Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

The diminutive spider is second to none
In producing a thread that is sticky as glue
Yet he never gets caught in the web that he's spun
Which is better than most of us people can do.

--some quote I got from one of my puzzle books

Horror movies seem to revolve around one of the following themes: Don't piss off the locals. Don't piss off the ghosts. Don't piss off the man in the mask. Don't piss off the psychotic killer with the chainsaw. Don't piss off the over-sized mutant which YOU created with YOUR atomic bomb. Don't piss off God. And most importantly, DO NOT piss off nature.

The last theme was especially prevalent in the 1970s. With the rise of mainstream environmentalism, many horror movies of the time carried ecological messages, usually by pitting man against ecological adversaries. Frogs dealt with killer frogs, Night of the Lepus dealt with killer rabbits (with vicious streaks a mile wide), and Empire of the Ants dealt with--what else?--a colony of very perturbed, and very big, ants. They are always angry because in some way or another, man and his never-ending pursuit of progress, industrialization and scientific endeavors, or his otherwise blatant disregard for Mother Earth, pose a grave threat to that creature's ecosystem.

Well, except for the shark in Jaws. I'm not really sure what its deal was.

Quick quiz: can anyone guess what mankind pissed off this time in John "Bud" Cardos' 1977 creature feature Kingdom of the Spiders?

In "peaceful" Verde Valley, Arizona, as the opening credits song describes, we see a cow on a farm. This cow belongs to a Mr. Walter Colby (played by Woody Strode) and it is his prize calf which he is planning to enter in the upcoming county fair in the small rural town of Camp Verde where this movie takes place. He and his wife Birch (Altovise Davis) admire it for a moment before some Evil Dead-style cinematography tells us that something bad is about to happen to it.

In the next scene, we have local veterinarian Dr. Robert "Rack" Hansen (played by William Shatner of Star Trek and Priceline commercial fame) hitting on his deceased brother's widow Terry (Marcy Lafferty) when he gets a call from Colby - his prized calf seems to have fallen ill all of a sudden, and there are bite marks all over its body. Dr. Hansen meets up with Colby to examine the animal, which dies shortly after he arrives. A bewildered Colby wonders if it wandered into a hornets' nest or came down with Black Plague, while Dr. Hansen takes a blood sample to send to the Department of Animal Pathology at Arizona State University.

"I hope you'll pick me to be the next Happy California Cow...err...soon would be good." *whimper*

The Department sends back blond be-jumpsuited entomologist Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling) who settles in at the local lodge before tracking down Dr. Hansen. Ashley is very calm around spiders, as we see later when one sneaks into her cabin while she is getting ready for a romantic dinner date with Dr. Hansen and she peacefully lets it outside--as a matter of fact, that's what landed the role for Bolling in the first place; she was the only actress who auditioned for the part who didn't have a problem working with the eight-legged animals. She tells him that the cow died from a massive dose of spider venom, which he initially dismisses before they head out to the Colby farm, where Birch finds their dog lying dead behind the barn shortly after they arrive. Examining the body, Ashley concludes that it too died from a spider venom overdose, and Dr. Hansen still believes that no one spider can do that much damage...and then Colby shows them "the spider hill", a raised mound of dirt on his farm the size of a burial plot with tarantulas crawling all over it.

Come to Camp Verde and see the amazing Spider Hill!

While on their romantic dinner date, Ashley talks to Dr. Hansen about these newly organized spiders and comes up with a theory for their attacks: the heavy use of pesticides on local crops has had drastic effects on their natural food supply, forcing them to colonize and adapt their eating habits by attacking larger animals. Later that night, concerned that soon the spiders will begin targeting humans, they resolve to torch the spider hill before they do any more damage, and when they return to Colby's farm, it just so happens that he and his wife are about to do the very same thing, unwilling to lose their farmland to this army of arachnids. As if they need any more incentive, a bull stampedes out of its pen and collapses, tarantulas crawling all over its body. The foursome douse the hill with gasoline and set it ablaze, but the spiders escape through an underground tunnel, and the next day while Dr. Hansen and Ashley are out on a picnic with Terry's young daughter Linda (Natasha Ryan) during an obligatory "admiration of nature" scene, two tarantulas attack Colby while he is driving in his truck, sending him careening over a steep hill and killing him. Dr. Hansen stops by the crash site to find Colby's corpse cocooned in spider webs, while Ashley learns from her colleagues that the spiders' venom has become five times more toxic than normal. Not sure how, since they don't really explain it--maybe all those pesticides mutated them or something like that.

