Monday, March 14, 2022

"You Smell of Chemicals and Death" - Kiss of the Tarantula (1975) - Film #225

It is, of course, a truism that the finest films in history are always regional horror thrillers, and 1975's Kiss of the Tarantula is no exception to that proud lineage. Filmed in Columbus, Georgia, it must be admitted that the movie contains more tarantulas than kisses, but aside from that imbalance, the film is nearly perfect.

Of course, some of your universe's critics are misguided in their failure to appreciate this film. Reviewer jacobjohntaylor1, in a review titled "One of the worse horror movies of all time," writes, "This is awful. It has an awful story line. The acting it [sic] awful. It is not scary." Reviewer TokyoGyaru writes, "the movie is just tedium and people hilariously spazzing out and killing themselves over spiders that pose them no real harm." And reviewer Skutter-2 writes, "the movie is lacking in gore, suspense or anything juicy or exciting."
Such libel cannot go unaddressed, so please read on for the truth about Kiss of the Tarantula...

A young blonde girl, Susan, walks through a heavy forest, finally finding a small spider hanging in its web near the front of her home, a mansion with a massive porch sporting big columns. Her mother scolds her for looking at the spider. Then the film moves to another scene a few years later in which Susan’s mother kills a spider. “You killed my pet!” Susan yells, running out of her bedroom and downstairs, through the display of coffins, and into her (unusually tall) father’s embalming room (where, incidentally, the corpse he is working on takes a series of deep, highly visible breaths). When Susan’s father takes Susan’s side, her mother says angrily, “I’m sick of living in this slimy mausoleum!” and runs off to have sex with her brother-in-law, the local sheriff (who is not unusually tall like his brother).

At night, Susan’s mother confronts Susan’s father because he supports their daughter. “You love that…her more than you every loved me!”

She slaps her husband. “Don’t touch me! You smell of chemicals and death!” She runs up to her bedroom, unaware of Susan following her and listening in when she calls her lover and tells him they need to kill Susan’s father as soon as possible. Of course, Susan responds in the only way a young girl can: She sets her pet tarantula loose in her mother’s bedroom.

The cuddly arachnid creeps on top of the mother’s nightgown and kills the woman by causing a heart attack.

The film cuts to years later, when Susan has grown into a young woman with a large collection of tarantulas kept in cages and terraria. When her father asks for her help and tells her he is going out of town for a week, she sadly tells him the local young adults either ignore her or make fun of her (though it has nothing to do with her obsession with spiders). He quips, “And all because I’m a mortician. Too bad I’m not in a livelier profession.”

Her father’s cohorts arrive, including his adulterous brother Walter, who immediately grabs Susan’s shoulders creepily and says, “I caught you. You’re on my ten most wanted list.” Then he adds, “You’re as lovely as your mother was. If you need anything while your dad’s away, just give a loud…whistle. That’s my girl.”

The next day, her unusually tall father says goodbye, leaving Susan all alone in the mortuary.

At night, as Susan plays with her tarantulas, she gets a phone call from Joe Penny (not the actor), who asks if he can visit her house because he doesn’t want to go to any Halloween parties tonight. Before Joe arrives, however, a VW Beetle full of mischievous young adults pulls into the mortuary driveway and breaks into the building. The ne’er-do-wells plan to steal a coffin quietly to adorn their Halloween party, but they carry out their task in the manner of The Three Stooges, drawing Susan’s attention. When she investigates the mortuary downstairs, the young men jump out and scare her and, perhaps worse, they tease her about Joe Penny. In a shocking scene, the three young men find her cellar collection of tarantulas. They taunt each other about being afraid of spiders, despite Susan’s protestations, and then they drop a cage and stomp on a tarantula.

“Are you happy?” Susan screams. “Do you like killing? Is that it?”

The thugs run away, forgetting about the casket, while Susan picks up the dead tarantula. Seconds later, Joe Penny arrives and tries to console her. He tells her he wishes there was some way to get back at the thugs, but there really isn’t anything they can do.

Or is there? Later, the thugs are at the local drive-in movie with their girlfriends, all making out in their VW “bug.” Meanwhile, Susan sits in her own car and lifts the lid off a tin full of tarantulas. What follows is a mix of real onscreen terror from the thugs, and a constant sense of worry on the part of the audience that one of the actors will crush another spider as Susan slips a few tarantulas through the ajar door of the VW and it takes an inordinately long amount of time for anyone to notice the dozens of large spiders crawling on them.

Oddly, the hysterical screaming ends in one of the thugs kicking out a side door window (even though the door was partially open) and a girl slicing her throat on the glass.

Shockingly, the only survivor of the incident is a girl confined to a hospital bed who only screams when she’s asked what happened. Creepy police chief Walter asks Susan’s father if there’s any explanation of the deaths, but he says there’s nothing the lab could have missed. Walter uses the thugs’ funeral as an excuse to hit on his niece again when he finds Susan swinging on a swing outside. “Would you like to…take a walk with me?” he asks.

“No,” she replies. “I just want to sit and listen to the quiet.”

When everyone leaves the funeral, Susan leans over the coffin and slips the body of her murdered tarantula inside. “Treat him more gently this time,” she tells the thug’s lifeless body.

