Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) dir. John “Bud” Cardos

LoglineWhen dirt mounds brimming with venomous tarantulas appear on a ranch in the deserts of Arizona, it's only so long before the spiders upgrade their nibbling from calves to human beings. William Shatner, an unlikely veterinarian, fights to beam them back to the hole in ground they came from.

Animal of Choice: Flocks of cohabiting tarantulas who have abandoned their solitary lifestyles in favor of banding together to take down bigger game.

Thinking Ecologically: These films tend to follow a pattern, and in this case we find some definite similarities with the ecological issues in animal terror flicks like The Night of the Lepus (1972) and Deadly Eyes (1982). American farmers' rampant use of DDT on their crops has killed off all of the tarantulas' natural insect prey. In response, the spiders adapt to their new and dire situation by migrating 600 miles to Arizona and altering their independent behavior to communal behavior so that they can colonize and work in conjunction to attain prey previously unavailable to them because of size. By adjusting to the imbalance created by humankind's actions, the spiders establish themselves at the top of the food chain, becoming-- as a unified spider force-- an apex predator, and an unstoppable one at that. The final image of the film reveals that these changes to the arachnid's place in the animal kingdom are permanent and that the Earth will indeed become a sort of kingdom for spiders.

Additionally, the film provides its viewers with the requisite weaselly mayor who makes it clear that he forbids any quarantine of a local ranch that serves as ground zero for the spider epidemic, with its slew of dead calves and a dirt mounds crawling with eight legged terrors. Like his ancestors and descendents, this mayor's denial is fueled by his desire to see the town prosper during its money-making season, in this case a county fair. His lame solution to solving the spider problem is-- naturally-- to spray the spider mounds with pesticides. Silly humans never learn.

Thinking About Animals: For a while into its running time, Kingdom of the Spiders seemed as if it were doing something interesting with its spider antagonists. Though their behavior and methods of attacking prey had changed drastically from the scientific reality, the tarantulas didn't appear to be mutated freaks of nature, as is so often the case in these films. Rather, they seemed to be normal tarantulas that merely adapted to their environment in order to survive. Early on, we see individual spiders in isolation with humans acting naturally: our entomologist heroine interacts with several of them, going so far as to pet and baby talk one as it crawls on her hand, without being attacked. It's only when the spiders join forces that they become hostile threats and are able to take down human-sized prey with massive injections of venom from many fangs. Unfortunately, later on a test result reveals that the spiders' venom is five times more toxic than normal, signalling that these tarantulas are in fact mutated pests. It's a needless and contradictory development in the story of these spiders, allowing them to be viewed as "unnatural" because mutated and thus monstrous.

Evaluation in Brief: Though a competent and entertaining film, Kingdom of the Spiders will be tough to stomach for anyone who detests actual violence done to on-screen animals. More so than any animal terror film I've screened thus far, Cardos's film is happy to harm its non-human actors, squashing hundreds of living tarantulas in its more hectic and ambitious sequences. While this disinterest in the conservation of arachnid life certainly creates some arresting images (I'm thinking primarily of the queasy high angle shot of the town's main road, stained with a few dozen vaguely tarantula-shaped  smudges, as citizens flee in terror), the wanton death it produces feels profoundly not okay. Otherwise, the film is an easy recommendation: the sleazy Shatner charm, bucketfuls of tarantulas, amiably eccentric characters, the gall to have the spiders kill a mother in front of her child, and a cynical, nearly apocalyptic twist ending. If only it were all a little less real.

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