Curse of the Black Widow

Curse of the Black Widow
Starring Anthony Franciosa | Donna Mills | Patty Duke
Directed by Dan Curtis
ABC | September 16, 1977 | 1 hour, 40 minutes

Anthony Franciosa plays a private detective on the trail of a supernatural killer in a television movie that feels like a lost episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, with its outsider hero pursuing the clues and ultimately revealing the monster-of-the-week.

Following a murder outside a bar, Mark Higbie (Anthony Franciosa) glimpses an inexplicable dark shape fleeing up a cliff side. Although the victim was last seen accompanying a strange woman, the body exhibits an almost animal-like pair of puncture wounds in the chest cavity. The dead man’s fiancé, Leigh Lockwood (Donna Mills), whose first husband died in a mysterious boating accident, fears the scrutiny of the police, and employs Higbie to investigate.

Higbie uncovers a series of other murders, with victims exhibiting similar puncture wounds and complete loss of blood, along with a common link to Leigh and her twin sister Laura (Patty Duke). After the discovery of spider venom at the scene of a new killing, Higbie begins to accept a previously unthinkable theory based on native folklore—the killer is a woman who transforms by light of the full moon into a giant spider.

With compound-eye point-of-view shots depicting pincer attacks and squirting spider silk, little doubt exists from the opening scenes regarding the supernatural origins of the murders. A backstory involving a childhood plane crash in the wilderness, with one twin suffering a traumatic series of spider bites, serves to scatter suspicion of the mystery woman’s identity between Leigh and Laura. Could either one be Valerie Steffan, the mysterious femme fatale picking up and killing men?

Franciosa and Vic Morrow (as the gruff detective Gully Conti) play straight through what could be arguably high-camp material in the wrong hands, with only a few instances of fending off fake spiders and pushing through Silly String webbing. The POV perspective on the murders also allows for withholding the big spider reveal until the conclusion, reducing the need for too many mood-breaking rubber creature shots along the way. Some attempts at light comedic banter between Higbie and his assistant, (somehow disturbingly) referred to only as “Flaps” (Roz Kelly), fall a little flat.

Several familiar faces (June Allyson, June Lockhart) have small, slumming turns here, including Sid Caesar, who wanders onto the set as Laszlo Cozart, the investigative team’s heater-obsessed landlord. Popeye (H.B. Haggerty), a mustachioed Mr. Clean type questioned by Higbee as a potential witness, is somehow both a “wino” and a gymnastics coach. Finally, the unnamed morgue attendant (Robert Nadder) adds an unexpected undercurrent to his scene after emptying a vial of embalming fluid into a sink, and awkwardly declaring to Higbie, “Mark, you know how I feel about you.”

Ostensibly a monster movie, Curse of the Black Widow also throws in an undercooked schizophrenia plotline. A repressed female sexuality, all buttoned up and wearing glasses, triggers a secret murderous personality, decked out in a black wig and faltering German(ish?) accent, equal in murderous force to the spider’s supernatural curse.

It’s all hokum, of course, but unadulterated seventies TV-movie arachnid hokum – in heels.

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Alien Lover

Alien Lover | The Wide World of Mystery 
Starring Kate Mulgrew | Pernell Roberts | Susan Brown
Directed by Lela Swift
Aired on ABC, November 25, 1975

Failing to live up to its salacious title, Alien Lover instead delivers a pedestrian take on inter-dimensional contact that today’s audiences would probably consider as Alien Skype.

Institutionalized since the accidental death of her parents, Susan (Kate Mulgrew, Orange is the New Black) is released from the asylum to the custody of her only living relatives, aunt Marian and uncle Mike (Susan Brown, Pernell Roberts). Soon after her arrival, she begins to hear voices calling her name, eventually leading her up to the disused attic storeroom. Sorting through the detritus left behind by her electronics whiz-kid cousin Jude (Steven Earl Tanner), Kate discovers an old television set that harbors an unusual secret.

