Sunday, October 16, 2016

HubrisWeen 2016, Day 11: Kingdom of The Spiders (1977)

2016 marks a momentous occasion: the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek. It's truly amazing the way that the franchise has persisted over these many years, with 13 movies, 6 spin-off series (including the animated series and the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery), and an intensely loyal fanbase.

However, in 1977 if you told someone how great Star Trek was, they might look at you funny. Not because you're a nerd, at least not totally, but because they might be wondering why you were so obsessed with a show that was cancelled after three seasons. Essentially how most people tend to react to diehard Browncoats.

Of course, two years later Star Trek: The Motion Picture would set the stage for the undying franchise we know and love. However, aside from the burgeoning fan conventions that would keep the franchise from simply vanishing into obscurity the way many other beloved yet unsuccessful properties have, most of what the cast did in the 1970s was to continue taking whatever acting jobs they could because actors need to eat.

Thus, William Shatner would find himself the hero of a killer animal "nature strikes back" flick, much as his costar DeForest Kelley had five years earlier. Shatner got off slightly better than Kelley, however, because at least his menace wasn't giant killer bunnies.

Now, this is also a movie that I knew from childhood because I had eyed the video cover many a time in contemplation of whether it was worth the risk. After all, even as a kid I had been burned enough times not to trust that the implied giant spider was at all reflective of the film within. Though, to be fair, I think the poster artist was merely trying to convey that the spider is gigantic only because it is about to attack the viewer. So I wouldn't see this film until my first B-fest in 2003, and boy was that ever the perfect venue to first experience it!

The film rather hilariously opens with a loud suspense sting accompanying the title, which jarringly segues right into a country song. (NOOOOOO!) After the credits give us a good tour of the rocky desert around Camp Verde, Arizona, we join Walter Colby (Woody Strode) and his wife, Birch (Altovise Davis) at their ranch. Walter is putting his prize calf out in the pasture to feed, but unfortunately he is not around to see when the poor creature is accosted by multiple low-angle POV cams.

Meanwhile, veterinarian Rack Hansen (William Shatner) is chasing down a steer on horseback with his sister-in-law, Terry (Marcy Lafferty). After they rope the steer and Rack gives it a shot, Terry jokes that the job Rack did was "adequate." He responds by trying to lasso her--he misses, but they still go down in a flirtatious, tickling heap. However, when Terry absent-mindedly calls him "John," Rack reacts by roughly tossing her off onto the dirt. He angrily tells her that he has been called many things, but he has never been mistaken for his late brother.

Rack has just gotten back to his office when Walter pulls up with his calf in the bed of his truck. The calf is seriously sick, foaming at the mouth and weak. Walter is worried it could be blackleg, but Rack isn't so sure. Walter is seriously concerned because there's a lot riding on this calf, which he had intended to enter in the upcoming county fair. Unfortunately, Rack isn't able to save the animal. However, he sends some samples to the lab of a nearby university's animal pathology department for analysis. He comforts Walter that at least he can breed another calf with his prize bull. Pretty small comfort for Walter, though.

"Well, that can't be good."
Of course, the animals around town are already getting an idea that something is going down. The Colby's dog anxiously paws at the back door so Walter lets him out, and the dog runs off into the darkness in search of something. The next morning, the dog is nowhere to be found, naturally. Meanwhile, when Rack stops in at the local gas station, the owner goes to fetch an old tire in his shed for a cheap old coot with a cow in his backseat and a flat tire--only to receive a nasty bite from a tarantula hiding in the tire. The man tosses the spider away in annoyance but otherwise ignores it, not seeing the creature try to follow him out the door.

Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling), an entomologist, pulls up to the station then and mistakes Rack for the attendant. Rack, apparently put out, lies to her that the women's restroom is out of order and she'll have to use the men's before he drives off. He was not lying when he told her how to get to the nearby Washburn Lodge for accomodation, at least. There she rents a cabin from the owner, Emma Washburn (Lieux Dressler), who is a charmingly peculiar sort of woman who happily mentions that she used to have a thing with the town sheriff and directs Diane to where she can find both the sheriff and Dr. Hansen.

For his part, Rack is at least a little sheepish about having been an ass to her. Diane explains to Sheriff Gene Smith (David McLean) and Mayor Connors (Roy Engel) that it was not disease that killed the calf--which is all Mayor Connors wants to hear and he leaves after declaring it great news. However, Diane explains to Smith and Rack that the calf was killed by a massive amount of venom. Rack is skeptical that a snake could kill a calf, but then Diane explains it was spider venom. Well, that makes even less sense.

