Shatner. Spiders. That's all that needs to be said, but this blog software demands more text for its 'catchy introduction'. I wonder if that's enough yet.
Country: USA | Runtime: 97mins | Director: John Cardos
Starring: The Shat, Tiffany Bolling, Woody Strode, Lieux Dressler, David McLean
Spiders develop a taste for human flesh, kind of, and start hassling the residents of a rural Arizona town. Only vet Rack Hansen (Shatner) and animal venom expert Diane Ashley (Bolling) can save them.
In almost every way Kingdom of the Spiders is a pretty innocuous movie. Duller than average, objectively speaking, and clunkier too, but pretty unremarkable. Its appeal lies in two areas: the lack of any inherent scariness to motionless spiders, and Shatner. It can take a few minutes to acclimatise to both. The spiders are plentiful and fairly large, so you initially assume they must be intimidating. After a while you notice they don't move, and that we will probably never witness them 'striking' (which we don't). A character sees the spiders, screams, and then we cut to a new shot in which a few arachnids have been glued to the hysterical thespian's costume, which makes them fall over dead. How they manage to attach themselves is not clear, and nor is the mechanism by which they kill. It's the ultimate 'stumbling zombies aren't a threat' scenario. The movie features no peril that can't be strolled away from; apart from Shatner's emoting, which will have someone's eye out one day.
"If those spiders will go after a 1,500 pound bull, what's to stop them turning on us next?"
In real life, The Shat is a wannabe cowboy, an outdoorsman devoted to horses. He romanticises the rugged lifestyle of pioneers and ranchers to such an extent that I'm fairly sure he took this role because it allowed him to lasso a cow. And thunder about the countryside on horseback in tight jeans. I want to say this is the role he was born to play but that might be controversial. He's such a man's man that when the sophisticated Ashley (you know she's sophisticated because she drives a foreign car) rebuffs his advances, he just forces himself on her. I guess he knew that, deep down, she wanted it. These two elements – the over-egged spiders and the over-egged Shatner – make an otherwise flat and workmanlike studio style thriller a lot of fun. I say studio style because it kind of sums up these respectable, formulaic late 70s/early 80s films, even those produced independently. The commercial potential of B-movies had been vindicated by the likes of Jaws, and traditional exploitation fodder was being plastered with a slick veneer and shipped off to theatres as entertainment for broader, older audiences. The rough and unpredictable 'real' genre movies stand in stark contrast to these rigid, unwieldy things, which like to meander about in subplots meant to flesh out the community and never get too gruesome. There's an equation driving things forward, not a passion.
"The spiders in this area have organised themselves into an aggressive army."
Much is inspired by Jaws. There's the local expert who's tough as nails, the over-educated middle-class outsider who figures out what's going on, the mayor who won't close the beaches because it's the 4th of July weekend... and so on. All it's missing is a credible threat. Instead we have Woody Strode, a character so cynically conceived to be one unit of martyrdom that he should have been crucified to death, not 'walked on by spiders' to death. All his scenes involve him pleading with anyone who'll listen not to quarantine his farm (apparently it will bankrupt him). We know immediately upon meeting him that his farm won't be quarantined, that his fate will be far worse. And sure enough he endures an endless string of spider-related catastrophes before eventually driving off a cliff.
"That's how I make all my money... kinda scientific you know... through chemicals."
Ultimately, it all comes back to the spiders. The final act sees the filmmakers throw everything they can at the screen in an attempt to make them scary. As they don't move, and we never see them actually deliver the death blows we're told about, it means they have to be made abnormally clever and devious. But we're told the reason they have started killing people is that DDT has wiped out their natural food sources (mainly cicadas and crickets... which provide the background soundtrack to the movie so can't be in too short supply). How can spiders become super-intelligent shortly after changing their diet? (In fact that's another thing we never see a spider do: eat one of its victims.) They get cleverer as the movie goes on, taking out fuse boxes and phone cables, but they also become more malicious. After Woody Strode tries to burn down their nest, some of them hide in his truck, waiting to attack just as he's on a clifftop road that seems dangerously suited to being wildly careened off. When the sheriff goes to his farm to inform the wife, the camera pans across the yard to reveal a spider watching from a distance. I swear it was smiling. Either way, it implies the spider understands the nature of the news being imparted, can anticipate the emotional response it will generate, and takes perverse pleasure from it. That's brilliantly stupid.