blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977, John ‘Bud’ Cardos)

Kingdom of the Spiders opens with some scary music for the title reveal, then an original country song by Dorsey Burnette starts playing over the titles, extolling the virtues of Verde Valley, where Kingdom takes place. It’s a terrible opening titles sequence, followed by the film’s first failed attempt at suspense. Unfortunately, it will not have any successful ones. This first one, involving a bunch of spiders attacking a cow, forecasts the film’s lack of ability for suspense, humor, or anything whatsoever. I mean, there’s good photography from John Arthur Merrill and a handful of affable or inoffensive performances, but otherwise, Kingdom hasn’t got it. It doesn’t even have a kingdom.

After the spider attack—entirely from the spiders’ points of view, so we don’t know it’s spiders yet—the film introduces leading man William Shatner. He’s just a small-town, rural vet, but he carries a lot of sway. He could quarantine the farmers, and wouldn’t it be too bad if he did, what with the County Fair coming up? Shatner’s actually pretty good as the town vet. He and Woody Strode have decent chemistry, even though neither is doing a particularly good (or bad) job. Of course, Shatner’s first scene involves his widowed sister-in-law Marcy Lafferty (married to Shatner in real-life at the time, which ends up being awkward given the love triangle). Shatner gets to ride a horse and do his own stunts, so he’s having fun. Then Lafferty comes on to him because all the ladies love Shatner in Kingdom, only she moans her dead husband’s name (his little brother who died in “‘Nam.”). Shatner tosses her off him—not the last time Shatner tosses a costar violently in the film—and heads off, but not before shaming her a little for her behavior.

Shatner heads off to the state lab to turn in the cow’s blood for testing in what seems the set-up for a scene at a university, but the action just cuts to Strode and wife Altovise Davis having a quiet night at home. Strode and Davis are fine in the movie, but they give off big “Davis married her dad’s best friend Strode” vibes. Or “Davis married Strode in exchange for Strode giving Pa some acreage.” It never feels quite right. But then the movie treats them like they’re living in the thirties, so maybe Strode’s lying to Davis about the state of reality. So it would track, especially for Davis’s frontier woman costumes.

Pretty soon—in time to threaten the County Fair, natch—big city spider scientist Tiffany Bolling comes to town to see what’s happening with these spiders. She’s snooty to Shatner, who mocks her, but then once they’re working together, he just constantly sexually harasses her, sometimes physically, as he makes it clear they need to find the nearest bed or sleeping bag. Bolling manages to churn out endless expository passages while Shatner’s mooning at her, touching her, or otherwise distracting her. Bolling’s not exactly good. The writing on her part’s lousy and director Cardos doesn’t do anything for his actors, but Bolling’s got great timing. Up until she falls for Shatner’s macho charm, anyway. Until then, which is when he starts bossing her around like a possession, Bolling’s the only one who seems to know how to keep Kingdom moving.

Because, otherwise, it’s a slog. An intentional one. Cardos and editors Igo Kantor (the film’s producer) and Steven Zaillian (Oscar-winning screenwriter of Schindler’s List) belabor every action beat, drag out every shot, and just generally pace Kingdom like a slow roll through a rock pile.

There are some other surprises. Bolling and Lieux Dressler pass Bechdel in their first scene. They never do in any other scenes, quite the opposite, but it’s initially pretty cool.

Did I say “surprises” plural? It’s the only surprise. Except when Shatner flaunts Bolling to Lafferty almost immediately after telling Lafferty he’d eventually get horny enough he doesn’t care she’s his dead little brother’s wife, so he’d knock on her door. The longer the movie goes on, the less likable Shatner becomes. By the third act, you’re just waiting for a spider to get him.

Or for anything to happen, which it doesn’t. Except for a bewilderingly inept town panic scene.

With a better director, better script, better editors but the same cinematographer, and maybe even Shatner, Kingdom could be a fun homage to fifties sci-fi. Instead, it’s a dull, joyless turd.

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