“If a movie makes you happy, for whatever
reason, then it’s a good movie.”
REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*******
BY ERNIE MAGNOTTA
If there’s one thing I love, it’s 1970s
made-for-TV horror films. I remember sitting in front of the television as a
kid and watching a plethora of films
such as Gargoyles, Bad Ronald, Satan’s School for Girls, Horror
at 37,000 Feet, Devil Dog: Hound of
Hell, Scream Pretty Peggy, Don’t Be
Afraid of the Dark, Moon of the Wolf
and The Initiation of Sarah just to
name a few. Some of those are better than others, but all were fun.
When I think back, there have been some
legendary names associated with small screen horrors. Genre masters John
Carpenter (Halloween), Steven
Spielberg (Jaws), Wes Craven (Nightmare on Elm Street), Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Joseph
Stefano (Psycho) all took shots at
television horror and created the amazing films Someone’s Watching Me!, Duel,
Summer of Fear, Salem’s Lot and Home for the
However, there was one man whose name
became synonymous with 1970s made-for-TV horrors. When it came to scaring the
living daylights out of people in the privacy of their own homes, producer/director
Dan Curtis was king.
Curtis’ first foray into television
horror was as a producer of the 1960s classic, gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, which ran successfully
from 1966-1971. Then, in 1968, he produced his first TV horror movie The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
which starred the late, great Jack Palance (Shane,
Torture Garden, Alone in the Dark, City
Slickers) in the title role.
In 1972, Curtis would team with
legendary author Richard Matheson (I Am
Legend, Twilight Zone, Incredible Shrinking Man, Duel) and, over the next five years,
they would create a series of unforgettable made-for-TV horror films. Their
first collaboration is, arguably, their best. The two genre masters would bring
author Jeff Rice’s original novel The
Kolchak Papers to the small screen. Curtis would produce while Matheson
adapted Rice’s story. The film, now retitled The Night Stalker, was directed by John Llewellyn Moxey (City of the Dead aka Horror Hotel) and starred the great
Darren McGavin (Mike Hammer, Airport ’77, A Christmas Story) as intrepid reporter Carl Kolchak hot on the
trail of a nightmarish modern day vampire who’s stalking the back alleys of Las
Released to ABC-TV on January 11th,
1972, The Night Stalker became the
highest rated television film at that time and it would hold that title for
many years. The film’s enormous success led to an immediate sequel titled The Night Strangler. This time, Curtis
would not only produce, but also direct from an original script by Matheson. The
film was another huge hit, so, naturally, ABC wanted a third Kolchak adventure.
Matheson wrote a script entitled The
Night Killers, but unfortunately the movie was never made. The Night Stalker instead became a
weekly television series.
Unconvinced that Kolchak could be done
properly on a weekly basis, Dan Curtis decided to bow out of the series.
Instead, in 1973, he produced and directed another great made-for-TV horror
film titled The Norliss Tapes. This
ABC Movie of the Week was very similar to The
Night Stalker in that it involved a writer investing the occult. The movie,
which was set in California, also served as the pilot to a series that,
unfortunately, was never produced. Written by William F. Nolan (Logan’s Run, Burnt Offerings), the film starred Roy Thinnes (The Invaders) and Angie Dickinson (Rio Bravo, Police Woman, Dressed to Kill).
1973 would see three more TV horrors
from busy producer/director Curtis. The
Invasion of Carol Enders which starred Meredith Baxter (All the President’s Men, Family Ties, Ben), The Picture of Dorian
Gray starring Shane Briant (Frankenstein
and the Monster from Hell, Captain Kronos
– Vampire Hunter, Demons of the Mind)
and Frankenstein starring Robert
Foxworth (Death Moon, Damien: Omen 2, Prophecy, Falcon Crest, Transformers), Bo Svenson (Walking Tall, Snowbeast, Inglorious
Bastards, Night Warning, Heartbreak Ridge, Kill Bill Vol. 2) and Susan Strasberg (Picnic, Scream of Fear, Rollercoaster, The Manitou, Bloody Birthday,
Sweet Sixteen, Delta Force).
