Full disclosure: I hate spiders. Like really, really despise them. God’s creatures blah blah blah – save it. They are absolutely, without a question, the most insidious, terrifying things on the planet. Now, horror films about arachnids? Well, that’s different. They have a built in creepiness factor that ensures, at the very least, it will hit the icky button with me – not my go to sensation for horror, but still creating a sensation while I watch – which promises a memorable experience.
But when you add in a level of fun, and in the case of Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), a ridiculously high quotient of it, I pivot from respect to awe in the space of 97 minutes. Not for the spiders – that will never happen as long as I’m gulping air. But the film? I’m in awe each and every viewing. It’s my favorite Animals Attack film, my favorite John ‘Bud’ Cardos directorial effort, and hands down the all time William Shatner performance. It’s a dang gone gem.
Released by Dimension Pictures in November (no, not the horror- anemic Weinstein Dimension – I’m talking about the good folk behind such ‘70s exploitation staples as ‘Gator Bait, Dolemite, and Return to Boggy Creek), Kingdom was a surprise hit, earning $17 million against a $500,000 budget. Dismissed by most critics at the time as just another goofy B picture (guilty!), Kingdom of the Spiders has survived (and thrived) for almost forty years because it refuses to be anything less than entertaining, fast paced, thrilling, and loaded with those nasty buggers that to this day have me checking over doorways and under sheets.
Our film opens with the title zooming at the screen, a screeching symbol that subtlety will hold no currency here. Then a soothing country ballad by rockabilly legend Dorsey Burnette informs us all we need to know about “Peaceful Verde Valley”, as we see various beautiful, rugged Arizona landscapes. Cut to the Colby ranch, as their prize calf grazes in the field. A POV of something low and ominous crawling towards it ends with a startled look on the calf’s face (not to mention a stock music cue courtesy of The Twilight Zone). Walter Colby (Woody Strode – Spartacus) calls in our protagonist and local vet, Rack Hansen (Shatner), to investigate his prized possession’s sudden illness. Back at the lab, Rack determines the calf’s death (yuh, she done died) to be caused by an unknown venom. He sends away a sample to the city and in return the city sends Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling – Wicked, Wicked), their finest entomologist, to investigate. It was spider venom, you see, and off they go to find the nest at the Colby ranch. Miss Ashley offers up some exposition as to why the spiders would attack, and since this was the ‘70s, pesticides win out. (Thanks a lot, DDT.) Since the spiders won’t eat the food covered in chemicals, they’ve decided to find alternative sources. (And thank you, eight limbed monsters.)
After another attack on the Colby’s livestock, the decision is made to burn the spider hill to the ground. (This wasn’t plan A, B, and C?) Naturally, the spiders don’t take kindly to being driven from their lair, and decide to pay good old Verde Valley a visit, without a hint of peacefulness. Rack, Diane, and others hole up at Emma Washburn (Lieux Dressler – Truck Stop Women)’s lodge in the hopes of fending off the arachnid attack while the town is overrun with unwelcome guests. Can they stave off the invasion, or will they become Happy Meals (to go) for the fugly critters?
While there is nothing new under the Arizona sun, Kingdom is packed with Saturday matinee goodness. From a dashing hero, to a story that whips from one scene to another with a steady urgency (thanks to the fluid editing of one Steve Zaillian, who would go on to write Schindler’s List – hey, I’m trying to class up this resume a bit), it offers everything that accompanies greasy popcorn and carbonated delights – the only problem is, this thing is vicious. It’s one of those films that should have been rated R instead of PG just on tone alone, for you will witness: people being cocooned for future consumption; animals suffering painful deaths; and for good measure, not even the kiddies are safe. (I don’t mind at all - why should they be left out of the fun?) The film cannily picks locales to hoist it’s phobia on the viewer; you probably would flip your gourd if tarantulas started crawling through your car vents (all you statements can be directed at me), or perhaps a backyard where the only relatively safe place to stay is the swing set itself? Can I interest you in a discarded tire, or maybe a nightstand drawer? It’s all here, and more (I’ve only told you about the outer webbing).
Credit director John ‘Bud’ Cardos (The Dark) and screenwriters Richard Robinson (story credit for Joe Dante’s Piranha) & Alan Caillou (Evel Knievel) for creating at least a semi believable scenario – I mean, a desert town could be overrun by spiders, although I doubt the death toll would reach that high before many could make it to safety. They’re on the ground; step on them! It’s not like they’re raining from the sky – no, that would be Australia. (Down Under is not on my bucket list.)
Speaking of flattened spider crepes, real tarantulas were used in the production – a tenth of the budget, $10 bucks a pop, 5,000 live spiders crawling everywhere, and on everyone. If you’re a supporter of PETA, just remember these were different times; I’m sure many people would be saddened to know that a good amount of them didn’t make it out alive. (Pour out some RAID in their honor.) Today, every last critter would be CGI and would take the film further away from reality, robbing it of the thing it does so well – providing the impetus for Arachnophobics Anonymous.
And the cast is game; I understand an actor has to work, but I think I’d rather sacrifice a SAG card than be covered in hairy freaks. (But they’re defanged you say? Don’t care.) Bolling et al manage to keep a straight face which is really all one could ask for. But you know damn well why you’re here; first name Rack, last name Hansen, an imperfect hero for uncertain times. This film was made in between Shatner’s Star Trek TV glory and the theatrical Star Trek renaissance. Kingdom was not his first ‘70s stab at straight up horror on the big screen; check out The Devil’s Rain (1975) for chuckles and chills. That film was firmly rooted in the broader range of Shatner’s palette; probably the most surprising thing about Kingdom is how restrained he is (on the Shatner Scale), as he reins in the majority of his mannerisms and actively seems to be participating in the scenes instead of waiting for his turn to speak. Which isn’t to say there aren’t more than a few classic Shatnerisms (you’ll know them when you see them), but because of his tendency to go wide, the narrow really stands out. Case in point: the ending. His reaction shot in the last 30 seconds is probably the most honest, wrenching work he’s done. I wouldn’t dream of giving it away, as it is one of the most apt endings of any horror film from the ‘70s; but if you know the decade’s propensity for playing on the downbeat, you’ll dig the hell out of it.
Most Animal Attack films are enjoyable; Frogs, Grizzly, Day of the Animals, and many others offer varying degrees of pomp and dire circumstances for the viewer. I suppose it depends on what ruffles your feathers. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if it’s a swarm of rats, a posse of mountain lions, or a Flock of Seagulls; if the filmmakers can’t convert that fear into an entertaining terror experience you might as well be watching Animal Planet. Kingdom of the Spiders offers that experience. And if those hairy eight legged bastards do show up on National Geographic, I’ll run the 40 yard dash out of my living room faster than Rack Hansen himself.
Kingdom of the Spiders is available on DVD from Shout! Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE STEPFATHER (1987)