Written by Richard Robinson and Alan Caillou
Directed by John “Bud” Cardos
Starring William Shatner, Tiffany Bolling, Woody Strode, David McLean, Natasha Ryan
US Premiere August 24, 1977 (San Francisco)
RT 97 min.
Home Video Shout! Factory
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)
Five years after the release of Frogs, the “Nature Gone Wild” or “Eco-Horror” film subgenre was still going strong. Post-Jaws, there was no sign of it waning, at least not in the 70s. Movies were released about killer alligators, barracudas, crocodiles, dogs, ants, grizzlies, bats, whales, piranhas, snakes, worms, octopi, and buffalo. But one of my favorite of these movies is 1977’s Kingdom of the Spiders.
The message here is not in the least bit subtle: DDT is bad. This pesticide for insect control was commonly used until concern grew over carcinogenicity, bioaccumulation and health effects on wildlife, not to mention the concern that some insects developed a resistance to it. DDT was banned in 1972, but is identified several times in Kingdom of the Spiders as being the cause of Verde Valley, Arizona’s pest problem. It is also mentioned as being useless in ridding the county of its pest problem, “I don’t think DDT is gonna kill them.” (FYI, DDT is still manufactured today, but sold only to countries that allow its use.)
In Kingdom of the Spiders, use of DDT has caused the size of spiders to grow (“spiders this size become immune”) and they are “600 miles from where they should be,” migrating through Verde Valley to a new home. On the way, they vacation in huge spider hills, primarily on the farm land of Walter and Birch Colby (Woody Strode and Altovise Davis). “There must be hundreds of them from what I can tell!” Livestock on their farm starts dying from “massive amounts of spider venom.”
The timing couldn’t be worse, which is usually the case in Nature Gone Wild movies. The Verde Valley Fair is approaching and it sure looks like the dusty town could use some income from the revenue the annual event would generate. The mayor doesn’t want to take any chances and decides to spray the countryside anyway. But the thing about spiders, killer or not, is that not only can they take refuge in a shoe in your closet, but they can also hide in the nooks and crannies of a small airplane, causing it to eventually crash and burn.
The drama of Kingdom of the Spiders plays against this backdrop, but it’s really a more intimate story of survival among a group of people holed up in Washburn’s Lodge. More time than typical in these movies is spent giving the characters a backstory. When we first meet veterinarian and ladies’ man Rack Hanson (William Shatner), he’s horsing around with his sister-in-law, Terry (Marcy Lafferty). Apparently, “his brother got killed in ‘Nam the second day he was there” and he’s in the potentially uncomfortable position of falling in love with her.
Thank goodness Diane Ashely (Tiffany Bolling) from the Department of Entomology at the University of Arizona, Tempe arrives to assess the situation and provide Hanson a romantic distraction. She helps uncover the aforementioned facts about the spider invasion. She adds that insecticides have been killing off the food supply, so spiders are becoming aggressive. It is the romantic triangle of Rack, Terry and Diane, plus a handful of other potential victims, who barricade themselves inside the lodge.
This leads to the thing I appreciate most about Kingdom of the Spiders. There’s no one with a plan to put an end to the spider attacks. It doesn’t turn into an action movie with huge explosions and elaborate plans to get rid of them. It’s simply about trying to survive. That helps with the suspension of disbelief and ultimately makes it less of a disappointment. It also means that the movie can have a dark ending, not necessarily a “twist”, but certainly a “gotcha.”
The camerawork is clever. For example, there are multiple point of view shots close to the ground that represent various spiders approaching their prey. The makeup is terrific. For example, the spiders often cocoon their victims in webbing, so you can easily represent a grotesque dead body without being bloody or gory. And the script has its sly moments. For example, after the spiders’ natural predators are considered as a means to destroy them, we see one of the spiders devouring one of its predators, a large rat. As for the dialogue, any movie that uses the phrase “slick as a gnat’s ass” is just fine in my book.
Kingdom of the Spiders is a surprisingly good suspense thriller, certainly better than other Nature Gone Wild movies I saw at the Trail Drive-In during the mid-to-late 1970s. (At the time, I particularly despised Empire of the Ants and The Food of the Gods.) It’s got a definite B-movie feel, but I wouldn’t go any further down the alphabet to describe its style. Don’t let the title fool you; I recommend you watch this one.