In 1974, Curtis and Matheson would
reunite for two more made-for-TV films which Curtis would once again produce
and direct. Scream of the Wolf,
starring Peter Graves (It Conquered the
World, Mission: Impossible, Airplane), Clint Walker (The Dirty Dozen, Killdozer, Snowbeast) and
Jo Ann Pflug (M.A.S.H.,The Night Strangler, The Fall Guy), and the excellent Bram Stoker’s Dracula starring Jack
Palance, Simon Ward (Frankenstein Must Be
Destroyed, The Monster Club),
Nigel Davenport (Chariots of Fire, A Man for all Seasons) and Fiona Lewis (Fearless Vampire Killers, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, Dead Kids, The Fury). Curtis’ last television horror film of 1974 would be Turn of the Screw. William F. Nolan
adapted the classic Henry James novel which Curtis produced and directed.
In 1975, Curtis scored big once again
by producing and directing an amazing made-for-TV anthology film titled Trilogy of Terror. The movie, again
written by William Nolan from a collection of short stories by Richard
Matheson, starred the always wonderful Karen Black (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces,
Airport 1975, Family Plot, Burnt Offerings,
House of 1000 Corpses) who headlined
all three tales. The final segment, entitled Amelia, is the most remembered due to Black’s horrifying battle
with the now iconic Zuni fetish doll. Curtis would produce and direct another
made-for-TV horror anthology called Dead
of Night. Released in 1977, the film was once again scripted by Richard
Although 1977 would see the last of Dan
Curtis’ 70s horror creations, there was still one more film to go. Curtis’ 1970s
horror swan song would be the ABC made-for-TV chiller Curse of the Black Widow.
Curse of the Black Widow begins one dark, quiet night at a Los Angeles bar. A mysterious woman with a European accent picks up a man and then quickly kills him. When the men in the bar run out to investigate, the woman is gone. One of the men, Mark Higbie, is a private investigator.
The next day, Higbie learns from Leigh Lockridge that the man from the bar wasn’t the first victim of this mysterious woman. There have been several. It seems that all the men who were killed were former lovers of Leigh’s. She hires Higbie to find out who is behind these gruesome murders because the police are becoming more and more convinced that Leigh is the culprit.
Higbie takes the case, investigates a bit, and finds out that not only did the victims suffer from huge puncture marks in the chest, but they were all drained of blood after being killed by large amounts of black widow spider venom. Certain that this is a mistake; he investigates further and speaks to an ex-boxer who witnessed one of the murders. The huge man seems frightened out of his mind and informs Higbie that when he told the police what he saw, they didn’t believe him. When Higbie asks what it was that the police didn’t believe, the boxer tells him that he saw a man murdered by a giant spider.
The cops are no help. Lieutenant Conti has not only been covering up details, but he orders Higbie to stop his investigation. Higbie ignores this and, with the help of his secretary/assistant, Flaps, begins checking out Leigh and her sister Laura. It seems that the sisters were in a serious accident when they were infants and one of them was bitten by a horde of black widow spiders.
Totally intrigued, Higbie travels to the site of the accident and talks to a Native American man who knew the Lockridge family. The man tells him of an ancient legend where, under great stress, certain women have been known to transform into gigantic spiders and suck the life out of their terrified victims. All the women who bear this hereditary curse have a red, hourglass-shaped mark on their abdomen. The Native American man is the one who rescued the two sisters and, although he doesn’t know which one was bitten by the spiders, he tells Higbie that whichever one it was is the one responsible for the murders.
Completely convinced that the legend is true, Higbie contacts Laura at her home and she confesses to him that Leigh is the one who was bitten when they were kids. Higbie informs her of how dangerous Leigh is, so Laura decides to leave.
