Because I am considerate, I’m going to provide two versions of my review.
Short version: William Shatner. Hundreds and hundreds of real, live tarantulas. Go watch it, you know you want to.
Long version: I’ve mentioned before my love for the “nature kicks ass” subgenre of horror films. Which makes it all the more amazing that not only had I not seen Kingdom of the Spiders, but I hadn’t even heard it talked about much. (It didn’t help that I always got it mixed up with The Giant Spider Invasion.) And if you’re a fan of these kinds of movies, you really can’t go wrong with Kingdom of the Spiders. It may not be, strictly speaking, a good film, but it delivers everything it promises (Spiders! Shatner!) and then some.
A Southwestern small town is getting ready for its annual fair, and rancher Colby (Woody Strode) is looking forward to his calf winning a big prize. Unfortunately the calf is attacked by a point-of-view camera angle. (This calf, along with some horses later in the movie, gives a great performance – I’m serious, it looks genuinely terrified.) Colby finds the calf unconscious and foaming at the mouth, and decides this is a job for William Shatner.
Shatner plays “Rack”, the local veterinarian. We know Rack is awesome because he is named Rack, because he has a great toupee that doesn’t budge even when he’s roping steers, wears tight jeans and cool Western wear, and is played by William Shatner. Rack takes some samples from the now-expired calf and sends them off to a lab in Phoenix. The very next day entomologist Diane (Tiffany Bolling) shows up to put some hamfisted feminist subtext into the story and inform Rack that the calf died from spider venom.
Rack scoffs, but stops scoffing when Colby and his wife say, “Yeah, we’ve got spiders, there’s this freaking ginormous spider hill in our field, come and see.” Just one of these hills can hold thousands of spiders. And wouldn’t you know it? That’s not the only hill. There must be another twenty of them just on Colby’s ranch alone! And because their natural prey has been eradicated by overuse of DDT and other pesticides, these spiders are pissed off and very hungry.
Kingdom of the Spiders is one of those movies that can never be remade, because the technical limitations of the time are what make it so effective. Those spiders – hundreds of them – are not CGI or props. They are real. Think of that when you watch the many scenes of spiders crawling on the characters. I’m not the least bit arachnophobic and even I was getting crawly toward the end. The same praise goes for the camerawork, particularly the “spider-cam” shots – they’re effective, not least because the animals being menaced really do look afraid.
The movie also puts some care into its presentation of small-town life, and into the characters. I particularly appreciated it when Bolling’s entomologist character finds a tarantula in her hotel room and instead of shrieking, she calmly picks it up, lets it walk on her hands, and then puts it outside. That said, there is still cheese in this movie – plenty of it. 1970s fashions! Outdated discussions of feminism! Awful country-ish ballads on the soundtrack!
Nonetheless, the movie is also highly educational. I learned many things from Kingdom of the Spiders:
•Spiders can teleport. No, really. One moment they’re on the ground, the next moment they’re up on your shoulder giving you a hickey.
•If you must get past a passel of spiders, don’t do anything that could actually hurt them. Don’t step on them but just sort of dance awkwardly around them (not even Shatner can make this look good). And if you grab a weapon, make sure it’s something really ineffectual like a feather duster.
•Two bites from a tarantula can kill you in seconds, unless you are William Shatner, in which case the more spider bites you receive, the more awesome you are.
•A pistol is not an effective weapon against spiders. And if you see a spider on your hand, do not try to shoot the spider off your hand. I shouldn’t have to explain why this is a bad idea.
Shout Factory has put together a great disc for Kingdom of the Spiders (rendering the previous bare-bones, incorrect aspect ratio release superfluous). It’s got a commentary from director John “Bud” Cardos and others, including spider wrangler Jim Brockett, who also gets his own featurette. There’s an interview with Shatner, deleted footage, a trailer and more. A great package for fans of this fun movie.