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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Kingdom of the Spiders

Late 1977 saw another old-paradigm film release. Kingdom of the Spiders (KotS) was yet another in Nature-Goes-Wild or Animals-Attack genre so popular in the 70s. It fits in neatly with the Bugs-Attack films, such as Phase IV (’74) and Empire of the Ants (’77). In fact, the title appears chosen to coattail on the earlier film. While KotS has almost no science in its fiction, the poster does try to position the film as a sci-fi. William Shatner (of James T. Kirk fame) stars as “Rack” Hanson, country veterinarian. Tiffany Bolling co-stars as the beautiful lady scientist. Shatner’s real wife, Marcy Lafferty, plays Rack’s sister-in-law.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A poor farmer’s prize calf dies mysteriously. Vet, Rack Hanson, sends samples to the city for analysis. The results were so alarming that the university sends out their top entomologist, Diane Ashley, who just happens to be tall, shapely, blonde and beautiful. (oh, and single) Various bits of character development cycle through chauvinist/feminist issues between Rack and Diane. The mayor throws caution to the wind in favor of hosting the lucrative county fair. Rack’s sister-in-law (a widow) has romantic hopes for Rack. Diane expounds on how the spiders must be organizing and attacking because man has used too much pesticide and killed off their natural food sources. Farmer Colby tries to burn out the hill nest, but the spiders escape. They wait in his truck and kill him. The mayor orders the local crop duster to drop deadly toxins on the other hill nests so they won’t interrupt his fair. The spiders wait in the plane and freak out the pilot so he crashes into the town. Pandemonium reigns in town. People run in circles, screaming, with spiders on them. The mayor is hit by a car. The sheriff is crushed by a water tower. Everyone is killed and wrapped in thin silk cocoons for later spider-meals. Meanwhile, Rack rescued his niece Linda (but not Terry). He, Linda and Diane hole up in the remote mountain lodge with a few other people. The spiders besiege the lodge, finding various ways to get in. Their intrusions are thwarted, but at some cost. The phones don’t work, because the town’s operator is dead and cocooned. The lodge folk hunker down and wait. Rack recovers from some nearly-fatal spider bites. In the morning, they are aghast to find the whole lodge wrapped in silk. Crossfade to a painting of the whole town wrapped in silk. Roll credits. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The story itself is very old-school, actually drawing upon stock characters from 50s B-movies. The producers and cast get some kudos for having real tarantulas crawl on them. (de-fanged, of course) This makes the actors’ reactions to the spiders quite genuine. The plane crash scene is rather well staged for a low-budget film. The ending, while gloomy, is so thoroughly 70s, that it can be admired for its honesty.

Cultural Connection
Childhood Memories of Doom? — After experiencing a steady diet of 70s enviro-doom films, one begins to wonder if they served as the visceral foundation for the more shrill-voiced environmental activists of the 21st century. Scientists (and politicians) who are in their 40s in the 2000s, would have been young movie watchers in the 70s. The ‘future’ in those 70s sci-fi films saw pollution turn the world into a dim wasteland. A hole in the ozone made animals turn into killers. Overpopulation turned mankind into oppressive tyrants. Changing the climate (by tilting the axis) turned the world into a vast desert, swept by terrible storms and plagued with giant scorpions and killer cockroaches (Damnation Alley). Floods wiped out cities. Could all this be the internal image of the horrors of Climate Change? This is not to suggest that the climate is not changing. (paleontological records show that Earth’s climate has always been changing) The earth has been warmer before, and not turned into a desert wasteland swept by tornados. The earth has been cooler before, and not killed off all life. Yet, there are those who seem to passionately feel that if the climate is not stabilized, all hell will break loose. Could their visions of this “hell” have come from seeds planted by 70s sci-fi?

Cowboy Kirk — William Shatner, still looking much like he had 10 years earlier as Captain of the Enterprise, plays the cowboy vet much as he played Kirk. Is role is written somewhat shallowly, but Shatner manages to put a little life into it. Yet, since his role is that of the hero, and he does have a ladies’ man penchant, he still tends to read as James T. Kirk — just in boots and a stetson, and driving a Ford pickup. Having his real-world wife (Marcy Lafferty) play a love interest manages to have some on-screen chemistry.

Plane Crazy — Baron’s crop dusting biplane gets a fair amount of camera time, so it’s worthy of mention. Given the aerobatics and dramatic crash, the plane is almost a member of the cast. It is a heavily modified Naval Aircraft Factory N3N-3. Originally, the N3N was a naval two-seat trainer designed in the 1930s. About 900 were built — which is not a lot in the small plane world. The navy stopped using them as trainers in 1961, creating a military surplus market. N45255 was heavily modified with squared wingtips, a big headrest and the reservoir fitted into the front cockpit area. The plane “lived” at the Chandler Municipal Airport in the Phoenix, AZ area, a bit south of the filming location of Camp Verde. N45255 was not destroyed in the making of this film. The burning tail section was a quick mockup. (note the wide sheet metal panels with few rivets.) N45255 was last registered in 1996.

Cliches On Parade — The two creators of the story (Sneller and Lodge) were a producer and a costume designer, respectively, who dabbled in other facets of the industry. Their ‘original’ concept was not all that original, so not too heavy of lifting for dabblers. The senior talent for the screenplay was Alan Cailou. He had written for many television shows and did the screenplay for Bert I. Gordon’s Village of the Giants (’65). Cailou did not exert himself too much either, as his characters were almost stock standards for the genre. The Hero: tough, brave, protector of women and children, and single, so sought after by beautiful women. Lady Scientist: beautiful, young, single, an expert in her field, with a feminist chip on her shoulder, but essentially a damsel in distress who falls for the hero. Bungling Politician: the mayor who puts local profit ahead of prudence.

You Know You’re Doomed When… — Several scenes use cliches to telegraph that a particular character is doomed to die. Farmer Colby is so zealous to kill the spiders. Viewers know he’s a dead man as soon as he gets in his truck. It’s full of spiders! Surprise! (not really) The mayor is such a jerk about making sure his county fair is not interrupted by spiders. It is, of course, and he dies for his hubris. The crop duster shows hubris too, by drawing a spider ‘kill’ mark on his plane. Viewers just new his plane would be full of spiders. It was! Then, at the besieged lodge, someone complains that the air-conditioning isn’t working. Rack then pries off an AC vent. Viewers have seen spiders crawl under doors, through cracks and even breaking glass to get in. Why would they NOT be in the ductwork too? Out pour bunches of spiders. Surprise! (not at all).

Eco-Nagging — Diane delivers the only (thin) thread of sci-fi in the story. She opines about how mankind has sprayed too many pesticides, thereby killing off the tarantulas’ usual prey. So, they’ve somehow organized themselves (like wolves?) to take down big prey (cattle). Aside from the logic leaps, they bit of exposition fits KotS into the eco-doom sub-genre in which mankind abuses nature and nature fights back. Nevermind that the spiders should be nearly extinct if all their food was wiped out. Also curious that the spiders are most upset in a area that gets very little industrial chemical use (the desert southwest). The “I Told You So” moment for the enviro-moralizing comes at the end, when the whole town is owned (in silk) by the spiders. The 70s ethos liked its gloom and doom.

Bottom line? KotS is a fairly cookie-cutter variation on Nature-Attacks films. It’s not very sci-fi at all, even though the poster says it is. The characters and acting are par for a B-film. The script is low-B. To the producers’ credit, they used lots and lots of real spiders instead of the usual cheap FX shortcuts. The dower ending is so very 70s. KotS is average entertainment: worth watching if it’s on, but not worth searching for.

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