Director: John “Bud” Cardos
Code Red DVD

As far as 1970s “animal attack” films go (and there are a lot of them!), they don’t get much better than 1977’s KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS. Independently produced and capably directed by actor, stuntman and filmmaker John “Bud” Cardos (THE DARK, MUTANT), KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS is certainly one of the most organic creature features you’ll even witness. Shot entirely on location in Arizona and using thousands of real tarantulas (which no doubt upped the production values) and starring the one and only William Shatner as the hero, the cult favorite has now been given the deluxe Blu-ray treatment courtesy of Code Red.

In the small, peaceful desert town of Verde Valley, farmer Walter Colby (Woody Strode, THE ITALIAN CONNECTION) and his wife (Altovise Davis, the widow of Sammy Davis who passed away in 2009) are devastated when their award-hopeful cow becomes deathly ill. Calling upon local veterinarian/cowboy Dr. Robert 'Rack' Hansen (William Shatner, THE DEVIL’S RAIN), he's not able to do anything to save the unfortunate animal and a blood sample is sent out for examination. Soon after, attractive blonde scientist Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling, THE WILD PARTY) arrives in town, with her research dictating that the cow was killed by spider venom. Rack finds the spider theory hard to swallow at first, as he uses his male charms to lure the lovely newcomer, but when a hill of tarantulas is found on old Colby’s property, they team up (romantically and otherwise) to get down to business. Setting fire to the hill doesn’t do much good, as these creepy crawlers are now everywhere; the mayor (Roy Engel, THE INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN) is only concerned that the big town fair goes on—and it does—only infested with our hairy, long-legged rivals who find plenty of locals and tourists to attack, leading to a chaotic sequence that’s a highlight of the film.

The perfect drive-in movie, KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS has all the ingredients missing from today’s so-called technically advanced genre movies, and it really holds up over 40 years after it was shot. With a plot that’s part JAWS and part 1950s eco monster romp, it has a wonderful, suspense-filled build up to a knockout second half with enough great shocks for two movies. Seeing people interact with authentic tarantulas (all brought in from various parts of the world, using up a large chunk of the film’s modest budget), causing them to crash cars, airplanes, etc, is the stuff of sensational exploitation pictures, and this one hits all the marks. With some very scenic Arizona terrain as the backdrop, the film not only boasts some terrific and clever camera work but also a number of stunts and well-orchestrated chilling situations with the live tarantulas, making the majority of what’s on screen convincing when it could have been a pure campfest – something it’s actually far from. On top of all this are some solid make-up effects depicting swollen spider bites and victims woven into human cocoons (particularly unforgettable is the sight of a morbidly obese dead man laying on the curb, fully coated with webs).

As the lead, the iconic Shatner is terrific as the likable and confident Rack. This was still a few years before the big budget “Star Trek” theatrical epics, and even though it was a low budget effort, the actor gives it his all and obviously had a great time making it. Shatner got to embrace his passion of horses here (he is introduced on one) and shows he’s a true sport by letting the tarantulas parade all over him, even sporting one on his cheek for an unforgettable money shot. Although Tiffany Bolling was hired due to her non-fear of coming in contact with the spiders (you’ll see her handle several on-screen without flinching), it was a smart casting choice not only because she was beautiful and could act, but also because of her status as a familiar drive-in movie queen with films like THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS, THE CANDY SNATCHERS and WICKED, WICKED to her credit. Shatner and Bolling have really good chemistry, and the fine supporting cast includes Marcy Lafferty (Shatner’s wife at the time and star of IMPULSE) as the widow of Rack’s late brother, Lieux Dressler (GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE) as the innkeeper of the lounge where most of the surviving characters find themselves bordered up in, David McLean (THE STRANGLER) as the non-stereotypical sheriff, Hoke Howell (GRAND THEFT AUTO) as a crusty mechanic, and Natasha Ryan (THE AMITYVILLE HORROR) as a the little girl surrounded by the crawlers in several nail-biting sequences. Tiffany Bolling’s mother, Bettie, can also be seen as a doomed telephone operator. On a side note, the film’s score (aside from a few country numbers by Dorsey Burnette) is comprised mostly of stock music, some of which is by Jerry Goldsmith for the old “Twilight Zone” series (it was used with permission).

KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS was previously issued on DVD in 2002 by GoodTimes with an awkwardly open matte presentation that was passable at best and then Shout! Factory released a far improved anamorphic DVD in 2010. Transferred from a new 2K scan of the interpositive, the film is now being presented on Blu-ray by Code Red in a 1.78:1 ratio and is absolutely fabulous; organic-looking and boasting excellent textures. The grain is managed well and fine detail is terrific throughout. Colors come across strongly, as do skin tones, and black levels are perfectly deep with sufficient shadow detail. The print source (which begins with the Dimension Pictures logo) is virtually free of blemishes and there are no signs of digital enhancement on display. The audio is available in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix that delivers the film’s stock music as strongly as it does the dialogue. No subtitle options are available on the disc.

Aside from a video interview with Shatner (which couldn’t be licensed for this Blu-ray), all the main extras which Code Red had produced for the 2010 Shout! Factory DVD have been carried over here. There’s an audio commentary featuring producer Igo Kantor, director John “Bud” Cardos, spider wrangler Jim Brockett and cinematographer John Morrill. Moderated by Lee Christian and Scott Spiegel, the commentary is as fun as the film itself, a lively 90+ minutes of conversing, covering all aspects of the production, leaving one with the impression that they not only had a ball making it, but that all involved really cared about their work. Surprisingly enough, we’re constantly reminded how well the spiders were treated, and very few of them were actually killed during the making. You also might find it interesting that Bo Svenson was originally up for the lead, but he turned it down. A second new audio commentary has actress Bolling (who also introduces the film on screen with Code Red’s “Banana Man”) and Kantor, moderated by Marc Edward Heuck who does a fine job of keeping the conversation lively. Kantor talks about his days in music supervision for numerous films and television before becoming a producer, the origins of the music cues used in the film, and he reveals that Barbara Hale was in the running for Bolling’s part and that Shatner’s salary was $25,000 plus a cut of the profits. Bolling remains totally enthusiastic about appearing in the film, judging by her well-spirited recollections, and she remembers so many details about making it.

Spider wrangler Brockett has his own featurette (12:21), where he shows Scott Spiegel a number of different types of live tarantulas, a few of which he gets to handle. There’s a featurette with Stephen Lodge (4:35), co-writer of the original story, as he discusses how the script came about and several small changes made to the main characters before the final draft. Bolling has her own new featurette (“Kingdom of Tiffany”, 9:09) talking about her relationship with Shatner, handling the spiders (one of the main reasons she took the role) and she compliments the film’s photography and Cardos’ directing style. She mentions other works including WICKED, WICKED and THE WILD PARTY (she did not get along with Raquel Welch). A fascinating extra here is over 17 minutes of behind-the-scene footage. Shot on Super 8 film with (mostly) sync sound, the raw footage gives us glimpses of everything from Cardos and his crew shooting a number of outdoor scenes (including another money-shot bit where a car crashes into a water tower), to Shatner and Bolling and the other actors hanging around the set, as well a look at the editors hard at work. The original theatrical trailer is also included, and the cover’s stunning new artwork is reversible, with a variant on the poster art on the opposite side. Those wanting to order a copy of KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS can do so directly from Ronin Flix. (George R. Reis)