I have a mental list of things I would do if I could go back in time. The standard stuff is there. Kill Hitler, catch a live performance of Beethoven’s Ninth with the composer himself conducting, etc. But those are representative of my more grandiose schemes. Far down the list is finding some way to weasel into the movie industry, and direct a film starring William Shatner in the 1970s. It’s a fleeting obsession, really, and was conceived only after watching Shatner’s star turn in Kingdom of the Spiders, from 1977.
Directed by John ‘Bud’ Cardos, Kingdom of the Spiders tells the story of Rack Hansen (Shatner), a veterinarian in rural Arizona, as he deals with a rash of animal deaths on a local farm. He’s joined by Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling), a scientist from Arizona State, who has proof the deaths were caused by massive amounts of spider venom. Sure enough, it turns out the picturesque Verde Valley is being invaded by millions of tarantulas engaged in a mass migration, fleeing from humanity’s overuse of industrial pesticides.
The spiders are terrible enough on their own. But without Shatner, Kingdom of the Spiders would have as little flair as any of the other cheap 1970s environmental horror flicks, such as Night of the Lepus. It would have been just another low-budget bore stuffed with bad actors and a somnambulistic plot. But with Shatner, there’s a soulful smattering of macho sleaze that adds to one’s enjoyment of the film. Rack Hansen could have been boring and predictable, but the day the producers hired William Shatner to play the part, they were creating a whole new character from the one inhabiting the script. I don’t know how William Shatner feels about himself. I’m assuming he’s a confident man. But in the 1970s, he carried a very creepy sexual vibe into his roles, and it’s present throughout Kingdom of the Spiders. It’s epic, really.
That smile, those eyes, the way he rides a horse and throws a lasso. I wouldn’t call Shatner a man’s man, or a ladies man, but he’s some kind of man. Anyone so assured that their dick drags in the dirt must be.
His performance is so all consuming in the film that it’s easy to forget an entire community is being terrorized by venomous tarantulas. But a viewer gets little reminders here and there in the slow spots. Some minor character will be doing something, and all of a sudden they find themselves covered with spiders. Screaming, pounding and hollering, followed by death. It’s a pattern that works, in its own way. As the movie progresses, the spider attacks become more frequent, leading to the film’s climax, when the entire town comes under attack from an unstoppable wave of furry spiders.
The ending is a surprise, even if the execution is a little off. But by this time, if a viewer hasn’t embraced the cheese in this film, they never will.
One neat thing about the film, though, are the tarantulas. The producers procured real animals. Apparently they paid out around ten percent of the film’s 500 thousand dollar budget for 5,000 tarantulas, which they then used liberally. And the cast, despite lacking in acting chops, was obviously not rattled at all by the presence of the tarantulas. The tarantulas crawled all over them, and they still managed to act wooden as their characters died. Covered in furry beasts borne of our deepest nightmares, and these people still couldn’t act naturally scared. Truly a feat. All joking aside, I was impressed at the stoicism of cast members, especially those forced to lay still and play corpses as the tarantulas crawled over their faces.
Kingdom of the Spiders is a shitty movie extraordinaire. There’s not much that redeems it. The slow pace is almost crippling, and to tell the truth, the tarantulas seem more scared of the cast than the other way around, if I’m reading the little creatures right. But the movie has its charms. Among them, yes, a performance by William Shatner than can best be described as unrepentant. He floats this flick, and the legend only grows. Shatner makes Kingdom of the Spiders a better watch than Alien: Resurrection.