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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) review


William Shatner (Dr. Robert "Rack" Hansen), Tiffany Bolling (Dr. Diane Ashley), Woody Strode (Walter Colby), Marcy Lafferty (Terry Hansen), Lieux Dressler (Emma Watson), David McClean (Sheriff Gene Smith), Altovise Davis (Birch Colby), Hoke Howell (Earl Forbes)

Directed by John "Bud" Cardos

The Short Version: Excellent entry in the 'Nature Amuck' sub genre renaissance that erupted in the mid 1970s after JAWS took the box office by storm. A great cast and a perfect assimilation of those grand 'B' pictures (that's B for Bug) that stormed theater screens throughout the 1950s. If you've a fear of hairy critters, especially of the arachnid sort, you'll likely want to stay out of the KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS.

An isolated desert town in Arizona comes under attack by millions of tarantulas who, after their natural food supply is eradicated from excessive use of DDT, have now sought man as their new source of food.

In the 1950s, scores of various insects grew to gigantic size from man's ignorance of the dangers of atomic power. In the mid 1970s, nature struck back again, but this time, the creatures of the Earth weren't always outsized aggregates marching on mankind. A number of these movies were able to wrangle a bit more fear from their premise by showcasing the deadly denizens of the animal kingdom as normal sized critters. Cardos's film is one such picture and arguably the most fondly remembered of the 70s bunch and one of the best directed.

Peaceful Verde Valley garners the attention of both Dr. "Rack" Hansen (a subtle and very natural performance by William Shatner) and the pretty entomologist, Diane Ashley (the gorgeous Tiffany Bolling from CANDY SNATCHERS and BONNIE'S KIDS) after a prize bull is found dead and filled with venom. It soon comes to their attention that the disappearances and deaths of small animals has been the result of mass spider attacks. Brushed off as a foolish statement, things take a turn for the worse once the massive spider hills are discovered which soon leads to a calculated and devastating assault on the town by literally millions of agitated tarantulas.

Channeling JAWS, the town Mayor shuns the notion of "closing the beaches", and carries on with the town's festival anyway. Of course, this leads to one of the most memorable and skin crawlingly effective finales of all the 'Nature Amuck' movies. Ably assisted by Jerry Goldsmith's music heard prominently on second season episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, Goldsmith's unsettling chords are a perfect fit for the creepy crawly atmosphere. Cardos must have liked these cues as they crop up again in his next film, THE DARK from 1979. The rest of the music are library tracks that will be instantly familiar to kung fu movie fans.

After reading several reviews for this film before and after its most recent DVD incarnation, I have to disagree wholeheartedly about their perception of William Shatner's performance. It's a controlled, very natural take on a man who is still grieving, solitarily so, on his brothers death in Vietnam and compensates by making sure his wife (played by Shatner's real wife at the time, Marcy Lafferty) and child are taken care of. A former stage actor, Shatner never once showcases the energetic over acting he became (in)famous for. I think Shatner was so good at his particular acting style, that no matter what he did/does, people are still going to correlate Shatner with overzealous hamminess. I think he's good here and that it's one of his best roles.

Shatner, along with the other cast members show just what they're made of by allowing many a hairy tarantula crawl all over them. In one scene alone, Shatner has more than a dozen spiders attached to him and even one on his face. In a good number of other scenes, the level of goosebumpery is raised judging by the distraught faces of the cast as the spiders bite and crawl over their bodies. The all too real fear is clearly in evidence a number of times. If this movie were to be made today, no way would the cast be covered in arachnids, these types of scenes would be created by the "marvels" of computer technology.

KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS also follows the template laid down by its 'Big Bug' forefathers. You have the scientists, the love interest, the failed love interest, the sheriff, stock creature casualties and a grandiose assault on a vast number of screaming victims. The ending echoes the best of the siege movies (since NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) as all the characters who got the most screen time and remain alive are herded into a house by the spiders and attempt to keep the flurry of furry 8 legged Theraphosidae from getting inside at them. It's a non stop onslaught as the spiders manage to enter every nook and cranny found within the large cabin. It makes for a taut, expertly handled conclusion and the somber denouement is surely one of the great shock endings of all time.

