Color, 1977, 95 mins. 6 secs.
Directed by John "Bud" Cardos
Starring William Shatner, Tiffany Bolling, Woody Strode, Lieux Dressler, David McLean, Natasha Ryan
Code Red (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Shout! Factory (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Among the cavalcade of ants, frogs, roaches, and snakes assaulting moviegoers in the ‘70s, there was a special place reserved for the tarantula – a mostly harmless but intimidating-looking hairy spider that had been around since 1955’s Tarantula and the first James Bond film, Dr. No, before hitting the drive-in with 1976’s Kiss of the Tarantula. 1977 turned out to be a particularly big year as the furry fellows hit television with Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo and the big screen with the best of all the tarantula attack films, as well as one of the most memorable ‘70s nature amuck productions: Kingdom of the Spiders. Star William Shatner was recruited to take a break from TV projects for this film directed by John “Bud” Cardos, a former actor and stunt man kicking off a spree of horror and sci-fi films followed by The Dark, The Day Time Ended, and Mutant. Thanks to a questionable PG rating and frequent TV airings, Kingdom quickly traumatized an entire generation and still holds a special place in the hearts of many monster movie fans.
In the small desert town of Camp Verde in Arizona, livestock and other animals are being sickened and killed under mysterious circumstances. The baffled farmers include Walter (Strode) and his wife (Davis), who turn to help from veterinarian and cowboy fashion enthusiast Rack Hansen (Shatner). After he sends some blood samples out for testing, the mystery is solved in record time by newly arrived city gal and entomologist Diane Ashley (The Candy Snatchers’ Bolling), who pinpoints the culprit as a fatal dose of spider venom. Could it have something to do with all the tarantulas that have migrated into the area? And could it possibly have a negative impact on the big annual county fair that’s about to bring a record number of people together in the middle of town?
Filled with grisly makeup effects and surprisingly elaborate and convincing stunts once the tarantula-induced mayhem kicks in during the second half, Kingdom of the Spiders is a creepy blast from start to finish and a dramatic overachiever compared to many of the “critters on the loose” titles raking in big money at the time. It’s also fun spotting faces like li’l Natasha Ryan (who shot The Amityville Horror right after this), TV western vet Bill Coontz, and Grave of the Vampire’s Lieux Dressler, among others. The country-western ambiance is a nice change of pace as well, complete with a twangy theme song by Dorsey Burnette called "Peaceful Verde Valley," which is particularly effective over the unforgettable, Twilight Zone-style stinger ending.
Frequently in demand on home video throughout the history of various formats (including the obligatory stint on cheapie LP-speed VHS), Kingdom of the Spiders first crawled in on DVD from GoodTimes in 2002 with a watchable but drab full frame transfer and zero extras. Shout! Factory stepped up with the film's first special edition in 2010 on DVD, featuring an assortment of extras partially commissioned through Code Red including a fun audio commentary with Cardos, producer Igo Kantor, spider wrangler Jim Brockett and cinematographer John Morrill, moderated by Lee Christian and Scott Spiegel. You get a lot of spider stories here of course, including notes that they did their best to not pulverize very many of them (though some get visibly run over and stomped, unfortunately), as well as tales of Shatner and Bolling working with their furry co-stars. There's also a separate Shatner interview (16m35s) that'll make you sad he never got around to doing the planned sequel, a really fun piece with Brockett and Christian (12m23s) showing off some real-life varieties of tarantulas with very different personalities, a quick chat with co-writer Stephen Lodge (4m40s), a reel of Super 8 behind-the-scenes footage (17m18s), the theatrical trailer, and a gallery including stills and pressbook material.
In 2017, Code Red gave the film its inevitable leap to Blu-ray with a special edition that mixes bonus material both old and new. The transfer opens up the compositions a bit to 1.78:1 versus the DVD's 1.85:1, with more vertical info visible throughout; horizontally it varies more from scene to scene, with the Blu-ray generally featuring more but not always. It's interesting to see how boosted the whites look by comparison on the DVD, as the Blu-ray modulates the levels more carefully with far more detail visible in bright areas. The color timing is also interesting to compare as the daylight scenes look similar with gorgeous, vivid colors, but some sequences (such as the first scene on Strode's ranch and Bolling's arrival) have a more dusky, blue appearance versus the uniform "all sunlight, all the time" look of the DVD. The DTS-HD MA English mono track sounds excellent. In addition to the old commentary, the Blu-ray adds a lively new track with Kantor and Bolling moderated by Marc Edward Heuck, with a lot of trivia about the cast members, Kantor's career shift from music supervision to production, Bolling's ease with spiders and partially self-provided wardrobe, the extensive use of library music, and plenty more. Ported over on the video side from the prior release are the Brockett and Lodge featurettes as well as the behind-the-scenes footage and trailer, though instead of the previous 4:3 presentation, they've been formatted with soft-focus sidebar fillers like what you see on a lot of HD local news programs. In addition to a quick and puzzling intro to the film with the label's Banana Man, the wonderful Bolling also appears for a new video interview (9m9s) covering more of her career including TV's The New People, The Wild Party, Bonnie's Kids, and her singing jobs as well as more of her pro-animal thoughts that she was happy to see reflected in the screenplay. Like just about any other cult favorite interview, she also has to drop Quentin Tarantino's name in there, too!
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Reviewed on June 27, 2017