Curse of the Black Widow (1977)

Curse of the Black Widow (1977)‘Well, you didn’t come in here to eat an octopus.’

A man is killed in the car park of a bar after leaving with a mysterious woman. His girlfriend is suspected as her husband died of the same, unusual injuries several years before. She hires a local private eye to investigate, but he becomes more and more convinced that a supernatural agency is at work and that her family are at the centre of the mystery…

Late 1970s made for television movie that debuted on the ABC network. Producer-Director Dan Curtis had been mining the horror genre on the small screen for some years after initial success for the same network in the 1960’s with the supernatural soap opera that was recently revived as ‘Dark Shadows’ (2012) by Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. Curtis had also offered up probably the best film adaptation of ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1968) which was an unlikely triumph for star Jack Palance, and an interesting stab at ‘Dracula’ (1973) with the same actor. But he’s probably best known as the brains behind cult show ‘Kolchak: The Night Stalker’ and the pair of TV movies that introduced that character.

And here it seems highly likely that he was trying to recreate the winning formula of that last show. Instead of Darren McGavin as a rumpled, investigative reporter facing off against dark forces, we get former film star Tony Franciosa as a cock-sure private detective, smirking his way through verbal confrontations with hard- bitten police sergeant Vic Morrow. Of course, the powers that be aren’t too keen on our hero barging his way into their investigation, mainly because there’s been a string of these strange killings and toxicology reports have found large quantities of spider venom in the victims. It all seems to be linked to the wealthy Lockwood family, in particular sisters Donna Mills and Patty Duke Astin.

Curse of the Black Widow (1977)

Her new coloured contact lenses weren’t quite what she’d expected…

Despite the ridiculous premise, this is all played completely straight, which does lend it a certain camp value, even if the drama never becomes remotely gripping. The SFX are predictably laughable, and the so-called ‘twist’ ending couldn’t be any less surprising. Overall, there’s a typical ‘made for television’ feel, with a sense of ‘production line’ entertainment, and a blandness that often afflicted such projects, even those of a weirder nature.

What is remarkable, however, is the cast that Curtis managed to assemble for this project. It might have been 20 years since Franciosa starred opposite Paul Newman and Orson Welles in ‘The Long Hot Summer’ (1958) and over a decade since he shared the screen with Frank Sinatra in ‘Assault On A Queen’ (1967), but he was still a ‘name’, even if he was appearing more on TV than the big screen at the time. Similarly, Astin was a household name in the U.S. after her teenage sitcom ‘The Patty Duke Show’ which was a great success in the mid-1960s. Curtis also found supporting roles for ‘Lost In Space’ Mom June Lockhart, comedian Sid Caesar, ex-beefcake star Jeff Corey and, most surprisingly, June Allyson. She’d been a bona fide Hollywood star in the 1940’s and 1950’s playing ‘girl next door’ types in films opposite James Stewart (‘The Glenn Miller Story’ (1950)), Gene Kelly (‘The Three Musketeers’ (1948)) and Humphrey Bogart (‘Battle Circus’ (1953)).

Given the plot and obvious opportunity for cult status, overall this is a disappointing effort; lacking style, ambition and even a sense of fun.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1968)

Strange_Case_of_Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_(1968)‘Suppose this potion of yours did work? Suppose it did split the nature of man right down the middle? Might it not produce…a monster?’

Mild-tempered Dr Jekyll faces ridicule from the medical fraternity when he proposes his theories about the duality of man. Determined to prove the doubters wrong, he begins using chemicals to separate the good and bad sides in man. Unfortunately, he chooses to experiment on himself…

It’s fair to say that, although filmed countless times, there has never been a definitive version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic cautionary tale. Yes, Frederic March won an Oscar for playing the role(s) in 1931, and both makeup and SFX were impressive (for their time) but the rest of the film is creaky and stilted at best. The big budget MGM remake a decade later may have looked the part but suffered from the terrible miscasting of Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman. Subsequently, there’s been dramatic versions, re-imaginings, comedies, a TV musical with Kirk Douglas (yes, it’s bad) and Hammer even gave us a transgender take with ‘Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde’ (1971) (surprisingly rather good). We’ve had Christopher Lee, Michael Caine, Oliver Reed, John Barrymore, Anthony Andrews, Bernard Bresslaw, Boris Karloff, John Malkovich and even David Hasselhoff!  The list goes on. But no definitive version.

