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“Giant Spider Invasion,” a 1975 low-budget movie filmed in Gleason and Merrill, Wisconsin, is a cult classic, in no small part due to Mystery Science Theater 3000, the Minnesota TV series in which robots make fun of cheesy old movies.
On Aug. 15 “Spider” will hit theaters nationwide, the first time on the big screen since its original release. Former MST3K members, now part of the company RiffTrax, will razz the movie in a nationwide simulcast. Lakes 10 Theater in Hermantown is one of the theaters that will broadcast the event.
“Spider” director Bill Rebane, now 82 and living in Saxon, Wis., took the original riffing in good humor, especially since it revived interest in the film. He’s not so happy with the upcoming show, however. “All involved in this promotion have been duly informed that RiffTrax has no legal license or rights to the movie The Giant Spider Invasion,” he wrote on his Facebook page in June.
He now says his attorneys are filing legal action to stop the showing. Whether it’ll work will become known by next week.
The Reader contacted RiffTrax, who responded by email, “We have a valid license for Giant Spider Invasion which we got from Mr. Rebane’s exclusive distributor VCI Entertainment. We intend to proceed with the showing.”
Rebane maintains that VCI did not have the authority to license the film to RiffTrax and he plans to sue both companies. RiffTrax “continued to go with it even after being notified. I don’t know what their lawyers are thinking,” he told the Reader.
Obtaining rights is a touchy issue for Rebane. “Spider” was a box office hit in 1975, earning a then-staggering $22 million, according to Turner Classic Movies. But Rebane said he saw none of that money, having been ripped off by the distributors.
MST3K obtained the film legitimately when they riffed it in 1997, he said, but that was for one-time use only. RiffTrax, though it has rights to numerous MST3K films and features three of its main actors - Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett - is a different company founded in 2006.
RiffTrax mainly sells old movies with comedic audio tracks through its website. RiffTrax raised $539,351 on Kickstarter, with 8,618 backers, to riff “Spider” along with two other movies in theaters. “Octaman” and “Star Raiders” aired earlier this year.
In the 1970s Rebane launched his own production company in Wisconsin, a family business that employed his wife, Barbara, his children and any willing friends and neighbors. They produced a string of B-movies that now have a cult following, including “The Alpha Incident,” “The Capture of Bigfoot,” “Rana” and “The Demons of Ludlow.”
Stephen King applauded “Spider” in his 1981 nonfiction book, “Danse Macabre”: “In spite of the title, there is really only one giant spider, but we don’t feel cheated because it’s a dilly. It appears to be a Volkswagen covered with half a dozen bearskin rugs. Four spider legs operated by people crammed inside this VW spider, one assumes, have been attached to each side. The taillights double neatly as blinking red spider eyes. It is impossible to see such a budget conscious special effect without feeling a wave of admiration.”
The main spider is indeed a Volkswagen, the legs operated by “nine kids with strong arms” crammed inside, Rebane said. The production was fraught with disaster: 100-degree weather, a spider refusing to blow up until after the camera was shut off, scalding a crew member; another spider dropping on a house and shards of wood nearly impaling the operators inside; footage shot during the day and darkened to night in post-production, so much the audience can barely see what’s going on.
Still the film features an all-star, if then washed-up cast: Alan Hale Jr., the skipper on “Gilligan’s Island”; Barbara Hale (no relation), Perry Mason’s secretary; Steve Brodie, known for TV and film roles in the 50s.
When Alan Hale showed up there was no workable script, so he suggested Robert Easton, a professor of English at the University of California and Hollywood dialogue coach. Easton ended up getting cast in a famously repulsive role as Kester, a farmer who finds his cattle slaughtered by the spider and decides to sell the venom-tainted meat rather than take a loss.
When MST3K riffed the movie, scenes of Merrill citizens running in panic were turned by voice-over into Wisconsinites rioting and yelling, “Packers won the Super Bowl!” At another point a robot comments, "This can't be Wisconsin, I don't see any signs for Tommy Bartlett's Water Show.” When Easton is on the screen: “This movie hates us.”
“It bothered me at first, but then everyone loved it,” Rebane said.
If he’s unable to legally block the Aug. 15 showing, Rebane says he'll go watch it at a nearby theater. So if you’re at the movie and laughing your head off, laugh with respect. The guy sitting next to you might be the guy who made it.