Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Celluloid Zeroes Present: Adult Onset Lycanthropy :: Spinning a Web of Death with Dan Curtis' Final TV Fright Flick of the 1970s, Curse of the Black Widow (1977)

We open in a saloon where private detective Mark Higbie enjoys last call with a new found friend. They’re interrupted when a woman enters and asks for assistance with a car that refuses to start. Much to Higbie’s dismay, this beautiful woman with a continental accent asks for his friend, Frank Chatam, specifically, who reluctantly obliges. Once outside, the woman quickly puts the moves on the man, trying to seduce him. But Frank quickly pushes her away; seems he’s waiting for his date and doesn’t appreciate her duping him. As he moves to head back inside, his eyes suddenly go wide with fear as the woman's starts glowing, and then she transform into something ... else and ferociously attacks him – an attack that ends with a sickening double-barreled *thwack*. Inside the bar, Higbie and the bartender hear the man scream and investigate. They find his body with two huge puncture wounds in the chest but hardly any blood. And while Higbie focuses on the body, the bartender sees something scurrying up a steep cliff and then disappear over the top.

When the police arrive, Higbie (Franciosa) is grilled by Lt. Conti (Morrow) but Higbie winds up asking most of the questions; namely what could have caused those huge puncture wounds without leaving any blood splatter? Turns out this wasn’t the first person to fall victim to this killer, with at least five others Los Angelenos meeting the same gruesome fate. And while Higbie thinks the mystery woman is behind it, Conti has another prime suspect: the Lockwood sisters; Leigh, that date Rick was waiting for, and her (fraternal) twin sister, Lora, but he refuses to reveal why. And as fate would have it, the next day Higbie finds Leigh (Mills) in his office, who wants to hire him to find the real killer so the police will leave her family alone. A smitten Higbie and his faithful assistant, Flaps (Kelly), get right on the case; but he has to be careful while poking around lest he face the wrath of Conti.

That night, Higbie gets a call from the bartender. The mystery woman is back and wants to turn herself into the police but the bartender refuses to get involved. He is willing to deliver the woman, who calls herself Valerie Steffan (Duke), to Higbie and let him take it from there. But on the way to Higbie’s apartment, Steffan swipes the keys and leaps out of the car and lures the bartender into a wild animal preserve, where she once more changes into something vicious and, judging from her point of view as she chases her latest prey down and kills him with what appears to be two huge fangs, whatever she’s changed into also has multiple eyes! And when the latest victim is found a new twist is added: the body has been cocooned in a web of silk. Now, I ask you: What creepy-crawly does that sound like to you? Are we actually dealing with a were-spider here?

To get the answer to that we’ll start with a showbiz career that would eventually span over five decades, which began on August 12, 1927, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, when Dan Curtis was born. Curtis would graduate Syracuse University in 1950 and landed a job as a salesman with NBC before moving to MCA, where he brokered syndication packages to TV networks. And after establishing his network bona fides with a highly successful professional golf program for CBS in 1963, with his own production company now firmly established, Curtis pitched an idea to ABC's head programmer, Leonard Goldberg, about a Jane Eyre inspired, Gothic-flavored soap opera. With his network always coming in a distant third in the ratings, Goldberg wasn't averse to this kind of outside the box thinking, and so, Dark Shadows went into production and would premiere in late June of 1966 but it struggled in the ratings as the story-line hewed close to Turning of the Screw, plot wise, until Curtis salvaged it by introducing a new character, Barnabas Collins, a sympathetic (but still dangerous) vampire. From there, Dark Shadows added witches, werewolves, a Frankenstein monster, time travel and ghosts to the plot cauldron and the resulting brew became a pop culture phenomenon and would run for 1,255 episodes before Curtis pulled the plug in 1971.

But Curtis wasn't done with Collinwood and its kooky denizens just yet, changing mediums with the feature film adaptation House of Dark Shadows (1970), which was followed by Night of Dark Shadows (1971). Alas, neither created enough box-office or buzz for a third so Curtis soon turned his attention back to the small screen with another vampire tale, teaming up with Richard Matheson and John Lewellyn-Moxey for the wildly successful The Night Stalker (1972), where a crusading reporter riding a '68 Mustang decked in armor of seer-sucker blue and a porkpie hat battled a real-life blood-sucker in the modern neon-drenched streets of Las Vegas.