TV producer Dan Curtis had hit the big time by creating horror-soap ‘Dark Shadows’ which first hit the small screen in 1966, ran for over 1,000 episodes and has been revived several times since, including Tim Burton’s big budget remake with Johnny Depp. During the show’s original 6 year run, Curtis began developing other projects, the first of which was this serious adaptation of the classic horror story. Filming began with Jason Robards in the title roles but was halted due to industrial action. When it resumed, Robards was no longer available, so Curtis re-cast, his surprising choice being Jack Palance, mostly known for playing villains in cinema Westerns. It’s reasonable to assume that a modern audience’s expectations for a studio bound 2 hour television production from the late 1960s starring that old cowboy geezer from ‘City Slickers’ (1991) would not be high. Obviously, there were budgetary and technical limitations with such an endeavour that have not stood the test of time too well, but what it does have in its favour easily outweighs such considerations.

First, we have what is quite probably the most literate, intelligent and fine adaptation of Stevenson’s novel ever to be filmed. The original work is a fairly short piece and screenwriters are usually obliged to embellish and add elements, usually Hyde’s dalliance with a prostitute and a tiresome love interest for Jekyll in the form of a fiancee from high society. Instead, Ian McLellan Hunter takes the main elements of the story and comes up with his own version of how events develop. These are completely in tune with the spirit of the original text and open out the story perfectly. There’s a superb opening scene where Jekyll is ridiculed by his peers which provides motivation for his reckless experimentation, a shady chemist (Oscar Homolka) who provides the doctor with the necessary chemicals, and Billie Whitelaw as the good time girl abused by Hyde, who rather foolishly sets her sights on Jekyll. Purists might complain at the changes but I don’t think anyone could argue that the novel needs serious adaptation for filming purposes and Hunter makes a good a job as could be imagined, even retaining the critical subtext about Victorian society and the evils of repression in general.

Strange_Case_of_Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_(1968)

His latest batch of home-brew was not a success.

A fine cast of respected British actors talent provides excellent support, including Denholm Elliott, Leo Genn, Torin Thatcher (the nasty magician in ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’ (1958)), Duncan Lamont, and music hall star Tessie O’Shea. Although only making a brief appearance, O’Shea won an Emmy for this, which is a little puzzling. Rather amusingly, Billie Whitelaw gets an ‘introducing’ credit, despite first appearing on British TV 16 years before. Probably she was unknown to American audiences.

But the revelation here is Palance. Of course, he’d played plenty of psychotic villains in the past, but his Hyde is truly out of control; homicidal tendencies always lurking just below the surface, ready to be indulged at the slightest whim. Initially, the makeup may seem a little corny with the heavy monobrow, but, by the climax, the power of the performance transcends these limitations. Likewise the star gives us one of the best screen Jekyll’s; slowly seduced by the dark passions of his alter-ego, he becomes more assertive in his own life but ultimately cannot control his urges. It’s an excellent reading of the character, all the more remarkable when you consider the actor was a late replacement.

Of course, there are some problems. Director Charles Jarrott struggles to get any atmosphere out of the cheap, and tatty stages sets, with actor’s heavy footsteps often betraying the nature of their temporary construction. Also the camera work is uninspired, and features some unfortunate rapid ‘zooms’ which look pretty shaky. Producer Curtis and star Palance went onto collaborate on a version of ‘Dracula’ (1973), which is also well regarded in some quarters.

Definitive? Maybe not, but on balance, this is probably the best version of the tale filmed to date, and anyone looking to mount a new production could do a lot worse than look for pointers in Hunter’s excellent script.

Well worth seeking out.