It’s well known around these parts of my irrational fear of arachnids – in real life, that is. On film, however, they are (unfairly or not) one of my favorite villains. And yes, I say villains, because dammit they bite and kill people; sure, it’s their “nature”, but mine is breathing and not being paralyzed and/or spun in webbing like so much human Saran Wrap. Okay, now that that’s out of the way, we can talk about Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo (1977), a fun TV movie with more creepy crawlers than you can shake a stick at. (A 10 foot stick if you’re smart.)
Originally airing as part of The CBS Wednesday Night Movies, Cargo had it rough folks; ABC hauled out Charlie’s Angels/Starsky & Hutch, and NBC offered up *checks notes* The Oregon Trail/Big Hawaii. Truth be told, I probably would have been tuning into the Angels myself (because Kate Jackson), but it’s nice to know that someone was dishing out the spider love.
Everyone open up your cob-webbed TV GUIDE so we can see what horrors we’re up against:
TARANTULAS: THE DEADLY CARGO (Wednesday, 9pm, CBS)
A small town is overrun with a deadly infestation of spiders when a plane carrying coffee beans crashes nearby. Claude Akins, Charles Frank star.
Let’s start off in Ecuador (but probably California), as a couple of pilots (holy shit, Tom Atkins and Howard Hesseman!) are about to transport a planeload of coffee beans back to San Francisco to sell; the only problem being that an almost planeload of spiders have nestled in with the beans and are wanting to check out the Bay Area as well. Unfortunately they don’t make it that far, and have to crash land near the town of Finleyville.
Before you can say Jaws, people start dropping like flies; and when the local fire chief (Akins) discovers that the spiders are headed for the local orange packaging plant, he’s met with resistance from the mayor/co-owner (Bert Remsen – Sundown) of said plant, who tells him that if them oranges don’t get shipped, the town loses a heck of a lot of money. So the plan becomes: trap the spiders in the warehouse, kill ‘em, and get those oranges shipped out in time. (Oh, and probably bury the high body count too, if they find time.) Can the eight-leggers be eighty-sixed?
Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo came right in the thick of the When Animals Attack phase; before Jaws, we had Frogs, Phase IV and others. After Jaws came a veritable potpourri of like-minded flicks following the same template: progress must not be stopped regardless of the consequences. Hence we have films like this and Kingdom of the Spiders (released in theaters the same year); both representing economic paranoia in uncertain times. The difference with Cargo is that the spiders are not attacking due to any man-made chemical overload (a favorite trope of the genre) or depleting ozone; it’s simply in their nature.
There’s an easygoing nature to Cargo that somehow makes it slightly more palatable to arachnophobes; it’s comfy, cozy. Competent. In true network fashion, there is no blood to speak of, nor sex, just spiders doing their thing – ever so slowly.
That’s how the film operates as well; after the lively opening with Atkins and Hesseman it settles into a rather low-key pace as we get to know the residents of Finleyville. This is fine, because it’s populated with TV stalwarts like Akins, Remsen, the charisma impaired Charles Frank, and the always magnificent Pat Hingle (Maximum Overdrive). One of the pleasures of a film like this is in the casting - if you were raised in that environment, of course; these were the people we saw on the tube day in and out, brothers from other mothers, etc. Some of these forays really do act as Swanson Dinner comfort food.
On its own unclouded merits, you’re left with a telefilm that could use a little tightening, especially during the climax, when the townsfolk come up with an unusual plan to sedate the buggers before killing them. The scenario is ripe for suspense, yet director Stuart Hagmann (Mannix) is content to let it play out in real time where urgency should have been used.
No matter; a solid cast and creepy crawlers will always have me tuning in, and Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo has more than plenty of both to be entertaining. Plus, they kill off one of the Little House on the Prairie kids so it can’t all be bad, right?Next: It Came From The Tube: THE SAVAGE BEES (1976)