ICFIFC: Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

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Monday, November 10, 2014

ICFIFC: Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

The spider originally bearing the name "tarantula" was Lycosa tarantula, a species of wolf spider native to Mediterranean Europe.  The name derived from that of the southern Italian town of Taranto.  The term "tarantula" subsequently was applied to almost any large, unfamiliar species of ground-dwelling spider, in particular to the Mygalomorphae1 and especially to the new-world Theraphosidae2.  Compared to tarantulas, wolf spiders are not particularly large or hairy, so among English speakers in particular, the usage eventually shifted in favor of the Theraphosidae, even though they are barely related to the wolf spiders, being in a different infraorder.

When theraphosids were encountered in the Americas, they were named "tarantulas", causing usage of the term to shift to the tropical spiders.  Nevertheless, these spiders belong to the suborder Mygalomorphae, and are not closely related to wolf spiders.

The name "tarantula" is also mistakenly applied to other large-bodied spiders, including the purseweb spiders or atypical tarantulas, the funnel-webs (Dipluridae and Hexathelidae), and the "dwarf tarantulas".  These spiders are related to tarantulas (all being mygalomorphs), but are classified in different families.  Huntsman spiders of the family Sparassidae have also been termed "tarantulas" because of their large size.  In fact, they are not related, belonging to the suborder Araneomorphae3.

Kingdom of the Spiders was one of several horror and science fiction films of the 1970s that reflected a growing sentiment of environmentalism in North America, such as Day of the Animals, Night of the Lepus, Killer Bees, Frogs and Silent Running.  It also reflected a horror trend that suggested that mankind's worst enemy was not supernatural monsters, but creatures already present in nature, as seen in Jaws and the numerous copycat films that arrived in its wake, as well as the Alfred Hitchcock classic The Birds.

A particular parallel to Jaws is that, in both films, local civic officials are more concerned with making money from tourism than with properly dealing with a very serious environmental problem.  In both films, these decisions lead to unsuccessful attempts to eradicate the "monsters", ultimately with horrific consequences.


Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

  • Genre: Sci-Fi – Horror
  • Directed: John 'Bud' Cardos
  • Produced:
    • Henry Fownes 
    • J. Bond Johnson 
    • Igo Kantor 
    • Jeffrey M. Sneller
  • Written:
    • Jeffrey M. Sneller (Story) 
    • Stephen Lodge (Story) 
    • Richard Robinson (Screenplay) 
    • Alan Caillou (Screenplay)
  • Starring: William Shatner, Tiffany Bolling, Woody Strode, Lieux Dressler, David McLean, Natasha Ryan, Altovise Davis, Joe Ross, Marcy Lafferty, Adele Malis-Morey, Roy Engel, Hoke Howell, Bill Coontz, Whitey Hughes, Jay Lawrence, Bettie Bolling
  • Music: Dorsey Burnette
  • Cinematography: John Arthur Morrill
  • Editing:
    • Igo Kantor 
    • Steven Zaillian
  • Studio: Arachnid Productions Ltd.
  • Distributed:
    • Dimension Pictures  
    • Saguenay Films  
    • American Broadcasting Company  
    • Goodtimes Entertainment  
    • Paradiso Home Entertainment  
    • Shout! Factory  
    • DIV  
    • South Pacific Video
  • Rated:
  • Release Date: November 1977 (USA)
  • Running Time: 97 minutes
  • Country: USA
  • Language: English

The film is one of the better-remembered entries in the "nature on the rampage" subgenre of science fiction/horror films in the 1970s, due in part to its memorable scenes of people and animals being attacked by tarantulas; its availability on home video and airing on cable television, particularly on the USA Network; but primarily because of Shatner's starring role.  The film was released by Dimension Pictures (not to be confused with the distributor Dimension Films).

Robert "Rack" Hansen, a veterinarian in rural Verde Valley, Arizona, United States, receives an urgent call from a local farmer, Walter Colby.  Colby is upset because his prize calf has become sick for no apparent reason, and brings the animal to Hansen's laboratory.  Hansen examines the calf, which dies shortly afterward.  Hansen tells Colby he cannot explain what made the animal so ill so quickly, but takes samples of the calf's blood to a university lab in Flagstaff.