Meanwhile, Leigh arrives and stumbles upon an upstairs room where she discovers her extremely frightened mother. As Leigh attempts to calm her mother down, the mysterious woman from the bar appears behind them. It turns out that Laura was really the one who was bitten as a child. She also suffers from a split personality brought about by her feelings of inadequacy when compared to her beautiful sister. When this happens, she becomes the mysterious Valerie Stefan. As Valerie, she tried to seduce Leigh’s boyfriends and when they refused her, she became the black widow and killed them. Leigh and Laura’s mother, who Leigh believed had died, has been half crazed and locked up in the house ever since she witnessed Laura/Valerie kill Leigh’s fiancé.
After revealing all of this to Leigh, Laura transforms into the spider. The horrible sight frightens Mrs. Lockridge so much that the poor woman stumbles backward out of a window and falls to her death while the black widow snares the terrified Leigh in her webbing.
Higbie and Flaps arrive on the scene and, after a long search, Higbie finds a very much alive Leigh cocooned in a spider’s web. The gigantic black widow appears and, after a frantic game of cat and mouse, Higbie manages to set the homicidal arachnid on fire. He quickly frees Leigh and they both escape while Laura, still in spider form, burns to death.
With the case solved, Leigh attempts to forget the horrors of the past and get on with her life. She not only has started dating Higbie, but has adopted her niece, Laura’s daughter, Jennifer, as well. As Leigh and Higbie enjoy a quiet dinner on the beach, Jennifer goes swimming and we notice that she has the red hourglass birthmark on her abdomen.
Produced by ABC Circle Films and released to ABC Television on September 16th, 1977, Curse of the Black Widow aka Love Trap starred Anthony Franciosa (A Face in the Crowd, A Hatful of Rain, Tenebre) as Mark Higbie, Donna Mills (Play Misty for Me, Knots Landing, Haunts of the Very Rich) as Leigh Lockridge, Patty Duke (The Patty Duke Show, The Miracle Worker, Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby, The Babysitter) as Laura Lockridge, Roz Kelly (The Owl and the Pussycat, Happy Days, Starsky & Hutch, New Year’s Evil) as Flaps, Vic Morrow (Combat!, Bad News Bears, Humanoids from the Deep, Twilight Zone: The Movie) as Lt. Conti, June Lockhart (Lassie, Lost in Space, Petticoat Junction) as Mrs. Lockridge and Rosanna Locke (CHiPs, The Best of Times) as Jennifer.
Although it has never been stated, I think that the movie was clearly a pilot for a television series that never materialized. The reason I believe this to be true is in the “home base” set-up for Higbie, Flaps and Lazlo Kozart, a character played by the legendary Sid Caesar (Your Show of Shows, Grease). At the beginning of the film, we are shown that Higbie’s office is on the same floor as Kozart’s and they are constantly at odds over the temperature. Kozart can’t stand cold and when Higbie and Flaps refuse to turn up the heat, Kozart tells them “I’m gonna get your whole bum operation out of here.” Although Higbie does eventually turn up the heat for a while, I’m assuming this would’ve been one of many ongoing conflicts between Higbie and Kozart had the movie gone to series. I also believe that Vic Morrow’s gruff Lieutenant Conti would’ve been another source of weekly conflict by constantly trying to impede Higbie’s investigations.
What I wouldn’t have given for this movie to have made it to series. I would’ve even settled for just one more movie-of-the-week. Unfortunately, I seem to be in the minority when it comes to wanting further supernatural adventures for Higbie and Flaps. Almost every review I’ve read over the years dismisses this film for not being up to the level of previous Dan Curtis horrors. That may be true to some extent, although I like Curse better than, say, Scream of the Wolf. Not that Scream is a bad film. I just find Black Widow to be more entertaining.
I’ll be the first to admit that the movie isn’t as scary as Night Stalker, Norliss Tapes or Trilogy of Terror. Also, it doesn’t come close to balancing humor and horror as perfectly as Night Stalker did, but it’s far from a failure. Curse of the Black Widow is a ton of fun. It has so much going for it, but the reviews never seem to mention any of that or give it any respect. I’m here to rectify that problem.
