Folks, I'm going to try to keep this review reasonably short and sharp because this is a severely limited release - only a 1000 copies worldwide (!) - and those in the know will want to get ordering it as soon as possible.
Nicknamed Mr. BIG, filmmaker Bert I. Gordon carved a niche in horror/sci-fi exploitationers that incorporated outsized monsters and huge-scale dilemmas ... all on a micro-budget. With titles like The Amazing Colossal Man, War Of The Colossal Beast and Attack Of The Puppet People to his dubious but cult-savvy credit, his penchant for mutant critters besieging isolated outposts of humanity proved to be the main ingredient to manufacture pure hokum gold. Dana Kaproff's tremendous score for Gordon's Empire Of The Ants has already been released by Kritzerland (see separate review) and now we get to hear the equally fabulous and era-evocative music to his vigorous 1958 answer to the classic Jack Arnold chiller Tarantula from three years before, Earth vs The Spider (aka The Spider). Composed by Albert Glasser, this is fifties horror movie nectar. Laced with Theremin mysterioso and steeped with creepy strings, stabbing brassy fusillades and viciously pounding percussion, this complete score is enormous fun and positively bulging with mean and moody atmospherics and patches of rampaging dread. This is the stuff that helped make all those creature-features so darn irresistible - menacing low tones to musically warn those foolish enough to probe the spooky caves and lost environs of the beast's lair, shuddering percussive statements emphatically remarking upon the grisly discoveries of victims, shrill trumpet blurts heralding the approach of a badly composited monster, piercing strings to mimic the gaping-mouthed screams of bob-haired damsels in distress and, of course, the spine-tingling, sinew-stretching, blood-freezing galactic warbling of the Theremin, the official cadence of the eerie, the strange and the downright otherworldly. Earth vs The Spider's score contains all of this in skin-prickling abundance.
Big baddies ruled the fifties - 50FT Women, galactic turkeys in The Giant Claw, marching slabs of black rock in The Monolith Monsters - but big insects were the ones that held drive-in audiences in the creepiest grip of all. Leeches, Wasp-Women, flies, scorpions, ants ... but nothing was guaranteed to make the skin crawl as much as a spider! If even a little iddy-biddy one had the power to reduce grown men to quivering jellies, then a rampaging, person-devouring, mandible-clicking, leg-scuttling monstrosity the size of a house was the stuff of pure, undiluted nightmare. Pretty bad superimposed shots of a real tarantula vied with gleefully constructed (on the cheap) outsized models to depict the terrifying monster that does a Lazarus-style back-from-the-dead manoeuvre to outwit the local Sheriff and his DDT-spraying posse.
When the huge mutated spider begins to venture out of its skeleton festooned cave, all hell breaks loose. People go missing, canoodling teens wind-up trapped in immense webs, cops with Tommy-guns make gallant last stands on Maple Street, everyone overacts and, all the while, a great big spider just tries to gobble up everything in sight. It is a fun picture, to be sure. The sense of ominous danger is well wrought during the first act when the unwise search the spooky cave, and then, after one of those lulls when we are supposed to think that it is all over, the arachnid skirmishing takes over again with cheerfully grim aplomb for most of the rest of the time. It may not be as good, or as famous as Tarantula, but this is splendid entertainment through and through. The influence of Harryhausen's stop-motion leviathans attacking cities and causing mass panic is clear with the composite tarantula trouncing its way around corners and trashing cars, but this film is undoubtedly the thing that clicked in the minds of Dean Devlin and Ellory Elkayem when they decided to make the crazy horror/comedy Eight Legged Freaks.
The Main Title is a doozy. Most of these SF chiller scores from the era either stand out from the pack because of their signature themes - The Thing From Another World, Them!, Tarantula, The Creature From The Black Lagoon - or simply blend in with the usually irradiated crowd - The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, The Deadly Mantis, Black Scorpion, The Monster From Green Hell - and Spider, setting its horrific tone right from the start, hits the ground running with all eight legs and literally doesn't stop from there on in. Rising brass motifs and percussive reinforcement keep the powerful sequence hellishly discordant and unpredictable. The Theremin wails with its out-of-this-world celestial lament, bestowing another dimension to the, otherwise, rather conventional attitude that Glasser structures his ominous opener with. I can't seem to locate the name of the Theremin player - notes on this score are frustratingly sketchy, I'm afraid - but, whoever they are, they are certainly giving it some. It should be mentioned that the two most famous SF scores of the period that boasted this unusual instrument - Bernard Herrmann's The Day The Earth Stood Still and Dmitri Tiomkin's The Thing From Another World - are positively restrained and lyrical in comparison. In many way, then, Spider, as well as the vast majority of scores containing the Theremin, seems quite overt and juvenile in its application. To a critical ear, probably over-playing the effect. But to a fan's ear ... well, you just can't get enough of this stuff, really.
