Tuesday, October 30, 2012


The Nineteen Seventies were a fairly productive decade for spiders crawling across cinema screens.  Our eight-legged  friends emerged both normal and giant-sized from black holes that somehow found their way to Wisconsin (Bill Rebane's Volkswagen-propelled The Giant Spider Invasion [1975]), and covered an entire Arizona town with their sticky stuff in John "Bud" Cardos' Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), but it's Chris Munger's Georgia-lensed Kiss of the Tarantula (1976) that established a psychic link between the creepy critters and their master--or, in the case of this film, mistress.  The picture's obvious antecedents are Daniel Mann's Willard (1971), Phil Karlson's Ben sequel (1972), and William Grefe's same-year Stanley; like those rat and snake operas, the thematic shift here is from ecological to personal revenge.

Susan Bradley (Suzanna Ling in her sole film appearance) is the strange-but-lovely daughter of mortician John (Herman Wallner, a Victor French surrogate), whose police chief brother Walter (Eric Mason, apparently the only actor with other pictures to his credit) is planning a run for state Attorney General.  Uncle Walter, when he was a mere flatfoot, was the secret lover of John's shrewish wife Martha (Beverly Eddins), but the paramours' plans to murder John and move her out of the family mortuary she so despised were sabotaged by Susan's unleashing one of her colorful pet tarantulas on Mommy when Daddy's Girl discovered the plot.  Susan never said anything to anybody, however, so everyone accepted the story that Martha expired from a heart attack--the spiders, you see, crawl all over their victims but never bite them, although they certainly scare them into early graves.  Now Susan's in the flower of young womanhood, while Uncle Walter's incestuously licking his chops.  (Father John, of course, is oblivious to everything.)

Susan is considered peculiar by her peers because she lives in a mortuary--and a falling-apart one, at that; the house, which was also utilized for the climax of John Wayne and Ray Kellogg's The Green Berets (1968), sports several gaping cracks and holes in its ceilings and walls.  While her father's away one evening, several neighborhood goofballs break into the house to borrow a casket for Halloween hijinks.  Susan catches them, and the men decide to have a little fun with the fetching lass.  They drag her to the basement, accidentally killing one of her pets by dropping its glass cage.  This understandably spoils their erotic mood and the punks guiltily depart, while the distraught Susan plots vengeance, unleashing her arachnid familiars on two of the men and their girlfriends while the couples are necking in a car at a drive-in.  She simply cracks opens the passenger door--conveniently, no one else, either inside this particular vehicle or any other, notices her actions--and the mayhem begins.

Unfortunately for Susan, two of her friends, Tracy (Linda Spatz) and Joan (Rita French), are among the victims; sole survivor Joan is now a weepy basket case.  (The other three die from such ridiculous injuries as slicing their necks on broken window glass and being crushed between a car door and drive-in speakers.  Allow me to reiterate that none of this idiocy is observed by anyone until after Susan has regathered her pets and the theatre empties.)  A distraught Susan visits her bugged-out friend in the hospital, where she's overheard telling her "I never wanted to hurt you, but they made me do it" while being eavesdropped on by nosy Nancy Drury (Patricia Landon), who immediately informs Bo Richards (Jay Scott), the ringleader of the casket gang.  Bo apologizes to Susan for the men's mischief and asks her for a date, to which she surprisingly agrees.  She doesn't expect to be taken to the drive-in, however--especially to see a thriller ("Everything just seems so unhappy now.  Everything is just so down....That's why I like happy endings")--and, after Bo accuses her of killing his friends, she bolts from the vehicle.  The next day, Susan unleashes her spiders on him while he's caulking inside a ventilation duct at a building under construction.

People are dying right and left, but authorities are baffled--at least until Uncle Walter retrieves a tarantula leg from Bo's corpse.  Next he's approached by Nancy, who urges him to take action against Susan.  Walter confronts his niece, but assures her he can fix everything if he has her "cooperation," nudge-nudge-wink-wink.  He kisses the repulsed Susan, who kicks him out of her house.  The sorry scene is observed by Nancy, spying on the pair.  Walter chases and chokes Miss Nosy to death, then pretends to investigate the killing.  Nancy's corpse is now in a casket at the mortuary, whose business is definitely booming; when Walter returns to tell Susan what he's done and obtain from her more cooperation ("We have to look out for each other," he whispers lustily), she pushes him down the stairs, which paralyzes the fiend below the neck.  Finally, in a sequence so comically protracted that we forget all about tarantulas, Susan removes Nancy's body from the coffin with a special hoist, uses the same device to place her weakly protesting uncle in the casket, and puts Nancy back where she found her, sealing both the coffin and Uncle Walter's fate.  The picture ends as it began, with Susan smiling into the camera as she admires a spider.

Warren Hamilton, Jr.'s screenplay, from a story by producer Daniel Cady (who also wrote and produced the prison zombie anti-classic Garden of the Dead [1972]), is absurd but adequate.  Spiders here symbolize the dark side of female sexuality, amply manifested by the creatures' lethal appearances in womblike car and ventilation duct.  Susan herself seems reasonably open to physical love--she even has a perfunctory boyfriend who quickly disappears, as if forgotten, from the movie--but sex in this picture is a veritable killing ground; Susan's deepest emotional connection is with her pets, anyway, and it's obviously all she really needs.  Munger's direction only truly comes alive during the drive-in and duct sequences, enhanced by Henning Schellerup's otherwise mundane cinematography, which viscerally communicates the claustrophobia of the enclosed spaces in which the various characters find themselves trapped.

VCI's anamorphically-enhanced 1.85:1 version of Kiss of the Tarantula is available singly, as half of a 70s Drive-In Horror Double Feature with Curtis Harrington's superior Ruby (1977), and as the first film in a three-disc Scream Pack (whose ungrammatical ballyhoo on the keepcase cover concludes "...If You Can Still Breath!").  As with a fair number of VCI titles--certainly the pictures in this collection--the label's print is in as rough a shape as the Bradleys' house, with spidery speckles aplenty.  The eighty-four minute film, which is copyrighted 1974, contains eighteen chapter stops, as well as trailers for the other two S.F. Brownrigg-directed  Scream Pack regional obscurities, Don't Look in the Basement (1972) and Don't Open the Door (1975), plus John Llewellyn Moxey's marvelous City of the Dead (1960, with video-generated titles replacing the original U.S. Horror Hotel retitling), and Arthur Crabtree and Herman Cohen's Horrors of the Black Museum (1959).  The picture's amusing menu screen features several computer-generated tarantulas crawling across a web.  Sinister Cinema once offered Kiss of the Tarantula in its extensive catalog, but I've not seen this edition, which appears to be deleted.  Here's the film's original trailer.  Happy Halloween!