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Kiss of the Tarantula

Kiss of the Tarantula(1976)

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teaser Kiss of the Tarantula (1976)

The success of occult horror films and the wave of animal rampage epics in the '70s resulted in some strange fusions, with put-upon youths using their supernatural powers to unleash crawling mayhem on their enemies in films like the snake-oriented Stanley (1972) and Jennifer (1978). It was inevitable that someone would come up with the idea of using spiders as an instrument of psychic vengeance, in this case that most ubiquitous of '70s pop culture spiders, the tarantula. The furry creepy crawlies had been supporting players in the 1972 AIP film Frogs, but they took center stage in Kiss of the Tarantula (1976), the opening salvo in a small run of tarantula vehicles including Kingdom of the Spiders and the made-for-TV production, Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo (both 1977). The fad died out fairly quickly, but tarantulas remained reliable scene stealers in brief scenes throughout the '80s in films like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) , Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), and most graphically, The Beyond (1981).

Shot in Columbus, Georgia (hometown of Oscar-nominated writer-director Nunnally Johnson), Kiss of the Tarantula was the second and final narrative feature film for director Chris Munger following Black Starlet (1974). An apprentice to drive-in specialist James Bryan on such films as Escape to Passion (1970), Munger made both of his films for producer Daniel Cady, a prolific force behind several drive-in programmers including multiple John Hayes titles like Grave of the Vampire (1972) and Sweet Trash (1970) before switching to adult films (under the name "William Dancer") and the VHS perennial, Dolly Dearest (1991). Cady also wrote the script for this film with collaborator Warren Hamilton, Jr., a future Hollywood sound effects editor on projects like The Thing (1982) and Apollo 13 (1995). A jack of all trades, Hamilton even edited this film, the last of five features he cut including The Black Bunch (1973) and C.B. Hustlers (1976).

The film marked the sole theatrical and production effort for the Georgia-based Cinema-Vu, and it actually seems to go out of its way to disguise its Southern origins; the actors speak with flat American accents, the architecture features only a vague hint of local flavor, and the outdoor scenes focus on generic woods and house exteriors. One-shot leading lady Suzanna Ling disappeared from the screen after this film (accounts suggest she became a stage actress in Atlanta), and almost all of the talent was intended to be pulled from local thespians and technicians for a breakneck ten-day shoot. However, professional actors were eventually pulled in, particularly Eric Mason, who plays Walter; a veteran TV actor, he had also graced such films as The Candidate (1964) and the aforementioned Grave of the Vampire, likely the reason for his casting here. Also notable was cinematographer Henning Schellerup, who had shot several prime grindhouse titles like Curse of the Headless Horseman (1972) and went on to lens the notorious Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) as well as work as a second unit camera operator on A Nightmare on Elm Street the same year. Horror fans will also note the unusual electronic score by Phillan Bishop; this would be his last film after providing equally striking, unnerving synthesizer compositions for two 1973 chillers, the marvelous Messiah of Evil and the oft-maligned but underrated The Severed Arm.

The film was later revived in Columbus in 2002 for a screening at the Columbus Museum, where details emerged about its paltry budget ($60,000) and the film's promotion, with Darlene Drady Henderson (daughter of executive producer Curt Drady) enlisted to transport live tarantulas to various cities' radio and television stations as a novel publicity stunt. The primary house location was also revealed as the home of veterinarian Nonie Eakle, also used in The Green Berets (1968). According to Henderson's interview with the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, the experience of making the film proved to be disillusioning with a bad distribution deal and dubious financing nearly costing them their house. The film still retains something of a cult following in its hometown, particularly former actor John Suhr (who appears as the funeral preacher) who keeps a substantial collection of memorabilia associated with the film. Odd and fascinating, it's unique as the only Columbus-shot entry in the legacy of regional horror films that flourished in the 1970s and a trailblazer in the short but memorable history of tarantula terror cinema.

By Nathaniel Thompson

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