that it is a tarantula.  But we also get a scene with it attacking a woman in a house.  Additionally, they create some gruesome effects (at least for 1958) involving human beings, this time victims of the spider instead of mutations like in Tarantula.  So they are definitely following a similar formula.  But for a creature feature to follow a formula, especially one from a successful movie doesn’t bother me much.  I just thought I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it.

There is a lot to like about Earth vs. The Spider.  I’ve always liked the fact that it deviated from a common theme in ‘50s science fiction and allowed an adult to immediately believe and act on information from the teenage protagonists.  As a big fan of these kinds of movies that is unusual.  It is also clear that Gordon has started to perfect his techniques in bringing oversized critters to the screen.  You get many shots with photographic plates being used to bring the giant bugs to life, but they have a much more realistic feel to them.  In Beginning of the End, they seem flat and look like pictures, but in Earth vs. The Spider there is more perspective used.  It looks like the spider is in the scene with the actors. 

While not a great movie this one is a guilty pleasure of mine.  I tend to watch it every couple of years and always enjoy myself.  Overall, it is a solid effort from a filmmaker that always aimed to entertain.  I’d give it 2 ½ out of 4.

We finally get to my favorite Bert I. Gordon giant bug movie.  It is cheesy as hell, but also a ton of fun.  I’m speaking of 1977’s Empire of the Ants.  In this one Joan Collins plays a real estate hustler trying to sell some lots in a new development in what I think is supposed to be Florida.  She takes her clients out to the isolated location and soon they find out that giant ants have already made their home there.  We the audience know that they have been mutated by some illegally dumped toxic waste.  The rest of the movie is them trying to get away from the ants.  When you think they have made it there is another twist to the story.

This is the 3rd and final crack that Gordon takes at giant insects as the star of his movie and of them it is the best.  He pulls all his old tricks out to bring the ants to life.  We get the real insects crawling around on photographs that match the actual locations.  The cast and creatures are put together in scenes with different uses of rear projection that works pretty well.  But what really sets this movie apart are the puppets that are used for the close ups.  Sure, the size of the ants changes quite a bit when we go from rear projection to puppets, but that is part of the charm. 

For Empire of the Ants Gordon put together the best cast that I think he had in any of his movies.  The two big names that jump out are Joan Collins and Robert Lansing (who also is half of the human/roach hybrid in the nest).  Toss in a very well-paced story and dialogue that is put together nicely to make one of the most entertaining Bert I. Gordon efforts of his career.  This is another of those movies that played a lot in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s on both cable and the late-night movie shows.  It never disappointed me then and still doesn’t now.  I’d give this one 3 out of 4.

Let’s go back to the ‘50s again with The Black Scorpion from 1957.  An earthquake wakes up a volcano in Mexico as well as freeing up some rather large underground scorpions.  They go on a rampage killing a bunch of locals and just when you think it is over the audience finds out that some escaped.  If that isn’t bad enough there is one particular scorpion that is bigger and tougher than the rest.  After it kills off the others the army is left to deal with the biggest and meanest one.

Now if you are fans of Grindhouse Purgatory you probably know that Pete already talked about this gem in the last issue.  I totally agree with everything that he said.  The stop motion effects work are top notch and a nice departure from what the other movies were doing to bring the bugs to screen.  The Black Scorpion also has a lot more atmosphere going for it than any of the rest of the movies except for maybe the end of the Deadly Mantis.  If you sit in the dark watching this one it will have some scary moments.  We also get some nice set pieces where the scorpions take out a train, attack a stadium, and fight each other.  If you have never seen The Black Scorpion, it is really worth tracking down a copy.  I give it a solid 3 out of 4. 

There are so many of these movies that I had to leave some off the list for various reasons.  Movies like the Wasp Woman from 1959 and 1958’s The Fly are technically giant bug movies.  I mean they are only people sized but that is still big for a bug.  Peter Graves appeared with a giant bug before Beginning of the End when he starred in Killer’s from Space.  While it is technically an alien’s invading Earth flick there are some giant critters including a bug in it.  1957’s The Monster from Green Hell has giant wasps attacking people in the jungle after a space probe crashes and mutates them.  Since we are on the giant wasp theme Bert I. Gordon’s Food of the Gods from 1976 also has an oversized wasp flying around causing issues.  But like Killer’s from Space, it really isn’t all about the giant bugs so I left it off my viewing list.

You might have also noticed that I stopped with the ‘70s.  That doesn’t mean the fun ended there.  The 80’s gave us the Fly Remake and The Nest (there was a giant man cockroach hybrid!).  In the 90s we had Skeeter, Ticks, and Mimic.  The 2000’s gave us movies like Infestation and Mansquito.  Hell, last year alone we had Spiders and Big Ass Spiders!  Movies like this have been with us since the ‘50s and don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.  I think that is a good thing.

I know that I have probably left out some great movie off my list.  But that is what is fun about this hobby.  Just when you think that you have seen them all or remember them all another one pops up.  So if you think I’ve forgotten anything or disagree with any that I did include feel free to give me an email at gutmunchers@gmail.com.  I’d love to hear from you. 

Until next time I dig thru the shelves have fun and keep watching movies. 


© Copyright 2021 John Shatzer



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