The set flickers to life with an alien presence: Marc (John Ventantonio), a self-described visitor from another dimension (vaguely resembling Slim Goodbody in Star Trek garb) who can see and hear Susan through the television screen. Equating the existence in his reality to human death, Marc quickly establishes a bond with the lonely Susan. After a scant few sessions, they are professing their love for each other, a feeling tempered by Marc’s somewhat sinister invitation to Susan to touch him through the screen.

Quickly declared emotions are about the only aspect of this production that run hot, with Susan also declaring hatred towards her new guardians. Otherwise, most of the just-over-an-hour running time feels downright languorous. Pernell Roberts seems bored and passively angry (Trapper John, M.D. still being a few years off), and Steven Tanner’s Jude character reduces to a shrill nerd.

Although a few trivial hints point to an alternate explanation—a relapse of Susan’s mental illness, a prank by her cousin, or an attempt by her relatives to wrest control of her inheritance—there becomes little doubt that Marc actually exists. Marian hears Marc while eavesdropping at the attic door, and ultimately Jude confesses that he has been receiving visits from Marc since he was five years old. Without this dramatic tension, the only real question becomes Marc’s intent.

Susan is sympathetic in her isolation, but Alien Lover falls short in delivering the treatise on loneliness in the television age that it perhaps intended. Directed by Lela Swift, longtime Dark Shadows veteran, this made-for-television project exhibits all the static flair of a quickly shot, low-budget daytime serial. The only thing missing is a flubbed line or an overhead microphone dropping into the frame.

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Night Gallery | Season 1 – Episode 6

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Night Gallery | Season One | Episode 6 | January 20, 1971

Segment One | They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar
William Windom | Diane Baker | Bert Convey | Written by Rod Serling | Directed by Don Taylor

Down-at-heel sales director Randy Lane (William Windom) reflects back upon twenty-five lost years at a plastics company, as the world around him crumbles. His sympathetic secretary Lynn Alcott (Diane Baker) tries to save him from his failing work performance, reliance upon the bottle, and up-and-coming rival executive, Harvey Doane (Bert Convey). Lane’s most cherished memories, including those of his late wife, all seem to be inexorably tied to Tim Riley’s Bar, now closed and slated for destruction, yet another erased link to a past that can never be recovered.

Windom’s empathetic portrait of a man disconnected from the modern world drives a surprisingly sentimental episode, lacking the traditional “gotcha” punch at the end. In the face of everything Lane cares about being lost to time, comes the most frightening question of all, “Who will remember?”

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Night Gallery | Season 1, Episode 5

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Night Gallery | Season One | Episode 5 | January 13, 1971

Segment One | Pamela’s Voice

Jonathan (John Astin) discovers that hell is certain other people, when the spirit of his murdered wife, Pamela (Phyllis Diller), returns from the dead to torment him. Continuing to suffer from the specter’s ceaseless nagging at the funeral home, his only hope of relief seems to be in finally burying her corpse. Although playing into the stereotype of the carping wife, Diller’s shrewish cackle—and arched, painted eyebrows–almost conjures a sense of sympathy for Astin’s homicidal husband, who discovers an unexpected difficulty in finding a moment of peace and quiet.

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Segment Two | Lone Survivor

Picking up what they believe to be a single woman alone in a lifeboat, a ship’s crew discovers a man in women’s clothing, and a boat mysteriously emblazoned with the logo of the RMS Titanic. An effective early twist regarding the perceived time of the rescue is ultimately squandered in service to a familiar story of cyclical retribution. John Colicos plays the role of the survivor with sweaty desperation–and a powdered-blue nightdress.

