Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Spider Woman Strikes Back (Universal, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I found us a short (57 minutes) movie to watch: The Spider Woman Strikes Back, a 1946 production from Universal I had got as one of the eight films in my recent Sinister Cinema order, which was billed as a sequel to Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman (a 1944 production in the series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce) but really had nothing in common with it except for the casting of Gale Sondergaard as the villainess and a brief scene involving spiders. I get the impression writer Eric Taylor had seen the film My Name Is Julia Ross the year before and decided to rip off its central premise (which itself had been ripped off from another one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, “The Copper Beeches”), since he built his story about a mysterious woman, Zenobia Dollard (Gale Sondergaard) of the town of Domingo, Florida, who traveled around the world looking for exotic plants until two years before the main action, when she was blinded by a toxic plant she discovered in Brazil. Zenobia advertises for a caregiver and hires Jean Kingsley (Brenda Joyce), who just quit a job running a women’s clothing department at a store in San Francisco because her doctor told her she needed something less stressful. (Charles almost inevitably joked that the stress of her job had come from having to sell all those women’s clothes to men.)

Of course, like the sinister women who hire young female caregivers in “The Copper Beeches” and My Name Is Julia Ross, Zenobia insists that her caregiver be unattached, with no living family members or significant others who care about her enough to miss her when she’s gone — but she doesn’t reckon with Hal Wentley (Kirby Grant), an ex-boyfriend of Jean’s whom she broke up with because she didn’t want to move to Domingo with him but then she suddenly turns up there and he figures he’s got a second chance at her. He actually drives her out to the Dollard house and tries to date her, but Jean begs off, first because she’s too busy and then because she feels ill. It turns out that what Zenobia wants her for isn’t caregiving; every night she and her mute manservant Mario (Rondo Hatton, who for once isn’t being shot from low angles to build up his height; though he has his familiar acromegalic face, he’s only an inch or so taller than Brenda Joyce and he’s not particularly scary) give Jean a drugged glass of milk, then when she’s unconscious they drain a glass of her blood and feed it to a carnivorous plant Zenobia brought back from Brazil, whose flowers Zenobia grinds and turns into a paste that will enable her to recover her sight.

When she isn’t doing that (or anticipating Katharine Hepburn’s role in Suddenly, Last Summer by feeding live spiders to another one of her connection of carnivorous plants — the only scene in the movie that either depicts or even mentions spiders) Zenobia is poisoning the local cattle by planting toxic plants on the rangeland surrounding her house, which at least gets us out of that Gothic manse and onto the open range (the familiar locations from Universal’s “B” Westerns!), where a bunch of actors try to sound “country” as they bemoan the fate of their herds. It takes a while — even in a 57-minute movie — for screenwriter Taylor to let us know why Zenobia is doing this, but it turns out that the Dollard family used to own all the land around her house and she figures that by killing off the cattle that are now occupying it and bankrupting the ranchers, she can regain all her family’s old estate. In the end Hal figures it all out and Zenobia decides the only way she can save herself is to burn down her house, her plants and Mario and Jean — Hal rescues Jean but everyone and everything else in the movie, including Zenobia herself, is immolated at the end. The Spider Woman Strikes Back is a silly and dull movie, partially redeemed by nicely Gothic direction by Arthur Lubin (he’s best known for the early Abbott and Costello films but he seems to me to have been more at home in horror than in comedy) and great chiaroscuro cinematography by Paul Ivano, but saddled with a plot that makes no sense and a performance from Sondergaard that makes it seem like she was really, really tired of getting this sort of script.