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January 19, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #107 - Kingdom of the Spiders

The epic journey of Rack Hansen is something any man, woman, or child would want to be a part of.  After all, Rack Hansen is a one-of-a-kind cowboy vet, who's not above riding a horse and wearing a pink cowboy shirt and being awesome.  And, when you consider the fact that Rack Hansen is played by none less than William Shatner, you kind of get the idea that there should be a whole series of Rack Hansen films out there. Mostly because his name is Rack Hansen, of course.
Unfortunately, there is only one Rack Hansen film - I pray I'm wrong, but that seems to be the truth - and that film is the 1977 arachna-palooza Kingdom of the Spiders.  The Shat gets his Arizona swagger on alongside one of FMWL's three (imaginary) brides, Tiffany Bolling - who naturally plays a hot arachnologist - in the battle to save a small Arizona community from a seemingly unending wave of tarantulas.  The film is the debut feature by director John "Bud" Cardos, and it's one of those movies that is surprisingly good at what it does if you only consider what it intends to do.
I forgot to mention that the great Woody Strode - who broke the NFL's color barrier and was basically awesome - has a supporting role in the film.
No, Kingdom of the Spiders will never be confused with high art - this is the kind of movie the Criterion collection would pretend to release on April Fool's Day - and it's easy to see the film's flaws.  Y'know, flaws like the fact that tarantula venom actually doesn't do much to humans, yet kills several throughout the film.  Kingdom of the Spiders was also pretty late to the game among animals-gone-wild films of the 1970s, following plenty of films like The Food of the Gods, that covered similar territory.
Except you rarely saw a cow in the back seat of a car in other movies.
I could argue that Kingdom of the Spiders is a far more competent film than something like Food of the Gods, but I'd be missing the point.  The point is that this one has Shatner stomping the crud out of hundreds of real tarantulas.  The animal rights folks would probably have a fit if someone tried to make this movie today, because I'm willing to bet that a lot of "innocent" spiders were harmed and or killed during the making of this film.  Me, I'm OK with the film, because spiders creep me the heck out.  If it has more than 4 legs or less than 2, I kill it - that's my motto.
I don't really need to waste my time discussing what Shatner brings to the film, because the only way to describe a William Shatner performance is by saying he acts like William Shatner.  Bolling is certainly more restrained in this PG feature than she is in her other grindhouse roles (check out all my Tiffany Bolling love here), with her primary purpose in the film being that she reminds us that William Shatner is the man of the film.  She's still a sight to see, and Cardos does what he can to show her in as much undress as the MPAA will allow under a PG rating, but she's not Shatner and she's not the spiders and thus she's not really that important to the film.
As the film builds toward a final act that resembles "trapped in a house" settings like those of The Birds or Night of the Living Dead, we're treated to an increasing amount of Shatner that's sure to satisfy any cheese lover.  Moments like the one when Shatner reaches into a vent and recoils in pain or when he ventures into a cellar only to be blanketed by eight legged critters show off the kind of acting that only the Captain of the Starship Enterprise is capable of.  There are sure to be some laughs had at Shatner's expense - then again, when aren't there laughs had at Shatner's expense? - but this certainly wouldn't be as watchable a film without his thespian talents.
It probably sounds like I'm dissing Kingdom of the Spiders, but I really do love this silly little movie.  Cardos - who would later direct the odd 1979 chiller The Dark (I dig that one too!) and the 1984 Wings Hauser film Mutant  (and I have got to see that!) - keeps the film simple but never seems to be in over his head as a director.  When I compared the film to The Birds or NOTLD earlier I certainly didn't mean to compare this director to Hitchcock or Romero, but Cardos is more than capable of keeping the film moving and making the story seem more pulpy than trashy.  Though some of the scenes where the spiders meet the main cast seem a bit off - a lot of times the tarantulas don't follow direction and run AWAY from their "victims" - there are some fantastic scenes in which the spiders roam through the small town and crawl all over cast members and extras.
The film's willingness to use real spiders is sure to give anyone with even the slightest case of arachnaphobia some chills, and the director and his talented (in their own ways) stars keep Kingdom of the Spiders feeling like more than just another cheesy animal attack film.  It's hard to really explain why - maybe it's just that nerds like me put Shatner on one heckuva pedestal - but Kingdom of the Spiders is greater than the sum of its parts.  And now that Shout Factory has rescued it from the public domain and produced a fantastic DVD transfer of the film - please note that the DVD cover implies that a torch comes out of Mr. Shatner's crotch, which sadly does not really happen - there's nothing that should keep any of us from boldly visiting this Kingdom when we need a dose of late '70s cheese.
 Oh, and I can't finish this review without referencing the INCREDIBLY AWKWARD quasi-romantic relationship between Rack Hansen (I seriously haven't said Rack Hansen enough tonight) and the widow of his brother, who totally wants a dose of Rack.  That's a problem when you consider the fact that Tiffany Bolling is also in the movie, so let's just say that the film wraps up this bit of awkwardness relatively early in the film's plot.  But that doesn't make the love triangle any less awkward.
 Well done, Rack Hansen. Well done.


Anonymous said...

I watched this movie so much growing up. It was so commonplace in my household that I simply thought EVERYONE watched it.
I guess that's what happens when your mother is Shat-obsessed.
SO glad you have this "classic" some love :)

R.D. Penning said...

I love this movie!!!

MadMan_731 said...

This movie gets a 53/100 from me. I recognize that there's some cheesy entertainment involved, but ultimately its low budget feel and the fact that its too hilarious to be even good pulp/cult film hurts its cause a lot. Still, I'm glad I watched this on IFC just to see The Shatner fight spiders.

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A regular movie: Isn't a good one after all.