Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo

Be afraid. Be genetically afraid.
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1977
Director: 
Stuart Hagmann
Starring: 
Claude Akins, Charles Frank, Deborah Winters, Bert Remsen, Sandy McPeak, Tom Atkins, Howard Hesseman
The Setup: 
Buncha tarantulas survive a plane crash and explosion to kill people in a California town.
Discussion: 

This is one of those movies you hear about in sentences such as “…but not as bad as Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo.” Which I think is one of the ways I first heard about it. But then you think Hello? Killer tarantulas? How could that go wrong? Well, the ways in which it could go wrong are in large part the result of it being a made-for-TV movie from the 70s, when people thought things on TV didn’t need to be good.

The movie begins in Ecuador, where a bunch of coffee is being swiftly loaded onto a plane by Ecuadorians who simply don’t happen to notice the massive amounts of huge spiders crawling all over the place. It’s also interesting how the spiders, who ruthlessly attack anyone who crosses their path later in the movie, have no interest in the Ecuadorians, they just don’t want to miss their flight. And already you ask yourself: WHY are these spiders getting on this plane? WHY are they attracted to coffee? This is one of the MULTITUDE of head-slapper questions you will have that the movie just breezily pretends do not exist. While this coffee is being loaded, we hear the first selection of the soundtrack by Mundell Lowe, this bouncy, brassy thing that sounds like it would be more appropriate as the theme music of Good Times or something.

After the credits we join the owners of all this coffee, which is apparently worthless in Ecuador, but considered “black gold” in San Francisco. This is before the whole Starbucks thing, when otherwise rational human beings would still consider drinking instant coffee, and apparently these two are going to set off the whole coffee craze with their shipment. THAT’S how forward-looking this seminal motion picture event is. These smugglers are played by hot hot Tom Atkins of The Fog and Halloween III: Season of the Witch [which I SO want to watch again now], who has a stache and wears clingy khaki clothes and frosted shades with a thin cigar hanging out of his mouth, so already I had a boner. Add to this the fact that he’s a happy-go-lucky SMUGGLER, and my ankles are solidly in the air. I also kind of dug his sleazy partner, who was later revealed to be Howard Hesseman of WKRP in Cincinnati fame, the only actor I know of who is capable of conveying the stale smell of cigarette-infused clothes through modern televisions.

One can immediately sense the difference of structure between made-for-TV stuff like this and actual movies, since this one uses the “and then, and then, and then” structure, piling on time-wasting complications that make little overall sense. They are told that they can’t leave until they bribe a local policeman. Then they get the money by agreeing to smuggle three locals to America. Then there’s a storm! Then one of the Ecuadorians gets bitten! Then the storm passes! Then they have engine trouble! Then Tom Atkins gets bitten! Then the plane crashes! At the beginning, before I realized that this film is just trying to waste as much time as possible, I was like “where is all this Ecuadorian policeman shaking down the smugglers stuff going?” After a while—particularly after the big storm comes and passes with no purpose or consequence—you stop asking such questions.

During this time, though, I was convinced that hunky Tom Atkins was going to be our hero, and I was surprised that he was being portrayed as such as generally bad man, but I thought he was going to get a steep redemption arc later. But no, he’s bitten, in such a way that makes it seem as though that tarantula is really chewing the fuck out of his knee, and he and Howard are both killed in the plane crash. The crash itself, with all the swooping and diving and almost-hitting-buildings, is the one sequence in the film that manages to generate the slightest bit of excitement.

Actually, before the plane crashes, we are introduced to this couple with a bland guy, a Bridget Fonda-type whose every “lighthearted” comment is tinged with bitter contempt, and their ten-year-old boy. They hear that the plane is about to crash and try to call the nearest doctor, getting him up out of bed. This is one of the biggest gaffes in the movie, and one it just charmingly glosses over: the doctor is woken up out of bed at what we are led to believe is 3am, but when we see the couple and the plane, it is like 3 in the afternoon! What, is he in Tokyo? The “nearest” doctor? You will also notice that although we are told the plane is having problems, there is nothing discernibly wrong with it, and that dark-skinned Hispanics [the Ecuadorians and Californian Mexicans] are mercilessly and casually abused and belittled. My favorite little detail is that literally ONE SECOND after the plane crashes, there are vultures circling in the air. They’re crafty ones, those vultures! They're attracted by the sound of a plane in trouble!

So like the ENTIRE town is drawn to the site of the plane crash, reaching it about 15 seconds after it happens, and the police are having to keep them away, including a teenage girl who needs to practice her cheers or some shit at the crash site. SO not kidding. Turns out the slightest tap of the foot will cause an airplane’s fuel tank to pop open, and the townspeople immediately set about digging. And you’re like ‘what the FUCK are they digging for?’ but apparently when there’s a fuel spill you want to dig a trench to ‘divert’ the fuel [divert it to WHERE?]. But while doing this, please be on the look out for any errant dirt bikers who might come out of nowhere and head DIRECTLY for your recently-dug fuel-trench, paying no heed to the crowd of people and the GIANT CRASHED PLANE nearby, who may be knocked off the bike by the four-inch-deep trench. Which will, of course, cause the bike to EXPLODE. Which ignites the fuel and causes the plane to explode. Nevertheless, these amazing spiders [remember them?] have survived the crushing force of being packed into stacked bags of coffee beans, the plane’s crash, AND the explosion, and they set forth to make a dent in mankind. Those are some super fuckin' spiders! They WILL survive the nuclear apocalypse. And all I could think was ‘Before there was Snakes on a Plane…’ but I guess ‘Tarantulas on a Plane’ doesn’t have the same immediacy. Tarantulas on the Tarmac?