It should be noted that The Night Stalker was not Curtis' first horror-themed made for TV movie (MFTV), with his Emmy-nominated take on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, featuring a stunning performance by Jack Palance as the title character, coming four years prior in 1968. But it was the 1970s where Curtis firmly established himself as the king of small-screen terrors, producing, directing, writing, or all of the above, The Night Strangler (1973), The Norliss Tapes (1973), The Invasion of Carol Enders (1973), Scream of the Wolf (1974), the completely gonzoid Trilogy of Terror (1975), and Dead of Night (1977). He also adapted MFTV versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1973), Turn of the Screw (1974), and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1974), where once more Palance surprises as the Count. In 1976 Curtis took another shot at the big screen with the creepily effective Burnt Offerings before making his last TV fright flick for nearly two decades, Curse of the Black Widow (1977). In the interim Curtis would achieve critical success and rake in several awards with the monolithic mini-series adaptation of Herman Wouk's The Winds of War (1983) and War and Remembrance (1988).

I remember catching at least part of Curse of the Black Widow when it premiered as it followed the William Conrad narrated The Making of Star Wars (1977) on ABC's schedule but I fear I did not make it to the end. I had the same problem with a lot of Kolchak: The Night Stalker episodes, too -- a spin-off series of The Night Stalker that ran from 1974-1975, where I was forced to go to bed before the mystery was solved and the monster of the week vanquished, leaving me to try and sleep knowing all those creepy-crawlies were still and on the loose in the living room. *yoinks* Anyhoo, so I did not get to see all of Curse of the Black Widow until much later when it showed up on one of the SuperStations, when they didn't suck, in the wee hours of the morning. And while it didn’t make much of an initial impression back in ’77, it sure as hell did on the second, especially the climax, where the telefilm, already teetering on the brink, goes completely bonkers.

And though I enjoyed the effort of all involved, to be honest, Curse of the Black Widow comes off as an unused episode of Kolchak – and probably would’ve come off better as one, too, as the film feels stretched pretty damned thin at 100 minutes. In stark contrast, The Night Stalker came in at a terse and snappy 74 minutes. (Some condensing wouldn’t have hurt, as several leads Higbie tracks down prove redundant.) Matheson’s absence is sorely felt in this endeavor, but his replacements, Robert Blees and Earl Wallace, do enough to make things work. There’s an unsubstantiated rumor that Curtis approached Harlan Ellison to write the screenplay for Curse of the Black Widow but, if he did, it was rejected. Blees was no stranger to this kind of monster fracas, having penned The Black Scorpion (1957) and Frogs (1972), but this telefilm struggles with the clash of 1950s rampaging giant-bug sci-fi failing to mesh with the gothic lycanthropic horror of the 1940s. Throw in a Rockford Files chaser to frame the whole thing and this movie should really be an intractable mess. But, it works, sort of, as it takes a fanciful long walk off a very short credulity pier.

The mind-boggling cast shores things up considerably. Kudos to Franciosa as the anchor, Higbie, who finds the right balance between smarm and charm and really sells the plot he's plugged into; a man who cannot believe the answer to the puzzle he’s trying to clue together but is smart enough to take them seriously. Clues that include dubiously obtained autopsy results that show the victims were completely drained of blood and pumped full of industrial levels of spider venom; a shaky eye-witness who swears he saw a giant spider flee the scene of one of the attacks; a crash-course in the legends and folklore of women who turned into choose-your-own-monsters when the moon is full and feast on their (mostly) male victims; and deducing all the victims, thus far, had dated or slept with Leigh Lockwood before they were killed; and shaking several more family skeletons loose from the Lockwood’s closet, whose family history is filled with tragedy. Seems their father died when his plane crashed in the Sierras, but the pregnant mother survived and gave birth to twin daughters in the wreckage, one of whom almost died after being stung multiple times by a nest of spiders, which links to a curse in one of those legends where a victim of such an attack gained the ability to … transform under times of stress or *ahem* sexual arousal. Unfortunately, the mother died later under dubious circumstances and all records of which daughter was bitten have been lost.

Helping Higbie piece all of this together is Flaps, his secretary and Girl Friday. Roz Kelly is an absolute hoot as this beleaguered assistant and has pretty good chemistry with Franciosa. Unlike most Curtis productions, I don’t think Curse of the Black Widow was intended as a series pilot but I for one would’ve loved to see the further supernatural adventures of Higbie and Flaps. Also lending a hand is Conti’s much friendlier partner, “Rags” Ragsdale (Gail), who makes Higbie work for the clues but steers him in the right direction to, hopefully, come to the same conclusion that, as improbable as it sounds, there’s a giant were-spider running loose and killing people.

As to who that might be, well, if Curtis was the king of MFTV movies of the 1970s, then Donna Mills was the undisputed queen, having appeared in dozens of them [Night of Terror (1972), Beyond the Bermuda Triangle (1975), Superdome (1978)]. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have a lot to do as Leigh except look pretty and be menaced – and as the heroine, she’s a bit of a turd, sleeping with Lora’s boyfriend, who is killed after by the monster; and it’s not the first time she’s done that to her sister. Patty Duke, on the other hand, gets to stretch quite a bit with her dual role as the button-down Lockwood sister, Lora, and her alter-ego, the femme fatale, Valerie Steffan, who is another prime suspect in the murders as she’s been connected to several of the victims as the last person to be seen with. 