At the hospital, Susan visits the survivor, unfortunately telling her she is sorry for what she did—a confession that is overheard by one of the survivor’s friends. This leads to another thug stalking Susan (slowly) in the woods. He startles her, but strategically asks her out so they can talk tonight (though admittedly this conversation is difficult to hear due to the rushing river Susan sits beside). This leads to a date at the drive-in movie, against which Susan protests, telling her date she likes movie musicals, comedies, and happy endings. “Everything just seems so unhappy now. Everything is so…down. Terrible things are happening. That’s why I like happy endings. I like everything fresh and alive.”

Her data uses this moment to press on Susan. “How were my friends killed?” She climbs out of the car and runs away. Instead of chasing her, the young man just mumbles, “I’ll get you.”

Back home, Susan has no choice but to speak to her tarantulas. “You can’t survive without me,” she tells them in their cages.

On Saturday, the young man who is suspicious of Susan works on a building site, as his job is apparently to caulk things inside air ducts. Unfortunately for him, a mysterious figure surreptitiously slips ten tarantulas into the shaft. Of course, it takes the spiders several hours to move through the duct toward the man, as it takes them about thirty seconds to move an inch, but eventually they reach the frightened man. He screams as they crawl across him. And then he dies.

Meanwhile, in the hospital, the survivor of the first spider attack sees a small spider crawling on some flowers and starts screaming. The nurse attending her yells for the doctor, because of course nurses cannot handle screaming young woman, and then she is visited by creepy police chief Walter, who immediately puts two and two together based on the girl’s fear of spiders — Susan must be the attacker!

The next victim is Nancy, the girlfriend of the last victim, who goes to Walter convinced that Susan is the killer, only to have Walter talk her out of the idea because her only evidence is a phone call from her boyfriend. Nancy skulks outside the mortuary when Walter, unaware of her presence, arrives at the mortuary to talk to Susan. “There’s certain evidence that, uh, points directly to you,” he says.

“What are you going to do now?”

“I can protect you,” he says. “I can calm her down. I can convince the town people that she’s wrong. But I need your cooperation. We’re family. You’re so lovely.”

He grabs Susan and kisses her, unaware that Nancy is watching through a window.

Oddly, Walter leaves seconds later and sees Nancy outside. She confronts him. “She’s crazy. She killed him and you’re protecting her.”

“Do you know what that kind of talk can do to me? I mean, my career? I mean, do you? I’ve worked too hard. Too hard. If anyone…”

Although this kind of logic might be expected to convince Nancy she should keep quiet, it does not. Walter steps toward her and she runs into the woods. After a long chase in the dark, Walter throws himself on top of Nancy and strangles her, an act of murder that takes less than two seconds.

The next morning, a hobo discovers Nancy’s body. Creepy police chief Walter investigates, putting his hands all over her neck to hide fingerprints, and lamenting that he will have to tell Nancy’s mother she is dead.

As the film moves toward its thrilling climax, Walter visits the mortuary when Susan’s father is gone and Susan is alone in bed wearing a nightgown. This provides one of the film’s most striking images as Walter stealthily climbs the stairs, with the shadows of the railings painting prison-like bars across his face.

“We’re even closer now,” Walter whispers to his skeptical niece. “Listen, it’s all right. It will be just fine. I’ve taken care of everything.” He adds, “Nancy. She wanted to put you away. So I had to stop her.”

“You killed Nancy?” Susan runs away but Walter grabs her on the stairs. Fortunately for Susan, Walter is clumsy, and he falls down the stairs, though surprisingly his fall does not kill him. It only paralyzes him.

When he asks her to help him, she refuses. “You destroyed my family,” she says. “You made me kill my mother.”

She drags his paralyzed body into the mortuary, where she uses a lift to remove Nancy’s body from her casket (shown, for unknown reasons, in real time) and replace it with the screaming Walter. Her imaginative plan is to bury him in the casket’s lining (after removing the padding), thus interring him underneath Nancy’s body. (Curiously, Susan’s spiders are not part of her plan, and they do not appear in the film again.)

Meanwhile, Susan’s unusually tall father leaves a “meeting” at a hotel and drives back home. He arrives at the mortuary after Susan has sealed the casket. She sits in her bed, reading, and tells her father to sleep well. Her happy ending has indeed been achieved.

The End

Who are the real monsters? The tarantulas or the humans?

The humans.

Many of your universe's critics point out that a supposed "flaw" in Kiss of the Tarantula is the disappearance of the spiders in the last act of the film. However, this "flaw" is clearly one of the film's strength, as it hammers home the message of the film: innocent tarantulas are not scary, but loner women who live in mortuaries are scary. If the spiders in the story were aggressive or poisonous, or included in the climax of the film, then the message would be diluted. But the spiders are simply harmless tarantulas that crawl forward at an extremely slow velocity wherever they are placed by murderous human hands. If the people they eventually crawl onto are so frightened or misinformed that they think the adorable arachnids are dangerous, and these people die of a heart attack or whatnot, is that the fault of the spiders? Of course not. The film's message could not be more clear, or more heartfelt. And that is what makes Kiss of the Tarantula one of the finest films created in Columbus, Georgia in 1975.