First of all, look at that amazing cast. Impressive, isn’t it? Well, there’s more where they came from:
June Allyson (Little Women, The Glenn Miller Story) plays Olga, the nanny of Jennifer and the one person who knows Laura’s terrible secret.
Max Gail (Barney Miller) shows up as ‘Rags’ Ragsdale, a good cop who has a love/hate relationship with Higbie, but ultimately helps the courageous P.I.
Character actor and acting teacher Jeff Corey (True Grit, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Little Big Man) plays Aspa Soldado, the Native American man who tells Higbie about the legend of the Black Widow.
The very recognizable Michael Delano (Kojak, Rhoda, Starsky and Hutch, Charlie’s Angels, Ocean’s Twelve) is good as Carlo, the bartender who’s spooked after catching a glimpse of the atrocious arachnid.
AWA professional wrestling tag team champion and defensive tackle for the Green Bay Packers, H.B. (Hard Boiled) Haggerty, has a brief, but very effective role as Popeye, a heavyweight boxer who has been terrified ever since he witnessed the giant spider’s rampage.
If you grew up on 70s television, you can’t resist a cast like that. There are so many memorable faces and, even more importantly, so much talent. Speaking of talent, the great Dan Curtis not only directed Curse, but produced it as well and, although not up to the greatness of his earlier works, he does a wonderful job.
The movie’s structure is very similar to Curtis’ biggest hit The Night Stalker. Curse follows that formula pretty closely. We have Higbie who, like Carl Kolchak, is very likeable, competent and constantly in conflict with authority figures. Also, like Kolchak, Higbie isn’t the type to believe in the supernatural, but, when the facts he gathers clearly point in that direction, he’s smart enough not to dismiss it and brave enough to stop it.
The script, by Robert Blees and Earl Wallace, is pretty solid and the characterizations are fleshed out well enough, so why is it that this movie gets very little praise and is considered by many to be the black sheep of Dan Curtis films? I think the main reason is the supernatural element. I’m sure that on paper, the concept of an unhinged woman shape shifting into a giant, murderous, black widow spider made for a chilling read. The problem would be transferring that image to film and, unfortunately, the special effects of the time just couldn’t do it properly.
The vampire in The Night Stalker is a much more convincing monster than the black widow. It’s scarier and one hundred percent believable. All the actor needed was some fangs and a set of contact lenses and he could let his acting do the rest. In Curse, Patty Duke shines as Laura/Valerie, but when the transformations occur, Patty is gone and an unconvincing spider puppet takes over. Although we see very little of the puppet itself, it’s still a problem which causes certain scenes to be looked upon as incompetent or unintentionally funny.
Ok, so it’s not a five star classic. Does that mean it’s worthless? I believe it’s far from it. Curse of the Black Widow is a very well made television film. It has great acting, solid direction and what it lacks in special effects/constant terror or suspense, it makes up for in pure fun. Even if some of that fun wasn’t intended.
Here are some of the reasons that I think this movie is a joy to watch:
1.Excellent musical score by the great Robert Cobert who scored most of Dan Curtis’ films.
2.Semi-creepy scene where the spider chases Carlo through a zoo at night.
3.Nice eight-eye point of view shots of the spider watching its victims.
4.When Laura becomes Valerie, Patty Duke adopts a fun European accent and kind of sounds like Dracula.
5.When Laura/Valerie is about to transform into the black widow, the camera zooms in on her eyes which change color like the Incredible Hulk, except creepy.
6.Tony Franciosa is terrific as Higbie and seems to be having a good time in the role.
7.Roz Kelly is marvelous and quirky as the always reliable Flaps, Higbie’s girl Friday.
8.Sid Caesar says things like, “Don’t touch the thermometer.” (thermostat), “Stick your head in an ice cube.”, “You touch that thermometer and I’ll break your stockings.” and the immortal, “You didn’t come in here to eat an octopus.” (?)