Typical. The black guy gets webbed first.

Several more spider hills are found on the Colby farm, and the mayor of Camp Verde (Roy Engel in his final film appearance) orders the sheriff (David McLean) to spray pesticide all over the surrounding countryside. Ashley objects, saying that pesticide is what started the whole thing in the first place and it would be safer to use natural predators like birds and rats, but not unlike the mayor of Amity Island in Jaws, this mayor is more concerned with the the upcoming county fair and is not about to have a whole bunch of birds and rats chase away the tourist trade. A crop duster is hired to spray the area, but while he is in mid-flight some spiders attack him, sending his plane out of control and crashing into a service station in a fiery explosion. Considering there are gas pumps close by, I'm surprised the vapors didn't cause the whole place to go up in a giant fireball.

The spiders then begin their attack on the human population, and despite the fact that no species of tarantula is venomous enough to actually kill a human, the people of Camp Verde go down fairly quickly. Colby's wife is the next to go in a scene complete with Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition chords, and then the spiders come after Terry and Linda. Dr. Hansen and Ashley arrive at their house in time to save Linda, but are too late to do anything for Terry. Soon all the surviving main characters, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Johnson (Joe Ross and Adele Malis), visitors from Colorado who had planned to stay for the county fair, are holed up in the lodge from the miniature horrors outside.

Speaking of horrors, check out Mrs. Johnson's choice of wardrobe--a multicolored striped shirt and blue denim overalls. Welcome to the seventies, folks.

"My fashion sense! My beautiful timeless fashion sense!"

The group makes plans to escape from the lodge and drive away in a nearby RV, but the spiders have them surrounded on all sides. They begin to barricade themselves inside, but soon the spiders start coming at them from all directions: under the door, through the air vents, through the fireplace, and some even attack Linda while she is in bed in another room. Some of them even manage to make their way into the fuse box in the basement and cut the power, and as Dr. Hansen finishes changing a blown fuse, he himself is besieged when they start coming in through the window, but manages to make it back upstairs for Ashley to treat him.

"Dammit Jim, I'm a doctor, not an exterminator!"

With the spiders having claimed the only telephone operator in Camp Verde, the entire town is now cut off from the outside world, and the small group of extras which constitute the townspeople are up in a panic. The sheriff is driving through this former-insectivore-induced pandemonium when a wayward car takes out a water tower which collapses on his vehicle, crushing him inside and leaving him to the spiders.

The group ends up spending the night in the boarded-up lodge, and the next morning some of them manage to get a radio receiver working. To their surprise, the big city radio morning country music show is on as normal, meaning that the outside world is oblivious to the events of the last few days. Dr. Hansen pries some boards off of a window to take a look outside and discovers that the whole building is covered from top to bottom in spider silk. The movie ends with a zoom out on a matte painting showing the entire town similarly cocooned as "Peaceful Verde Valley" ironically reprises over the end credits.

The anti-housefly rally turns violent.

You probably couldn't make a movie like Kingdom of the Spiders nowadays, at least without CG animators on your payroll. A large part of it would have to do with the increasing influence of animal rights organizations in motion pictures--ten percent of the movie's budget was spent on wrangling tarantulas, and while they did use fake rubber spiders in a few scenes, tragically some of them were squished during the making of this film, even when the script didn't call for it, and many more were killed because they couldn't take the hot Arizona climate. And let's not forget about PETA, who considers something as minor as swatting a fly to be the Eighth Deadly Sin.

Kind of a shame, really, because this movie makes for quite competent drive-in horror fare. Sure the environmental message it carries is eventually lost in the body count these newly carnivorous predators rack up, but that is usually the case with movies like this. It has sort of a low-budget charm to it, as well as one of the most unique and eyebrow-raising endings of any movie in its genre.

And at least the locals have better hygiene that those in The Giant Spider Invasion. You MST3K aficionados can take solace in that, should this film bring on horrid flashbacks.

Suddenly I have an appetite for organically-grown vegetables.

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