MAY 8, 2010
I love when I have the wrong impression of a movie and it turns out to be something I prefer to what I thought it was. For somewhat obvious reasons I thought Kingdom Of The Spiders was more of a sci-fi film, with Captain Kirk himself on some planet fighting giant spiders (not my cup of tea). So I was pretty excited to see that it was about normal-sized spiders in a small Southwestern town, with Shatner playing a ranch hand that was as far removed from Kirk as a hero could be.
Unfortunately this meant that it was a lot easier to copy Jaws at times, which is really detrimental to the movie. I know that these sort of “Animals strike back” movies were a dime a dozen in the late 70s, much like all of the slashers following Halloween and Friday the 13th, but I think it could have stood on its own had it not copied a few plot elements so closely. For example, early on in the film the town’s mayor is concerned about Shatner’s belief that there could be a problem, because there’s a big county fair coming up and he doesn’t want anything to hurt business, which is basically more of a tell-tale sign of a Jaws knockoff than an actual shark. And there’s a scene where Shatner goes to find a missing local and his head pops into frame.
See, without these things I probably wouldn’t have really given Jaws much thought. But once it’s there, I can’t help but notice areas where Spiders is weaker than Spielberg’s film. For example, the Matt Hooper type character is a female, with whom Shatner attempts a romance. The romance stuff is incredibly lame, and just reminded me of part of why Jaws worked so well - it was as much a buddy movie as it was a man vs. shark tale. Ask anyone what their favorite scenes from Jaws are, and they’ll tell you how much they love the scar comparison/Indianapolis scene. I doubt anyone’s favorite scene from Kingdom Of The Spiders is when Shatner and the girl go out to dinner. BUT, again, had they not taken stuff from Jaws early on, I probably wouldn’t have noted the contrast.
Otherwise it’s a fun, ensemble/siege type predator movie, more like Tremors or Arachnophobia than Jaws. The whole 3rd act finds our motley group holed up in a log cabin, and like those films, there’s the impression that our heroes are never truly safe (whereas in Jaws they simply need to stay on land to avoid getting eaten). And the spiders are all real, so there’s nothing really ridiculous about the attack scenes, unlike something like Squirm or even The Birds, where bad effects/fake antagonists tend to ruin everything. Shatner really does have the goddamn things crawling all over him.
And since it’s so real, I can forgive certain male characters having incredibly girlish screams. Seriously, there’s one guy that has the most feminine shriek I’ve ever heard. As a mild sufferer of arachnophobia, the movie was keeping me pretty tense for the most part, but that dude’s shrill cries took me right out of the movie.
I also REALLY loved the grim-ass ending (spoilers!). Not only is there a huge attack on the town, where we see people (including a young boy) being bitten and dropping dead on the spot, but our heroes don’t really escape either. They’re alive, but cocooned inside of the cabin, and an overhead shot reveals that they entire town has suffered the same fate. NICE! One thing I love about independent films in the 70s is that they have zero interest in making the audience cheer. Nowadays, a lot of indies play it just as safe as their studio brethren (the recent Homecoming comes to mind as a good example), so it’s nice to go back to a time when the filmmakers would be like “Let’s basically kill everyone at the end”, and not have to worry about it being changed on them. I think Knowing is the only studio film of the past 5-10 years that was ballsy enough to wipe out the entire cast.
Speaking of the 70s, another thing that makes this movie such a wonderful flashback is the complete lack of PETA or AHA type activity. In other words, spiders get smushed for real, and often. Nowadays, these goons come on set and make sure that even maggots (MAGGOTS!) are protected, but back then, Shatner and the others were free to stomp, run over, spray with chemicals, etc. any spider that they wanted to. Again, it makes the movie more realistic (and thus scary), but it’s also a sad reminder that it’s impossible to do a movie like this anymore with a bunch of CGI. Sigh. I should note that they do seem to be at least trying not to kill too many - it’s not until the film’s almost over that they actually start stomping on the damn things.
As with any Shatner film, the question is not if the film is good, but how he acts in it. Well, he’s actually sort of subdued (for Shatner), with only a few odd line readings here and there, and almost zero over-acting dramatics. Even when he’s being attacked by spiders near the end, he’s sort of restrained. It’s a refreshing change of pace, though like Nic Cage, I wouldn’t want him to make a habit out of being normal.
The DVD is packed with enough stuff to almost warrant a second disc (hurrah for dual layers!). Along with the trailer, Shatner contributes a new interview (where he refers to his co-star as ugly!), as do the spider wrangler and one of the film’s many writers. The latter two and some others also contribute an enjoyable commentary track; they talk over each other a lot and make a lot of corny jokes, but it’s almost entirely silence-free and they have a lot of good anecdotes and such. They also point out that there are indeed some rubber spiders, but damned if I ever noticed any (they don’t point out specific instances, unless I missed it - I zoned out at times). About 20 minutes’ worth of behind the scenes footage (some with source audio) is also included - it’s not particularly memorable footage but it’s worth skimming just to see the difference between behind the scenes footage then and now.
Most importantly, the film holds up well. The effects are all real, so it’s not like Giant Spider Invasion where you see the goddamn car underneath the titular monster, and nothing beyond a few hairstyles and soundtrack choices really date the film. So if anyone starts suggesting a remake, shut them right the hell up.
What say you?