Glasser doesn't do the traditional thing of throwing in elements of crooning romantic underscore, although we do get some fifties jitterbugging in Track 8's Band Rehearsal cue, to depict the “kids” at the dance in the high school gymnasium - it's funny how these communities always seem determined to have their “events” when something monstrous and antisocial decides to come around - but this is an absolutely minimal interlude in what amounts to a tour de force of ferocity. There is, for instance, no love theme - what stands in its place is actually a melancholy refrain announcing the heroine's grief for her slain father. Thus, the score is mainly composed of the cacophonous, the driven and the unapologetically violent.
Most of the cues have been amalgamated together to form more substantial tracks, but this is the complete score in chronological order as Glasser wrote it. The film, as was very common for the era, rearranged some of the material and was inclined to repeat cues a couple of times over. However, since we are keeping this one short and sweet, by my standards anyway, I have chosen to just pick out some of the highlights of the score and concentrate upon them, rather than do a full on track-by-track review. If you have any knowledge of how the genre sounded in the fifties, then you will know that these selected tracks are a pretty fair approximation of how the full score sounds. It is fittingly big, brash and electrifying. Subtlety is banished and thematic development is as much a victim as the cast, the script and the performances.
Early sections provide that spine-tingling mysterioso, abetted with harp, undulating string lines, ominous low tones and contrails of the Theremin. Mood is key throughout these more shivery and anticipatory stretches. A piano and some trilling woodwinds accentuate the creeping, shadow-drenched sense of the macabre. The style is lifted far and away from the likes of what Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner would have done for Universal's horror output over the previous two decades simply by having that glacial Theremin parked front and centre, although it is fun to see how Glasser still incorporates some of the older staples, orchestrations that Christopher Young and Danny Elfman still employ today to evoke menace and mystery.
Track 4 hovers with foreboding, low register woodwinds dragging themselves through the intimidating cave network as we are confronted by The Web. The Theremin then kicks in, humming insanely over churning brass as the thing that created the web makes its lumbering, cymbal-clashing entrance. Listen out for the furious hooting from the trumpets. Track 6 attempts to humanise the Spider march by turning all militaristic for a spell, but the Theremin evicts such gung-ho retaliation from the authorities who have invaded the monster's lair. Hitting the beast with DDT, the good guys overcome it to the sizzling strains of the Theremin in full hyper mode, accurately representing the juddering throes of the beast as it succumbs to the gas. Sad Carol, Track 7, then comes over all Max Steiner-ish as violins and soft woodwinds form a lament for the heroine's dead father - whose body has been gruesomely drained of blood. Surprisingly tender, this cue acts as a welcome stopgap before the second half of the score goes ballistic.
After some ill-advised shukking an' jivin' in the first half of Track 8, Glasser gets back on track with some zooming, whining and caterwauling from the trusty old Theremin, and when the percussion starts to beat out the arachnid's march, the score is set to explode. The following two tracks, 9 and 10, are a wonderful barrage of precisely what made this genre so damn irresistible during this period. This is pulverising stuff that keeps hitting you around the head with strenuous strings, exhausting brass surges and some of the most sustained Theremin workouts in the genre. Glasser creates a wonderful lurching momentum for the spider with initially quite ponderous bass and percussion, which he is adept at then speeding up and strengthening as the beast - who can hiss and growl, incidentally - gets nearer. Cymbals clash and echo, woodwinds and timpani round out The Spider Goes To Town. High strings give up the chase on that runaway Theremin during the start of Track 10, brass clusters descend and then climb, keeping you off-guard. And then Glasser's tremendous rolling and lurching motif commences with all-out abandon. The Theremin spearheads the Spider's advance, but just listen to those drums and percussion barging along, the pace reaching a tempo that actually has your reflexes twitching, your body almost involuntarily preparing for flight or fight. Simply terrific and truly galvanising.
Another brief martial phrase starts The Plan, the first cue in Track 11, but menace swiftly replaces such stoic heroism and turns the beat into something more sinister. The bass drums drop into the distance at the end of Track 11 as our two teen heroes become trapped in the monster's cave ... for the second time. Anguished strings harvest our concerns as the pair realise that they may have been forsaken as the authorities seal off the cave in Track 12 and then a great bass thumping marks time like some impassive executioner as they await their grisly fate.
Track 13 starts off with some great spine-tingling trepidation for strings and piano, the keyboard motif sounding like something that Elmer Bernstein would employ. Brassy bursts sting their way into this pensive ambience as the Spider realises that it has some tasty morsels in its trap. Trumpets peal out in little sharp gestures, the strings sliding all over the place and then the Theremin comes back in again, marvellously supplying the “sproing” of the web-strands as the Spider's captives struggle about. This unique talent of the instrument is something that Glasser was probably elated to discover, let alone Mr. BIG . Even without seeing the film, you know exactly what is happening.