Tiffany Bolling somewhat sheds her exploitation image without shedding her clothes in the serious role as entomologist, Diane Ashley. Woody Strode gets a good amount of screen time as the main ill fated stock character who meets a grim fate late in the film and character actor, Hoke Howell is on hand to provide yet another memorable hillbilly persona. There's something about the way he says "Hell, Clyde, I kayn't sell ya' no damn tire for five dollars!" that brings a smile to my face. Apparently, the film had one too many expletives. In the same scene, you hear Howell shout "God darnit'", but if you watch his lips, he's clearly saying "Goddamit". In a minor bit of insignificant trivia that may, or may not have been intentional, the character of Emma Watson was also the name of an elderly, but spirited lady on the classic ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. The actress playing Emma also worked as 'Creative Consultant' on the picture.

I remember the first time I saw a poster for this film was in an issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland. From that image of a towering tarantula threatening screaming humans beneath its hairy legs really made an impression on me. I finally caught up with the film first on the USA Network in the mid 1980s. Later, I purchased the VCII VHS tape which had a horrible print that looked nothing like the crisp cable presentation. Then came the Goodtimes "25th Anniversary Edition" that had nothing but a good print going for it. Now, fans have had reason to Shout! since Shout! Factory's release crawled onto an unsuspecting public early last year.

In a late 80s/early 90s interview in Fangoria, Shatner mentioned he had a script for a sequel he was working on which had an odd story that took place inside an insane asylum and an inmate with a fear or arachnids. Shatner also mentions this in an interview on the DVD, including his good experience working on the picture. Before and since its release, there's been many spider movies such as TARANTULA (1955), THE SPIDER (1958), THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION (1975), TARANTULAS: THE DEADLY CARGO (1977), ARACHNOPHOBIA (1990) and countless others, but KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS is one of the few that gets many things right and deserves its cult status by virtue of its cast of brave thespians willing to let thousands of spiders crawl all over them and the small number of 8 legged furry friends who lost their lives for their "art", trampled and squashed underfoot by both man and machine.

This review is representative of the Shout! Factory Special Edition DVD


Maynard Morrissey said...

wonderful horror movie with a highly entertaining Shatner and an absolutely impressive ending. Loves it!

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

I think KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS and THE INTRUDER are ample evidence that Shatner could turn it on when the project was right. I agree that this is one of the better 1970's 'Revolt of Nature' flicks, and belongs to quite a long lineage of Spider related terrors.

JP "Strange and Shocking Turn Of Events" Wendel said...

It's about time someone finally gave Shatner his acting dues for this flick.

venoms5 said...

@ Maynard: I love this movie, too, Maynard. I read a short time back a remake was in the planning stages for this movie....sadly.

@ Shaun: I totally agree. INTRUDER is an unsung classic. I covered it briefly in one of the blaxploitation articles here. Great film, that one. Shatner's good in his two TZ episodes, too.

@ JP: Thanks, JP. I think some people that CLAIM Shatner is hamming it up here are delusional and apparently equate that image of him with everything he has done. Much the same way people are always going to equate Japanese monster movies as rubber monsters stomping on toy sets regardless of how good the special effects are.

Hell, I thought he was quite good in THE DEVIL'S RAIN and his supporting role in VISITING HOURS was also restrained. If you haven't seen INTRUDER, you should definitely check that one out. You're likely to never look at Shatner the same way again.

Carl Manes said...

I wholeheartedly agree here V, Shatner is far more reserved and believable here than in almost any other film I can think of. Love the deliciously dark ending, and having the real spiders gives the film immediate credibility. Good stuff all around!

venoms5 said...

This is one of my faves and one that I frequently revisit. I do think it's the best of the spider flicks both then and now. At least I can't think of any others that come close to it.

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