THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK Universal, 1946. Gale Sondergaard, Benda Joyce, Kirby Grant, Rondo Hatton. Written by Eric Taylor. Directed by Arthur Lubin.

   A relic from the declining days of Universal’s Horror cycle, when they seemed to be making monster movies more from force of habit than anything else, this combines elements from their Sherlock Holmes series to little effect.

   The Spider Woman first appeared, fittingly enough, in The Spider Woman (Universal, 1944), pitted against Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes in a rather convoluted scheme whereby she gets men to sign over insurance policies to her cohorts, then drives them to suicide by having a pygmy (Angelo Rossito in blackface!) plant a poisonous spider in their bedrooms, and if that sounds a bit byzantine to you, just wait and see what she hatched for Strikes Back.

   Her minion here is played by Rondo Hatton, the legendary non-actor who first came to prominence in another Holmes film from ’44, The Pearl of Death, and in those days when Universal was crowding its monsters into things like House of Frankenstein/Dracula, it probably seemed like a sure bet to team him up with Sondergaard; too bad they couldn’t come up with some suitable deviltry for them to get into.

   Okay, so the story here is that Sondergaard lives in a creepy old house outside a farming community and she pretends to be blind so she can hire young girls as nurse/companions (the latest being Brenda Joyce, as the film opens) and slowly drain the blood out of them to feed to a poisonous plant, then have Rondo sneak out at night and feed some of the deadly vegetable to the livestock on nearby farms — you with me so far? Well the idea is that when the cattle die, the farmers will abandon their farms and then she can buy up the land at bargain prices.

   Oh, how the mighty are fallen. I mean back in the old days, Im-Ho-Tep was trying to revive his centuries-old beloved; Victor Frankenstein strove to create life, and the Invisible Man dreamed of World Domination. But all the Spider Woman can come up with is a Real Estate deal. The discerning critic can only say “Big Whoop,” and weep by the waters of Babylon.

   It doesn’t help either that this picayune plot unfolds at a near-imperceptible pace in a film remarkable only for the fact that no one really dies in it except (SPOILER ALERT!) the bad guys. The only casualties are cattle, leading me to wonder if this was in fact intended as a scary movie for cows.

   It certainly won’t do much for humans.