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

The Gestapo's Last Orgy (1977) review


Daniela Levy (Lise Cohen), Marc Loud (Conrad Von Starker), Maristella Greco (Alma)

Directed by Casare Canevari

The Short Version: Incredibly offensive and morally reprehensible entry in the mercifully short-lived naziploitation sub-genre that oozed out from the seedier side of the Italian film industry in a two year time span of 1976-1977. However, Canevari's movie attempts a bit more than just salacious perversions and outrageous sadism even though these occasional provocative moments are totally overshadowed by the films cavalcade of cruelty.

***WARNING! This review contains images of a sensitive nature that the easily offended may find disturbing***

Lise Cohen, one of many Jewish female prisoners held captive and tortured at Naugen, one of many Nazi death camps, survived by having a secret love affair with Nazi commandant, Conrad Von Starker. Unable to break her spirit, the Commandant fell in love with her. Years have passed and the war is over, but Lise still remembers the horrors she witnessed during that time. She decides to have one last secret meeting with Von Starker on the site of the former Nazi camp where thousands lost their lives.

From the director of the thoroughly bizarre spaghetti western MATALO! (1970), comes this thoroughly disgusting, occasionally poignant entry in the short-lived naziploitation sub-genre that "enjoyed" a mercifully brief run in the late 1970s between the years of 1976 and 1977. No doubt these films saw greater interest outside of Italy and Europe in general, they maintain a curious attraction for a small contingent of cult movie fans. Along with Bruno Mattei's shockingly well made WOMEN'S CAMP 119 (1976), Canevari's movie also displays some honest moments of professionalism even if the film is overpowered by its flood of unpleasantries with the centerpiece being an 11 minute sequence that still manages to disturb and would surely offend and shock those not accustomed to witnessing such movies.

The scene in question is the dinner scene. A group of Nazi doctors and military personnel gather for supper and to discuss the Final Solution. Numerous ideas are bandied about as to the most efficient method of racial genocide. The one that is ultimately decided upon is that those of the Hebrew race be herded in slaughterhouses and treated as cattle, butchered into cuts of meat to be consumed by members of the "New Germany". One Nazi doctor protests and is soundly excused from the room. This plot device of the sympathetic Nazi echoes John Rabe, a Nazi who stood up against the Japanese cruelty during WW2 and condemned much of the senseless violence to Hitler, himself.

There's also a minor subplot dealing with a doomed love affair between a female prisoner and a Nazi soldier that ends just how you'd expect. Sadly, the script doesn't find the time to dwell too long on this story arc.

The round table of Nazis get their first taste of this new food source and all seem to deeply enjoy the experience. Their pallets satiated, this prompts the ghoulish doctor who thought of the idea to pronounce, "There's nothing better than a pot roast of unborn Jew!" The women servants surrounding the table pass out from the sight of these deplorable people subjecting themselves to cannibalism. Having a warped epiphany, the sordid seven decide to pour the remains of the human roast over the naked body of this unconscious lass, then place her body inside a makeshift coffin, cover her in cognac and set her on fire! After feasting on this barbaric banquet, the group becomes sexually stimulated (every act of sadism resorts in arousal it seems). A Nazi enjoys one of the servants while fondling the charred and half eaten corpse of the cooked slave and Von Starker's first encounter with Lise sees him force her to orally satisfy him. Later in the film, she excites him by fellating the barrel of his Luger pistol!

It's not known if the Nazis resorted to, or experimented with cannibalism during the war, but the Japanese did gleefully feasting on the corpses of their captives. The male genitalia was of particular interest to the Japanese soldier believing the male member to increase virility. As the war came to an end, rations became thin and cannibalism was a means to satisfy hunger, but an imperial decree ordered that anyone Japanese caught eating his own would be executed. Canevari's movie is the only naziploitation movie that skirts the subject of cannibalism as part of the Final Solution.

The opening is also a potent sequence for different reasons as we watch Von Starker driving through the German countryside back to the scene of his crimes while audio from the Nuremberg war trials plays in the background. He drives to a remote location to pick up Lise, bearing a cold, emotionless visage. We learn in a dialog exchange that Lise was instrumental in getting Von Starker off during the court hearings. By the end of the movie we learn why, but it isn't difficult to surmise her reasons. They wander the grounds of the now deserted torture and indoctrination camp. Here is where the story begins. Lise finds a harmonica in the grass which prompts the flashback where we, the viewer, are subjected to a number of obscenities that cross the boundaries of good taste despite the film being strikingly well made at times.

