Grade: B-Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

Director: John "Bud" Cardos

Stars: William Shatner, Tiffany Bolling, Woody Strode

Release Company: Goodtimes Entertainment

MPAA Rating: PG

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Cardos: Kingdom of the Spiders


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Arachnid Productions lists only 1977's Kingdom of the Spiders on its resume. That's unfortunate; it's one of the better B-movies about killer creatures that's available through video outlets, made all the better with the hambone acting of William Shatner (of Star Trek fame) and location setting in the beautiful Arizona environs of Camp Verde and Sedona.

Beginning with Dorsey Burnette's country ballad "Peaceful Verde Valley," which could have been greatly enhanced with a frenetic Shatner singing "Mr. Tambourine Man," Kingdom first appears to be a modern-day western. Veterinarian Robert "Rack" Hansen (Shatner) rides quite naturally on horseback and ropes the widow (Natasha Ryan) of his brother, but doesn't like being called by his brother's name. Hints of romance with his sister-in-law are in the air.

Using his Star Trek wry wit and boyish charm, Shatner gets all the women while putting his usual macho posturing on hold. Battling furry arachnids is nothing like matching wits with a wrathful Khan or out-muscling a treacherous Klingon. Before the spider threat takes center stage, Kingdom begins as melodramatic contest between two women for Dr. Hansen.

The veterinarian's sister-in-law tearfully demonstrates hurt and jealousy when ASU entomologist Dr. Ashley (Tiffany Bolling) shows up with Dr. Hansen to investigate a mysterious cow death. That will turn out to be the least of the widow's worries.

Conjuring the same premise as Hitchcock's The Birds with the two ladies substituting for Tippi Hedren and Suzanne Pleshette, Shatner for Rod Taylor, and thousands of spiders taking on the role of the attacking birds, Kingdom speculates on man's place on the planet. What would happen if the insects of the world united to combat man's pesticides?

Beware when the camera begins tracking low in the grass, accompanied with eerie background music borrowed from The Twilight Zone (numerous takes are from "The Invaders" and "Back There"). That signals a coming attack by the venomous arachnids. And these aren't your ordinary itsy-bitsy spiders—they are palm-size tarantulas.

At first the attacks are sporadic and rather humorous—take note of that cow, whose eyes grow big and fearful before the camera zooms in for a close-up on its cornea. Before long the migrating arachnids have overtaken the town in far greater numbers than the cave dwellers that will cameo in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But like those Spielberg spiders, these tarantulas defy scientific fact and weave webs. In fact, director John Cardos' giant spiders actually cocoon their victims after poisoning them, spinning a yarn that no self-respecting tarantula would ever weave in real life.

Kingdom could have used a Spock to give more credibility. The entomologist only provides a love interest for Shatner without adding much scientific knowledge, although she does pick up the first tarantula she comes across, like any card-carrying entomologist would do. Dr. Ashley's claims that the spider venom is 10 times normal potency remain unexplained, and only hinted at with a hollow protest against spraying the critters with DDT. The only direct attempt that she and Shatner undertake against the spider mound is so inept it is laughable. But this is B-movie fantasy and meant for fun.

Even though the science and logic are off-kilter, Cardos hits a lot of right notes. Despite the low budget, the script and lead acting are credible and competent and the overall production demonstrates professionalism. The extras all run helter skelter through sleepy Camp Verde screaming their way during the height of the attack. The spiders run amok around the cabin that serves as the final refuge for the handful of survivors who haven't been cocooned yet. And all those furry tarantulas. How did this low-budget movie get so many of them in the days before CGI?

But the main reason I got hold of this video was to watch Shatner in action. Had Shatner not struck gold as Captain Kirk, the cheesy, charismatic swashbuckling actor would have been confined to occasional parts in television series like the frenetic passenger who sees gremlins on an airplane wing in Twilight Zone, the heroic Esperanto-speaking personification of good in the cult classic Incubus, and leading roles in grade B films like White Comanche and Kingdom of the Spiders. Or he could have returned to off-Broadway shows, shouting out his lines to wake up the audience. Shatner dominates Kingdom, as expected, but he remains in character and restrains himself from completely overpowering the lesser-known supporting cast.

Of course, Trek fans and any fanatical followers of Shatnerology must see Kingdom as part of the Shatner canon. With his persona forever mind-melded with Kirk's, this competent performance as the Verde Valley veterinarian remains an enjoyable footnote in Shatner's career.

On the other hand, Kingdom of the Spiders still ranks as the best work of director John Cardos. And that's too bad; the director demonstrates he has a good sense of technique with this lightly regarded, nature-run-amok film. Far worse directors have been entrusted with mega-bucks to create blockbuster bombs.
 


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