A few days later, Diane Ashley, an arachnologist, arrives looking for Hansen.  Ashley tells Hansen that the calf was killed by a massive dose of spider venom, which Hansen greets with skepticism.  Undaunted, Ashley tells him the problem is serious and that she wishes to examine the animal's carcass and the area where it became sick.  Hansen escorts Ashley to Colby's farm.  Moments after they arrive, Colby's wife, Birch, discovers their dog is dead.  Ashley performs a quick chemical test on the dog's carcass and concludes that like the calf, it died from a massive injection of spider venom.  Hansen is incredulous, until Colby states that he recently found a massive "spider hill" on a back section of his farmland.  He takes Hansen and Ashley to the hill, which is covered with tarantulas.  Ashley theorizes that the tarantulas are converging together due to the heavy use of pesticides, which are eradicating their natural food supply.  In order to survive, the spiders are joining forces to attack and eat larger animals.

Hansen and Ashley return to the Colby farm.  As the scientists and the Colbys are walking past a barn, a bull stampedes out; it is being attacked by tarantulas.  Ashley notes that the spiders likely will not be afraid to attack people either.  Colby douses the spider hill with gasoline and lights it on fire, seemingly destroying the spider menace.  However, many of the spiders escape out of a tunnel.  Colby is attacked in his truck the next day, sending it over the side of a hill and killing him.  Hansen happens upon the accident scene and helps the sheriff, Gene Smith, examine the wreckage.  Colby's body is found encased in a cocoon of spider webs.  Meanwhile, Ashley is notified by her colleagues that a sample of venom from one of the spiders is five times more toxic than normal.  Hansen is then told by the sheriff that several more spider hills have been located on Colby's property.

Hansen, Ashley and the sheriff examine the hills along with the mayor of Camp Verde, who orders the sheriff to spray the hills and the surrounding countryside with a pesticide.  Ashley protests, arguing that pesticide use is what caused the problem to begin with and that the town would be better off using birds and rats (tarantulas' enemies in nature) to eradicate them.  The mayor dismisses the idea, fearing that having a large number of spiders and rats all over the countryside will scare away patrons of the annual county fair.  A crop duster is enlisted to spray the pesticide.  Once the pilot is airborne, he is attacked by tarantulas, and crashes the plane before he can disperse the spray.

The spiders begin their assault on the local residents, killing Birch and Hansen's sister-in-law, Terri.  Hansen arrives at their home and rescues Terri's daughter, Linda from the spiders.  Hansen and Ashley take Linda to the Washburn Lodge.  They consult with the sheriff, who tells them that the spiders are everywhere and Camp Verde cut off from the outside world.  Smith drives into town, while Hansen and the other survivors at the lodge plan to load up an RV and escape.  However, the spiders trap them in the lodge, and they barricade themselves inside.  Meanwhile, Smith arrives in Camp Verde and finds the town under siege by the spiders.  Smith tries to escape, but is killed when another car crashes into a support post under the town's water tower, causing it to fall on his vehicle.

Back at the lodge, the power goes out, and Hansen is forced to venture into the lodge's basement to change a blown fuse.  He succeeds, but is besieged by spiders who break through one of the basement windows, by using their combined weight.  He makes it upstairs just in time to be saved by Ashley.

The film concludes the next day, with the survivors rigging up a radio receiver and listening for news of the attacks.  To their surprise, the radio broadcast doesn't mention the attacks, indicating that the outside world is oblivious to what has happened.  Hansen pries off the boards from one of the lodge's windows, and discovers that the entire building is encased in a giant web cocoon.  The camera pulls back, and all of Camp Verde is encased in cocoons as well.


Notes:

1.  The Mygalomorphae (also called the Orthognatha) are an infraorder of spiders.  The scientific name comes from the orientation of the fangs which point straight down and do not cross each other (as opposed to araneomorph).

2.  The spider family Theraphosidae (tarantulas) includes 947 described species, including around 55 species in North America north of Mexico.

3.  The Araneomorphae (also called the Labidognatha) are a suborder of spiders.  They are distinguished by having fangs that oppose each other and cross in a pinching action, in contrast to the Mygalomorphae (tarantulas and their close kin), which have fangs that are nearly parallel in alignment.

 

Sources:

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