May 20, 2023

Have a nice time trip, see you next fall: Todd Tarantula

Poster - Todd Tarantula (2023)
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Todd Tarantula (2023)

Pros: A wild, surreal ride through the dark underbelly of Los Angeles; The actors have obvious fun with their odd, quirky characters; Impressive debut performance by Ethan Walker in the title role
Cons: The unconventional story line and the rotoscope digital effect that makes the film look like a live-action graphic novel may require the right mood (or artificial enhancers - consult applicable state and local laws) for full appreciation

Back in January 2020 I reviewed Loon Lake (2019), a low-budget, independent feature co-produced by director Ansel Faraj and lead actors Nathan Wilson and Kelly Kitko. In the film, a grieving young widower (Wilson) rents a cabin in rural Minnesota to try to put the trauma of his wife’s death behind him, but soon becomes haunted in an entirely different way when he unwittingly invokes the curse of a 19th century witch.

Loon Lake put its own spin on the classic theme of world-weary urban protagonists seeking peace and quiet in the countryside and instead finding horrors they never dreamed of. In contrast, the trio’s latest production, Todd Tarantula, features a prematurely jaded young protagonist who yearns to leave the sleaziness of Los Angeles behind, only to find himself exploring the city’s meanest, darkest recesses by way of nightmarish visions that seem to be propelling him back and forth through time.

Todd (Ethan Walker), with his ‘50s hairstyle and leather jacket embroidered with a stylized tarantula, is an updated rebel without a cause. The estranged son of a rich and powerful LA businessman, Wallander Tarantula, (Douglas M. Eames), Todd spends his days drinking with his sloppy buddy Barracuda (Nathan Wilson) and getting into bar fights.

Screenshot - Nathan Wilson and Ethan Walker in Todd Tarantula (2023)
Todd and his best friend Barracuda are in a rut: drink, fight, sleep, repeat.

Todd wants nothing more than to blow LA for the wide open spaces and freedom of the desert. (At one point as Todd and Barracuda are hanging out at the beach, drinking and admiring the sunset, cynical Todd can’t help but point out it’s the city’s smog that’s responsible for the spectacular sunsets.)

However, Todd’s prize possession and the means by which he intends to escape filthy LA, a vintage motorcycle that his father passed down to him, has mysteriously vanished. To add to the mystery, just before his bike disappeared, Todd discovered the body of a man sprawled out in a pool of blood on the floor of the parking garage. Before he had time to decide what to do, both body and motorbike were gone.

The search for his missing motorcycle takes Todd on a journey into the darkest and weirdest byways of Los Angeles. He starts at the apartment of a psychic friend, Andromeda (Brittany Hoza), whom he hopes can provide clues to his bike’s whereabouts. The wayward son soon ends up at Wallander’s mansion, guarded by a nominally polite but steadfast assistant (Emma West), whose only job seems to be to prevent Todd from seeing his father.

Out of nowhere, Lucifer Grey (David Selby), his father’s ostensible business partner, shows up to offer his help. Decked out in a white suit and hat, wielding a dragon’s head cane, and sporting a permanent, knowing grin on his face, Grey is another in a long line of dapper devils looking for innocents willing to bargain away their souls. He knows a little too much about Todd, including his fraught relationship with his father. Later on, when it’s revealed that the elder Tarantula is seriously ill and Grey is set to take over a controlling share of the family business, Grey’s interest in Todd, especially as the heir to a major stake in the company, appears to be more than casual, to say the least.

Screenshot - Nathan Wilson and David Selby in Todd Tarantula (2023)
Todd will soon learn a valuable lesson: never trust anyone who wears white after Labor Day.

But Todd has resources of his own, including psychic visions that strip away the tinsel from Tinseltown and reveal a sprawling ghost town of high strangeness. In Todd’s alternate reality, lizard people live in tunnels beneath the city, spirits seeking the netherworld haunt the streets at night, and the hot Santa Ana winds that bedevil Angelenos stream out of a cave in the Mojave desert that itself is a portal to Hell.

Todd even has the seeming ability to travel in time, at one point finding himself at the site of the future Los Angeles circa 1852, conversing with its sole residents, the regal Lady Salome (Kelly Kitko) and her dead husband Roberto (Fernando Alvarez), whose talking, animated skull is her constant companion. The foremother of Los Angeles stands perpetual guard at a native-built amphitheater that is a portal for astral travelers (ironically located at the future spot of the Griffith Observatory).

Screenshot - Todd (Ethan Walker) talks with Roberto's skull in Todd Tarantula (2023)
"Alas, poor Roberto, I knew him, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy..."