Track 14 carries on with more of the elasticated Theremin, and some bold swaggering brass for the approach of not only the dreaded Spider, but also the rescuers. Battle is joined with big bass drums, bouncing Theremin, wrestling brass and then, as the Spider is eventually incinerated, high strings sweetly play out in earnest relief. The End Title, only a minute in duration, is awesome. Containing a continuation of the restive, “thank God it's all over” motif that came in at the end of the previous track, this then erupts into a genuinely over-the-top, lightning-quick suite of the Spider's epic theme, in which the orchestra bash and crash together one last time and that Theremin-player's hands wobble so fast and frantically that they probably still haven't stopped shaking since 1958. A terrific finale that would send audiences out with a final shiver of delight.
Surprisingly enough, the album actually works as a sort of experimental project, literally pushing the moods of horrific suspense and way-out, wacky SF together into a collision that, in theory, should be the perfect marriage, but in execution, didn't always work out so well. Glasser was an expert at this, and although he had composed for virtually every genre, and even worked as a copyist for greats such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures Of Robin Hood) and Max Steiner (King Kong), it is almost certainly his shudderingly eerie and aggressive SF/horrors scores that presented him at his best and most ribald and most imaginative.
Bruce Kimmel supplies some brief, but suitably enthusiastic notes on Mr. BIG and his films, but there is actually precious little about Glasser's score to this arachnid's adventure. However, this is a great release, bolstered by ace in-yer-face cover art that depicts an almost art-deco, primary-pushed variation on the film's original poster. The CD has been mastered from Glasser's own 1/4” tape and presented in its original mono. Although commendably clear and brisk-sounding, the score can't avoid feeling raucous yet restrained, like a tiger in a shoebox due to the constraints of its vintage. But how can you resist Kritzerland's wonderful release of Earth vs The Spider? This is a prime-time, shivery-shuddery delight from start to finish. It may not reach the cosmic heights of Tiomkin's The Thing From Another World, but this more than holds its own against the likes of Henry Mancini's Tarantula, Bronislau Kaper's Them! and Herman Stein's This Island Earth, all of which came out during the same period and firmly established the immediately recognisable sound of 50's monster movies.
Eye-catching cover art puts the seal on the deal. Earth vs The Spider comes heavily recommended to fans of the genre who find enormous nostalgic pleasure from such a vigorous musical bombardment.
Full Track Listing
1. Main Title 2.01
2. Passing Notes / Looking for Dad / Finding The Truck 3.44
3. Looking For Dad in the Cave 3.06
4. The Web / The Amazing Colossal Spider 3.22
5. Back To The Cave With the Police / Dead Dad 2.55
6. Get That DDT in Here Quick! / Killing the Spider 2.29
7. Sad Carol 1.28
8. The Band Rehearsal / Beat It, It's Alive 3.01
9. The Spider Goes To Town 2.11
10. The Spider on Maple Street / Car Diversion 2.47
11. The Plan / Carol and Mike Trapped in the Cave 1.36
12. Sealing the Cave / The Rescue Plan 2.55
13. They're Trying To Get Us Out / The Spider's Stratagem 3.25
14. We're Coming! / Fried Spider 3.01
15. End Title 1.00
Amazingly limited in release, you'll have to be quick to catch this one in your web. Earth vs The Spider is brash, monstrous and defiant, an excitingly nostalgic musical treat that evokes the spirit of an era that felt no need to re-invent, to re-imagine, or to psycho-analyse its cinematic horrors, but just wanted to enthral. Mr. BIG's film isn't great by any stretch of the imagination, but it features a giant spider, some incredibly kooky-looking blood-drained victims and a genuine sense of “icky” threat. And all of this works, wonky FX and acting included, because of Albert Glasser's thunderous score. Composed in part as pure monster hokum and, courtesy of the Theremin, in part a galactic mystery, this score rises above the much more typical “blurt 'n' crash” style that creature-features of the period tended to deliver, and works as a terrific musical experience in its own right even separated from the film.
Brash, bold and shriekingly unsubtle, Glasser's horrific symphony is terrific fun. It may have its tongue wedged firmly in its cheek, and pull absolutely no punches, but it swells with menace, mystery, excitement and the chaotic swirl of mutated aggression. Even if you haven't seen the film, this is the sort of score that will put incredibly accurate images in your mind of the giant spider's rampage on small-town America. Kritzerland deserve some kudos for unearthing these genre gems - there's more on the way, apparently - and excellently produced albums such as this tend to make people appreciate such vintage chillers all over again. Which can never be a bad thing.
The percussive beat of a big spider's feet! The stabbing brass of mighty mandibles! The wailing, trans-dimensional cadence of the all-conquering Theremin! You've just gotta love this!
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