Thursday, March 26, 2020

Shatner Week: Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

Okay. So perhaps this movie is a guilty pleasure.

Or perhaps I simply harbor deep-seated feelings of nostalgia for this "revenge of nature" flick from the year 1977.

Whatever the reasons, I love Kingdom of the Spiders. With irrational exuberance. 

Listen, I've seen how bad spider invasion movies can turn out (The Giant Spider Invasion [1975.] A
nd I've also seen how big-budget, mainstreamed spider movies turn out (Eight Legged Freaks [2003]). So I can declare with some confidence that Kingdom of the Spiders remains the best of the eight-legged arac-pack.

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) stars William Shatner (yes!) as veterinarian Rack Hansen, a cowboy doctor who lives in peaceful but poor Verde Valley in Arizona. Rack's brother John died his second day in 'Nam, and now Rack takes care of his brother's widow, Terry (Marcy Lafferty) and little daughter, Linda (Natasha Ryan) during his off-hours.

One day -- while out in the desert lasso-ing cattle and sister-in-law, Rack receives an emergency call from a local, Colby (the great Woody Strode!), whose prized cow has been felled by what appears to be a mysterious illness. The cow dies, and Rack sends blood samples to a lab in Flagstaff to help find answers.

Those answers arrive in town with the fetching Dr. Diane Ashley (a yowza Tiffany Bolling). She's an expert in venomous animals and concludes that Colby's cow died from dozens of extremely poisonous spider bites. A closer investigation reveals a giant tarantula hill on Colby's property. This is an unusual development because the spiders are working together in harmony, not attacking each other.

"Why would spiders suddenly turn aggressive?" Rack asks.

Diane's answer -- in the tried-and-true tradition of environmental/when-animal-attack/1970s revenge-of-nature movies like Frogs (1972), Night of the Lepus (1972), Empire of the Ants (1977) and others -- is a chilling one: human interference.

Specifically, "through excessive use of pesticide" man has killed off all the local insects -- the spiders' primary "source of food." Now desperate, the spiders are turning on livestock and casting hungry eyes towards mankind, particularly the souls populating scenic Camp Verde.

Spiders gotta eat!

Rack and Diane recommend a quarantine to destroy the aggressive spiders. Unfortunately for the denizens of Camp Verde, however, Kingdom of the Spiders was produced post-Watergate (and post-Jaws [1975]), which means that the town mayor is a craven politician who steadfastly refuses to take effective action against the enemy in their midst. See there's a big town fair scheduled in two weeks with a lot of money at stake. So the beaches have to stay open, if you get my drift. The result? Carnage candy. Spiders rampage through Verde, cocooning their prey in webs and causing all manner of chaos.

Rack, Diane, Linda and a dopey tourist couple -- the Johnsons-- hold up at Emma Washburn's remote lodge, but the spiders lay siege.

And when I write "lay siege," I'm not kidding. Spiders drop out of ceiling air vents like mad sky divers, crack open windows, jump down chimneys into open fireplaces, short out the power box in the basement, and generally go blood simple. The film's protagonists retaliate with murderous force, and I can tell you without doubt...real spiders were harmed during the making of this film. Yep. They were stomped, crushed, rolled over by cars, pelted with chemical fire-extinguisher spray and burned.

Ah, the good old days before digital technology.

Really, you must see this movie to believe it. There's no CGI trickery or phoniness, and the actors -- not stuntmen for the most part -- wage real, intense close-quarters battle with thousands of crawling, skittering tarantulas. In one harrowing sequence, William Shatner crawls up a basement staircase with probably two-dozen spiders on his torso, legs, head and even his famous toupee. The Shat obligingly points his flashlight at his own face during the scene so we can get the full impact of the stunt in the dim light.

Tiffany Bolling is pretty damn courageous too, casually (and expertly..) plucking up spiders and petting them like she really loves them. The only giveaway: in the tighter shots you can see her hands shake.

I can't blame her.

