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Brilliant and Forgotten: A Look Back at the Cult Classic Movie ‘Kingdom of the Spiders’ (DVD review)

MGM

Kingdom of the Spiders is a fun thrill ride of a movie that doesn’t get enough credit. In this man vs. nature run amok tale most movie audiences can easily dismiss this as just another exploitation Jaws rip-off.

But they’d be wrong, it’s actually pretty great.

William Shatner in his post Star Trek series/pre-Star Trek film glory stars as Rack, the kindly rugged smalltown veterinarian.

Rack is caught in a love triangle of sorts between his brother’s widow and the foxy big city scientist Diane Ashley. Ashley, played by Tiffany Bolling, comes to town to help solve the mystery of a cattle’s sudden death.

Oddly, if this story didn’t have hundreds of thousands of blood thirsty tarantulas this plot would make a great Lifetime movie. Rack’s brother’s widow needs a man and clearly loves Rack but is still longing for her husband who died years earlier in Vietnam.

In addition to a fill-in-husband, Rack is also a surrogate father of sorts to his late brother’s little girl. It’s fair to point out this is actually a great performance by Shatner that is surprisingly un-Shatneresque. There are many moments you’d expect to see him go over the top and doesn’t. This is one of his best roles, especially as he’s doing so much physical work with the spiders themselves.

Bolling also shines as the smart scientist Ashley. Her big city presence sets up the inevitable collision of small-town logic without being overdone, although there are more than a few cringy moments of “smile honey” goading from the locals. Interesting sidenote, Bolling won the part of Diane Ashely by being one of the only actresses not afraid of spiders. Bolling must handle the spiders with the deft ability of a scientist and shows no fear.

There is no faking it, she is really holding gigantic spiders.

Another stand out performance is the late-great Woody Strode as the rancher Colby who first draws attention to the Spider problem in their sleepy Arizona town. When his prize cow suddenly suffers an unexplained death Colby calls in Rack to investigate. Once it’s determined venomous spiders are to blame Colby aims to seek revenge on the giant spider hill looing just behind his property. The hill is full of what can only be assumed is thousands of spiders. After it’s burned, thirty or forty more similar hills are discovered between Colby’s ranch and the small town.

Once Ashley confirms it was in fact spider venom that killed his prize cow, it sets off a chain of events leading to a chilling ending for the poor people of the nearby town. Perhaps the movie’s most chilling line at Colby’s ranch comes from Rack, “I’ve never heard it so quiet before.” The implication is the spiders have been feasting on everything from pets to livestock and now they’re ready for the rest of us. It’s a terrifying notion of actual horror using only dark and quiet.

Kingdom of the Spiders follows the Jaws pattern fairly closely right down to the mayor who isn’t all that concerned when it comes to spraying poison on the recently discovered spider hills.

The spiders are not only immune to this poison but it might just be causing them to go mad in the first place. Worse yet the poison is deadly to humans. But despite all evidence to the contrary the mayor sanctions the quirky crop duster guy to spray the spider hills anyway. Of course, he loses control in midair when spiders begin to eat him mid-flight. With the demise of the flying poison sprayer, the spiders go all out and attack the town sending people fleeing for their lives. This leads to a pretty cool car crashing into a water tower stunt the seventies were famous for.

Rack, Ashley, and the gang hold up in the remote cabin hotel and do their best to fend off the fist-sized creatures who seem to be getting in from every nook and cranny of the lodge. This part, resembling both Rio Bravo and the original Night of the Living Dead is text book creepy.

The best part of Kingdom of the Spiders is it has no CGI. In fact, real spiders were wrangled from Mexico in the thousands with the production paying ten dollars per spider. It may be the first film in history with a spider budget exceeding fifty grand. The actors endured having them crawl all over them and including their faces. Fun fact the town itself had stencils of thousands of spiders painted on each roof. Once filming was over the production repainted the rooftops but apparently did a poor job as stencil spiders remained visible for years to come.

In 1990 Steven Spielberg produced a spider infestation film of his own called Arachnophobia.

Arachnophobia shared similar bones to Kingdom of the Spiders, which is only fair considering how much Kingdom of the Spiders shares with Jaws, however Arachnophobia was played for laughs, this isn’t. I’m sure many people will still find Kingdom of the Spiders funny in a campy way as well as yelling the screen to “watch out!”, but ultimately this is a bleak and somewhat cautionary tale about messing with mother nature that resonates even more today than in 1977. It also has a chilling ambiguous ending that will leave many viewers downright shook.

Kingdom of the Spiders has it all, iconic performances, man vs. a whole lotta spiders, and a thrill ride horror that remains beyond compare in this time of so much CGI.  Seek out this hidden gem.

 

Fred Shahadi is an award-winning filmmaker, playwright, and television writer living in Los Angeles.

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