Giant insects were all the rage in the nuclear-obsessed 50s—the king-sized ants of Them! (1954) led to an all-out assault of creepy-crawlies, with Tarantula (1955), The Black Scorpion (1957), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and Earth vs. the Spider (1958) part of the vanguard. The 70s brought the threat of ecological catastrophe, and the genre downsized to their level. Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971) and The Giant Spider Invasion (1975) gave way to the angry worms in Squirm (1976), The Swarm and The Bees in 1978, an army of regular-sized ants munching on Suzanne Somers in the 1977 TV movie It Happened at Lakewood Manor, Claude Akins vs. Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo in another 1977 TV movie and, if your nerves could stand the trip to the drive-in after all that televised terror that year, Kingdom of the Spiders.
Or, more accurately, Kingdom of the Tarantulas. Not that the arachnid-sensitive will notice, as they’ll be too busy ducking under the couch as the thousand or so critters wrangled for the show go about their business. Previously released in an unsatisfying full-frame version that cut a few of the beasties out of the picture, Kingdom has been restored in a letterboxed (1.85 anamorphic widescreen) version crawling with special edition content, not least of which is a commentary track that has the makers of the film squealing like little girls at their handiwork.
Eco-terror is only as effective as the creature doing the terrorizing. Shot from noir-ish low angles the title hoppers in 1972’s Frogs are still more ugly-cute than scary, so the movie has to bring in snakes and gators for reinforcement. It’s even harder to give a fudd about the wascally man-sized rabbits in Night of the Lepus (1972). Spiders, though, are sure-fire nightmare material. Kingdom director John “Bud” Cardos, who among other credits wrangled the avian stars of Hitchcock’s genre-influencing The Birds (1963), recalls that the part of the heroic entomologist went to lesser-known Tiffany Bolling when name actresses fainted dead away when introduced to their eight-legged co-stars.
Their loss. It’s a better-than-average part in a movie that takes itself seriously, not that there aren’t over-the-top moments, as when the tarantulas—marching through the Sedona area in protest of indiscriminate DDT spraying and putting the bite on every unlucky human—somehow break through windows. Unlike in the lighter-hearted Arachnophobia (1990), the tarantulas here play for keeps. When in an excitingly staged sequence they bring down the plane that’s spraying the chemicals you can picture them in the theater, appendage-bumping and yelling “hell, yeah!” at the screen. (It’s a game-changing moment in “insect politics,” as outlined by Jeff Goldblum in The Fly.) Little kids, friendly townspeople, veteran character actor Woody Strode (in one of his largest parts outside of John Ford Westerns and Spartacus) and, as his wife, Sammy Davis, Jr.’s spouse Altovise—all of them get tangled up in the web.
The catch of the day, however, is William Shatner, as veterinarian “Rack” Hansen, who’s onto the infestation. This was before “The Shat” had learned the art of self-parody in defense of his skills, and there was a lot to make fun of in that awkward decade between Star Trek the TV show and Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, including his killer gigolo in the unbelievable Impulse (1974) and his melting into ooze at the end of The Devil’s Rain (1975). But he keeps that I’m-acting-as-fast-as-I-can quality of his in check in this one and makes a reasonably understated job of it, even when tarantulas attach themselves to his face in a bravely performed sequence. (His second wife, Marcy Lafferty, appears as his sister-in-law.)
Shatner shares fond memories of his co-stars in an interview segment, recalling that their itchy hair was more of a nuisance than their mild bite and that he wanted to direct a sequel, despite a superb ending typical of the period. In the commentary track Cardos (who’s joined by producer Igo Kantor, DP John Morrill, and moderators Lee Christian and Hostel producer and fan Scott Spiegel) says the actor had good reason to be happy, as he accepted a percentage of the profits in exchange for a larger upfront salary and made out like a bandit when Spiders spun gold at the boxoffice. Fellow commentator Jim Brockett, the film’s spider wrangler, gets his own segment, where he introduces us to the orange-kneed tarantulas who made up the bulk of the cast and a few nastier varieties, who clearly wouldn’t take direction. Behind-the-scenes footage, a poster gallery, and the original theatrical trailer round out the riches of Kingdom, a durable screamfest.
A few more from the era…
“Suppose nature gave a war…and everybody came!”
Tree-hugger Godzilla vs. Hedorah, “the smog monster”:
Look before you Lepus!
“It’s more than speculation…it’s a prediction! Irwin Allen’s The Swarm!”–with an unbelievable all-star cast.
Plus, if wardrobe could kill…The Shat in a montage from Impulse.