Universal’s horror division put out more than just the Classic Monsters stable, and although it sometimes struck gold, most of its releases by the late 1940s were not particularly great. The Spider-Woman Strikes Back sits firmly in the “watch if you’re a completist” camp, offering a few decent performances and a couple instances of creepiness amid a convoluted plot and laborious pacing.
Despite the title, this isn’t actually a sequel: Strikes Back is a non-canonical spin-off of sorts to The Spider-Woman, a Sherlock Holmes mystery starring Basil Rathbone that introduced the femme fatale. Gale Sondergaard played the titular character there, too, whose methods involved using spider venom to slay her men for money. In that film, she was named Adrea Spedding; here, she’s Zenobia Dollard, armed with a better name and a nastier method of venom-abled murder.
The real main character is Jean (Brenda Joyce), who arrives in a small rural town to act as Zenobia’s assistant. Zenobia is a blind old woman, the richest in town, who seems to go through an awful lot of beautiful young women at her side. The only person with them in the house is her deformed assistant, Mario the Monster Man (Rondo Hatton), whose feelings about Jean are immediately threatening.
It takes awhile for Jean to figure out what is really going on around town, but the film, directed by studio man Arthur Lubin and written by Eric Taylor, doesn’t really hid the facts from the audience. Zenobia’s method of using the blood of young women in her toxic mixture is established early on, and it just becomes a matter of when Jean and the other supporting characters will figure out why people are dying.
Like I said, it’s really a film for those looking to see every Universal horror release from the era. Sondergaard is deliciously arch as Zenobia, but there are better monstrous women amid the rest of the studio’s mid-20th century output, and certainly in later versions of the films. Her use of women’s blood to power her poison allows for some decently subtextual readings, I guess, but there are better films for that, too.
The new 2K restoration of the film on this Kino Lorber release looks good; seeing these classic films cleaned up sometimes makes it a game of figuring out what benefited from graininess and grime on the print, but most of Lubin’s film is shot well enough that it doesn’t matter. Zenobia’s mansion is sufficiently gaudy and creepy to give it some visual weight. I love her botanical lab.
Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray features a documentary making-of short to provide some context to the film’s place in history, at least among its fans. Film historians Tom Weaver and David Schecter provide a new audio commentary track as well.