Not long after the plane crashes we are introduced to the FUCKING HOT local police chief Lee Beasley, played by Sandy McPeak, who is like a distillation of every hot cartoon trooper you’ve ever jerked off to in your life [oh come on, you know you’ve jerked off to hot cartoon troopers], complete with shades, stache, and QUITE nicely filled-out crotch. He is helped at one point by this sweetiekins firefighter who is like THE prototypical mustachioed fireman, and I’m like WHAT? This film is going to be utter crap on every conceivable narrative plane, but packed to the gills with fuckin’ HUNKS? And that’s pretty much how it is. Although, as usual, the really hunky ones [aside from the police chief] are on the sidelines. There’s also an attractive farmer corpse we see laying in a field at one point.

Anyway, as fans of Family Affair have surely deduced by now, if the police chief is Lee Beasley, that would make his wife Mrs. Beasley. And sure enough she is, although she apparently isn’t happy with the beastly Beasley cock, and is having an extramarital affair with shiftless [but still somewhat hot] sleazeball Mitch. She sends Mitch back to the car to get some pretzels or something equally inessential, and while he’s gone, she gets bitten [the spiders have disbursed all over the town within 45 minutes], and rolls down the hill, whacking her head hard into a tree! She hits it so hard and bounces off with such a convincing grunt you almost wonder if it was unintended. So Sheriff Beasley gets the news that a) his wife was having an affair, and b) she’s dead, at the same time, which causes him to have a huge emotional crying scene and confront Mitch. Although as far as I’m concerned this clears him up to use my mouth as a pussy without pangs of guilt about marital infidelity [I’d fetch beer and shine his boots, too], in actuality this leaves him the broken shell of a man and he is relegated to the sidelines for the rest of the proceedings. Grrrr!

After this the movie surprises us all by having the guts to kill off the annoying little kid! Yes, he’s really dead, not just saved-by-the-serum-at-the-last-minute dead, and this causes our Bridget Fonda stand-in to throw first a huge denial scene, then a full-blown Oscar® clip meltdown. But soon it’s to the orange processing plant, where the spiders are gathering, apparently. Even though up until now they’ve been disbursing all over town. You see, the entire economy of this town lives or dies on the shipment of this ONE batch of oranges, so they can’t just spray the oranges, because that’ll ruin the flavor [even though, hello, oranges have protective rinds and are sprayed with poisons all the time], and they can’t just burn the place because then the entire town would starve. They evacuate the plant, which is somewhat hilarious as you can’t tell whether the MOB of people outside are supposedly trying to get out or in, and if you do watch this PLEASE pay attention to the ludicrously unprofessional announcements issuing from the plant, including my favorite: “don’t spread any false rumors.” But by now the sheer overload of outrageously stupid shit has piled up and conspired against even being phased by these things anymore.

But special mention must be made of the conclusion they thought of to this thing. Okay, so they get out their book of giant spider facts, and they see that the spiders are “genetically afraid” of the sound of some specific wasp, and that the sound paralyzes them for a few minutes. Then some girl says “we have a wasp’s nest out back our house.” Okay, so get this: The ECUADORIAN spiders are “genetically” afraid of a WASP NATIVE TO CALIFORNIA. Okay? That’s like people from Illinois being genetically afraid of deep-sea jellyfish, i.e. something they would never encounter in their lives. What would Darwin think about this? So they run off and round up a number of the wasps, and hold the cage with them in front of a microphone. And then get THIS: the sound only works after it has been run through an electronic sound processor and significantly manipulated. So the reality is that the Ecuadorian spiders are “genetically” afraid of the sound of a wasp native to California WHEN HIGHLY ELECTRONICALLY AMPLIFIED AND PROCESSED. Amazing that their genes could fixate on a sound that does not exist in the natural world. And as though that’s not enough… so the people cut up a bunch of oranges, which they are going to use to attract bugs. The bugs are going to attract the spiders, and then they’ll play the wasp sound and paralyze the spiders, and be able to pick them ALL up during the few minutes they’re paralyzed. Amazingly, it works! Mere seconds after putting the cut-up oranges out, they are covered with grasshoppers [you KNOW how it is at picnics]. Then, we are supposed to believe, EVERY SINGLE tarantula in the deadly cargo convenes at the orange plant, and the people are able to pick them up.

They do experience some technical difficulties, which causes the spiders to wake up, and there’s a last, desperate attempt to generate excitement with the question of whether our heroes will escape. They do, after which we have all this 70s “happy resolution” music, which goes on forever, and you’re like “uh, aren’t there still a ton of spiders still there in the warehouse? And didn’t you say that they would only be out for a few minutes? And isn’t there no way you could possibly gather them all? And isn’t this, like, no resolution at all?” But no, it’s time for the movie to be over, please save your questions. Thank you.

Ugh. You definitely need friends and booze to make it through this one. As I said, it’s all so highly ludicrous that it just kind of cancels itself out after a while, leaving you with nothing but hunky male flesh to look forward to. Another problem is that spiders don’t really stalk humans, they just kind of crawl up your leg and bite you, which has limited usefulness as a suspense device, because for the most part, it’s YOUR fault for not being careful enough to check for spiders. They don’t even jump or anything. I also was fully expecting there to be at least one scene in which an unbelievable amount of spiders crawl all over a room or something, a la Arachnophobia, but they just didn’t have the budget here—or the brains.

Should you watch it: 

Like I said, booze and friends could make it bearable. Especially friends. But then again, booze is your friend.