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Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo
(1977)

Director: Stuart Hagmann   
Cast:
Claude Akins, Deborah Winters, Charles Frank


I have had a fascination with insects for years now. I am amazed that with brains the size of the head of a pin (or smaller) they can do all the stuff they do. I must admit, however, that there have been times that insects have driven me crazy. One of the problems I had with insects was last summer in my apartment. Somehow, an incredible bunch of tiny little flies had invaded my apartment. Now, I admit that I am far from the best housekeeper in the world, but at least I am careful enough to flush my toilet right away after I use it, and I clean all my pots and dishes when I have finished cooking and eating my meals. I wasn't leaving anything for those tiny little flies, but they had somehow got into my home (perhaps during one of those summer nights I had left my window open in order to cool down my apartment so I could get a good night's sleep.) And they were showing no signs of dying off from a lack of food, or leaving my apartment for something better. I didn't want to use bug spray - my apartment is pretty small, so there was no secluded corner to get away from inhaling the bug spray. And I didn't want to open my window to vent the place afterwards and risk getting more flies in the apartment. So what I had to do was to get a handful of scrunched-up toilet paper, wait for a fly to settle down on a flat surface, and then wham the ball of toilet paper right onto the fly. It wasn't a foolproof technique - I'd say about two-thirds of the time the fly would fly away milliseconds before I could hit it. But I was persistent, and slowly but surely the fly population dwindled to next to nothing. There are still one or two flies in the apartment, and for months now they seem to be too smart to clearly land on a flat surface. But I'm patient - I'll get them one day.

I should probably say that most of my experiences with insects has not been so negative - my fascination with them over the years has clearly outweighed the negative experiences. I remember when, during my childhood, I received a certain issue of the magazine that the TV show The Electric Company put out monthly. In that issue, part of that coverage was insects, and on a couple of pages of the magazine they listed instructions on how you could have your very own ant colony in a jar. I got some honey to attract the ants, I got a jar full of dirt, and I got some cheesecloth to seal the jar opening yet give air for the ants. When I got the ants in the jar and sealed it, I put a paper bag over the jar for 24 hours, just as the magazine said. 24 hours went by, and I took the paper bag off... only to discover that all the ants had escaped during all those hours! (Thank goodness I had kept the jar outside.) I also had memorable experiences with spiders in my youth as well. (Yes, I know that the scientific community does not consider spiders to be insects, but those same guys claim that tomatoes are fruit when everyone else considers them to be vegetables - so let's call spiders insects, okay?) One spring day when wandering outside, I discovered on the side of the house hundreds and hundreds of tiny spiders. I quickly deduced that a spider egg sac had just hatched. I called my father to show him the spiders, and he immediately said he would get the bug spray. But I knew even at that tender age that spiders were good for the environment - they eat harmful insects. So before my father could get the bug spray, I gathered the spiders and dumped them at the trees at the edge of our property. I like to think there are less pesky flies to this day because of my action.

I think that spiders, despite all the good they have done for humans over millions of years, have gotten a bad rap. When I have observed how people have treated the sight of spiders in fiction or in real life over the years, their immediate instinct almost always seem to be to crush the spider, especially if it has intruded the interior of their home. But even before my second grade teacher read Charlotte's Web to my class, I always had a kind of respect for them. They seemed to be pretty smart and knowing what was up; whenever I would tug on one of their webs to imitate a stuck insect, they were never fooled; they would stay where they were until a real insect got stuck. But what about the more "deadly" spiders? Well, there is the poisonous black widow spider, but I have never heard reports of it intentionally seeking out humans. And as for tarantulas, they have got the worst rap of all. People keep claiming they are poisonous to humans, but the actual fact is (except maybe for a small child who is not healthy) they are not deadly to humans. But movies keep claiming otherwise, including the movie being reviewed here, Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo. Though as you have probably guessed, they are not a single horrific incident here, but are the plot. In South America, two pilots (played by Tom Atkins and Howard Hessman) load their cargo plane full of coffee beans to sell back in the United States. Nobody notices that during the bagging of the beans and loading them in the plane is that many examples of a certain kind of spider stowaway on board. During the flight back to the United States, these poisonous spiders bite the pilots and the plane crashes in a small southern California town. The spiders escape from the wreckage and head to town...

