Patty Duke won an Oscar, two Golden Globes, three Emmys and had numerous nominations throughout her impressive career. She even wrote an autobiography which was turned into a TV movie where she played herself! (How did she not win an award for that?)
But why was her most complex work not only overlooked by the critics but also largely forgotten by fans of trashy 1970s TV monster movies as well? We all know that bug movies are a dime a dozen (this was especially true in the 1970s TV landscape), but Duke not only made you believe that a woman could really turn into a giant spider when the moon was full, but that she could do so while suffering from split personalities, while keeping her long thought dead mother prisoner and pretending with her former nanny that her daughter was her niece! I think I just got multiple personality disorder watching all that!
The change we see in Duke when she goes from the mousey glasses wearing Laura who favors severe hair buns and pursed lips to the on-the-prowl Valerie with her black clothes, dark wig and vaguely European accent reminds us that acting isn’t always about mastering mannerisms and facial tics and getting into a character’s head so much as a sexy costume change. If you don’t believe it, even her own twin, Leigh, didn’t recognize her in that getup! But then again Leigh also didn’t know her mom was being kept prisoner at the family home for years or that her sister was a big ass spider so she may not be the most observant person.
Tony Franciosa is Higby, a private eye who just happens to be hanging out at the bar with Leigh’s fiancé when the fiancé is lured out by Valerie and later turns up dead, complete with two puncture wounds and drained of blood. Higby saw something in the trees but is warned off the case by the crabby Lt. Conti. Higby persists though as he is hired by Leigh to find out what happened to her boyfriend because Conti is circling her as a suspect since her first husband disappeared from a cruise ship under mysterious circumstances.
As Higby attempts to investigate, he finds himself threatened and stonewalled by Conti every step of the way. What is his sinister agenda? Is he a spider sympathizer? Is there an oversized egg sac growing in his garage? Or maybe he’s just pragmatic and as he asks Higby when Higby demands he do something about the situation, should he just hold a press conference to announce there’s a giant spider on the loose and he’s issued all his officers big cans of Raid?
The movie (and Franciosa) does an effective Job of showing Higby’s transformation from skeptic to believer as the facts keep piling up (multiple bodies drained of blood, spider venom in the bodies, eye witness accounts and some quick tutoring on ancient Native American myth) and he gets closer to the truth. Still he isn’t even the best private eye at his two person firm!
Brassy assistant Flaps is the one who not only digs up all the sordid family history but also connects “Valerie” with Leigh and Laura by floating the split personality idea. For his part, Higby knows Leigh is going to Laura’s home to visit her and is worried that whichever twin is the spider will kill the other. Higby of course instantly guesses wrong on who the spider is, but it doesn’t matter because he still makes an up an excuse to go up to their house himself in an effort to make sure the spider doesn’t kill her twin.
As he pursues the spider deep into its lair with a lantern, you may wonder what sort of PI travels on night missions without a flashlight and simply write off the lantern as the movie trying to cheat on some spooky atmosphere, but the astute viewer will suddenly realize that the point of the seemingly extraneous side trip Higby took to visit an old Indian who used to work for the twins’ family was to make sure Higby knew that only fire could kill the spider. And everyone knows that chucking a lit lantern on a giant bug will not only torch it, but will also somehow blow everything up in a one square block area!
Solid and a little creepy (the idea of a person physically transforming into a large spider and back again is just so much more freaking gross than turning into a wimpy wolf!), Curse of the Black Widow is ably anchored by Franciosa who is likable and doesn’t resort to cliched he-man bravado in the face of all the spidery stuff he encounters, convincingly making the case that he thinks it’s all pretty damn icky.
Spider effects are okay for a TV movie with POV shots from the spider’s eight-eyed perspective and some quick views of the spider and legs before the big reveal at the end of the film. I’ve seen worse looking giant spiders. As a bonus, Franciosa even gets covered up in tarantulas in one scene!
With the twisted family backstory, it also feels like there’s a bit more going on than what would otherwise probably come off as an extended episode of The Night Stalker. Sure, it’s so over-the-top, that it’s a bit silly, but it seems perfectly reasonable in a movie where a gal turns into a spider and eats her sister’s boyfriends because she got bit by a bunch of spiders as a infant and her sister kept stealing her own boyfriends.
Though Leigh and Higby appear to live happily ever after (not counting the expected reveal about Laura’s daughter Leigh is now raising), you aren’t really rooting for them because while Leigh wasn’t a murderous she-spider, she was something far worse – she screwed her sister’s fiancé only days after her own fiancé was murdered! Admittedly murdered by her sister, but Leigh didn’t know that at the time! You can practically hear that gigantic spider saying “see why I mean? She’s a man stealing skank just like I said!” Worst of all? The fiancé looked and sounded like Ron Burgundy!
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