Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Cult Classics from Dimension X: Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

I could try, but I'm sure that I couldn't adequately explain why William Shatner's schtick is a such a key attribute of this film's success.  It doesn't make sense.  No one casts their male lead hoping for a wooden performance, a total lack of chemistry with the female lead, and several sequences that generate unintentional laughs.  Yet that's what director John "Bud" Cardos got from the Shat here, and for whatever reason, it only serves to elevate the picture.  This is the epitome of a cult classic, an unheralded gem that shouldn't have worked--and didn't work in many ways--yet somehow found an audience that could appreciate it for what it was.  Somehow, someway, this low-budget "spiders on the rampage" opus wound up being tremendously entertaining in spite of its flaws, of which there are many.  Honestly, some of those flaws, to include the Shat (who masterfully partners his inherent charm with an uneven performance) work to the movie's advantage.

It's also worth noting that Kingdom of the Spiders is one of those rare cheesy movies that has you laughing hysterically until the closing reel, when the picture suddenly starts to work.  In fact, it's the tension and the the fear that the finale provides that cements this one's cult classic status.  Without a powerful conclusion, it would be something akin to a mockery of the genre, but the nifty ending saves the day.  Of course, this is a 70s flick, and the 70s were all about downbeat finishes, so don't actually expect the Shat to save the day.  It's just a rousing finish that punctuates a sub-par motion picture, elevating it to something that vaguely resembles greatness.

Tiffany Bolling (Diane Ashley) pretends not to notice that the hat is wearing the Shat
while Woody Strode (Walter Colby) and Altovise Davis (Birch Colby) look on.
No, Birch--that's a terrible idea!
Most of the drama in this spider-filled shocker comes courtesy of the incredible Woody Strode and Altovise Davis as Walter Colby and his wife, Birch Colby.  Seriously, an alternate title for this film could have been The Woeful Saga of the Colby Farm, for theirs is a tale of misery.  You see, the spiders that menace our heroes make their presence known by munching on Walt's prize calf, who was destined to win a big prize at the upcoming fair.  It's a crushing blow, but Walter soldiers on so that he can later be eaten by spiders while driving around in his trusty pickup.  Poor Birch is understandably distraught, and is only beginning to grieve when she is devoured by spiders within her home. 

It's up to Shatner as country vet Rack Hansen and Tiffany Bolling as a lovely expert on spiders named Diane Ashley to save the day.  Their efforts are complicated by Rack's hilarious attempts to seduce his lovely sidekick.  The meddling mayor also presents problems along the way.  No, Rack's predatory attempts at seduction aren't supposed to be comical.  Yes, there's a meddling mayor.  Most of these "Man vs. Nature" flicks aspire to be Jaws, and as such there is usually a clueless and greedy authority figure who seeks to endanger everyone he is supposed to serve.  Roy Engel absolutely slays me as Mayor Connors, a ludicrous caricature who doesn't have time for killer spiders and the death of his constituents because he is too worried about the fair.  His lines are bad enough, but his delivery is so phenomenally awful that his small part in Kingdom of the Spiders quickly becomes comedic gold.

You haven't seen acting until you've seen the Shat grieve.
The only thing better than the mayor's antics and Shatner's awe-inspiring lack of chemistry with Bolling are the scenes that require the Shat to emote.  Rack Hansen is a man who is presented with a wealth of conflict and heartache, so Shatner is thereby required to grieve, rage, and dig deep so that he can keep on fighting the good fight.  Truthfully, though I love the Shat and greatly enjoy his presence in this picture, he's a lot better at that spoken-word music that he does.  If you can watch the first 60 minutes of Kingdom of the Spiders without laughing, I don't want to know you.  Movies that are so bad that they're good don't come any worse (and thereby better) than this one, and it's a laugh-riot all the way up until that riveting conclusion when the picture mysteriously finds its groove. 

The score is largely assembled from stock music and the editing is a bit clunky, but director John Cardos manages to string viewers along until the handful of characters that remain gather for their last stand in that worthwhile finish.  If it sounds like I'm totally bashing this movie, I promise that isn't the case.  I love it.  It's terrible in so many ways, but it's damn entertaining, and I do think that the ending kicks ass.  Additionally, I should point out that people who are deathly afraid of spiders may not find it quite as hilarious as I do, and some seem to think it's a fine film.  Hell, the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films nominated it for their Best Horror Film award in 1977, though it lost to The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.  I can't call it one of the best horror films that I've ever seen, but I'm certainly more than willing to rank Kingdom of the Spiders as one of my favorite Cult Classics from Dimension X.

Best Horror Film?  I think not.
This dude's screams, though--if there was an award for
Best Screaming Performance, he would have taken that bad boy home.

There is no way this film would be made today.  The making of Kingdom of the Spiders was essentially a tarantula holocaust.  Real tarantulas were used throughout the making of the film, and this means that a multitude of them were trampled underfoot, run over by vehicles, and otherwise squashed during production.

$50,000 of the film's budget (a big slice of the pie, to be sure) went to the purchase of live tarantulas.

As a player for the Los Angeles Rams, actor Woody Strode was one of the first athletes to break the color barrier in the NFL.

Rumors of a sequel have popped up on several occasions.  There were even reports in the late 80s that not only would Shatner return as the lead, but he was also going to direct the picture.

Marcy Lafferty plays Willam Shatner's sister-in-law in the movie.  When Kingdom of the Spiders was filmed, Shatner and Lafferty were actually husband and wife.

Though there were rubber spiders in the mix, the actors frequently interacted with live tarantulas.  Cast and crew members reported being bit by these arachnids on several occasions.  As you watch the movie, there certainly seem to be moments where performers pretending to be attacked by the spiders suffer a legitimate bite.

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