There is a shuddery moment or two in Arthur Lubin’s The Spider Woman Strikes Back, but sustained suspense and true horror are sadly missing in this lackluster attempt by Universal to craft a new horror series to replace some of its aging monster sagas.
The Production: 2.5/5
There is a shuddery moment or two in Arthur Lubin’s The Spider Woman Strikes Back, but sustained suspense and true horror are sadly missing in this lackluster attempt by Universal to craft a new horror series to replace some of its aging monster sagas. The title star is calculating and glamorous, but the movie surrounding her is pale stuff indeed with a running time that’s not even an hour long!
Career woman Jean Kingsley (Brenda Joyce) has left her high pressure San Francisco job for more sedate employment as the companion to philanthropic blind lady Zenobia Dollard (Gale Sondergaard) who is rattling around an old mansion with only the deformed mute Mario (Rondo Hatton) as a servant. Jean enjoys the work but is finding herself growing increasingly lethargic, unaware that she’s being drugged by her employer and drained of blood each night which her mistress is using for her own diabolical purposes. An old beau Hal Wentley (Kirby Grant) is nearby but can’t believe the sweet Zenobia can have anything to do with Jean’s increasing malaise or with the series of recurring poisoning deaths of area cattle, circumstances which are driving local farmers to sell their properties and move elsewhere.
Eric Taylor’s original screenplay has some creepy ideas that haven’t been fleshed out to milk genuine horror out of the circumstances he’s set up. Director Arthur Lubin does what he can to establish a shuddery atmosphere of menace surrounding the innocent Jean Kingsley, down to the clever way Jean’s locked room is entered each night and directs a quite marvelously eerie sequence in Zenobia’s hothouse where she feeds her beloved carnivorous plants the human blood and spiders they need to produce the poison she’s using for her own dastardly purposes. The one scene that approaches genuine horror involves Mario’s entering Jean’s room while she’s in a drug-induced sleep where he begins to fondle her throat seemingly with the intention of strangling her (though killing her this early into her sojourn there would not have been advantageous to Zenobia’s plan). The climactic fire effects are somewhat bungled for maximum impact, but there is one sensational fireball that’s impressive to see. With such a brief running time, the film is obviously a programmer rather than an A-list picture, but the narrative could have been fleshed out to establish a rekindling of romance between Jean and Hal, and the cattle deaths and subsequent investigation into their cause (which introduces Milburn Stone as a governmental botanist) could also have been extended and sustained adding more tension to the proceedings.
Gale Sondergaard’s Spider Woman persona was introduced in the fifth Universal Sherlock Holmes movie to great effect as she played a glamorous femme fatale who nearly bests the redoubtable detective, but there seems to be no tie-in between her persona in that movie and her calculating Zenobia Dollard here other than the murderous lady is being played by the same Oscar-winning actress. She’s still stately and sophisticated and does a fair job of feigning blindness, but one would like to have seen more scenes of her evil personified. Brenda Joyce makes a more than agreeable ingénue, and Sky King himself Kirby Grant has nice camaraderie with her in the scenes they share. Rondo Hatton induces clamminess just with his mere presence in the frame, but the pairing of him and Sondergaard seems like a promising idea that results in a mostly missed opportunity. Hobart Cavanaugh offers a calming presence as a kindly general store merchant.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 is faithfully presented in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. The image is above average in sharpness for the most part though many of Kino’s other offerings from the 1940s have contained more detail. Grayscale is quite good with inky blacks and clean whites, but there are still age-related dust specks and occasional debris that weren’t eliminated in the general clean-up for a Blu-ray release. The movie has been divided into 8 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is quite up to the task allowing a clear and clean representation of the nicely recorded dialogue combined with the background music and sound effects to make a satisfying whole. There are no problems at all with age-related anomalies like hiss, crackle, flutter, and pops.
Special Features: 3/5
Audio Commentary: film historian Tom Weaver offers a fun, rollicking audio commentary (complete with sound effects and other surprises) with much information. He’s aided late in the track by music historian David Schecter who discusses the musical score for the movie.
Mistress of Menace and Murder: Making The Spider Woman Strikes Back (10:10, HD): a bit of a misnomer since much of the information imparted in this featurette by historians Courtney Joyner, Bob Burns, Fred Ray, Rick Baker, and Ted Newsom concentrates on actor Rondo Hatton and not on Gale Sondergaard’s Spider Woman.
Theatrical Trailer (1:15, HD)
Kino Trailers: The Mad Doctor, The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, The Spiral Staircase, The Undying Monster, The Lodger.
Arthur Lubin’s The Spider Woman Strikes Back promises more thrills and chills than it delivers. A Universal programmer which could have been so much more than it ultimately is, at least Kino has produced an above average Blu-ray release that shows the film in its best light.
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