Diane assures Rack she's serious and she wants to go investigate the area where the calf died. Rack advises they can do it the next morning and then invites her to dinner, which she rebuffs. Going back to the Washburn Lodge for dinner, Diane gets introduced to the other tenants, vacationing couple Vern (Joe Ross) and Betty Johnson (Adele Malis-Morey), and then regaled with stories about how Emma used to have a thing with Sheriff Smith. She goes to take a shower, not realizing a tarantula is crawling around inside her room. After she exits the shower--affording us a very quick flash of nudity that I totally missed the first time I saw this--she sits down at the desk to brush her hair and finds the tarantula. She coos lovingly over it and then tells it that it should be outside before releasing it.

Well, after Shatner, the spider is the least creepy thing she'll have crawling on her.
Well, when they get to the Colby ranch to look around, they happen to be right on time for Birch to discover their dog's dead body. Diane analyzes the dog's body and declares the dog was also killed by spider bites. It would require a large amount of spiders to do this, though. "Well, that would explain the spider hill," Walter says, as if a spider hill is a thing that one usually encounters.

That's like calmly saying, "Well, that explains the flying saucer."

Naturally, Diane wants to see this spider hill. True to its name, the hill is a mound about three feet high, similar to a termite mound, but crawling with tarantulas. Diane is astounded because not only do a bunch of tarantulas working together like social insects, instead of eating each other like they normally would, but several of them are hundreds of miles out of their normal range. Diane takes one of the spiders back as a specimen, rolling her eyes when Rack says he's off to see his girl.

Just your average, ordinary spider hill.
Rack actually meant his young niece, Linda (Natasha Ryan), when he goes to drop off some money with Terry. Incidentally, Rack's playful pats on Linda's behind are, uh, very uncomfortable. Rack also halfway rejects Terry's advances on him, when she says that a man supporting his brother's widow is like buying a cow without enjoying the milk. Ew. Rack playfully says one day he might start milking that cow.

If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go scrub my skin off with steel wool.

It gets worse, though, because Rack then uses his truck to run Linda off the road so he can then forcibly take the wheel of her convertible and drive her to a diner to have lunch with him. Over the meal, Diane mentions her hunch that the spiders' behavior is a result of pesticides like DDT wiping out their usual food supply and they may have adapted to a social structure in order to take on larger animals as prey. We also find out that "Rack" is actually a nickname he got from his brother always beating him at pool. Unfortunately his brother died his second day in Vietnam and Rack has been supporting his sister-in-law and niece.

Well, there's nothing like discussing your dead brother to apparently get a girl to decide she'll tolerate your creepy advances. Even if that includes trying to walk up behind her and nuzzle her neck when she's analyzing photos she took of the spider hill. Jesus, Shatner, cool it! After Diane milks the spider she captured of its venom for analysis, the two start to make out but are thankfully interrupted by the spider trying to escape. The two agree that, instead of torching the spider hill in a day or two they should torch it tonight.

As a side note, up until the film ramps things up into the end game, it spends a majority of its running time showing its stars handling docile tarantulas that clearly have no aggressive inclinations towards their human costars. It's rather the equivalent of a vicious dog that has its tongue lolling out and its tail wagging.

An example of what I mean follows when Rack and Diane arrive at the Colby ranch just as Walter is lugging a container of fuel out to the spider hill to burn it. Rack and Diane have only just assured Walter and Birch that they're actually there for the same reason when they all narrowly avoid being run down by Walter's prize bull. The poor beast broke out of the barn because it is covered with spiders and it soon collapses, but Rack and Diane are able to casually pluck the tarantulas off the dying animal and toss them aside. Diane makes the obvious point--if the tarantulas have decided that cows are a suitable replacement food source, how long until they decide humans are?

And so Walter burns the spider hill, but I have some reservations about how he does it. Rather than surround the hill with gasoline (or whatever he's using) and then soaking the hill itself, he just pours gas on one side and lights it. I mean, obviously we're going to be shown several spiders escaping via a hidden side tunnel, but frankly it looks like they could just casually walk away from the hill with no issue.