9.At one point, Flaps threatens to push him down a flight of stairs.
10.The late, great Vic Morrow is his usual intimidating self as the no nonsense Lt. Conti.
11.At certain times, Higbie’s voice kind of sounds like classic cartoon character Snagglepuss. “Heavens to Murgatroyd!”
12.Rags isn’t above trying to eat Higbie’s donut. When he orders Higbie to leave it in his office, Higbie defiantly eats the donut in front of him.
13.Needing information that only Kozart can give him, Higbie bribes the man; not with money, but with heat.
14.Dan Curtis’ daughter, Tracy Curtis, has a cameo as a gymnast and does a flip which is pretty impressive.
15.Higbie, refusing to believe that there’s a giant spider on the loose, says stuff like “Maybe it’s a homicidal spider psycho or a freak-out bug man.” I have no idea what these things mean, but they always make me laugh.
16.When told about the shape shifting legend, Higbie says, “Please don’t tell me you think this thing is Valerie Stefan in drag.”
17.When Higbie, Leigh and Laura meet at a club, there’s some really stiff dude doing a hilarious dance in the background.
18.When Higbie tells Conti that he should warn the public about the spider, the exasperated lieutenant says, “Sure. I’ll do that. And then I’ll give my men giant cans of Raid and send them out after it.”
19.Creepy scene of Higbie falling through some rotted floorboards and becoming covered by tarantulas.
20.Jeff Corey humorously tells Higbie the legend of the Black Widow.
21.June Lockhart is wonderful and a little unintentionally funny as Leigh and Laura’s insane mom. Her role mostly involves being scared out of her mind and, at one point, she screams, “Spider!” at the top of her lungs.
22.Patty Duke looks good in a black bra and panties. YOWZA!
23.The hourglass shaped birthmark effect is terrible, but hilarious, because somebody clearly just drew it onto Patty Duke’s stomach with a red magic marker.
24.When it is finally revealed that Laura and Valerie are one and the same, Patty gives a terrific and very fun performance as the evil woman.
25.When June Lockhart crashes through a window and falls to her death, we can clearly see that’s it’s a male stuntman wearing June’s dress.
26.When Laura tells Olga that she wishes Valerie would leave her alone, Patty Duke delivers the best performance in the film. Excellent scene.
27.The giant black widow looks pretty scary and menacing the first few seconds we see it.
28.A fun ‘it’s happening all over again’ surprise ending.
So there you have it. The list shows some very good and effective scenes as well as some unintentionally funny/so-so ones. I don’t believe that the “bad”scenes make this film a failure though. It just makes an already pretty solid horror mystery extremely enjoyable in a different way; an over the top and sometimes unintentionally funny way. No, it’s not perfect. It has flaws just like a loved one does, but these flaws give the film character and charm. Nowadays movies are so afraid of being imperfect that they wind up having no personality at all and, as a result, are no fun. Curse of the Black Widow has fun to spare.
If you grew up on these types of films (esp. Dan Curtis productions) and watched these amazing actors in other movies over the years, I can’t imagine you not enjoying this film. However, if you’re new to this sort of thing, then just sit back, relax and immerse yourself in a time before cell phones, reality shows and computers. A time that was a little more fun and a helluva lot cooler. A time of tacky leisure suits, bell bottom pants, afros, sideburns, Farrah Fawcett hairdos, wild plots, oppressive authority figures, supernatural creatures that roamed the night and unlikely heroes who saved the day.
Oh, how I miss 1970s made-for-TV horrors.
I’d like to dedicate this article to the memories of Dan Curtis, Tony Franciosa, Sid Caesar, Vic Morrow, June Allyson, Jeff Corey and H.B. Haggerty. R.I.P.
(Note: this film has never been available on DVD. It was released many years ago on VHS and those tapes often command high prices on the collector's market- Ed.)