Lurking in the background of Todd’s visions is Grey, who may possibly be a catalyst for them. Todd will eventually learn of Grey’s keen interest in his psychic abilities, which figure prominently in the businessman’s devious plans.

Todd Tarantula is like the lovechild of an unholy union between an urban dungeons and dragons quest and a ‘50s teen angst movie. To bless the union, Faraj and company digitally rotoscoped the footage in post production to make the colors, characters and scenery pop like a cross between a live-action graphic novel and an acid trip. (While I appreciate the intent of the digital rotoscoping, at various points I found myself wishing for a more standard look, especially when the effect obscured the actors’ expressions.)

So, if we’re tripping along with Todd via the film’s digital effects, can we trust that anything we see on the screen is “real” in the conventional dramatic sense? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it’s all a dream, or the result of a bad batch of weed that Todd and Barracuda got their hands on. Whatever it is, it’s a wild ride through multiple layers of southern California folklore.

Speaking of not trusting your senses, one of the film’s more intriguing obstacles in Todd’s quest is Wallander Tarantula’s assistant Jabez. We never see her in person, only through Todd’s smartphone screen. With her deathly pallor, pulled back blonde hair, and unblinking eyes, Jabez seems like an AI mirage, a cold, unhelpful version of Siri come to simulated life. (It’s a notable performance, especially considering that Emma West wrapped up all her scenes in under an hour on the first day of shooting.) [IMDb]

Screenshot - Emma West as Jabez in Todd Tarantula (2023)
"Open the Tarantula mansion doors Jabez."
"I'm sorry Todd. I'm afraid I can't do that."

When Todd finally gets past Wallander’s defenses and meets with him face to face, things again are not as they seem. Oz-like,Todd pulls back the curtains to find that his father has made a true devil’s pact with his business partner, and in the process has become a literal prisoner of the technology that Tarantula Enterprises helped develop.

Todd Tarantula reunited a number of the principal people behind Loon Lake, and became Hollinsworth Productions’ first feature-length release since 2019. Like the previous film, actors Kelly Kitko and Nathan Wilson, along with Darin Medders, joined writer-director Ansel Faraj in co-producing.

In Loon Lake, Kitko plays a wronged witch who places a curse on anyone who dares to tread on her grave. In Todd Tarantula, she plays yet another witch of sorts, but this time a much more joyous one in love with nature and the wilderness of mid-nineteenth century California (although, she’s not one to be crossed, as poor Roberto finds out).

There’s a great scene in which Salome, finding out that Todd is from the future, insists that he tell her what’s in store for her bucolic homestead. She has some starry-eyed visions of what’s to come, and Todd walks a fine line in telling her what 21st century Los Angeles is really like.

Screenshot - Kelly Kitko as Lady Salome and Ethan Walker as Todd in Todd Tarantula (2023)
Lady Salome tries very hard to visualize what southern California will look like in 2023.

Nathan Wilson has a much different role as Todd’s loopy, drug-addled sidekick. In spite of his prosthetic leg, Barracuda can fight his way out of a bar with the best of them -- and then relax, take a swig from the bottle and admire the pollution-enhanced sunset. But his loyalty gets him in trouble when he joins Todd in a nighttime search for the motorcycle in a decidedly sketchy (and haunted) part of the city.

David Selby, veteran of the Dark Shadows and Falcon Crest TV shows, is at his quietly menacing best as Lucifer Grey. It was interesting to find out that Selby was not the first choice for Grey; during the 10+ years Faraj spent in trying to get the film made, a couple of other actors were considered. [IMDb] But Selby occupied the role like it was written for him, and won Best Supporting Actor at the 2023 Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival for his efforts.

Todd Tarantula is Ethan Walker’s debut feature film role. He nicely channels a James Dean sort of vibe, especially in Todd’s encounters with his beleaguered father and the smilingly malignant Lucifer Grey. The only thing missing is “You’re tearing me apart!” histrionics, but then, Todd is way too cool for school to go there. Without giving away too much, the movie leaves a lot of maneuvering room for Walker to reprise the role if that’s in the cards. (I hope Walker got to keep the Tarantula signature leather jacket, because that is one rad piece of apparel.)

Where to find it: Streaming | Blu-ray 

Exclusive Bonus: An Interview with Ansel Faraj

Ansel Faraj developed a great affection for classic films and TV at an early age. He began making films in his teens, and by the age of 20 he was already working with veteran film and TV actors to make feature films. He has written, produced and/or directed dozens of features and shorts including several films featuring the classic-era master criminal Dr. Mabuse, the Detective Adam Sera series set in an alternate reality “Lost” Angeles, the fantasy anthology series Theatre Fantastique, and the H.P. Lovecraft inspired The Last Case of August T. Harrison.

