Kingdom of the Spiders

Directed by JOHN CARDOS

Aside from some silly tarantula POV shots at the beginning, the arachnids don’t really crawl with a quality approaching menace until after the first hour. And if Kingdom of the Spiders didn’t have William Shatner or an adorably awkward environmentalist theme, it might be condemned as forgettable schmaltz. But this kitschy flick has retained such a twitchy hold among bold cultists that even Warren Zevon felt compelled to name-check it in “Life’ll Kill Ya.” Kingdom is entertaining, but not always in the ways the filmmakers expected. Thankfully, the folks behind this movie — even while rudely interrupted by Hostel producer Scott Spiegel’s gushy sycophantism — are game to explain on the commentary track that a horse was included in an attack scene “because a horse will tell you something’s wrong before it happens.”

Shatner’s performance doesn’t quite exude the cheesy sleaze of his 1974 turn as a psychotic conman in Impulse, but there are a number of creepy qualities bundled within his wacky veteranarian protagonist. Yes, eight-legged crawlers clamber atop Wild Bill’s corpus — one reportedly spirit-gummed to his face at Shat’s suggestion — but Shatner’s character also drives an attractive entomologist off the highway to badger her into a dinner date. He then fulfills his mood-killing panache with the unintentionally hilarious line, “No, he got killed in ‘Nam.”

Five hundred real spiders were wrangled for this production. Over the course of the movie, the spiders are doused with liquids and crawl perilously close to moving vehicles. We are informed by the disc’s extras that many spiders died. This brings an unexpected animal rights argument to something that would ordinarily be enjoyed as a Jaws ripoff made on the cheap. It’s also quite fascinating that Kingdom manages to balance casual sexism (“Hey, the only person uptight about being a woman is you, you know”) while presenting two non-stereotypical African-American characters (one played by the great Western character actor Woody Strode). Kingdom‘s pleasure arises not so much from its hardscrabble B-movie roots, but from the clumsy social framework of a confused decade. The film’s overwrought theme song, Dorsey Burnette’s “Peaceful Verde Valley,” couldn’t be more appropriate.

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