FANTASIA OBSCURA: The Director May Have Loved This, But the Tarantulas… Not So Much

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, the distance between success and failure can be as thin as the follicle of a tarantula’s abdomen…

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

Distributed by: Dimension Pictures
Directed by: John “Bud” Cardos

They’re hard to read about, and sometimes difficult to write about as well. They creep along, low to the ground, willing to go after you if you startle them with a venomous bite. And getting ensnared in their web is torturous as you struggle to break free, ultimately becoming a discarded husk after they get their fangs into you.

So, let’s take a break from looking at film producers and discuss spiders instead.

As our film opens in Verde Valley, AZ, we get the villains’ POV (yes, the spiders’ perspective) of an attack on a calf belonging to Walter Colby (Woody Strode). The poor animal, whom Colby was hoping to get big prize money for in the upcoming county fair, dies in a way that mystifies the local veterinarian Robert “Rack” Hansen (William Shatner).

He sends blood samples to Flagstaff to get answers, and when he gets the results, they are accompanied by scientist Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling). And the news is not good: Colby’s calf was killed by potent spider venom in doses way too high for a single specimen to have delivered. It’s such an outlier that Ashley gets a room at the Washburn Lodge, run by Emma (Lieux Dressler), an old girlfriend of Rack’s, to get a better sense of what’s going on.

They soon discover on the Colby farm a large spider hill, where the tarantulas have come together and formed a group in response to all the pesticides killing the insects usually in their diet. To avoid starvation, they got together, established a group mind, and took to going after larger prey, either eating it on the spot or putting it in cocoons for later on.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know: No, tarantulas are not capable of forming a social order among themselves and would instead kill and eat each other if food got scarce. And no, they don’t use their spinnerets in that manner, ever.

So no, they’d never form a swarm and go after the folks in town like they ultimately do in the film.

And no, we would never ultimately get to the point where Rack, Diane, and Emma would be isolated in the lodge with spiders all around trying to get at them, the arachnid archfiends even going so far as to try and take out the fuse box at the Lodge.

Sure, this cheap and rushed-into-production-for-a-quick-buck entry into the “nature against us” canon of films from the 1970s like Empire of the Ants and Night of the Lepus is clunky and a bit of a stretch to sit through, but hey, you get a chance to see not one but two legends at work here!

The one you may know better, Bill Shatner, was not at his best during the film. After Star Trek went off the air, Shatner shared many frustrations with following up his work on an iconic space show, much the same way Gene Roddenberry had.

He does a good job as the lead, all things said, despite being handed a script that has more holes than an orb spider’s web after a vacuum cleaner gets taken to it. This includes a subplot that has Rack constantly on the verge of having a hot relationship with his brother’s widow, Terry (Marcy Lafferty, who was married to Shatner at the time the film was lensed); the idea that our hero was going at any second to sleep with his sister-in-law produces more creeps on film than any of the wrangled spiders.

And then, there’s John Cardos.

John Cardos, c. 2013

Cardos’ CV is almost a Hollywood legend unto itself. His career starts at age six, appearing in Hal Roach’s “Our Gang” shorts, during MGM’s management of the series. He grows up in the business with his father and uncle managing the Graumann’s Egyptian and Chinese Theaters during the heyday of the studios (one of which, Fox, employs his cousin Spiros in the production office). When he’s old enough, he finds work in film in any way possible; one such early job involved wrangling sacks of sparrows for Alfred Hitchcock in The Birds.

He finds his way into stunt work, which on smaller films often leads due to lack of budget and crew to doing other things as well. His stunt work on both Satan’s Sadists and Nightmare in Wax was supplemented by being both actor and production manager as well for these films, which gave him considerable hands-on experience and lead ultimately to his directing.

To hear him discuss the production in such places as Brian Albright’s Wild Beyond Belief! and an interview he gave in 2013 tied into his later work The Dark (a film he took over the helm for when the original director, Tobe Hooper, backed out), Cardos had the time of his life during this film at the height of his career. His obvious passion for the project is infectious, and you can feel his love for the film every second. Even at its silliest, there’s a warmth that comes through in how he frames and shoots his scenes, like a father showing off his kid’s latest school project as he puts it up on the fridge.

Sure, there are shortcomings in the final product. The script and what it asks of tarantulas has already been noted, but there’s also the music, supervised by Igo Kantor. The quick pulls from stock horror needle-drops pulled from older television shows to the easy country-esque ballads by Dorsey Burnette just keeps you off balance as you try and find a mood to tune into.

Though, let’s be honest: Who among us is going to look a proud papa in the eyes and tell him his kid sucks?

This, ultimately, gives Kingdom of the Spiders its special place as the work of a man enjoying his field during a major highlight in a long career. A fairly long one, it needs to be noted; Cardos, when he reached the age he couldn’t do stunts, transitioned into being a transport captain. He would go on to work as such on the films Memento and D.E.B.S.

If you prefer, you get to instead look at it as the efforts of an actor between serious gigs to make the most out of fairly little. Shatner was still five years away from starring in T. J. Hooker and had to get whatever work he could during the time; the fact that he still made the most of the film speaks volumes about his craft.

It’s that balance between a director working at his pinnacle and an actor hovering near his nadir, like the anchor strands on a well-built web, that keep you looking, no matter how many creepy things are crawling along through the film.

And to be honest, watching spiders on screen isn’t for everyone, either.

NEXT TIME: They keep saying you can’t save the world alone. Acapulco, on the other hand, is doing just fine in the hands of only one young lady…

About James Ryan 118 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…