Saturday 21 November 2009

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

Director: John 'Bud' Carlos
Stars: William Shatner, Tiffany Bolling, Woody Strode, Lieux Dressler, David McLean and Natasha Ryan

Index: Dry Heat Obscurities.

There can never be too many reasons to want to watch a particular movie but this one has even more reasons than most. It's a horror movie set in Arizona, shot in Camp Verde. It's a William Shatner movie, towards the end of the period when he was building one of the most fascinating film careers around, a period that ended two years later with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. His co-star is Tiffany Bolling, an interesting actress who I've seen recently in Wicked, Wicked and The Centerfold Girls. And of course it's full of spiders, real spiders, no less than 5,000 of them who constantly steal the show from everyone.

Camp Verde is a rural farming community, as it should be, even though I've spent five years living in Arizona and not seeing any such thing. Almost everyone here lives in the Phoenix Metropolitan area where we don't have the space that folks like Walter Colby have at their cattle ranch. Woody Strode is a strange choice to play Colby, not because there aren't any black ranchers in Arizona, but because they're perhaps deliberately the first people we see and yet we don't see a single Mexican or Native American at any point throughout the entire film. The first victim of the spiders is one of Colby's calves that he expects to win prizes at the imminent county fair. The next is his dog and then his bull, which pretty much wipes him out.

He's first on the target list because there's what he calls a spider hill right behind his ranch that is teeming with tarantulas. Somehow he only finds it when looking for his dog so doesn't mention it right off the bat to the local vet, Dr Robert Hansen, more usually known as Rack. He's Shatner of course, who establishes his credentials as an Arizona farming community vet by lassooing a steer in his first appearance on screen. It isn't Bolling with him though that he lassos next and tussles with in the dirt, that's his sister-in-law who hasn't quite got over her husband dying in Nam. Surprisingly there are a number of instances like this of character development where we might have expected it least.

Bolling shows up soon enough though, as Diane Ashley, a spider expert from the big city whose presence is triggered by Rack sending blood samples to the experts. You can tell she's from the big city because instead of the usual truck with a cow in the back, she drives up in her Mercedes convertible wearing a white suit and big sunglasses. She still looks like a stewardess, three years after The Centerfold Girls, but she's actually from the Department of Entomology at Arizona State University in Tempe, coincidentally right round the corner from MADCAP Theaters where I go to see films just like this one. In fact it's ASU who screw up my free parking for MADCAP by putting on football games that prompt even the free places to charge an arm and a leg. If only they'd pay more attention to hiring cute staff for their entomology department than they do on the Sun Devils I'd be far happier and films like this could thrive.

You've all seen creature features, I'm sure, especially ones from this era given that it was a mere two years since Jaws had resurrected the things and invented the modern blockbuster in the process, so you won't be too surprised to see how it progresses. The spiders gradually get more and more obvious, showing up in larger and larger numbers and ramping up their attacks from cows and dogs to people. It's a little tacky that the token black guy's the first to bite the big one, but he's soon joined by many others, especially as we get to the mass hysteria scenes towards the end and the inevitable Camp Verde cabin siege. Yes, you'll recognise from the careful framing of the camera precisely where the spiders are going to get in next and who they're going to land on.

It's not entirely routine though, this being a pretty decent picture from the days before CGI when they had to buy real spiders at $10 a pop. In fact a whopping ten per cent of the half million dollar budget went on providing live animals to be this menace and the American Humane Association certainly didn't monitor the animal action in this film, so many of those $10 spiders are burned, driven over or stamped on. Crush fetishists would have had a ball, but no, it's never done in a overtly exploitational manner. The delectable Tiffany Bolling does not stamp on spiders in the shower, in fact when she first sees one, peeking out of a desk drawer in her cabin, she picks it up and let it loose outside. She even talks to it like a friend.

Bolling does a good job interacting with the spiders though you can see her hands shake on occasion. The rest of the cast do just as well, from tough guy Shatner all the way down to seven year old Natasha Ryan as his little niece Linda, who gets plenty of opportunity to be surrounded by them, covered in them, cornered by them, you name it. Probably the most iconic scene in the film is when she's having a great time swinging back and forth on the swing in her garden, utterly oblivious to the herd of spiders that's passing right beneath her. This was her film debut and she must have had a good time as she soon returned for The Amityville Horror and The Entity.

There's an underlying environmental theme to the story, though unfortunately it's initially expounded during some overblown explanatory dialogue while Rack takes Miss Ashley out to dinner. It's one of the least well delivered lines in the film which really doesn't help, given that in its way it's one of the most important. She's discovered that these spiders have lost their usual cannibalistic tendencies, probably through the destruction of their natural prey through overuse of pesticides like DDT. Now they're not eating each other, so they're getting more aggressive to larger animals around them, working together as an army. Their venom has become five times more toxic than normal too, but Rack can apparently still shrug it off as he gets bitten a few times and just ignores it.

The other thing that stood out to me was the way masculinity was portrayed in the film. For a start, Shatner isn't just the typical tough leading man you might expect, he takes it a step further here into chauvinism. After running Diane Ashley off the road, he literally picks her up and deposits her into her own passenger seat then climbs in to drive her off to dinner, ignoring her half hearted protests. He has a habit of coming out with chauvinist lines. 'Sit in the truck a while, won't you,' he tells her at one point when serious things are happening outside that only he can go help with. Best of all, while slouched down next to her in the desert, he looks over at her and hints, 'I could do things to a beer right now, I'm just too comfortable to get up and get it.' Sure enough, she does.

Yet it's not all about machismo. While there are many deaths here, there are surprisingly few death scenes, but the most memorable provides the opposite to what Shatner embodies. The cropduster is a tough guy too, but he shrieks like a little girl when the spiders stop him spraying pesticide over their hills by crawling over him in his cockpit while he's trying to fly. We're almost glad when he somehow manages to crash into the town's gas station. We also have the most pertinent example to posterity of the fallacy of traditional American masculine values, as the Verde County Sheriff is played by David McLean, better known in his decades long role as the Marlboro Man. As this iconic American male in the sixties, he later became an anti-smoking campaigner before dying of lung cancer.

Meanwhile on the feminist side, we have a capable professional woman scientist who would seem to be a worthy foil for both the Shat and the spiders. Unfortunately as the film progresses she descends into a morass of clich├ęs from which she never recovers; it's as if nobody takes her seriously, so she ceases to do so herself. While she never turns into the shrieking victim, she does slip into subservient mode at the drop of a hat and conspicuously leaves the manly jobs like boarding up the windows at the Washburn Lodge to the men. She just carries the hammer and nails. What initially promises to be a decent role for a woman turns into a waste and unfortunately that only mirrors Tiffany Bolling's career. She made a number of interesting genre movies in the seventies and then effectively disappeared. This was her last memorable film, and unfortunately it isn't particularly memorable for her. Watch it for Shatner, for the spiders and for the ending.

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