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Segment Three | The Doll

A British Colonel (John Williams) returning from service in India is confronted with a creepily malevolent (or maybe just grubby) doll, received via post by his young niece. Recognizing the doll as an agent of evil directed at him, the Colonel tries to convince the young girl to relinquish it–arguably, she should also have been persuaded to relinquish that satin blue ribbon in her hair. Pandit Chola (Henry Silva), the Indian mystic who devised the curse in retaliation for his brother’s execution as a resistance fighter, ultimately learns a lesson about karma from the doddering old imperialist.

Aside from a few more-silly-than-scary grimaces, the doll’s supernatural movements are left mostly to the imagination, helping to maintain the episode’s overall mood, and also proving the age-old axiom, “Never go full Chucky.”

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Night Gallery – Season 1, Episode 4

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Night Gallery | Season One | Episode 4 | January 6, 1971

Segment One | Make Me Laugh

After sixteen years on the club circuit, down-at-heel comic Jackie Slater (Godfrey Cambridge) seems to have finally bombed out. He meets Chatterje (Jackie Vernon), a self-proclaimed “klutz” of a guru [or as Chatterje pronounces it, “guh-ROO”], in a bar after a failed show, and receives an unusual offer. Chatterje has the power to create a miracle, and only needs a willing subject. Unfazed by the guru’s many disclaimers regarding his own inadequacies, and by the potential for unforeseen consequences created by this miraculous act, Slater desperately wishes for the power to make people laugh.

A fairly straightforward “be careful about what you wish for” cautionary tale, Make Me Laugh features an appropriately pathos-rich performance by Cambridge. The backstory of his bullied childhood, and the emptiness ultimately found in realizing his wish, reveals the melancholy counterpart to his comedy, but the tonal effort is undercut by the fatuous treatment of the guru. Wrapped in a turban resembling a curiously knotted pillowcase, Vernon’s miracle worker plays more like a bumbling sidekick of dubious ethnicity.

Playing the material mostly by the numbers, this segment takes the familiar path to an expected final reversal. Aside from a few nicely composed shots, this early directorial effort by Steven Spielberg shows little prescience of his trademark visual style.

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Segment Two | Clean Kills and Other Trophies

Big-game hunter Colonel Archie Dittman (Raymond Massey) tries to impart his ”whole world is a bloody hunting jungle” philosophy upon his pacifist son, Archie (Barrie Brown), by adding an unusual codicil to his trust fund. Unless Archie stalks and kills an animal, his potential two million dollar inheritance will be revoked. Unable to stand up to his sadistic father, who dismisses him as a coddled milksop, Archie agrees to the hunt.

When will Archie put down his whiskey glass and push back against his loutish, blowhard father? Never, because the Colonel’s comeuppance actually arrives by way of his servant Tom (Herbert Jefferson, Jr.), whose African heritage provides a convenient resource for a mystical revenge, the nature of which belies Tom’s own belief system.

The musings on the inherent violence in the world are just a set up for the anticipated final reveal, the most dangerous trophy of all.

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Night Gallery – Season 1, Episode 3

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Night Gallery | Season One | Episode 3 | December 30, 1970

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Segment One | The House

Elaine Latimer (Joanna Pettet) suffers from a recurring dream in which she drives to a familiar, but unidentified, house, unsuccessfully attempting to enter before she wakes. Recounting the details to her psychiatrist (Steve Franken), he assures her that the dream is harmless, before releasing her from the sanitarium where she had been receiving treatment for an unspecified illness.

Driving away to freedom, Elaine discovers that the house from her dreams actually exists—and is for sale. Undeterred by a creepy real estate agent (Paul Richards) who informs her that the house is reputedly haunted, she immediately purchases it and moves in the same day. However, owning the house does not change her condition, as her dream cycle continues.

The dreams are not traditional nightmares, but although completely lacking in scares, the repeated slow motion loops with Elaine exiting her car and walking to the house do cast an eerie spell. The agent provides an opportunity for some misdirection, as his introduction from the shadows outside the house suggests some suspicious nature, but the episode ultimately turns entirely around Elaine, coming back to her with a twist ending that provides more head-scratching than shock. However, Joanna Pettet imbues her character–and her flowing, gauzy fashions–with more than enough appeal to pull viewers through her ephemeral dreams.

