Yes, it’s Valentine’s Day, and nominally I’d be providing some holiday-related horror movie or even just a romantic horror film (like, say, the 1986 version of The Fly). Or maybe you were expecting an anti-romantic horror film, something to watch if you hate the holiday or just want something non-‘mushy.’ You’re in luck with that, as SAW will be posting a collection of just those kinds of horror movies later today. Instead, I’m providing a film that’s just not related to the holiday at all. It’s called “counter-programming.” It’s totally a thing.
To be up-front, there is some ‘romance’ in Kingdom of the Spiders, of the 1970’s “ain’t women’s liberation cute” kind. Mostly, though, there’s the love of hungry spiders for William Shatner’s sweet, sweet flesh.
And fair warning – there’ll be some images of spiders in this review. Arachnophobes may want to think twice about scrolling further.
Kingdom of the Spiders is one of those movies I saw on cable a lot when I was a kid. For someone who was extremely arachnophobic (and remains slightly so), this was TRUE horror. I can still remember the scene with the rancher in the pickup truck. When he tumbled into view, covered in webs, I think I screamed out loud. That was, like, my WORST fear. All trussed up for dinner. It remains a key film in my horror background, informing a love of 70’s creature movies like Day of the Animals, Frogs, Piranha and Prophecy.
It’s also my second favorite spider-related horror film, after 1955’s Tarantula.
One final terrifying bit of trivia I only recently found out about tarantulas. Characters in Kingdom mention that generally tarantulas are a solitary species. They dislike other tarantulas and will fight them when they show up on their territory and even eat them other tarantulas if there’s no other food source. This was something I grew up knowing, as I read a lot spider books (know thy enemy) as a kid. It turns out, though, that this is not always true. In mating season the spiders will migrate vast distances to find a mate – and they’ll do it in large groups. I’ve been told (by people who’ve seen them) that they can completely cover a highway.
That mental image is probably more horrifying than anything in the movie itself.
I’ve got the Code Red blu-ray release. (I’ve also got the Fear Factory DVD release, which has a few extras not available on the blu-ray.) This is the best the film has ever looked, but it’s a low-budget creature feature so don’t expect too much. The picture is generally bright and clear with good detail and color. Sound is also good, though your opinion of the soundtrack may vary depending on how much you like locally produced country songs. There are a handful of new extras – including a commentary track with star Tiffany Bolling (and a weird introduction with Bolling and a guy in a banana suit for some reason).
The Code Red version is missing this great interview with Shatner, so here it is, if you want to hear him talk about spirit-gluing a tarantula to his face.
For my money, Kingdom is the second best of the “nature’s revenge” B-movies that came out after Jaws (the first being Piranha). With a plot that combines Jaws and The Birds, some solid acting by a cast of veterans, some beautiful cinematography and exceptional work with the titular creatures, you get a lot of bang for your buck.
In beautiful Verde Valley, Arizona, the local vet, ‘Rack’ Hansen (Shatner) gets a frantic call from a local rancher – Walter Colby (Woody Strode) – whose prize calf has become deathly ill. Rack is unable to help the calf, but sends a blood sample to Flagstaff. Days later Diane Ashley (Bolling), an arachnologist, arrives and informs Rack that the animal died from huge levels of spider venom.
Casual (and not so casual) sexism aside, there’s real chemistry between Shatner and Tiffany Bolling, with some nice back and forth that reminds me of older (and better) films. After the initial “I’m a man, you’re a woman” “you’re a cave man, I’m a scientist” meet-cute BS, they actually settle down into a decent working relationship, for the most part.
Rack is skeptical, of course, but a visit to Colby’s ranch reveals a huge spider mound, covered with tarantulas. Ashley theorizes that pesticides have eradicated the spiders natural food source, leading them to develop new feeding strategies. When Colby’s bull is attacked and killed they decide to burn the spider mound – after all, if they’ll attack a bull there’s no reason to think they won’t attack human beings. Of course, some of the spiders escape and soon there are spider mounds everywhere.
There follows a botched attempt to spray the spider mounds with poison, which is authorized by the mayor. There’s a festival about to start, dontcha know? And we gotta make sure we get our Jaws riffs in when we can. The scenes with the plane and the pilot are really well done, and the inevitable crash is a “how the hell did they do that?” rewind moment. Of course this only serves to drive the spiders closer, and soon they start an all-out attack on the town. Can Rack save Diane, his niece, his dead brother’s wife and the town?
Part of the joy of Kingdom, even for an arachnophobe like me, is how closely the actors work with the spiders. By using actual tarantulas and – literally in some cases – covering the actors in them, the movie really sells the menace. Though there are a few rubber spiders here and there, most of the spiders you see are real. (There’s still one scene in a basement when Shatner pulls down a cloth and gets spiders all over him that gives me the heeby-jeebies.)
You could not make this film the same way today. Many spiders are obviously killed (by being stomped on or run over) and you’d have to do a lot of CGI or model work nowadays. Also, good luck getting actors to let themselves have spiders crawl all over them (even the extras get covered in this).
For my money, the ending is one of the better ones for a 70’s ‘animal attack’ movie – something a bit more dire and final than what we got with The Birds, and it’s an image that’s stayed with me since I first saw it. (Though the blu-ray means you can really tell it’s a matte painting.) I watched this with my wife and sister-in-law and they both enjoyed it a lot, but the ending really annoyed my sister-in-law.
The Bottom Line
Kingdom of the Spiders is fun, it’s got a good tempo and feels exciting, especially in the final third, as the spiders begin their assault. The cinematography is good, the acting is decent, and it has a great kicker ending. It’s not Oscar material by any stretch, but it’s miles above movies like Empire of the Ants or Night of the Lepus. Yeah, it’s dumb in spots – but that’s part of its charm. One of my faves and while it might not be romantic, it made me happy to see it again!