This movie's final half hour is so intense, so non-stop spidery that a lot more than your hands will shake. It's a Night of the Living Dead-style siege on a single, remote location, but think of spiders pressing at the boarded-up doors and windows instead of zombies. There's a great moment wherein little Natasha Ryan is endangered...standing trapped and surrounded on a bed filled with a good dozen or so live spiders. Shatner bursts into the room to save her, admonishing the child to jump over the spiders on the bed sheets into his ready arms. He's about five or six feet away. Well, without hesitation this kid leaps blindly for him -- over the teeming beasties and - shit! - your adrenalin races.

What makes all this action hang together, however, is the fact that Kingdom of the Spiders has devoted the time and energy to develop its characters in more than rudimentary fashion. Old Emma Washburn still loves the town sheriff even though their romance died years ago; Rack and Diane share a fun romantic rivalry (though by film's end, the "liberated" Bolling character is subserviently fetching Shatner his beer...), and -- as surprised as you may be how they get under your skin -- you actually come to care about what happens to these people.

It's a lesson that today's horror spectaculars could stand to learn: you can't drive at 100 miles an hour for 90 minutes, and expect viewers to remain involved, much less scared. If you're always driving're never driving fast; there's no opportunity to breathe, relax...or let your guard down. Sometimes, for the big moments to pay off, they have to arrive after slow ones; after quiet character moments. For all its inherent silliness, Kingdom of the Spiders understands that fact. Sure, It owes a lot of its gonzo life blood from Hitchcock's The Birds and from Spielberg's Jaws yet it consistently pleases because it is consistently and thoroughly scary.

Not to mention absolutely brilliantly-staged at points. There's a plane crash stunt at about the one-hour mark that is achieved so deftly, so realistically, you actually believe the film's actors (including Shatner and Bolling) are in real danger. There's a sustained spider attack on the town of Verde that cuts no corners and pulls no punches, depicting citizens running in panic, and even young children overcome by spiders. It's gruesome, nasty and entirely effective. And I love how sound is used in one sequence preceding a scare, when all the crickets mysteriously go quiet.

John "Bud" Cardos direction and John Morrill's cinematography are also much finer, much more clever than you might expect of such a low budget effort. The camera in Kingdom of the Spiders has a funny but confident way of tilting down from a scene in progress, then gliding away from the action to pinpoint a crawling spider somewhere on the floor. And how can you not love the opening "stealth" attack on a grazing cow? One that features the spider's point of view (through tall grass...) and ends with a freeze-frame of the beleaguered cow's shocked eyeball (while the soundtrack plays a cow "mooing" in anxiety and pain)?

Sure, some of the dialogue here is really, really funny. I particularly enjoyed Altovise Davis's reading of the line "This is our home and no damn spiders are going to run us out." She doesn't do it badly; don't get me wrong. On the contrary, the actress commits to it so sincerely, so fully, so guilelessly, it takes practically your breath away. The gung-ho, go-for-broke style of performances is really affecting. No one's playing anything for laughs or for camp.

And Shatner? 

My God, the man upstages 5,000 spiders. He doesn't just lasso cattle in this film, he lassos the spotlight. Say what you will about the Shat, but the man's got presence, and more pertinently, the right presence for this movie. His trademark quirks and idiosyncrasies as a performer keep us firmly anchored in the "human" sub-plots and so the movie never descends to level of simple geek show.

Yes, yes, yes, Kingdom of the Spiders is an old, cheap B-movie, but it's a wondrous, terrifying, and wholly charming one. The film's coda (featuring an atrocious matte-painting) packs a gut-punch wallop too, despite the weak visual presentation because -- again -- you've honestly come to care about Rack and the others.

I know it's probably just me, but I cannot help but to fall in love (and stay in love...) with a horror movie about killer spiders that has the audacity to open with a yearning country ballad called "Peaceful Verde Valley." Composed and performed by Dorsey Burnette, this song asks us (in the lyrics) "What will tomorrow bring?" and then provides a multiple choice answer.

A.) Will it (tomorrow) "bring the love we need to last forever more?"


B.) Will it bring "the unknown that we've never seen before?"

Since this is a horror movie, you'd be tempted to choose "B," of course.

But the amazing thing about Kingdom of the Spiders is that because it focuses so much on its characters and their humanity in a crisis, the right answer is actually: C.) this movie brings the love and the unknown.

How unexpected, and how wonderful is that?

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