Only William Shatner could help Judge Patrick Bromley overcome his fear of spiders.
A living, crawling hell on earth.
Thousands of eight-legged crawlies versus James T. M.F.'in Kirk? You had me at thousands of eight-legged crawlies versus James T. M.F.'in Kirk.
Facts of the Case
Arizona veterinarian Robert "Rack" Hansen (William Shatner of some show called Star Trek) has a problem: his town is being overrun by deadly tarantulas. As visiting scientist Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling) explains, mankind's use of pesticides (damn you, mankind) has destroyed the spiders' food supply, leaving them with only one source of food to turn to: US!
I'm terrified of spiders. I know it's irrational. I know they (mostly) can't hurt me and that they're small and I'm big and they're more afraid of me blah blah blah (I don't buy this last argument). That makes me pretty much the perfect audience for the 1977 sci-fi horror movie Kingdom of the Spiders (well, that and the fact that it stars Williams Shatner), which is entirely dependent on its own ability to creep me out by showing spiders crawl around on people. To that end, the movie works. It's creepy to see spiders crawl around on people, because spiders are the scariest thing on the planet. Scarier than clowns. Scarier than snakes. Scarier than clownsnakes.
Of course, the "spiders" in Kingdom of the Spiders aren't actually spiders at all. They're tarantulas, which are in many ways scarier thanks to their increased size and overall hairiness (no joke; I just got grossed out typing the word "hairiness" in regards to a spider). It's funny to watch the actors talk about the tarantulas for the first half of the movie as thought they're just common house spiders; at one point, a character says with a smile "I hope they don't make it in the house. Those things give me the willies!" The willies? Are you serious? THEY'RE TARANTULAS. If an infestation of tarantulas made it into my house, you couldn't time how quickly I either a) put the "for sale" sign out front or b) burn the place to the ground. Hell, I'd probably do it for an infestation of Daddy Long Legs.
Enough about me and my silly irrational fears. Kingdom of the Spiders works in the way that many low-budget exploitation movies from the '70s work. It's got long, slow scenes of stiff dialogue and exposition punctuated by money shots of hundreds of tarantulas crawling over everything; the fact that they're real and not a CGI creation (which we would never get today) only makes the whole thing more visceral and creepy. Though certainly slow going for the first half, the movie builds towards its tarantula-heavy climax with a reasonable amount of suspense and mounting dread. While the other killer spider movie, 1990's Arachnophobia, is a better movie and outdoes Kingdom in the "spiders-in-everyday-situations" creep factor (inside a bowl of popcorn; perched on the shower head, just waiting for the stream of water to blast them down on an unsuspecting victim), Kingdom of the Spiders certainly has its fair share of "ick" moments. Many of them are undone by scenes that are more funny than scary—a tarantula attack on a pilot mid-flight comes to mind—but that's part of the movie's charm.
I'm on record as not being a fan of watching things ironically. I get no pleasure from feeling superior to a movie, and prefer to like what I like without having to distance myself from it with the "so bad it's good" defense. Having said that, I have to admit that Kingdom of the Spiders managed to provoke much bemused laughter from me, both intentional and otherwise. It's just so silly. The participation of William Shatner in just about anything non-Star Trek automatically makes it feel like camp, and that's certainly the case here; he approaches the role of "Rack" Hansen with the right amount of self-aware goofiness that helps set the tone for the rest of the movie. I'm not sure anyone else realizes just what kind of movie they're in (and director John 'Bud' Cardos certainly doesn't go for comedy), but it's obvious that Shatner already understands what the movie's legacy will be.
Shout! Factory's new special edition of Kingdom of the Spiders gives fans of the film cause to celebrate. For starters, it marks the first time the film has been presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, enhanced for 16 x 9 playback (previous releases were incorrectly released in a 1.33:1 full frame). The image is, for the most part, very good; grain and scratches are visible (particularly at the outset), but colors are vivid and bright and the film looks considerably better than a grungy, low-budget 30-year old spider movie has any right to look. The mono audio track is faithful to the source and services the film just fine.
Director John 'Bud' Cardos, producer Igo Kantor, cinematographer John Morrill and "spider wrangler" Jim Brockett sit down for a commentary with moderators Lee Christian and Hostel producer Scott Spiegel. Though the participants are on the older side and the made the film over three decades ago, the track is a good deal of fun (largely thanks to the two moderators, who keep things moving and inject some humor), with several amusing production anecdotes and spider stories. Brockett is also at the center of his own featurette, "Jim Brockett: Spider Wrangler." It's a very entertaining piece about a guy whose job you might not think about that often. Star William Shatner has recorded a new interview for the "Special Edition" release, and it's terrific, completely validating my theory that the actor knew exactly what kind of movie he was making. There's also nearly 20 minutes of old behind-the-scenes footage, but it's in rough form and hasn't really been packaged in a way that's watchable beyond a few minutes. A short interview with the movie's writer, a poster gallery and the original theatrical trailer round out the bonus features.
If you know what you're in for, Kingdom of the Spiders can be a lot of fun. This new special edition finally does the movie justice, with the first proper presentation and a nice collection of extras. Plus, the movie's got one of the coolest final shots of the last 30 years. Disregard the fact that it doesn't make much sense.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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