Release Date(s)1946 (November 2, 2021)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: A-
By 1945, Universal’s monster pictures had run their course and the studio was seeking new sources for thrillers. Drawing on a villain from one of its Sherlock Holmes films, the studio put a female version of a mad doctor at the center of The Spider Woman Strikes Back.
Gale Sondergaard (The Cat and the Canary) returned to the role she originated as Adrea Spedding in the whodunit The Spider Woman. In The Spider Woman Strikes Back, she’s given a completely different identity as Zenobia Dollard, a wealthy woman pretending to be blind in order to attract young women in search of employment as companions. With the help of her frightful assistant Mario (Rondo Hatton), she drains their blood and uses it in her experiments with plants and insects. Her newest employee is Jean Kingsley (Brenda Joyce).
Jean has been told that Dollard can’t seem to retain companions for long but disregards this danger sign. She is wary, however, of mute Mario, eerily lurking about. Dollard is very kind to her, even persuading her to drink a glass of milk every night for her health. Unbeknownst to Jean, the milk is drugged so that she will remain asleep while Dollard and Mario sneak into her bedroom and harvest her blood.
This low-budget film benefits considerably from Sondergaard’s performance. Her Zenobia Dollard is the perfect monster. In appearance she’s kind, helpless, and vulnerable. In actuality she’s obsessed with creating a death serum by feeding human blood to exotic plants and spiders. More self-controlled than her male movie counterparts, she exudes an aura of menace amplified by her low-keyed performance. This is not a woman who you’d want to invite you over for tea.
Joyce is the requisite damsel in distress and does an adequate job of finding certain things around the large mansion odd, eliciting sympathy, and learning things about her employer along with the viewer. The role is one that any actress could play and Joyce adds nothing special in her performance.
Rondo Hatton’s Mario is perhaps the most interesting character, even though he never speaks. Hatton was afflicted with a disease called acromegaly that caused his head to enlarge and his face to become deformed. Lit atmospherically, he takes on the unfortunate appearance of a monster. Since the rest of the film is fairly light on horror, his presence is particularly important.
Arthur Lubin, who had great success at Universal directing its Abbott and Costello films and the Technicolor remake of The Phantom of the Opera, relies mostly on creative use of shadows, Sondergaard’s sinister placidity, and Hatton’s creeping about to create a sense of foreboding. He uses sets and the studio backlot to keep costs down and exerts little imagination in staging scenes. Suspense is created only intermittently, even when the script offers opportunities to build and sustain it. Too often, dialogue is excessive yet characters are underdeveloped. The running time of just under an hour could have been expanded somewhat to flesh out their relationships. Nevertheless, Sondergaard and Hatton are the main attractions.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the Blu-ray debut of The Spider Woman Strikes Back is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The picture quality overall is very good. There are no distracting imperfections to hamper enjoyment. Director Lubin is not terribly creative with lighting and only a few scenes stand out with moody atmosphere—Jean’s arrival at Dollard’s house and the door being answered by Mario; the low-angle shot of Zenobia lovingly treating her plants; and brief shots of Mario silently lurking. Because of the nature of Rondo Hatton’s deformed face, the lighting creates odd shadows that exaggerate his menacing appearance.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and precise throughout, and music is used effectively in lengthy scenes without it to heighten suspense. A fire that breaks out in Zenobia’s laboratory crackles and increases in volume as the flames envelop the lab. Sondergaard’s voice is warm and welcoming, a contrast to her nefarious intentions.
Bonus materials on the unrated Blu-ray release include an audio commentary, a making-of featurette, and several theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary – Film historian Tom Weaver, with help from movie music expert David Schecter, discusses the film. Though set in Nevada, Universal shot the film on its New England street set. The opening is reminiscent of The Old Dark House as a visitor comes to a large, creepy house and is startled by a grotesque servant answering the door. Rondo Hatton, who plays the servant Mario, also appeared in The Brute Man and House of Horrors. He died shortly after The Spider Woman Strikes Back wrapped. Gale Sondergaard, who had been in prestige films, was under contract to Universal at the time.“Sondergaard was the number one proponent of feminine menace.” She was the first-ever winner of the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Anthony Adverse, and was considered for the role of a glamorous Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, but dropped out when the witch was changed to an ugly one. Sondergaard was blacklisted and her career suffered irreparable damage during the Red Scare of the early 1950s when her husband was accused of being a communist and named as one of the Hollywood Ten. Rondo Hatton came off on screen as being tall but was actually short. Several excerpts from the original script are read. The gimmick of a glass of milk given to the heroine is traced to Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. In the script, Zenobia’s home is in much worse shape. “The movie is hard up for scary stuff.” Sondergaard and director Arthur Lubin didn’t like the film and made that clear in interviews years later. Universal felt that they needed new monsters and spun off two from its Sherlock Holmes series—the Creeper and the Spider Woman. Filming was temporarily interrupted by strikers, who also interrupted House of Dracula, filming at the studio at the same time. Most Universal horror films of the 1940s had scores made up of music cues from other films. Given the tight budget, it’s notable that of the 40 minutes of music in The Spider Woman Strikes Back, only two cues totaling 3 1/2 minutes came from earlier films. An original score was written by Milton Rosen. The music adds great atmosphere, especially in scenes without dialogue. Outdoor scenes were filmed at the Providencia Ranch, which was perfect because of its varied topography and terrain, though several takes were ruined by passing planes. Kirby Grant, who plays Hal Wentley, an old beau of Jean’s who happens to live nearby, was a child prodigy musically and later toured the country with his own dance band. Under contract to Universal, he made Westerns and later achieved success by playing an Arizona rancher and aviator in the TV show Sky King. He died in an automobile accident while en route to watch the launch of the space shuttle Challenger. The Spider Woman Strikes Back was originally double billed with House of Horrors. The film cost $117,200, and is referred to as a “cheapie.”
Mistress of Menace and Murder: Making The Spider Woman Strikes Back (10:10) – Historian and author C. Courtney Joyner, make-up effects artist Rick Baker, and filmmaker Fred Olen Ray note that Universal was eager to shift emphasis away from its monster films made during World War II. By 1946, the studio was assigning films to actors and directors to run out their contracts, and tapped Arthur Lubin to direct. Rondo Hatton became a new kind of monster who didn’t require make-up. He was a learned man, not the dumb brute he played in movies. The film was shot quickly and cheaply. A series was discussed in which Gale Sondergaard would star, but nothing came of it. Sondergaard assumed Hatton was wearing make-up by Jack Pierce when she appeared with him and regretted not getting to know him better. Hatton “had an affliction and turned it into a workable thing,” making a living by exploiting his deformities. When he appeared in the film, he was near the end of his life and his illness was weakening him. He would die about three months after completion. The film embarrassed Sondergaard for years until she eventually came to terms with it, accepting it as one of her more famous screen roles.
Theatrical Trailers – Six trailers are included:
- The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1:15)
- The Mad Doctor (2:09)
- Night Has a Thousand Eyes (2:23)
- The Spiral Staircase (2:01)
- The Undying Monster (1:05)
- The Lodger (2:16)
Made and marketed as a B picture, The Spider Woman Strikes Back is a melodrama that holds the viewer’s attention. Zenobia Dollard and Mario are a menacing duo but never achieve the intensity or stature of Universal’s Frankenstein, Dracula, and Mummy movies. It remains a curious but failed attempt to establish yet another “monster” franchise.
- Dennis Seuling