One night at a bar private detective Mark Higbie (Anthony Franciosa) admires an attractive dark-haired woman with an exotic accent as she lures a friend to the parking lot. Moments later he finds the man dead, drained of blood, his body covered in cobwebs. Bullish cop Lieutenant Gully Conti (Vic Morrow) seems oddly reticent about investigating further and warns Higbie to lay off the case. The very next day the dead man's girlfriend, beautiful socialite Leigh Lockwood (Donna Mills), hires Higbie to find out what really happened. Probing the tragic past of the Lockwood family, including Leigh's uptight sister Laura (Patty Duke), Higbie discovers the victim was only the latest in a long line of dead men connected to the enigmatic Valerie. Quite who Valerie is, Higbie is not sure and his incredulity only rises on realising the murders are being committed by some kind of giant spider.
After creating hit gothic soap opera Dark Shadows writer-producer Dan Curtis went on to rule the scary TV movie scene throughout the Seventies. Beginning with The Night Stalker (1971) and continuing with the likes of Trilogy of Terror (1975) and occasional big screen outings like Burnt Offerings (1976) and House of Dark Shadows (1970), Curtis crafted some of the eeriest moments in television. On the other hand, Curse of the Black Widow is most definitely a lesser effort. The film supposedly started out as a Harlan Ellison project though no trace of the New Wave science fiction author's original story remains in the finished product. If monsters are our fears made flesh it is hard to discern exactly what the lumbering were-spider is meant to represent. The opening scenes come across almost like a satire of the swinging Seventies bar scene, sort of a gender reversed Looking for Mister Goodbar (1977) with a monster. Interestingly all the male victims are instantly intimidated or outright repulsed by Valerie's brazen sexuality even before she transforms into a giant spider. However, Curtis chooses not to pursue this intriguing angle.
Instead, Curse of the Black Widow opts for a familiar combination of melodrama and gothic horror lifted from the tried and true formula of Dark Shadows mixed with the hard-boiled sleuthing of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Alas, the drama is daytime soap opera silly while Franciosa's smarmy detective is not as compelling a character as Carl Kolchak. As a result the core concept comes across as just plain ridiculous. A stumbling narrative drags out what is actually a fairly slight story with far too many time-outs for pointless walks on the beach, drinks over disco or in one instance a scene designed solely for Curtis to show-off his cute little daughter Tracy Curtis' prowess as a child gymnast. Despite Curtis' customary solid production values this is less atmospheric than many scary Seventies TV films.
What this does have going for it is an amazing once in a lifetime cast. Along with soap opera stalwart Donna Mills and the ever-watchable Patty Duke, you have got June Allyson as devoted housekeeper Olga (providing the film's most indelible image), Vic Morrow, Jeff Corey as an unconvincing Native American mystic-cum-arachnid expert, Lost in Space star June Lockhart as the Lockwood sister's catatonic mother (very obviously doubled by a man in one showstopping stunt) and, in a very strange role, comedy legend Sid Caesar. In fact Curse of the Black Widow is full of weird supporting characters, from Caesar's landlord who cranks the indoor heating up to eleven for no obvious reason than to annoy Higbie's annoying secretary (Roz Kelly) to the zookeeper who hates animals (?) and the camp forensic scientist who flirts with our hero. To their credit the cast approach this nonsense with a commendable set of straight faces. Award-winning actress Patty Duke is especially good in an atypical role, particularly in her scenes with June Allyson. Given Duke's own well-known struggles with manic depression it is possible she responded to the script as some kind of allegory but the psychological twist is not as clever as the filmmakers seem to think, leaving viewers with just a dumb-looking rubber spider. Lord knows what fans of The Patty Duke Show made of this.