There's one thing about Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo that I feel I should mention before I get into a closer examination of the movie. That thing is that unlike other killer spider movies (Kingdom Of The Spiders and The Giant Spider Invasion among them), Tarantulas is a made-for-TV movie - and one from the 1970s, an era which had tougher restrictions hanging over it. That, of course, means that the people who made this movie had a tougher than usual challenge to try and entertain its horror-minded audience. There couldn't be any gratuitous nudity, certain words of a colorful nature spoken out loud by any of the actors, and certainly not any big scenes of gore or blood. I think it's possible that under these circumstances that the movie could still have been entertaining and effective, but the end results here I am sure will disappoint both hard-core horror fans and more casual viewers. For starters, the flow of this movie is very slow-moving. While I guess on one hand I could consider this a refreshing rest from the breakneck speed of many more recent productions, more often I was almost squirming in my seat with impatience. It seems to take more than half an hour for the plane to crash in the outskirts of the small town and release the spiders, when a more modern effort would probably do this in the first ten minutes. The pacing does improve somewhat after this point of the movie (it actually took the townspeople a lot less time than I thought they would to figure out why their fellow citizens were suddenly and mysteriously dying), but even then there is an almost leisurely feeling when the characters should be acting fast to try and stop the problem as quickly as they can.

I just looked back at the notes I made while watching the movie, and I now realize I may have been a little hasty in branding this movie as "slow". In my notes, I noted that the amount of time that passes for the central characters of the movie from the time the plane crashes to when the end credits start scrolling by is less than twenty-four hours. That may not sound odd to some of the people who are reading this review, so let me reveal to them something else I wrote down in my notes: One of the places in town that is struck by the tarantulas is revealed to be four miles from the crash site! Yes, the spiders (who are always shown to be pretty slow-moving spiders) managed to cross this great distance in mere hours, maybe even mere minutes. If this was an isolated moment of stupidity in the movie, I might not have mentioned it. But in actual fact, there are a lot more brainless moments to be witnessed. Let me describe just what happens in the first few minutes of the movie. When the workers are filling bags of coffee beans right outside the plane, nobody notices all of the spiders that are crawling in such obvious sight, even when a shovel is thrust into a pile of coffee beans a mere inch from a spider. When the plane takes off and the passengers in the back of the plane see a spider, they panic - but later, when the pilots check on the passengers, the passengers are lying back resting, and don't try to tell the pilots what they saw. Then when the plane gets into United States airspace, the plane suddenly gets engine trouble, and their radio call for help has them saying that they have lost power. But the propellers on the airplane are shown to still be working at full capacity.

In fact, I could go on for some time telling you about the rest of the movie's stupidity. There's one scene where a character maps a sighting of the spiders and says, "Almost a direct line to the plane crash." Uh, buddy, if you connect two points together, you will get a direct line. During the climatic scene that takes place in a plant that processes oranges, it's shown that this gigantic building only has steel doors that are opened and closed electronically - let's just hope that the people who work there never have a fire. Oh, and the "tarantulas" of the movie? Despite the movie's title, it is eventually revealed that these spiders are not true tarantulas, but instead are a species called the banana spider. (Though I guess Banana Spiders: The Deadly Cargo doesn't have that same kind of zing.) The direction of the movie is just as hopeless as the writing, made worse by a limited budget that doesn't allow for much spectacle. Simply seeing shots of spiders creeping around very slowly is not only not scary, but soon becomes very tiresome. But what's really bad about the direction is that there is no feeling of horror, no sense of the characters being in danger, or that there is a threat in the air. Every spider attack just provokes unintended laughter because of the unrealistic actions of the characters. These characters only seem to stay in their infested town not because the spiders are limiting their movement, but only because they are more concerned about getting their oranges shipped out than their own lives. Why should any viewer care about them or the rest of the movie? Well, someone did care, enough to have this obscurity released on DVD despite a lot better TV movies languishing in vaults. At least the sound and picture look decent.

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See also: Bats: Human Harvest, Dogs, Mosquito

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