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Featured DVD Review: Kingdom of the Spiders

January 15th, 2010

Kingdom of the Spiders - Buy from Amazon

When one thinks about the career of William Shatner, one usually divides it into three sections: Star Trek, Star Trek, and all the rest. Kingdom of the Spiders is part of all of the rest. It has a reputation for being, and let's be honest here, B-movie crap, but is this reputation deserved?

William Shatner stars as Rack Hansen, a veterinarian living and working in a rural part of Arizona. At the beginning of the movie, he receives a call from a local rancher whose calves have been getting sick. He is unable to diagnose what the problem is before they die, so he sends some of its blood to a local university for testing. As a result, Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling), an entymologist (or perhaps an etymologist... one studies spiders and the other studies the origins of words... I can never remember which is which... regardless) comes to town because the test results show the cow died of a massive dose of spider venom, something that shouldn't happen, because no spider would attack a prey that large. However, she is determined to investigate further, and a good thing, as more and more attacks take place. But what could be causing the spiders to act this way and will Rack and Diane be able to work together to stop it?

Like I said, this movie has a reputation for being B-movie crap, but that's unfounded. Yes, it is a low budget When Animals Attack film, but it is actually one of the better examples of the genre. This movie was made only a couple years after Jaws came out and the market was flooded with similar titles. It doesn't aim high, although there is some politics thrown in with pro-feminism and pro-environmental messages in the mix. The entymologist is a strong woman who is not afraid of the spiders and is the one who deduces the problem, which is the overuse of pesticides. It is creepy and scary in the right ways and the acting is better than in most such films. I think the word I saw used the most to describe William Shatner's performance was, "restrained." Best of all, the final shot of the movie is excellent, even if it is obviously a matte painting. I had only seen the movie once before more than a decade ago, and I vividly remembered that final shot.

There are a couple of problems. Firstly, it borrows a little too heavily from Jaws. For instance, the mayor is more concerned about an upcoming event that will draw in tourists, and money, than dealing with the problem properly. Also, the filmmakers used real spiders in this movie, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it made the film a lot creepier, as arachnophobia is one of the most common phobias around. Even those who don't suffer from it tend to be creeped out by spiders, especially the way they move. However, despite the best efforts of the filmmakers, some of these thousands and thousands of spiders were killed, which is the only part of the movie that I had a real problem with. If the movie were to be remade today, they could have used CG spiders to fix that problem, but they would probably rely too much on CG, which would have ruined the movie.

(On a side note. It's funny. I can watch someone with dozens of spiders crawling all over them and it doesn't really affect me. Seeing the spiders get accidentally run over or stepped on does.)

Surprisingly, the DVD is loaded with extras. This is a $500,000 movie made more than 30 years ago, so I wasn't expecting a lot in terms of extra, but there is an audio commentary track, two interviews, a segment with the spider wrangler, and behind-the-scenes footage. The audio commentary track features Lee Christian and Scott Spiegel as moderators with participants: Bud Cardos (director); Igo Kantor (producer); Jim Brockett (spider wrangler); and John Morrill (cinematographer). With such a large collection of people, it goes without saying that there's nary a dead spot on this track, while the two moderators make sure a lot of information is given out and everyone gets a chance to speak. Definitely worth listening to and its fun to hear Lee Christian react to some of the more "in your face" spider moments. It's obvious he is not a fan of arachnids. Absolutely worth listening to.

The featurettes start with an interview with William Shatner that runs 17 minutes long. In it he talks about making a low budget movie vs. big budget features, working with spiders, working with horses, trying not to scream while working with spiders, etc. Steve Lodge is featured in a shorter, five-minute interview. He's the writer of the original draft of the script and talks about the origins of the film, it's influences, and even how being involved in the movie helped cure his arachnophobia. Lee Christian sits down with Jim Brockett and talks about various types of tarantulas that are commonly used in moviemaking, including some that were just too aggressive to be used in this movie. (It's fun watching Lee's reactions to the aggressive one.) Finally, there are 17 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, but without some context, it loses some of its effectiveness. It is still worth checking out, but the audio commentary track / interviews are better.

The Verdict

Kingdom of the Spiders may be a low-budget When Animals Attack that borrows from Jaws, The Birds, etc. but it does it well. It's not a terribly original movie, but it is effective. Additionally, the DVD has more than enough extras to rate a solid purchase. Better than I was expecting.

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