In an exclusive interview for Films From Beyond, Faraj discusses the challenges and rewards of being a truly independent filmmaker who must rely on creativity and inventiveness in the absence of big Hollywood budgets.

Publicity still - Writer/producer/director Ansel Faraj (courtesy of Ansel Faraj)
Writer/producer/director Ansel Faraj.

Films From Beyond: When you were younger, what attracted you to classic films such as The Phantom of the Opera and the Dr. Mabuse series, and to TV shows like Dark Shadows?

Faraj: Phantom of the Opera was one of the first things I ever experienced. I saw the original Andrew Lloyd Webber show way back when, I was 5 years old, and I was astounded. I just kept thinking "How did they do that?!" and by the end of the second act, I knew I wanted to do the same thing, somehow. And this was long before there was a film version of the musical, so then I became fascinated with the previous films, Claude Rains and Lon Chaney's versions, and that was the gateway into Universal Monster-land and greater classic film in general. My mom was a first generation Dark Shadows kid who ran home from school - actually, she would ditch class to not miss an episode - and she would tell me the various storyline arcs as bedtime stories. I saw HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS first when I was 6 and it rattled me and excited me and I couldn't get enough. When I was a little older, I became familiar with Fritz Lang's MABUSE films as I was exploring film history and Mabuse was a fascinating character. It became a little dream of mine when I was a teenager to make a new film about Mabuse, and then suddenly when I was 20, we were actually making it, with Jerry Lacy as Mabuse.

There are a number of actors with whom you frequently collaborate, including Nathan Wilson and Kelly Kitko, and such Dark Shadows alumni as Jerry Lacy, Lara Parker, Kathryn Leigh Scott and David Selby. How did you make those connections?

We've all known and worked together now for a little over a decade. I met Nathan when I was 19, he auditioned for a comedy I was working on at the time, and we just clicked. Then I told him about Inspector Lohemann in my DOCTOR MABUSE script, and would he like to play it, and he said yes. So that cemented things. As far as the DARK SHADOWS alumni, I contacted Jerry and Kathryn and offered them their respective roles in my film, I had just turned 20, and I think they were intrigued enough by me and what I had to say that very fortunately (and incredibly, at the time) they said yes to the film. Kathryn then connected me with Lara, and I met David at the premiere of my first DOCTOR MABUSE film. The entire experience was totally surreal. I was so young and had never experienced anything like it before, let alone suddenly directing these legendary figures from my childhood. Very surreal and strange and exciting. I've been so grateful, they've all taught me a lot and have all become an extended family for me. Kelly Kitko auditioned for a role in DOCTOR MABUSE 2 and as with Nate, she and I just clicked and after a few more films together, Kelly, Nathan, and I pooled together our wits and formed a production company. The three of us are a very close knit team.

Publicity still - Ansel Faraj and the cast of Loon Lake (2019) on location (courtesy of Ansel Faraj)
Ansel Faraj and the cast of Loon Lake (2019) on location (courtesy of Ansel Faraj).

The LA area, and Venice Beach in particular, figures prominently in many of your films. What aspects of LA life and culture have influenced your work the most?

I don't know that LA life has really influenced my work... life in LA is very weird. People are phony, vain, self obsessed... I went to a private school when I was a kid and was the lone poor kid around extravagant wealth and celebrities kids and ambassadors kids, and they were all stuck on themselves and money solved most if not all of their problems. It's kind of disgusting. I'd say a good amount of that found its way into TODD TARANTULA, with jaded rich kids and their drug use and full-of-shit attitude. There's a darkness and something occult about LA, you could ask anyone from here and they might not be able to tell you in specific words, but there is an occult energy pulsing through LA. People are made on the sidewalks and just as quickly cut down. But Venice, that's my home turf, Venice is one of the last remaining places in LA that still has this old magic hidden in the gutter. As much as Venice has changed over the years, and it definitely has, there's still old buildings and alleyways and corners where the old city still exists... it's a place where you definitely feel anything can happen, especially the unusual. And there's nothing like a Venice Beach sunset.

How did you channel your creative energies during the pandemic?

Nathan and I sat on the beach and wrote every single day. We wrote about four different feature scripts. And we shot THE THOUSAND AND ONE LIVES OF DOCTOR MABUSE which was a great deal of fun, and a nice way to revisit and put a capper on that world now as a mature experienced filmmaker. We also shot THE MOST HAUNTED HOUSE OF VENICE BEACH, but it didn't release till 2021.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities of being an independent filmmaker?

