Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a weekly column in which Kieran Fisher and I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the ’70s. This week we head to a small town with a spider problem in Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo!
Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) not only invented the summer blockbuster as we know it, but it also gave birth to an entire subgenre of movies — the Jaws rip-off. None approach the quality of Spielberg’s film, obviously, but they all bring together a similar ingredient list in pursuit of animal-related thrills. First, you need an animal threat. Then you add in an honorable public servant, a professional or two, and a small community under siege. Finally, the most important element, you bring in a mayor who’s more concerned about profit and reputation than he is about saving lives. Welcome to Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo!
When: December 28th, 1977
Two pilots (Tom Atkins, Howard Hesseman) looking to cash in by selling over-priced coffee in hoity-toity San Francisco leave Ecuador with thousands of beans, three paying passengers, and a whole cluster of deadly tarantulas. (That’s right, cluster. I googled it.) The nasty little buggers bite three people — all of whom seem unaware that they’ve been bitten — and soon the plane is in dire straits as it loses power and altitude. They radio ahead to a small Cailifornia town but crash into a field before reaching the airport.
A crowd rushes to the site, but bad luck and worse choices lead to an explosion and fire that distracts the townspeople as hundreds of furry death-dealers crawl from the wreckage and head towards the local orange warehouse. They’re not called banana spiders for nothing! Soon locals are dropping dead — including a kid who just wanted to touch his first spider! — and while the mayor yells about “oranges!” a small band of heroes gather to defeat the fangy horde with hi-tech audio equipment. Yeah, you read that right.
Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo isn’t great cinema, but as a made-for-TV Jaws ripoff it’s an entertaining romp. It checks the boxes on all of the subgenre’s necessary elements, and while the budget, director Stuart Hagmann, and the restraints of television keep things fairly unmemorable on the set-piece side it manages more than a little fun. (Co-writer Guerdon Trueblood has been down this bug-filled road before with Ants! (1977) which premiered on a different network just four weeks prior.) The townspeople are a mix of stoic heroics (storoics, if you will) and crazy drama, the cast is a solid mix of familiar faces, and the mayor is the best since ol’ Murray “Vaughn” Hamilton sleazed his way through the streets of Amity.
Mayor Douglas (Burt Remsen; Eye of the Tiger, 1986) is a real piece of work. In addition to running the town he also heads up the town’s biggest employer, the orange farm, and he’s not here for any talk about destroying oranges to kill the spiders. He’s told about the plane crash… “We gotta get these people back to picking oranges.” He’s shown the carnage and the dead bodies… “We gotta get these people back to picking oranges.” He’s informed the spiders have taken up residence in his orange warehouse… well, you get the idea. He goes so far as to threaten to arrest the fire chief (Claude Akins; Tentacles, 1977) and town doctor (Pat Hingle, Maximum Overdrive, 1986) if they let people know about the killer arachnids. He’s the worst.
The townspeople are hardly better, though, as evidenced by their behavior throughout this disaster. One guy steals coffee from the plane while the bodies are carted away, and he’s bit. A woman having an affair thinks it’s her lover tickling her foot only to discover it’s a spider, and she’s bit. The guy whose side piece just died suggests burning down the warehouse so he can collect the insurance money, and while he’s not bit he does fall to his death. Another dude isn’t interested in a serious relationship with his girlfriend because she has a kid brother she cares for, but once the boy dies it’s smooth sailing for their relationship! (He’s the hero.)
Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo may not ever be truly thrilling, and sure, it ends on something of a low-key note as they gaslight the spiders into thinking they’re surrounded by spider-wasps, but a kid gets bit and bites it! It’s a passably fun ninety-minutes for fans of such things even if does pull a Scream (1996) by opening with Tom Atkins, getting viewers excited, and then killing him off in the opening minutes.
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