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Kingdom of the Spiders

*Who Wants To Be A Millionaire – 6:46PM, 31 July 2009

Meredith: “For 100,000 dollars…In what movie did William Shatner co-star with some 5,000 live tarantulas?”

Contestant: “Hmm… that’s a toughie.”

Meredith: “30 seconds.”

Contestant: “I’m going to go with Kingdom of the Spiders.”

Meredith: “Final answer?”

Contestant: “Final answer.”

(Drum roll commences.)

Meredith: “You are… absolutely correct!”

*The above snippet from Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? springs from my own imagination, by the way, and the question was actually printed in a book published by Starlog magazine, so the producers of “Millionaire” shouldn’t beat me up too badly.

Yes, Kingdom of the Spiders — a 1977 nominee for Best Horror Film by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films – is indeed the winning answer for a trivia question few would conjure up in the first place. Shout Factory has recently released this cult chiller in a Special Edition DVD, and I’ve finally tossed my dusty VHS copy…well, it actually was donated to a local library. Please congratulate me now as a responsible recycler.

Kingdom of the Spiders is yet another entry in a popular ’70s horror sub-genre we’ll call “nature on the rampage”, in which previously harmless local fauna, or some hideous mutation, set their teeth on the citizenry, ostensibly Mother Nature’s payback for man’s despoiling the natural environment. Among the more notable films of this cycle are Frogs(1972), Prophecy(1979), and Day of The Animals(1977). If you’re familiar with Samuel Z. Arkoff’s schlock outfit American International Pictures, you probably already know that AIP was the studio du jour for movies of this sort.

These films emerged from two primary sources: a growing consciousness about environmental devastation, partly in the wake of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and also from a queasy sense that the powers-that-be, i.e., the US government, not to mention our own neighbors, might not be what it seemed. One can thank Watergate, the Manson murders, nuclear and chemical contamination, and a general increase in violent crime, to list a few factors, for this seeming paranoia, and the excellent documentary The American Nightmare does an admirable job of dissecting the slasher films – another ascendant sub-genre — of this period for socio-cultural influences.

Filmed largely around the red-rock monoliths of Sedona, Arizona, Kingdom of the Spiders presents the nightmarish scenario of aggressive tarantulas run amok, preying on cattle, people, whatever they can get the better of. It seems that our eight-legged friends, deprived by heavy-handed pesticide usage of their natural food supply, have banded together to take down larger creatures, and we’ve been elected! A couple years back, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County hosted and exhibit which detailed the dubious science of many sci-fi horror classics, and one needn’t be an entomologist to question whether this could actually occur. Still, it’s far more plausible than a building-sized arachnid carrying off horses, as depicted in 1955’s Tarantula, the doyen of spider flicks.

William Shatner is “Rack” Hansen, a livestock veterinarian who, with the assistance of a Dr. Diane Ashley, played by the statuesque, blond Tiffany Bolling, deduces that the community is in grave danger, as they uncover a mound of the hairy crawlers, while the local spider population grows exponentially. And of course, a county fair is looming, and the mayor wants no disturbance upsetting the festivities.

Shatner’s acting is typically wooden, and his initial contretemps with Bolling doesn’t depart from the standard battle-of-the-sexes imbroglio. Despite both holding medical degrees, he’s the scruffy Marlboro Man-type, she the refined, frigid sophisticate who wishes to be dealt with on her own terms. Alas, Rack will have none of this, in one laughably predictable scene hoisting her into the passenger seat of her gleaming Mercedes SL – the presence of this car was an immediate signifier of upper-crust prestige in ’70s film and TV – and takes over the driving chores himself. Hell, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do!

When the irrepressible Stan Lee first pitched “Spiderman” to his bosses, he was quickly reminded that “People don’t like spiders”. Well, any arachnophobic readers of this critique should probably steer clear of the film, as scenes of tarantulas crawling on two-legged victims abound, especially in one excruciating sequence where a hapless pilot discovers them crawling up his legs in mid-flight. CGI was non-existent in those halcyon days, and we see live spiders at all times – apparently some 5,000 — though they seldom appear to be on the attack, because truthfully, tarantulas are notoriously shy, and fans were often required during production to blow on the the spiders and prod them to approach their intended victims. It’s highly unlikely that real tarantulas could be used extensively today, as certain organizations would fear for the welfare of the spiders, though it’s disputed that a significant number died while making the movie. PETA would scream “Nay!” in our current political climate, and I’m inclined to agree.

Among the copious extras you will not find a live tarantula, but there is a long-awaited, and lengthy, interview with Shatner, who apparently had a say in the casting of his female lead. Actresses who detested the spiders, regardless of beauty, were soundly rejected. Shatner also reveals that he became a vocal proponent for banning DDT, which did eliminate insect “pests”, but unwittingly caused disaster for many other species.

A hands-on demonstration – by wrangler Jim Brockett — of different varieties of tarantula is also featured here, including the lethal Cobalt Blue of Southeast Asia, the popular Red-kneed, native to Mexico and used widely throughout the film, and the awesome Goliath, which can grow to dinner-plate size.

The behind-the-scenes footage presented is grainy and often quite dark; largely useless, it goes on interminably. One highlight is a brief moment of clowning from the late Woody Strode, the ground-breaking African-American actor who perhaps lends a bit of gravitas to the movie. Were Strode working now, he might enjoy Oscar nods and leads in A-list productions, as Morgan Freeman and Sam Jackson regularly do.

Co-writer Steve Lodge speaks of Jaws’ influence on Kingdom of the Spiders, as both films show a corrupt local bureaucracy which allows the emergency to mushroom until it’s too late. Hitchcock’s The Birds is clearly an ancestor as well, although the Master offered no rhyme or reason why his malevolent seagulls and crows suddenly turn on the populace of Bodega Bay. Inexplicably, they just do, even if mankind hasn’t wronged them. No arachnid aficionado himself, Lodge insisted on a contract stipulation that he would never have to handle a spider on set!

Unlike Jaws, a film which spawned innumerable animal-attack pictures in its wake, Kingdom of the Spiders was an effort of meager budget, and this is reflected in the menacing if sometimes overbearing musical score, almost entirely consisting of stock compositions, many used previously in The Twilight Zone. It’s occasionally distracting, as you’re musing, “Where have I heard this before?” or “How exactly does this complement the action on screen?” I guess this reflects the patchwork feeling of Kingdom of the Spiders, a film weighed down by stiff emoting, clunky dialogue, and some unintentionally humorous moments, but nevertheless, remains a gritty, B-grade, up-all-night, elemental thrill. Produced on a budget one-16th that of Spielberg’s shark opera, the film drew a dazzlingly profitable $17 million at the box office, but was somewhat forgotten until its resurrection on wee-hours cable in the ’80s, where I first discovered it.

I suppose that most contemporary Nature Strikes Back films are confined to home vid or cable television, but Kingdom of The Spiders is a creepy memento of a sub-genre which arguably has more relevance in today’s fast-warming world than it did during the Me Decade. I won’t proclaim that this modest but effective shocker is on a par with its best ’50s-era predecessors, but it knows what makes your skin crawl, and delights in that knowledge. A film that accomplishes what it sets out to do is a rare treat nowadays.

RATING 6 / 10