After a while, one gets used to the somewhat odd nature of many of these Forties Universal Horror films. After all, by the time this one came out, we’d had such oddities as an ape turned into a girl, a lion taming movie turned into a horror film, a private eye mystery film turned into a mad scientist film, and that Mad Doctor from Market Street in a movie by turns Film Noir, Shipboard Comedy, and Jungle picture.
So, it really isn’t that much of a surprise that this time we have one of those girl in peril, “had I but known” romantic suspense films combined with a mad scientist film — and a sequel (more or less) to the latest Sherlock Holmes film!
Now The Spider Woman (1943) set Holmes and Watson against one of their best film adversaries, a sinister female Moriarty played by Gale Sondergaard. Gale was one of those talented actresses who worked steadily, thanks to her knack for playing manipulative and treacherous women, Her Spider Woman character was so popular that Universal decided to spin her off into her own separate film — although it doesn’t appear to be the same evil woman.
She also acquires a henchman, Mario, played by poor old Rondo Hatton. Hatton suffered from acromegaly, a disease which causes uncontrolled growth — or, in other words, he was big and ugly. Universal decided to turn him into a major horror star about this time . Some claim he resented this, although I have to wonder if the stories that he just shrugged and accepted it all as part of the job aren’t true (I’ll admit, I’d like to think so). He would “star” in his own film series later this same year (based, curiously enough, on a character he played in yet another Sherlock Holmes movie!), and continued on the job until his death (which happened a month before this film came out — and long before his two appearances as The Creeper!). Mario is mute, which comes as little surprise once you’ve heard his voice in other films. As we expect, there’s a little hint of the brute falling for the beautiful young victim. But only a hint.
There’s not a lot to distinguish this one on the Romantic Suspense front, either. As usual, we have the strange happenings going on in the spooky house where our heroine has been hired to do a job — as companion to a blind woman. We know these events are strange and sinister because we hear sinister music when she first arrives. Which admittedly is helpful as we might not notice on our own.
Oh, and while we do have a scene where she wanders around the house in the night, she does so without either a candelabra or a nightgown!
It is curious that the hero is allowed to look a bit silly at first, like a goofy kid taken with the cutest girl in school. But the rigid demands of the form mean that he ends up taking a leading interest in the strange goings on and ultimately sorts out the mess.
But that’s hardly a surprise.
The Spider Woman’s secret plan turns out to be rather…odd. Even for a mad scientist plan it sounds wildly disproportionate (you’re going to kill a whole string of girls for that?). However, I will admit that this does seem to be an occupational hazard: after all, your average mad scientist would, say, go out and develop a race of walking plant men to get even with you for throwing your leaves on his lawn.
Unfortunately, it is also a bit mundane. Very mundane, in fact. Mundane to the point where she’d probably have done better to hire a good lawyer.
It definitely lacks the sort of glamour that taking over the world has.
And, ultimately, that’s the real problem. The end result is unexciting either as Romantic Suspense and as a mad scientist film. It is also quite difficult to explain how there could be so many long, drawn out sequences where nothing happens in a movie this short.
Oh, well. Yet another reason why it is so hard to believe that Universal actually made one of their greatest horror films, The Wolf Man, in the same decade.
And believe me, there are a lot of them!
Poster available at Amazon: