The spider man returns

Bill Rebane made campy 1975 creature feature
The spider man returns
Photo courtesy of Bill Rebane
A still photo of the set of "The Great Spider Invasion" shot in Merrill, Wisconsin in 1975.

The giant spider is gone, but the mind responsible for it lives on.

I spoke with maverick Wisconsin filmmaker Bill Rebane last week and can report that despite some setbacks — none more devastating than the loss of his wife, Barbara, in 2014 — the director of “The Giant Spider Invasion” is still a creative force.

Rebane, 81, who lives way up north in Saxon, where the weather has been even worse than ours, has a new World War II script he’d like to see filmed in Wisconsin. And he’s completing “The Giant Spider Invasion Scrapbook,” a fond look back at the making and aftermath of his most notorious and successful movie, shot north of Wausau in 1975. He hopes to have the scrapbook out in a limited edition of around 100 by spring and available on Amazon via print on demand.

I first spoke with Bill in 2003, when the Wisconsin Film Festival had the inspired idea of hosting a screening of a movie filmed in the state and known worldwide — “Spider” grossed $24 million in 1975 — for its so-bad-it’s-good panache. (The screening sold out.)

Before the festival showing, I reached Rebane by phone in Saxon, not knowing what to expect. He was candid, opinionated, humorous and still angry at “the suits” — his phrase for those on the business side of making movies — whom he said never treated him fairly.

I liked him and we’ve been long distance friends since. It was during that first conversation that Rebane shared the backstory of the making of “Spider,” a colorful tale with connections to “Gilligan’s Island” and the Madison mayor’s office.

Rebane is a native of Latvia, having arrived in Chicago with his parents in 1952 at the age 15. He binge-watched movies to learn English, and by the 1960s was trying to make his own independent films. Then and now, that business can be a netherworld of broken promises and bounced checks.

Rebane was doing TV commercials to pay the bills which brought him into contact with a Madison writer and producer named Richard Huff, who shared Rebane’s ambition to make films.

In the early 1970s, Rebane said, he and Huff collaborated on a screenplay called “Stargate.” It got Rebane some meetings in Hollywood, where the script was deemed insufficiently bloodthirsty.

The two writers huddled.

“Maybe a meteor could crash to Earth,” Rebane said.

“Maybe spiders could crawl out,” Huff said. (Huff told me later he thought of spiders because he hates them. “It’s an obsession.”)

Back in Hollywood, Rebane met with a distributor.

“How big are the spiders?” Rebane said that was yet to be determined.

“If they are giant spiders, you have a deal.”

“They are giant spiders,” Rebane said.

They still needed production money, and former Madison mayor Bill Dyke, who dabbled in show business, helped raise it as executive producer. The budget was $300,000 and the cast included Alan Hale Jr., the Skipper on “Gilligan’s Island,” and Barbara Hale, Raymond Burr’s secretary on “Perry Mason.”

Filming was at Rebane’s Shooting Ranch Studio north of Wausau, near Gleason. The undisputed star of the movie was the giant spider, which was made by a welder friend of Rebane’s with chicken wire and a rusted-out Volkswagen Beetle.

Among the spider’s admirers was the celebrated horror writer Stephen King, who in his nonfiction book “Danse Macabre” wrote of it and the film: “In spite of the title, there is really only one giant spider, but we don’t feel cheated because it’s a dilly.”

The film grossed $24 million though most of that was overseas and Rebane claimed to have seen little of it. These days “The Giant Spider Invasion” is widely regarded as a camp classic. The 40th anniversary special collector’s edition was released in 2015 on Blu-ray and DVD.

There have been losses. Dick Huff died in 2011, Bill Dyke in 2016. As noted, Barbara Rebane — whom Bill called “the backbone of my life and entire career” — died in 2014. Rebane lost Shooting Ranch Studio to bankruptcy and he lost the spider, too. In 2013 someone stole the frame from a farm near Gleason where it was stored and sold it for scrap metal. (Before getting too choked up about the spider, it needs to be said Bill did put it up for sale once on eBay when he needed funds. Nobody bit for the $25,000 asking price.)

“I have a few of the springs,” Bill told me last week. “You know, the springs that moved the legs up and down.”

I was going to say Bill Rebane is a survivor, but I think he’s more than that. He kicks adversity to the curb. There is always another project. A script Rebane sold called “Winter Roses” was produced in 2015, but under another title. They butchered it, Bill said. The suits again.

He was a little down when we spoke recently, his big house up north — “50 miles from civilization” — cold and lonely. That’s why his work on the “Spider” scrapbook is such a good thing.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Bill Rebane. He deserves some.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.