While many celebrated International Cat Day on August 8th, it also happened to be National Tarantula Appreciation Day. As a result, I decided to return to a film that terrified me when I was little (and watched when I was far too young), 1977’s Kingdom of the Spiders.
As a kid growing up near the beginning of cable, movies were regularly during the weekends shown on prime time TV. This consisted of about 5 main channels in New York City: CBS (Channel 2), NBC (Channel 4), ABC (Channel 7), WNYW (Channel 5, which would become Fox in the Mid80s), WWOR (Channel 9), and WPIX (Channel 11). In addition to this, Channel 5, 9, and 11 would have movies playing on weekday afternoons just before the nightly news. I ended up watching Kingdom of the Spiders at my grandmother’s house, from under her bed. I didn’t sleep well for a while after this movie.
I don’t know why she ever owned it, but my Grandmother had this near clear shower curtain with a giant red and black spider on it. The web started from the center and spread out to the edges of the curtain. The image below is the closest approximation I could find to the one she owned. This was the source of my arachnophobia, which caused me to either enter the bathroom with my eyes closed, or use the basement bathroom (which had the rare added chance of seeing actual spiders). She tried to make me see the reality of it once, scooping me up and lifting me in front of the curtain to realize it was just a plastic sheet. My imagination was a little too much, however, and all I saw was something that wanted to cocoon and drink me dry. I screamed and flailed in her arms, and that was the end of that.
The premise for Kingdom of the Spiders is incredibly simple. At first, life is pretty comfortable in Verde Valley, Arizona. You’ve a family of cattle ranchers in the Colby’s (played by Spartacus‘ Woody Strode and Can’t Stop the Music‘s Altovise Davis). However, when a farmer’s cattle begin to fall ill and eventually dies, Dr. Rack Hansen (William Shatner, Miss Congeniality) is brought in to figure out what’s happening. Between heavily flirting with this brother’s widow Terry (Marcy Lafferty, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Shatner’s wife at the time) and taking care of her daughter, Laura (Natasha Ryan, The Amityville Horror), it’s a surprise Rack has the time to help the Colby’s out.
When he sends in the blood samples to a lab for more research, the diagnosis is spider venom on a highly toxic scale. It’s so toxic that a spider specialist, Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling, Open House) is brought in to help. Of course, this springs Rack into action. After they meet, he cuts her off on the road, gives her his best one liner and then picks her up and takes her to his favorite restaurant (in her car, mind you). Rack’em, indeed.
Over lunch, they come to an understanding that DDT might be the cause of their tarantula menace. Having killed off their regular food sources of insects, the spiders have moved on to larger game. A quick visit back to the Colby Ranch confirms their fears. A spider mound is on their farm and the decision is eventually made to burn it down. Burning helps, but little do the humans realize that the spiders had exit strategies of their own. They also had additional mounds that the humans never even noticed.
With time running around out, Rack and Diane eventually decide the answer is more DDT, but the spiders thwart the attempt and decide from that point on, it’s all out war. Can the town survive the assault?
So, the spiders in Kingdom of the Spiders are just tarantulas. While all tarantulas are spiders, not all spiders are tarantulas. We’re not talking about the small house spiders from Frank Marshall’s Arachnophobia. They can be dangerous too, depending on the type. The Brown Recluse in particular has venom that is necrotic and will eat away the flesh around a bite. This movie focuses on the large hairy ones.
From what I’ve read, while most tarantulas have venom, it’s not particularly dangerous to humans. The only real exception to this are the Funnel Web spiders of Australia. They’re super aggressive and their venom can kill. Thankfully, according to a USA Today article, no one on that continent’s been killed by one since 1980. Additionally, some tarantulas only really use their fangs as a last resort. They will usually choose to flick the hairs off their back, which sting the eyes and noses of most predators.
There were about 5000 tarantulas used in the movie, with a mix of real ones for the early close ups and fake models for some of the wider shots. I’ve always wondered if the American Humane Society supervised the film, because it looks looks like a number of them were killed (at least in the last third).
Shatner is pretty much himself here, bringing that style he always does to a role. It’s not the over the top levels of Captain Kirk or Denny Crane, but it’s still fun to watch. Though I haven’t been able to confirm it, I’m told that Tiffany Bolling was one of the few people that wasn’t scared to work with the arachnids and that helped to get her the role. Most of the cast are okay, thought their reactions to spiders might cause one to laugh more than to share in their fear. Granted, I’d probably react the same way as most of them.
There’s one part involving Mrs. Colby with a gun that shares the same musical piece used in David Cronenberg’s Rabid and Scott Sanders’ Black Dynamite. Much like the classic Wilhelm scream, this musical piece seems to pop up in older movies now and then.
Overall, Kingdom of the Spiders is a decent film to unleash upon your Arachnophobic friends to watch them squirm. The spiders may spend more time running away from their prey, but some low to the ground camera shots help to make things more interesting.