Naturally, those surviving spiders want revenge and thus Walter is ambushed in his truck on the way into town the next day. Meanwhile, Rack is out at a horse ride and picnic with Diane, Terri, and Linda--which is preceded by Terri crying her eyes out in her kitchen after being introduced to Rack's new girlfriend. Much as I'm tempted to take another opportunity to call Rack a jerk, but is it really his fault he didn't feel comfortable dating his brother's widow? At any rate, the picnic is not without some unexpected guests-low-angle POV cams that ominously approach them and their horses. After a creepy for the wrong reasons bit where a menacing spider POV cam gets a good look up Linda's dress, the group heads back home, not seeing the spider that was after Linda.

Shortly afterward, Rack and Diane drive up on the scene where Walter's truck has gone over a cliff, and Rack helpfully volunteers to help Sheriff Smith to get down to Walter's truck at the bottom. Once there, they find Walter's dead body inside--cocooned in spider silk. Smith gets to go and break the news to Birch, which hurts him almost as much as it hurts her.

(This is also the point at B-Fest 2003 where Checkpoint Telstar became a B-Fest legend by shouting the amazingly tasteless pun, "She's a black widow!")

At Rack's lab, Diane gets a call from her University--the venom sample she sent in is five times as toxic as a normal tarantula bite. (I mean, it'd almost have to be in order to be life-threatening, since tarantula bites are known to be extremely painful but not very poisonous--you're at far more risk of having one decide to flick its hairs at you, which can really mess up your day because their hairs are basically bristles that can cause allergic reactions or wreck your corneas) The hits keep coming as the Sheriff then calls in to let them know that he just found several new spider hills on the Colby property.

Well, that settles it, as far as the Mayor is concerned--they're going to spray the hills with the most potent pesticide possible. Diane and Rack object, with Diane pointing out that pesticide overuse started this whole mess in the first place and, worse, DDT won't kill the spiders and stronger pesticides might not do it either. She advocates a strategy involving natural predators of the tarantulas, specifically birds and rats, but the mayor laughs that off. I can't say he's completely wrong to do so--what is her plan, to round up as many hungry rats and birds as possible and let them loose on the hills?

However, the mayor's actual objection is that having rats and spiders running loose in the countryside will scare folks away from the county fair. Naturally, nobody suggests turning the world's only known spider hills into a tourist attraction. So, pesticides it is and rack reluctantly helps the local crop duster load it into his plane and warns him to keep clear of the town as the stuff is toxic to humans. The pilot gleefully draws the world's worst attempt at a spider on his plane before he takes off to spray the poison--seriously, it looks like a simplified drawing of a paramecium!

So I suppose the spiders that stowed away in his plane could have been equally angry at the piss-poor drawing as they were at his attempt to kill them. Luckily for the town, he isn't spraying poison when his panic causes his flight path to go over the town, but it can't be good that he takes out the gas station when he crashes--even though nothing will come of that.

Stumped as to what they can do, Diane, Rack, and the Sheriff agree the priority should be to get everyone on the outskirts of the town back into town, especially Birch, Terri, and Linda. However, while Rack and Diane head out to fetch his family, the sheriff's call to Birch goes unanswered because she is busy shooting at the encroaching tarantulas with her revolver (!) as they herd her into her bedroom. This proves an even worse idea than it sounds when she sees a tarantula on her left hand and proceeds to ensure she will never go bowling with that hand ever again.

Don't try this at home, folks.
At Terri's house, she calls Linda in for lunch. Unfortunately, she doesn't realize until she looks out the back door that the tarantulas have gathered in an expectant pile beneath the girl's tree swing. Terri sweeps the spiders away with a broom and carries her daughter back toward the house, but several spiders made it to her legs and she falls to the ground before urging her daughter to run into the house and call for help. So Rack and Diane arrive in time to save Linda, but far too late for Terri.

The three head to the Washburn Lodge to take refuge, but when they go to bring the Johnsons into the main lodge, Emma quickly discovers that the spiders have killed her employee and cocooned his body in the storage shed. As the group heads back to the relative safety of the lodge, they discover that the land outside is literally crawling with tarantulas and, even worse, the phones are out--which we know is a result of the local operator being a bit too wrapped up to take their call.

Sheriff Smith arrives at the lodge and warns that Camp Verde is completely cut off from the outside. The group plans to load up the Johnsons' RV and escape that way, while Sheriff Smith says he will try to go back into town and find a way to get word out.

Neither plan works, of course.