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Segment Two | Certain Shadows on the Wall

Dr. Stephen Brigham (Louis Hayward) attends to his bedridden sister Emma (Agnes Moorehead), reading her passages from Dickens while their other siblings, Ann (Grayson Hall) and Rebecca (Rachel Roberts), wait for her to die.

The wait is a short one, but as Stephen makes plans to sell his sister’s estate and all its contents, the surviving family members make a strange discovery. Although now recently departed, Emma’s shadow remains behind on the wall of the house, and no amount of cleaning or repainting will make it disappear.

The shadow casts a creepy pall over the ensuing drama, looming in the background as Stephen squabbles with his sisters over the matter of inheritance—suggesting that what is carried on to those left behind after death is something less than a human spirit, but more akin to a persistent stain.

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Bad Ronald

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Bad Ronald
1974 | 74 minutes
Starring Scott Jacoby, Pippa Scott, John Larch, Dabney Coleman, Kim Hunter
Directed by Buzz Kulik

Returning home from being rejected at a schoolmate’s pool party, social pariah Ronald (Scott Jacoby) vents his frustration on a taunting young girl, accidentally killing her. Rather than having her son turn himself into the police, Ronald’s controlling mother (Kim Hunter) quickly devises an ingenious solution: Why not wall up the downstairs bathroom and have Ronald continue to live secretly at home, safely hidden in his cubby?

All goes well—with Ronald studying and exercising in his tiny new home, sharing meals with his mother through the crawlspace entry in the pantry–until she checks into the hospital for a routine operation. Ronald discovers the news of her death when he overhears a realtor discussing the potential sale of the house. When a new couple (Dabney Coleman, Kim Hunter) and their daughters move in, Ronald slips more and more into a self-created fantasy realm, while continuing to live in his secret hideaway and watching the new family’s activities through various peepholes drilled in the walls.

Although more sympathetic than the moniker would suggest, Bad Ronald delivers a grubby sort of creepiness, more unsettling than terrifying. A picked-on outcast guilty of manslaughter rather than a cold-blooded murderer, Ronald mostly plays a passive role, particularly in the subsequent death of his nosy neighbor. He only takes action against those he spies upon when his isolation-driven fantasy world bleeds into his reality. Until then, Ronald exists as a corporeal phantom, tapping into the queasiness of breached privacy and violated personal space.

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The Horror at 37,000 Feet

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The Horror at 37,000 Feet | 1973 | 73 minutes
Starring Chuck Connors, Buddy Ebsen, Tammy Grimes, William Shatner
Directed by David Lowell Rich

An architect and his wife (Roy Thinnes, Jane Merrow) rent a special flight to transport an ancient Druid altarpiece from England to the United States. Somehow they fail to secure all the seats, because also on board are a random variety of other passengers, including a doctor (Paul Winfield), a little girl with her doll, a rhinestone cowboy, a disagreeable businessman (Buddy Ebsen), and a drunken ex-priest (William Shatner) with his guitar-strumming companion.

Soon after take-off, the pilot (Chuck Connors) discovers that the plane is being held in place by what appears to be a localized, 600-mile-an-hour headwind, even though the flight navigator (Russell Johnson) eerily pronounces, “There’s no such wind.” A cold wind is also blowing from the cargo hold, and the architect’s wife begins hearing strange noises through her headphones. Upon checking out the hold, the navigator freezes to death and the pilot suffers a strange scratch-like wound.

In a this-is-a-TV-movie-and-we-need-to-move-it-along kind of way, the passengers quickly surmise that an ancient Druid curse is at work, and take steps to placate the angry supernatural force on the plane. Not committing themselves fully to sacrificing the architect’s wife, who they view as the object of a curse, they offer a creepily made-up doll in her place. After their attempt fails—and with the summer solstice nearing—the passengers improvise an ancient rite in a last attempt to save their lives.

