SON OF MADE FOR TV MOVIES WEEK: Curse of the Black Widow (1977)

To end our second week of made for TV movies, Bill Van Ryn from Drive-In Asylum and Groovy Doom is back!

Dan Curtis was responsible for delivering a number of memorable genre productions. Cult TV series “Dark Shadows” is definitely his most successful and enduring endeavor, but he got a couple of other major lobbies into his lengthy career as well. Including being a producer of the original TV film The Night Stalker, he directed the sequel himself, The Night Strangler. Although he wasn’t involved the weekly series that followed, titled “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”, it’s interesting that the rest of the output Curtis was involved in took a similar direction. While “Kolchak” came up with a series of diverse supernatural monsters and threats for its hero to encounter every week, Curtis also gave us a bizarre menagerie of villains and creatures that his characters faced. Perhaps feeling he had exhausted the typical canon of vampires (“Dark Shadows”, House of Dark Shadows, and the TV production of “Dracula” starring Jack Palance) and werewolves (Scream of the Wolf), Curtis relied more and more on invented myths and legends, such as the killer hunting fetish doll that terrorizes Karen Black in TV anthology film Trilogy of Terror.

Curtis didn’t get around to today’s subject at hand, Curse of the Black Widow, until 1977, and even for Dan Curtis, it’s way out there. Just like his other films and programs, Curtis approaches the far-fetched material with great seriousness and realism that could be construed as camp, although this writer would never say that’s a bad thing. The creature that the creators have summoned in this film is a woman who can shape shift into the form of a giant spider. The structure of the movie presents this as a mystery, going through the motions and hoping you don’t notice that Patty Duke is playing a dual role. Duke plays Laura Lockwood, one of two twin sisters who were born when their father crashed his private plane in the desert. They and their mother survived for two days in the wilderness until they were rescued by a Native American. One of the babies had been bitten repeatedly by spiders, which apparently caused her to turn into a giant spider whenever there’s a full moon.

The script has a little fun making it seem as if the spider baby is going to turn out to be Laura’s sister, Leigh (Donna Mills), who also happens to be a romantic interest to the male lead, a private investigator played by Anthony Franciosa. Franciosa gets help with his investigation from a young hopeful he calls “Flaps”, played by Roz Kelly, who apparently could not play any role without her exaggerated New York accent. Franciosa tracks down the guy who discovered the plane crash when Leigh and Laura were babies, now living as a caretaker in one of the family’s abandoned vineyard properties, and there’s some suggestion of Native American mysticism that explains the spider transformation. I did a little research myself, and although there is indeed a spider woman myth, she’s a godlike creature and not a murderous monster that transforms during the full moon.

I don’t feel bad spoiling the fact that Laura is our trans-species mutation, because the film doesn’t do that great of a job disguising it. The script can’t really decide if Laura does or does not know she’s a spider lady; she has mental flashes that reveal snippets of the deaths of her unfortunate victims, but she also seems genuinely bewildered by them, and also of the existence of “Valerie”, an alter-ego she creates by putting on makeup and a wig and speaking with an accent. “Valerie” serves the purpose of frequenting bars and picking up men to serve are victims. The script suggests that she does this as a form of vengeance against men in general, having been victimized by a male rapist in her past. One of the best scenes occurs at the climax, where Donna Mills comes face to face with “Valerie” and somehow does not immediately recognize her as her sister wearing a wig. It seems one of Laura’s transformations had been witnessed by their mother, played by June Lockhart from “Lost In Space”. Lockhart went insane, and for some reason Laura decided to fake the woman’s death and keep her confined to an attic apartment in the family mansion. Leigh is stunned to discover their mother still alive, although once “Valerie” turns into a giant spider again, their mother isn’t alive for much longer.

The weird climax of the film is when we get most of the spider action on camera, and it’s none too convincing. Most shots reveal it to be a motionless prop dangling from wires, although some clever editing almost makes it passable. There’s a lot of creepy atmosphere in this sequence though, which includes Franciosa discovering the spider’s lair with tons of cobwebs and the skeletons of its victims hanging in cocoons.

Curse of the Black Widow plays like an episode of “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” with a different actor as Kolchak. The last film I commented on here was another TV movie, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which was filmed partially at the Piru Mansion in California. Curse of the Black Widow also uses the same house one of the main locations, proving that once a mansion has been cursed with such things as demonic imps, cannibalism (Folks At Red Wolf Inn/Terror House), sexual slavery (Pets), or Robert Wagner (“Hart to Hart”), nothing will ever change that.

Want to hear what Bill, Sam and Becca had to say about Folks at Red Wolf Inn? Listen here: part one and part two

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