The RV plan fails because the spiders have utterly swarmed the lodge, so it becomes necessary to barricade the building. Sheriff Smith's plan fails because the town is in utter chaos as panicked people covered in spiders run around and fall dead all around him. Worse, they swarm his car so he is stuck in place when a bitten motorist runs over the mayor before taking out the support beam for the town's water tower. And guess what direction that tower chooses to go when it tips over? Exit Sheriff Smith.

Things get worse at the lodge when the spiders continue to find new ways into the building--first the chimney, then the kitchen ceiling vent, and then the air conditioning vents. The application of fire, fire extinguisher spray, and well-placed boards does a little to slow their incursion. However, the sheer weight of the spiders begins to crack the windows: and then some get into the basement and fry the fuse box.

Rack volunteers to go and fix it. On the way we get a moment that illustrates the pitfalls of animal actors, when Rack sees a supposedly "distressed" rat that clearly doesn't seem to mind that it has two killer tarantulas riding on its back. Rack gets the fuse box fixed in time to reveal all the tarantulas pressing against the basement window right before they smash through and swarm him. However, these tarantulas forgot they were fucking with and despite the dozens of bites he endures, including one on his face that the camera gets right up close on, they cannot kill The Shatner!

And thus, Captain Kirk would come to regret breaking up with the transporter chief.
The next morning, in fact, Rack is hale and hearty. The other survivors are mystified by the fact that there's nothing on the radio about Camp Verde. So Rack decides to take a look out the window, since it seems awfully quiet, and what he sees astounds him. The other join him to see the entire town has been blanketed in a massive spider web, as the opening country song kicks in over the ending credits. And as final images go, it's pretty stunning, but would be a lot more impressive if it weren't so obviously a painting.

"If climate change is real, why is it snowing in Arizona, huh? ...wait."
Having not seen the film in thirteen years, I really wasn't sure what to expect of it. After all, while B-Fest is a great way to first experience a film, it also tends to not be a good way to truly judge it in the same way that watching an episode of Mystery Science theater 3000 is not usually the best way to determine if a movie is truly good or bad. I had vague memories of it being largely silly, hilariously unscientific, and featuring an uncomfortable amount of on-screen spider killing.

I'm delighted that the last point is mostly incorrect. Somehow, DVD clarity makes it far more obvious that the actors take hilarious pains to never harm any of the live spiders on them, and most of the crushed spiders appear to be obviously rubber. Sure, like anyone I've directly killed some spiders in my time, but I still prefer not to have them killed for no reason beyond "entertainment." I'm sure some spiders were still killed inadvertently, but I'll gladly take that over an atrocious film like Stanley that takes clear delight in showing multiple snakes being killed on camera.

I was right on the money about the film's science, of course. I mean, even the film's central concept of spiders suddenly becoming social animals is not treated with the appropriate shock by its characters since spiders never behave this way. Again, a character mentions a spider hill like he just found a hornet's nest. Hell, our heroine entomologist refers to spiders as insects more than once and I can't tell you how much that bugs me.


However, while the film is definitely silly--which is almost totally unavoidable with 70s-era Shatner as its lead--it's also pretty damn good. The film shamelessly borrows key bits from The Birds and Jaws, sure, and even a bit from Night of The Living Dead, but it knows how to use those borrowed plot elements and it builds to a delightful climax where the entire town is taken out by these spiders. Sure, we spend a lot more time with the protagonists trapped in the lodge than with the town in chaos, but that's not really a criticism since we actually know who these people are--and for the most part, we actually don't want to see them die.

The cast does a great job with the material, too, with the only false note--performance-wise--being the obvious suspect in its main child actor. Everyone does a great job bringing life to their characters and there are some genuinely touching moments. I'm particularly fond of Emma's minor breakdown when she realizes her old lover, Sheriff Smith, probably isn't coming back.

Really, the characters are only let down by the script that occasionally makes them behave idiotically and almost constantly makes Rack come across as a predatory creep. Naturally, that's probably more a fault of the era than anything. Rack even toasts "to women's lib" when at dinner with Diane, which, again, came about as result of him behaving only slightly less sexually aggressive than Donald Trump in rut.

Naturally, as a horror film Kingdom of The Spiders is probably not likely to get under your skin unless you have a fear of spiders, but there's no question that the scenes of cocooned corpses are creepy as hell. However, while it may not be all that scary, it's a damn fun ride and I highly recommend giving it a shot.

I'm sure Web of the Big Damn Spider would agree, and that man knows his spiders.

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