Money, and the lack thereof. I keep telling myself, one day I will get paid to do this. Now the writers are striking for this very same reason, the lack of money and the unfair pay. There is no money in streaming, and indie films live and die by streaming. It's awful. Hopefully there will be a positive change for us creatives. The one plus side is you can kind of be your own boss, and decide what movies to make and how, without having to deal with a factory assembly line as most studios and franchises operate, with forty different cooks in the kitchen. But having no money really sucks. You have to be more creative and inventive and careful with your resources. I saw a quote about EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE, how that was "an independent film" but not really, not in my opinion, with a studio like A24 behind them, and they were bemoaning that they only had "$14.6 million budget and 28 days" and I kept thinking - damn what a luxury. I've never even seen that kind of money or had that kind of a schedule before. Must feel nice. I'm over here in the alleyways of Venice among the homeless, or in the forests of Minnesota and we have no money, no marketing department, no extensive crew - it's just us, making a film. That's a real true independent, grassroots way. It's brutal hard work, and most times it is rewarding, but I'd like some of that larger scale "indie" money.

It’s my understanding that Todd Tarantula was quite a few years in the making. What hurdles were there in trying to realize your vision for the film?

Money. No money. Or the money would fall apart. Mostly money. The script was quite large too, a lot more characters and subplots that got streamlined out of the final draft. But also independent filmmaking had changed in the ten years since the film first fell apart. Suddenly there were more filmmaking resources I could turn to, to get crew or locations, versus being alone in my garage, as how I started. So that kind of helped. And by now I had Kelly and Nate and the three of us could figure out how to make what I'd written possible in practical terms. But I still ended up financing the entire production from start to finish by myself. I bussed tables, and bartended, and managed a kitchen after the pandemic to make this movie happen. I'm relieved its finished and exists and I don't have to think or wonder about it again.

Publicity still - Ansel Faraj, Brittany Hoza and Ethan Walker on the set of Todd Tarantula (2023) (Courtesy of Ansel Faraj)
Faraj, Brittany Hoza and Ethan Walker on the set of Todd Tarantula (Courtesy of Ansel Faraj).

How would you describe the Faraj Cinematic Universe, and what plans do you have for its future?

[Hahaha] The Faraj Cinematic Universe... you mean the Hollinsworth Productions universe. I have no idea how I would describe it. True independent filmmaking where we're not playing down to the audience, we're inviting them to hop on board and think while having a good time. Right now, we're currently shooting a comedy that's been in development as long as TODD TARANTULA. When I first met Nate, he pitched me this character of a washed up porn star who rides around Venice Beach on a scooter named Nick D. And now we're actually making it, it's quite epic, it's the longest script we've ever shot, and there's about 40 speaking roles, all on location across LA and Venice. It's a comedy, the kind they don't make anymore, titled THE GREAT NICK D. It's an odyssey following Nick D's attempt to resolve his unrequited love with his old girlfriend, who is now this Meryl Streep type A list actress, and he's this forgotten shlub down in Venice. Luckily we began filming before the strike was called, and we're running all summer. David Selby, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lisa Richards from DARK SHADOWS are in it, Christine Tucker from WILL & LIZ is in it, Kelly Kitko of course is in it - it's a script we're very proud of and feels pretty wild that we're finally making it. There's a few other non "genre" scripts we're developing, making our romance WILL & LIZ was a wonderful breath of fresh air, and allowed me to show off my skills outside of the fantasy/thriller world. I would still love to make our scripts of THE DUNWICH HORROR which has come close to happening several times, and one day finally make my own version of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, but we need proper financing. It will happen, one day.


  1. Intriguing review and excellent interview, brian!

    The minute you mentioned David selby is when I knew I would be watching Todd tarantula at some point! I am a dark shadows fan, but I do wonder if my damage dies will be able to handle or follow the surreal visuals.

    Oh, and it sounds like Todd should have watched serial Mom so he would know to not trust someone who wears white after Labor day!

    1. Thanks John! It's a fun and very different sort of film, and I think you'll get a kick out of it. I too was a big Dark Shadows fan - I watched it every day after school back in the day.

  2. This looks like a worthwhile watch, especially for David Selby. I have mixed feelings about rotoscoping. The effect was used in Richard Linklater's A SCANNER DARKLY, and I thought it was so obvious a gimmick that it diminished an intriguing story. Maybe it's different in this film.

    1. I hear you about the rotoscoping - at various points it obscured some of the characters' expressions. On the other hand, it helps to accentuate the "anything can happen" atmosphere of a sort of graphic novel come to life. David Selby is very good as Lucifer Grey, so it's worth giving it a try.