When you watch a film for the first time and then your wife insists you’ve both seen it fairly recently, then you know, dear reader, that you’re getting old. Fingers crossed I saw this with the Rifftrax commentary and their comedy stylings made me forget the actual movie, because otherwise I’ve got an abyss to stare into.
The trend of 70s disaster (environmental / otherwise) movies is one we’ve never dipped our toes into here at the ISCFC. For a whole heap of reasons – they’re often big budget with decent casts, and therefore fall outside our normal remit; they’re slick and thumbs-in-the-middle, and that’s boring to write about; and watching one of them reminds me of boring Sunday evenings as a kid, when they always seemed to be the only thing on TV, and that just makes me feel sad. The rest of them, the B-movie trash like “Empire of the Ants”, “Grizzly”, “Beaks”, “Great White” and “Them!” are so miserable that I couldn’t even be bothered to write about them. But luckily, even among the slick dross, you get the occasional oddity, and “Kingdom of the Spiders” is such an oddity.
A hard-working farming couple have a calf that’s ready to go to the county fair and win a bunch of awards, but sadly it gets bitten to death by spiders. The main draw of this movie, William Shatner, playing the amazingly named Rack Hansen, is a vet, so he sends off samples to the big city, then flirts with his dead brother’s wife and drinks beer with the Sheriff and Mayor. Seems like a pretty nice life, and Shatner isn’t the world’s worst actor; while he doesn’t seem much like a good ol’ Southern boy (what with being Jewish, and Canadian) you can pretend he’s – Northern Exposure-style – been forced to work there to pay off some odd debt. Anyway, into this rather pleasant rural environment comes the big city representative from the CDC, Diane (Tiffany Bolling, a fine grindhouse actress who got the part mostly because she was fine with spiders), she’s all “it’s spiders, you guys”, they’re all “no way, spiders couldn’t do this” and then the farmer says “er, have you seen this enormous spider hill in my back garden?” and it’s on.
Much like a lot of mainstream 70s cinema, it doesn’t exactly race along in the beginning. If it was designed for drive-in audiences I guess they realised it would mostly be the backdrop to people having sex for the first half, so when everyone’s calmed down a bit the movie gets going, and the final segment, where the seemingly millions of tarantulas absolutely mess everyone up, is pretty amazing. The streets are littered with cocooned corpses, a plane is brought down, no car is safe, and the action comes thick and fast. It’s got a hell of an ending, too, even if you may think “how many spiders were there in this one town, exactly?” It’s also got one of the dumbest fights in the movies, where one character is shooting spiders with a pistol, only to get one on her hand…and then shoots her own hand and dies!
It’s got an environmental message, warning of the dangers of the pesticide DDT (it’s been so long since I heard those three letters in any context other than being a wrestling move that I forgot it was ever anything else for a few minutes), but…it reminded me a little of a high end clothing shop selling punk t-shirts, in that any message was lost long ago. It says “don’t use DDT” but is quiet on the legions of other pesticides, and of ways to avoid ruining the food chain so spiders come and kill us all, “Kingdom” has none. So, definitely on the right side of the environmental debate, but a little naïve.
I feel sorry for every woman in every movie in the 1970s. While two of them come out of it okay (the farmer’s wife and the bar owner) they’re not sexual – one is black and the other is old. Shatner’s ex-sister in law, Linda (played by Natasha Ryan) lusts for our hero, but he gets angry with her as he could never disrespect his brother’s memory…except when he tells her he’ll probably have sex with her one day. When he brings Diane to her house later on, she pretends like she’s okay, then cries her eyes out in the kitchen, then dies. And Diane! She’s hit on by a chemical toilet salesman while the guy’s wife is stood five feet away, and when she turns Shatner down for the third time, he just picks her up, puts her in the passenger seat of her own car and drives her to dinner. She finds this charming and is about to sleep with him when he suddenly decides to go and burn all the spider hills, and from that moment on is pretty much nothing but arm candy (there’s one line where he tells her how good she is at her job, which I guess is about as much as a woman could expect).
So we never repeat this crap, we need to point out sexism wherever it rears its ugly head. We should demand better, because “it’s just a bit of fun” or whatever the phrase is, keeps trying to slip back into our culture. Just look at any modern monster movie and see the difference in how the men and women are dressed (men – baggy t-shirts and shorts; women – bikinis) – it’s only subtle because it’s so deeply ingrained.
Finally, spiders! One of the special features on the DVD is an interview with the movie’s spider wrangler, and he’s great – showing us the docile tarantula breed that they used throughout the movie, then the extremely aggressive breed that they’d use these days for close-ups (but not for actual human interaction, because they are mean hombres), then the “oh my god its enormous please put it back in its box” breed. The producers paid $10 a spider, so they collected thousands, and even though the wrangler says they were very careful, it looks like they ran over, stomped on and poisoned hundreds of the damned things. I wonder if the American Humane Association were involved in this one?
While in a lot of ways it’s a pretty typical Irwin Allen-style disaster movie, it’s also got that B-movie feel to it too, and is a lot of fun. Obviously, avoid if you’re not a fan of spiders, or like correct titling (“Kingdom?” Really?) but as long as you’re not too bothered about slow starts, the crazy ending will more than make up for it.
Rating: thumbs in the middle
PS – a quick word about the farmer, played by Woody Strode. He had a pretty interesting life, being one of the four men who broke the NFL’s colour barrier in 1946 (no black men had played in the NFL since 1933), and was a college friend of Jackie Robinson, the guy who broke the colour barrier in baseball. Then he was a pro wrestler on and off – but he’s much better remembered for his acting, with a great role in “Spartacus”, finishing off his career in “The Quick And The Dead” (which was dedicated to him, as he died before it was released). He was even married to a distant relative of the last Queen of Hawaii! We here at the ISCFC salute you, Mr Strode.