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The Druid’s powers are nonsensical; they can hold up planes, make cold wind, cause people to speak in Latin, and bubble up odd-looking mud and green slime from the bulkhead. Perhaps the entire film simply exists in William Shatner’s fever dream, the boozy cynicism of his character bubbling up from his role as the passenger who sees a creature on the wing of the plane in the Nightmare at 20,000 Feet episode of The Twilight Zone. Even the pilot’s pronouncement of his navigator’s death twists a familiar Star Trek line; “Jim…he’s dead.”

Or else the plane serves as some Lost-like purgatory where the stars of The Rifleman, Gilligan’s Island, and Barnaby Jones rendezvous with the T.J. Hooker star before all being sucked out of the airlock into eternity.

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Night Gallery – Room with a View / The Little Black Bag / The Nature of the Enemy

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Night Gallery | Season One | Episode 2 | December 23, 1970

Segment One | Room with a View

This short, chatty segment stars Diane Keaton as an impressionable young nurse manipulated by her patient into exacting revenge upon his unfaithful wife. Although a violent encounter in the nurse’s recent past is mentioned briefly, the jump to the denouement is a quick one—especially considering the romantic fulcrum is a hairy-chested chauffeur. A brief glimpse of an amazing pair of ladies’ flair-leg trousers in motion serves as a fashion bonus.

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Segment Two | The Little Black Bag

An accident during a time travel experiment in the distant future—a future looking suspiciously like a poorly furnished apartment—sends an advanced medical kit back in time, where it is discovered by a down-on-his-luck ex-doctor on skid row. Burgess Meredith plays it up as a pickled hobo searching for redemption, but his booze-hound pal wants the eight dollars offered for the bag by the local pawn shop to start his next bender. The bit about the bag’s trans-temporal monitoring system is pure hokum, since a self-destruct option—if at all possible— would have been employed immediately.

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Segment Three | The Nature of the Enemy

NASA Mission Control watches a broadcast from a rescue mission on the moon, where one spacecraft has crashed and another has gone missing. The rescue team discovers a strange assemblage made of the ruined ship, leading to the wildly groan-inducing reveal of ***SPOILERS*** Mousetraps in Space! ***END SPOILERS***

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Night Gallery – The Dead Man / The Housekeeper

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Night Gallery | Season One | Episode 1 | December 16, 1970

Segment One | The Dead Man

Dr. Radford (Carl Betz) demonstrates his new psychosomatic test case to his colleague Dr. Miles Talmadge (Jeff Corey). The patient, John Fearing (Michael Blodgett), while under hypnotic suggestion, precisely mimics all the physical symptoms of a disease, but then reverts to perfect health when so instructed.

John Fearing’s physical state is so perfect under hypnosis, in fact, that Dr. Radford suspects that he has unlocked the key to immortality, with the power of suggestion triggering the mind’s ability to perpetually mimic the symptoms of perfect health. However, golden-boy Fearing is engaging in an overt affair with the middle-aged doctor’s young wife, provoking Radford to the ultimate test of psychic suggestion.

After a talky opening set-up (with Dr. Talmadge conveniently turning his back on the patient during each transformation), The Dead Man delivers an effectively spooky finale, as Mrs. Radford rushes to the crypt to save her lover.

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Segment Two | The Housekeeper

Something of a throw-away segment, The Housekeeper revolves around Cedric Acton’s (Larry Hagman) attempt to swap the soul of his attractive but contemptuous wife (Suzy Parker) with that of an elderly housekeeper (Jeanette Nolan). Larry Hagman displays an engaging comic touch as the black-magic-dabbling husband, but the one-note story and cornball animal-swap sound effects hobble the fun. Good advice to antagonistic spouses everywhere: beware the frog-as-a-magic-fulcrum.

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