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Caught in its web: “Earth vs. the Spider”

October 20, 2013

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Well, this is a surprise. No, don’t get all excited—Earth vs. the Spider is not a good movie. It’s actually a pretty ridiculous one in most ways. Still, it’s always refreshing when you stumble across what should be a grade-Z schlockfest, which has, inexplicably, a good deal more on its mind than the titular monster. Such is the case with this film, which takes the title-says-it-all premise of a giant mutated spider attack and turns it into a ruminative neo-noir about modern urban alienation and the pathos of comic book culture. I kid you not.

Somewhere in the unnamed Big City—a city, which, it seems, is suspended sometime between 1958 and 2001—a lovable but hapless young man named Quentin Kemmer (Devon Gummersall—taking a break from pining over Angela Chase) finds his life changed when he injects himself with a secret drug cocktail produced by Biochemco—the company where he works as a security guard.

"Okay, can you stop talking about this Angela girl for, like, five minutes?"

“Okay, can you stop talking about this Angela girl for, like, five minutes?”

See, despite being a decent enough guy, Quentin feels ground down by the world. His low-paying job has him living paycheck to paycheck in a cruddy apartment. His feelings of inadequacy paralyze him from making a move on Stephanie (Amelia Heinle), the cute nursing student who lives on his floor, and he can’t even scare off the bullies (laughably looking like beatniks) who harass her, since Biochemco only arms him with pepper-spray. When a break-in at Biochemco goes bad, leaving the thieves, a couple cops, and Quentin’s fellow security guard and father-figure dead, he decides he has to make a major change. Hence shooting up with the super-juice.

And that goes about the way you'd expect.

And that goes about the way you’d expect.

Quentin has a serious hero complex, having grown up on a steady diet of comic books, with his favorite being The Arachnid Avenger (a transparent Spider-Man parody), whose exploits he recounts with euphoric glee to his friend Han (John Cho), the owner of a comic book shop called Hero Worship. With this secret drug cocktail, Quentin believes he will acquire super powers and finally be the hero he so wants to be.

At first he is. He’s less and less vulnerable to pain. His senses are boosted, and he can spray webs out of his abdomen. At first it’s great, as he saves Amelia from being raped by a serial predator. Yay! He’s a hero. But things start to go sideways when, well, his body beings to change. And not in good ways—in mandibles sprouting from his mouth ways.

This is, uh, probably a bad time to bring up Claire Danes' Emmy win, huh?"

So, Claire Danes won an Emmy for Homeland. How’re you doing, Devon?

Running parallel to this storyline, is that of Detective Jack Grillo (Dan Aykroyd)—a formerly hardboiled dick who has been unmanned by a recent bust which left his partner dead. Grillo’s self-doubt has driven his drunken floozy of a wife (Theresa Russell) away and into the arms of whatever cop happens to be near. Grillo was on the case of the serial killer who tried to rape Amelia and now find himself on the trail of a very peculiar vigilante.

What’s notable for Earth vs. the Spider is just how melancholy the film is. Rather than simply give us Syfy channel-worthy crapfest about a kid turning into a giant spider, this film is shot through with palpable loneliness and sadness. In the face of a tough city full of criminals, hoods, and late-night watering holes frequented by the heartbroken, it seems natural for Quentin to slowly lose his humanity and descend into atavism.

"You're not gonna try and upside-down kiss me like Kirsten Dunst, are you?"

“You’re not gonna try and upside-down kiss me like Kirsten Dunst, are you?”

In this Earth vs. the Spider feels more like a spiritual successor to King Kong than the 1958 drive-in feature it’s based upon. Additionally, the  movie is filled with some very good performances. Gummersall puts all that leftover My So-Called Life angst to good use, and manages to sell his scenes, even through increasing amounts of prosthetics. For his part, Aykroyd puts in his best performance in a long time, playing a variation on his Joe Friday role from the Dragnet movie. His Jack Grillo is like what Joe Friday would become after a couple of hard knocks and busted marriage—a man betrayed by everything he drew support from.

Earth vs. the Spider was a part of a series of five films made for Cinemax that year, which utilized old American International Pictures properties and let Stan Winston’s Creature Effects studio have at them as a sort of last hurrah before CGI would take over the world. The other four films in the series are all pretty dire, making this one even more remarkable by comparison. Just the fact it chose to sample and implicitly criticize Spider-Man—with the 2002 Toby Maguire version well into post-production by then—shows that the folks involved had some chutzpah.

I guess a costume is pretty redundant at this point, huh?

I guess a costume is pretty redundant at this point, huh?

But we also have:

* I really enjoyed the movie’s weird time frame. It has a poppy, retro jazz score, most of cars are vintage, no one has a cel phone, but it still name-checks Desert Storm and contemporary geek culture. It’s a neat homage to the ‘50s monster movies.

* John Cho is hilarious as Han, at one point responding to a burglar in his shop with a toy lightsaber that he’s thoughtfully remembered to light up.

* Gummersall and Heinle’s final conversation through a locked door is downright heartbreaking.

* In keeping with the hoods’ retro sensibilities, one of them pulls a switchblade (favored weapon of the ‘50s juvenile delinquent).

* The film’s coda is a sweet touch.

Yeah, Earth vs. the Spider. It’s pretty good. Weird, that.

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