Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo (1977)
Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo (1977)

Genre: Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 35 min.

Release Date: December 28th, 1977 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Stuart Hagmann Actors: Claude Akins, Charles Frank, Deborah Winters, Bert Remsen, Sandy McPeak, Pat Hingle, Tom Atkins, Howard Hesseman, Penelope Windust

 


 

W

hile laborers shovel coffee beans into sacs for a plane shipment, large tarantulas sneak into the cargo. This takes place unbeknownst to entrepreneurs Fred (Howard Hesseman) and Buddy (Tom Atkins), who hope to take literal tons of Ecuadorian coffee to San Francisco, where it will be worth its weight in gold. Although they’re able to pay off corrupt officials at the last minute by accepting funds from immigrants smuggled in the hold, it doesn’t save them from the swarm of deadly arachnid stowaways. It also doesn’t save them from the dreadful saxophone theme that keeps cropping up.

After weathering a lightning storm, their plane loses all power and is forced to land at the tiny Meadowmere Airport, run by Joe Harmon (Charles Frank). But when a tarantula bites one of the pilots, the vessel instead crashes into Nelson’s Field, outside Finleyville. Sam “Doc” Hodgins (Pat Hingle) and impromptu fire chief Bert Springer (Claude Akins) rush to the scene, where Joe and Cindy (Deborah Winters) assess the damage. In short time, half the town shows up to get an eyeful of the wreckage – and the unconscious bodies trapped in the cockpit.

Despite a few reused shots of scurrying spiders, the setup feels more suited to a disaster movie premise than that of a killer insect picture. In fact, considering that the spiders are normal tarantulas (the title is misleading, as the genus is supposed to be that of banana spiders or wandering spiders, though multiple species are used during filming) instead of giant mutant beasts, the crisis doesn’t appear very monstrous (the Brazilian wandering spider is actually the most aggressive and venomous of all spiders). At one point, Sheriff’s Deputy Beasley (Sandy McPeak) wonders if the accumulating deaths are related to the black plague. Interestingly, the antagonists aren’t intelligent, destructive, oversized conquerors, but rather average eight-legged critters with a particularly venomous bite. In one of the strangest moments, creating a touch of perverse misdirection, a school for autistic children becomes the potential target for mandible-chomping mayhem – before two adulterous, picnicking lovers are attacked instead.

There’s a remarkable set of similarities to “Arachnophobia” from 1990 – yet “Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo” was released in 1977. The creatures hitch a ride from a South American country; wounds are examined and compared in order to identify the unlikely cause of death; a small, rural town is the target; a spider specialist is called in for help; and stubborn townsfolk are immediately skeptical. One of the major differences, however, is the complete lack of comedy relief. An admirable seriousness permeates the attitudes of the characters; most personas act and react as if genuinely in a lethal infestation scenario, concerning themselves with the loss of valuable property (when the orange factory is overrun) and plotting to outsmart the intruders with scientific means. And the film even has the nerve to kill off a kid.

Although the budget is modest and the made-for-TV editing is evident, the acting is surprisingly decent and the use of real tarantulas is welcome. If only the story had been geared more toward horror and the pacing tighter and the effects sharper, this could have been an impressive thriller. Unfortunately, it plays out like a procedural concerning an epidemic or a natural disaster – until, of course, for the couple of clever twists at the climax (including, hilariously, a character cracking open a book to read about the best way to get rid of banana spiders), which definitely fall into the realm of white-knuckle chills.

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10