The movie also has a strong air of political propaganda that is just as repellent as any of the ghastly images that are shown on screen. A group of naked Aryan men are shown a slide show demonstrating the supposed "inferiority" of Jewish women comparing them to sub-humans much in the same manner as the Japanese treatment of the Chinese. Von Starker details to them that several slides of two women in a '69' position are actually mother and daughter! Wishing to not be separated, it's stated that they were tied together and left that way till death! Another series of slides shows us a completely naked female who suffers from coprophagy. She's seen eating and wiping her body with excrement and even becoming sexually aroused by it. Intermixed with these shots are some of the men also becoming aroused at what they're seeing. However, the scene blurs whether or not the men are becoming excited because they're seeing images of a naked woman, or that she's enjoying covering herself in shit.

Prior to this, the sequence attempts some out of place and bewilderingly bad comic timing as the close up of a man's bare ass farts into the camera and another man, his arm in a cast, pokes his thumb into his buddy's rectum! After the slide show, the scene then turns into an overlong mass orgy as the men assault a line of naked Hebrew women. The dialog in this scene, like much of the imagery throughout, is repulsive and even more so that we see potential soldiers "programmed" to think and feel a certain way about a race of people. How ironic that Von Starker, in contrast to his tirades at how Jewish females are not deserving to live, that he should fall in love with Lise and that his emotional attachment to her is his undoing.

Canevari covers all the naziploitation bases here. The basic framework of the film is borrowed from Liliana Cavani's THE NIGHT PORTER (1974), about a death camp survivor entering into a sadomasochistic relationship with her nazi torturer. Some of the methods of death and suffering are taken from history, but the camera doesn't linger the way it does in other films. The editing by Enzo Monachesi is accomplished and shows just enough of the detestable acts to thoroughly upset the stomachs of viewers. Often we see intermittent shots of the cruelty wedged between quick shots of onlookers observing the carnage.

The script, like other Italian examples of this form, managed to squeeze in a character that closely resembles Ilsa Koche, most notoriously detailed in Don Edmond's ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS (1974) and its sequels. For Canevari's film, his Ilsa inspired character is named Alma. She enjoys feeding menstruating prisoners to her dobermans, and, like every other German in this movie, becomes aroused by the act. The script also contains some of the real Ilsa's vile activities such as the flaying of skin to make ornaments much in the way Wisconsin ghoul, Ed Gein did to a number of decayed corpses in the 1950s. The plot device of Lise's unbreakable spirit mirrors that of one of the women tortured profusely in Edmond's ILSA film.

Daniela Poggi, the actress playing Lise, appears to be the only person involved in this production to have survived the holocaust of Italian genre filmmaking going on to have a long career afterward. Adriano Micantoni as Von Starker also had a long career, but prior to this movie, which was his last. He was in a handful of forgettable sword and sandal movies and spaghetti western dreck. His small role in TRINITY IS STILL MY NAME (1971) is likely his most high profile picture.

If THE GESTAPO'S LAST ORGY (1977) isn't the most vile example of this lamentable sub-genre, it comes horrendously close frequently bordering on the pornographic and often mixed with repugnant acts of brutality. Not every scene elicits disgust, though, as the low budget is evident in one of the torture scenes where Lise is hung upside down completely naked (as usual) and threatened with having her head devoured by flesh hungry rats. As the camera closes in on the little devils, it's clear these aren't actually rats, but harmless gerbils. Overall, this production is a powerful, reprehensible viewing experience that puts many of the other naziploitation movies to shame.

Aside from its strong scenes of violence and occasional directorial flourishes, the film also benefits from a reasonably good score by Alberto Baldan Bembo. Some horror fans will likely want to skip over this movie considering the subject matter and its vintage, but the more brave exploitation frontiersmen out there will surely desire to track this one down. For Italian trash fans, viewing THE GESTAPO'S LAST ORGY is a no brainer. On video, the film was available from Magnum Entertainment as CALIGULA REINCARNATED AS HITLER and this version was also on DVD paired with WHITE SLAVE (1986 aka AMAZONIA: THE CATHERINE MILES STORY aka CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST 2). There are two different endings. The seemingly original ending is more Shakespearean in its tragedy and strangely preferable. An alternate ending goes on for four additional minutes and this ending is what's on this Exploitation Digital version. It should be noted, this ending is taken from a vastly faded tape source. Sadistic in the extreme, it's quite possibly the strongest, most powerful and easily one of the most well made films of its kind. That's a recommendation only to those possessing the strongest of constitutions and willingness to spend 94 minutes with one of the best examples of one of the least respectful sub-genres in cinema history.

This review is representative of the Exploitation Digital DVD

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