I think the viewer is not supposed to realize that Lora and Valerie is the same person at first but it’ll take a lot more than a wig and Boris Badenov accent to pull that off I’m afraid. And that’s why when Higbie calls Lora to see which daughter was bitten, we aren’t all that surprised when she lies and puts the finger on Leigh. This lie is confirmed when Lora suffers another psychotic break, strips, and starts to dress up as Valerie, a manifestation that asserts itself whenever her feelings of inadequacy when compared to Leigh overwhelm her, and the camera zooms in to reveal a tell-tale red-tinged hourglass blemish on her abdomen – [organsting/] the mark of the curse of the black widow [/organsting]!

And as we reach the climax, Lora lures Leigh to the ancestral mansion, where Leigh discovers that their mother (Lockhart) isn’t dead but had gone insane after watching Lora's initial transformation and her murdering Leigh’s fiance several years prior and was hidden away in the guest house by Olga (Allyson), the Lockwood’s governess, who has been covering up Lora’s crimes ever since. Here, Lora ties up several loose padding-threads as she reveals in a massive plot dump that Olga’s granddaughter is really her own daughter, and she’s been murdering all of Leigh’s lovers as revenge for stealing her boyfriends (one of them the father). She then starts to transform, and after the terrified mother throws herself out of a window to her death (-- the obvious stuntman is kinda hilarious), the were-spider attacks Leigh and starts to web her up. When Olga arrives, she meets the same gruesome fate.

Meantime, Higbie and Flaps arrive. Leaving Flaps to safeguard the grand/daughter, Higbie, still thinking Leigh is the killer, heads over to the guest house, where he finds several corpses webbed up, including Olga’s (-- a great shock moment). A few more suspenseful turns and he finds Leigh, who is still breathing, realizes he’s been duped, and cuts her loose. But once she’s free, the were-spider attacks – represented by a giant rubberized prop, whose roaring screech is pilfered from Rodan the Flying Monster. (No, I am not making any of that up.)

Higbie empties his revolver but the bullets have no effect. Luckily, he remembers the sage advice of the old Indian (Corey) who rescued the Lockwoods off the mountain that the only way to kill a cursed were-spider is with fire. And so, he chucks a Coleman lantern at it, which explodes, covering the thrashing monster with flames. 

And soon, the whole house is a raging inferno as Higbie and Leigh barely make their escape before it explodes, taking Lora and all of her evil with it. Well, not quite as we have one final twist to go.

Like I said: bonkers, but the bedlam is executed rather effectively. Again, kudos to Franciosa and Mills for selling the hell out of the climax. And major props to cinematographer Paul Lohmann and film editor Leon Carrere, whose efforts during the pants-on-fire climax and the earlier stalk 'n' kill scenes really help kick things up a few cinematic notches. And longtime Curtis collaborator Bob Cobert’s score really helps to glue it (web it?) together and help ground something so nucking futz you probably won’t believe it even when you do see it – which I suggest you all do as soon as possible. But, that won’t be easy, which is why I’ll wrap this up with another desperate plea to the Big Three Networks for someone, anyone, to release these old MFTV movies on DVD or some streaming service. Curse of the Black Widow was one of the lucky ones to garner a VHS release thanks to Anchor Bay at least -- currently going for and obscene amount of money. Thankfully, several rips of it can be found serialized on YouTube, but I still hold out hopes of a legitimate release for this and others of its hare-brained ilk.


This post is just one part of The Celluloid Zeroes' Adult Onset Lyncanthropy Blogathon. And to find the other pieces of transmogrifying nuttiness, Boils and Ghouls, please follow the linkage below to my fellow collective head 'o' knuckle's entries, please and thank you:

Checkpoint Telstar: The Bat People  //  Cinemasochist Apocalypse: Kibakichi  // The Terrible Claw Reviews: Sssssss // Tomb of Anubis: Romasanta  // Web of the Bid Damned Spider: Summer School // Psychoplasmics: An American Werewolf in London  // Las pelĂ­culas de terror: The Beast Within

Curse of the Black Widow (1977) American Broadcasting Company (ABC) / EP: Dan Curtis / P: Steven North / AP: Steven P. Reicher / D: Dan Curtis / W: Robert Blees, Earl W. Wallace / C: Paul Lohmann / E: Leon Carrere / M: Bob Cobert / S: Anthony Franciosa, Donna Mills, Patty Duke, Roz Kelly, Vic Morrow, Max Gail, June Allyson, June Lockhart
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