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Director: John “Bud” Cardos
Shout! Factory

As far as 1970s “animal attack” films go (and there are a lot of them!), they don’t get much better than 1977’s KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS. Independently produced and capably directed by actor, stuntman and filmmaker John “Bud” Cardos (THE DARK, MUTANT), KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS is certainly one of the most organic creature features you’ll even witness. Shot entirely on location in Arizona and using thousands of real tarantulas (which no doubt upped the production values) and starring the one and only William Shatner as the hero, the film has now been given the deluxe special edition treatment by Shout! Factory (fingers crossed that this supporter of kitsch cinema and TV will be a savior of classic cult films on DVD in 2010, and we hope to be reviewing a lot more of their releases in the coming years).

In the small, peaceful desert town of Verde Valley, farmer Walter Colby (Woody Strode) and his wife (Altovise Davis, the widow of Sammy Davis who passed away in 2009) are devastated when their award-hopeful cow becomes deathly ill. Calling upon local veterinarian/cowboy Dr. Robert 'Rack' Hansen (Shatner), he's not able to do anything to save the unfortunate animal and a blood sample is sent out for examination. Soon after, attractive blonde scientist Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling) arrives in town, with her research dictating that the cow was killed by spider venom. Rack finds the spider theory hard to swallow at first, as he uses his male charms to lure the lovely newcomer, but when a hill of tarantulas is found on old Colby’s property, they team up (romantically and otherwise) to get down to business. Setting fire to the hill doesn’t do much good, as these creepy crawlers are now everywhere; the mayor (Roy Engel) is only concerned that the town fair goes on, and it does, only infested with our hairy, long-legged rivals who find plenty of locals and tourists to attack – leading to a chaotic sequence that’s a highlight of the film.

The perfect drive-in movie, KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS has all the ingredients missing from today’s so-called technically advanced genre movies, and it really holds up over 30 years after it was shot. With a plot that’s part JAWS and part 1950s eco monster movie, the film has a wonderful, suspense-filled build up to a knockout second half with enough great shocks for two movies. Seeing people interact with authentic tarantulas (all brought in from various parts of the world, using up a large chunk of the film’s modest budget), causing them to crash cars, airplanes, etc, is the stuff of sensational exploitation pictures, and this one hits all the marks. With some very scenic Arizona terrain as the backdrop, the film not only boasts some terrific and clever camera work but also a number of stunts and well-orchestrated chilling situations with the live tarantulas, making the majority of what’s on screen convincing when it could have been a pure campfest something it’s far from. On top of all this are some solid make-up effects depicting swollen spider bites and victims woven into human cocoons (particularly unforgettable is the sight of a morbidly obese dead man sitting on the curb, fully coated with webs).

As the lead, the iconic Shatner is terrific as the likable and confident Rack. This was still a few years before the big budget “Star Trek” theatrical epics, and even though this was a low budget effort, the actor gives it his all and obviously had a great time making it. Shatner got to embrace his passion of horses here (he is introduced on one) and shows he’s a true sport by letting the tarantulas parade all over him, even sporting one on his cheek for a terrific money shot. Although Tiffany Bolling was hired due to her non-fear of coming in contact with the tarantulas (you’ll see her handle several on-screen without flinching), it was a smart casting choice not only because she was beautiful and could act, but also because of her status as a familiar drive-in movie queen with films like THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS, THE CANDY SNATCHERS and WICKED, WICKED to her credit. Shatner and Bolling have really good chemistry, and the supporting fine cast includes Marcy Lafferty (Shatner’s wife at the time) as the widow of Rack’s late brother, Lieux Dressler (GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE) as the innkeeper of the lounge where most of the surviving characters find themselves bordered up in, David McLean as the non-stereotypical sheriff and Natasha Ryan (THE AMITYVILLE HORROR) as a the little girl surrounded by the crawlers in several nail-biting sequences. Tiffany Bolling’s mother, Bettie, can also be seen as a doomed telephone operator. On a side note, the film’s score (aside from a few country numbers by Dorsey Burnette) contains mostly stock music, some of which is by Jerry Goldsmith for the old “Twilight Zone” series (it was used with permission).

KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS was previously issued on DVD in 2002 by GoodTimes with an awkwardly open matte presentation that was passable at best. Shout! Factory begins 2010 with a bang, delivering a new special edition that this fan favorite truly deserves. Presented here in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, the film now looks fabulous, better than ever before. With hardly a blemish to be seen, the print source provides a clean, sharply detailed transfer with bold colors and compositions now look dead-on. The mono English audio is a strong, clear track with no noticeable setbacks.

A slew of supplements commences with an audio commentary featuring producer Igo Kantor, director John “Bud” Cardos, spider wrangler Jim Brockett and cinematographer John Morrill. Moderated by Lee Christian and Scott Spiegel, the commentary is as fun as the film itself, a lively 90+ minutes of conversing, covering the all aspects of the production, leaving one with the impression that they not only had a ball making it, but that all involved really cared about their work. Surprisingly enough, we’re constantly reminded how well the spiders were treated, and very few of them were actually killed during the making. You also might find it interesting that Bo Svenson was originally up for the lead, but he turned it down. Shatner himself is on hand for an excellent video interview (16:35), where the actor talks about a number of things concerning KINGDOM, including his big scene where he’s covered with tarantulas, with one dangling on his cheek, and much more (including his encounter with the one rat that appears in the film). Spider wrangler Brockett has his own featurette (12:23), where he shows Scott Spiegel a number of different types of live tarantulas, a few of which he gets to handle. Although it’s not mentioned on the back of the box, there’s a third video interview (4:40) with Stephen Lodge, co-writer of the original story, as he discusses how the original script came about and several small changes made to the main characters before the final draft. A fascinating extra here is over 17 minutes of behind-the-scene footage. Shot on Super 8 film with (mostly) sync sound, the raw footage gives us glimpses of everything from Cardos and his crew shooting a number outdoor scenes (including another money-shot bit where a car crashes into a water tower), to Shatner and Bolling and the other actors hanging around the set, as well a look at the editors hard at work. The original theatrical trailer and a gallery of photo and pressbook art round out the extras for what is already one of the best releases of the year (and it’s only January). Keep ‘em coming Shout! Factory! (George R. Reis)