Curse of the Black Widow (1977)
Directed by Dan Curtis
Written by Robert Blees and Earl W. Wallace
Starring Anthony Franciosa, Donna Mills, Patty Duke, June Lockhart, June Allyson, Max Gail, Jeff Corey, Sid Caesar, and Vic Morrow
In the annals of Western cinema there are many monsters that take a human form, revealing their true nature only to kill. Perhaps the most tragic is the werewolf. Victim of a communicable curse, the lycanthrope is an unwilling servant of evil chained to the lunar cycle. But there are other beasts whose transformations are tied to the Moon: weremoths, werepanthers, and in Curse of the Black Widow a werespider.
The story is presented as a murder mystery. Men attached to the wealthy Lockwood sisters start turning up dead, and the only suspect is a mysterious woman with an outrageously fake accent. Leigh Lockwood (Donna Mills), concerned that the police will try to implicate her due to the suspicious death of her husband a few years back, hires Detective Mark Higbie (Anthony Franciosa) to look into the matter.
As a mystery, it’s pretty simplistic. Despite all the hullabaloo about the foreign woman, it’s pretty clear that the killer is either Leigh or her creepy, uptight sister Laura (Patty Duke). There are the requisite family secrets — a crazy relative, an illegitimate child — but they barely register against the truly bizarre supernatural element. Because of reasons, one of the Lockwood sisters has a split personality who turns into a giant spider. Why? Some nonsense about native legends, hereditary predisposition, and being bitten by a spider.
All of the above is learned through a combination of conversations with an open-minded medical examiner (Max Gail) and a former employee of the Lockwood vineyard (Jeff Corey). The latter is a staple of 1970s horror, the Native American with special insight. Perhaps due to recently raised consciousness of the historically racist portrayal of First Nations people in American entertainment, a new “positive” stereotype emerged wherein they were kind mystics, whose ancient wisdom came from their co-existence with Nature. In other words, they still weren’t people but were now there merely to provide guidance. It’s almost subversive then, that he can’t answer the big question: which twin was bitten by spiders?
So how does it fare as a monster flick? Considering it’s a 1970s TV movie and the monster is really just window-dressing in a tepid detective story, the spider content is decent. We don’t get to see it until the big finish, but the clues are fun. For some reason she exsanguinates her victims rather than rendering them into mixed drinks, but the giant fang marks (reported but not seen) are a nice touch. There’s also the compound that’s determined to be similar to black widow venom. Max Gail, cast MVP, sells the hell out of the rational case for believing the premise.
The spider itself is a large puppet, equipped with a few waving parts. It’s limited to a dark, crowded boathouse where it’s flaws can be hidden, and while far from convincing the effect is perfectly serviceable. It looks more like a tarantula than a black widow, but it does burn rather well. The famous red widow hourglass appears on the belly of the accursed, just above the line of her panties. Control top is definitely the way to go for the discreet werespider.
This is a ludicrous movie that gets all the sillier the closer it approaches horror. If you accept that it’s neither an effective thriller or horror story, it’s a fun little misfire. Gail’s M.E. is a joy to watch, and some of the obligatory detective patter is as snappy as you could hope. Sid Caesar has an odd but amusing cameo as the bail bondsman in an eternal thermostat war with Higbie. Then there’s the weirdest mystery of the entire story: why is Higbie’s receptionist named Flaps?