Review: Tarantulas: the Deadly Cargo (1977)
In Ecuador, a couple of small-time American hustlers are hoping to make big bucks by smuggling coffee beans into California and selling them at a huge profit. Some Ecuadorian workmen are helping them to live this wonderful dream by filling up burlap sacks with the aforementioned beans, seemingly oblivious to the large, hairy spiders that are crawling all over the place. Due to either apathy, stupidity, or bad screenwriting, the workmen just shovel the spiders into the bags along with the coffee.
In addition to the coffee, the Americans slip three would-be immigrants onto their small-engine plane and take off for the States. On the way, however, some of the spiders escape the bags and start biting the Ecuadorians in the back of the plane. As if that weren't bad enough, one of the engines fails, forcing the Americans to make an emergency landing. They try to set down in a small orange-growing town in California but miss the runway and crash in a barren field.
We are quickly introduced to every important figure in the town: Bert the fireman (Claude Akins), Doc Hodgins (Pat Hingle), Mayor Douglas, Police Chief Beasley, and fresh-faced young couple Joe and Cindy. In fact, the entire community descends on the crash site in a matter of about 45 seconds. Bert, Joe, Cindy, and Doc Hodgins start trying to get the doors of the plane open, but they won't budge. Joe notices that the plane is leaking gas like a scenic waterfall, so people start digging a trench to divert the petrol.
Some idiot comes speeding toward the crash site on his motorcycle and, for unknown reasons (bad screenwriting?), he crashes his bike into the gasoline ditch, lighting the fuel and blowing up the plane. The plane explodes in a fireball but the flames are extinguished in a minute or two by Bert and the other firefighters. The very sturdy and evidently flame-retardant spiders start to make their way out of the wreckage and into town.
The spiders descend on the community with a speed which could only be explained by supernatural powers (or bad screenwriting). Within hours they are biting people all over town, and their venom is so toxic that it kills the victims almost instantly. Doc Hodgins converts his house into a triage unit and fairly quickly determines that the deaths are being caused by big honkin' spider bites. Joe just happens to know a world-renowned spider expert, and the expert tells Joe that they must be Ecuadorian Banana Spiders.
Meanwhile, Mayor Douglas is trying to get his crop of oranges ready for market and he doesn't want any arachnid interference. He ignores the warnings of Doc Hodgins, Bert, and Joe, and refuses to close down his processing plant. The plant immediately becomes Spider Central, the spiders evidently being attracted to the bugs that are attracted to the oranges. With the death toll climbing at an alarming rate, a plan of action is desperately needed.
Joe reads in a book that Ecuadorian Banana Spiders are terrified of a certain kind of wasp, and if the spider hears the wasp buzzing it will freeze, remaining immobile for several minutes. Joe rounds up some bees, records their buzzing, then sets up his hi-fi at the Mayor's orange plant. Bert throws some fruit on the floor of the plant to attract bugs. The spiders all come running out to eat the bugs, then Joe turns on his stereo and the bee sounds cause the spiders to freeze in horror.
Bert, Joe, Doc Hodgins, and Cindy go into the plant with shovels and tongs and pick up all the immobilized spiders, dumping them into buckets of alcohol. There's a brief setback when somebody accidentally shorts out the power and the spider-removal team gets trapped in the plant without the bee-noise to save them, but they escape rather easily and subsequently go back and finish the job. The spiders are wiped out, the oranges go to market, and the town is saved. The bees are given a ticker-tape parade down Main Street. Okay, maybe not, but they really deserved one.
Tarantuals: the Deadly Cargo is a little made-for-tv movie from the 1970's which did actually see theatrical release in Europe (sucks to be you, Europe). It's a very dated film, both in terms of the hideous polyester clothes and the very idea of the plot. Nowadays, you would never try to scare your audience with ordinary tarantulas. You have to have mutant, 50-foot-tall tarantulas that fly and spit fire, or people just doze off.
Being that I was only about a year old when this movie came out, I can't speak from my personal memories, but I'm not sure tarantulas were scary even back in the 70's. They're big and furry and all, but if you don't have full-blown arachnophobia, I doubt a movie like this would conjure more than an "ewww, yuck" from the average viewer. They try to tell us that they're extremely terrifying "Ecuadorian Banana Spiders," but when they named the movie Tarantulas: the Deadly Cargo, do they really expect us to buy that?
This is a curious film in that it seems to be divided into four segments that don't particularly relate to one another stylistically. The first segment features the happy-go-lucky American smugglers making their way out of Ecuador, and it plays like a sort of light-hearted buddy pic with spiders. Part two, when the plane crashes and the townsfolk rush in, has the feel of a first-responder training film. I suppose it's interesting to see in detail how to dig a trench to divert a fuel spill, but this segment has way too much detail and not enough action. The third segment is a rather by-the-numbers Jaws rip-off, with the spiders terrorizing the town and the self-centered Mayor refusing to deal with the problem.
For the climactic final section, the screenwriters threw caution (and logic) to the wind and came up with one of the most convoluted and idiotic resolutions I've seen in many moons. The idea that every spider in town would have convened at the orange plant is bad enough, but a recording of some honey bees as the secret weapon? Is this a joke? At first the buzzing isn't working on the spiders, and the solution Joe comes up with is to "turn up the bass! All the way!" Brilliant. Saved by a subwoofer.
Of course, the flaws in logic aren't limited to the end of the film. I'm still trying to figure out how the spiders 1) survived the explosion of the airplane, and 2) managed to disperse themselves all over town in about twenty minutes. Were they hitching rides on people's bumpers as they drove away from the crash site? Beyond that, there are so many of them by the end of the movie that, unless tarantulas can divide like amoebas, those bags of coffee beans on the plane would have had to be about fifty percent coffee and fifty percent spiders.
On a more positive note, the cast of Tarantulas: the Deadly Cargo features some quality b-movie actors. There's stony-faced Claude Akins and tuberesque Pat Hingle, both of whom put in solid performances. Howard Hesseman, a great actor best know for t.v. roles like Dr. Johnny Fever from "WKRP in Cincinnati," is appropriately sleazy but likable as one of the American smugglers. As a whole, the cast is pretty good; the only problem is that they forgot to include an actual star. Maybe the lead actor pulled out at the last minute and they just went ahead without him/her, but there seems to be a definite hero vacuum here.
I also give this movie points for not wimping out about killing off a little kid. Cindy's cute little brother Matthew prods at one of the spiders with a stick, then later he tries to catch one for Doc Hodgins. When he gets bitten, there are no heroics to save his life - he just croaks. Many films will manipulate the audience by having the cute ten-year-old nearly die, but they usually manage to save him in the end. It takes guts to eighty-six a pre-teen in a movie like this.
In the end, a good b-movie cast and the willingness to knock off an adorable little boy just aren't enough to save Tarantulas: the Deadly Cargo from its various and sundry flaws. Watch this only if you really, really need to know how to dig a ditch to divert a fuel spill.