Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

As I’ve talked about in a previous blog post, the #NotQuiteClassicCinema hashtag is an homage to one of my favourite childhood television programmes, called Not Quite Classic Theatre. Every Saturday night they showed old Hollywood monster movies until the wee hours of Sunday morning. A good portion of these old movies were of the “giant bug(s) attack a city or small town” variety. A perfect example would be Tarantula (1955), which I discussed in a different previous blog post.

It doesn’t take a genre film theorist to see a direct link between movies like Tarantula and Kingdom of the Spiders (1977). Kingdom of the Spiders is more recent, of course. And in colour (many of the old movies were black and white). However, when I was watching Not Quite Classic Theatre many of the films were only twenty-five to thirty years old. Kingdom of the Spiders is older to audiences now, than those old black and white films were to me in the 1980s (forty-three years and counting as of this writing). And I’m guessing that the look of Kingdom of the Spiders, while not foreign to me, is probably about as aesthetically different to a young person today (who is used to digital video, etc.) as black and white film was to me.

The biggest difference between movies like Tarantula and Kingdom of the Spiders is the size of the monsters, or tarantulas as the case might be. They were, of course, gigantic in Tarantula, but they are normal, everyday, regular sized tarantulas in Kingdom of the Spiders. Why would regular sized tarantulas be scary? Sheer numbers. There are thousands or millions of them. And, as the experts in the movie explain, they are more aggressive and more deadly than the normal version of these spiders.

I suppose a genre film theorist could make a case for the 1970s bringing a new sense of realism and grit to the giant bug movies of the past by making the bugs “regular sized”, but I won’t try to do that. Watching a movie like Kingdom of the Spiders gives me the exact same feeling as watching an older giant bug movie like Tarantula. It has the same small town setting, it has the same type of characters, it has the same basic plot structure. What I mean to say, is that it’s a dream come true for an old monster movie fan like me.

Kingdom of the Spiders is #NotQuiteClassicCinema gold! It’s one of those rare movies that manages to tread the line between being a “good” movie and a “bad” movie. It’s actually quite well made, and much better than one might expect. The cinematography is great, and some of the shots are downright brilliant (spiders entering the frame at just the right moment, etc.). As a piece of storytelling, it works well – and I have no trouble imagining that my childhood self would have taken this movie very seriously and been thrilled, chilled, and thoroughly entertained.

The cast is amazing as well. Former football player and iconic star of some of the greatest Westerns ever made, such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), The Professionals (1966), and my personal favourite Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Woody Strode plays a rancher who has to deal with the unusual infestation and its devastating effect on his animals. I first became aware of Strode in one of my other personal favourites, Vigilante (1982). Since then I have become a fan and am always happy to see him in any movie, good or bad.

His wife in Kingdom of the Spiders is played by Altovise Davis, who was married to the legendary Sammy Davis Jr.. She only has eight acting credits on the IMDb, but she somehow managed to be in several things I saw as a child, including episodes of Charlie’s Angels and CHiPs. There are actors with over a hundred credits that I’ve seen less often. How does that happen? Aside from Kingdom of the Spiders, she is in another #NotQuiteClassicCinema classic: Welcome to Arrow Beach (1974). When I was a kid, my friends and I thought The Village People were the height of cool, and used to spin 45s of YMCA and In The Navy over and over again. So imagine my surprise to discover that Altovise Davis was also in Can’t Stop the Music (1980), the Village People movie. Her acting career may have been brief, but it was remarkable. 

Without giving anything away, because you know I hate spoilers, Altovise Davis provides us with one of the greatest moments in Kingdom of the Spiders – perhaps one of the greatest moments in all of #NotQuiteClassicCinema. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t, you’ll know it when you see it. Trust me, it will blow you away. 

Tiffany Bolling is a minor #NotQuiteClassicCinema celebrity. Not as well known as many of her contemporaries, she is nonetheless a fan favourite for staring in such movies as Bonnie’s Kids (1972), The Candy Snatchers (1973) and, one of my personal favourites, The Centerfold Girls (1974). She is great in Kingdom of the Spiders, as Diane Ashley, a scientist and expert on spiders from the nearby university in Flagstaff. She is a strong, intelligent woman who is also a perfect foil for the (perhaps somewhat chauvinistic, but charming) town veterinarian, who is trying to deal with the strange deaths of Woody Strode’s animals.

The town veterinarian is, of course, played by larger than life legend William Shatner. What can I say about The Shat that hasn’t already been said in better places, by better people. If you are new to the planet, and do not know who William Shatner is, let me say this: he is a Canadian actor who went to Hollywood and starred is such fine examples of #NotQuiteClassicCinema as Impulse (1974), White Comanche (1968), Roger Corman’s brilliant The Intruder (1962), Big Bad Mama (1974), The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973), Incubus (1966), The Devil’s Rain (1975) and, another one of my personal favourites, Visiting Hours (1982). Some people may remember him for a couple of other things, but these are his really important works…***

*** This is a joke. Please don’t send angry fan club lawyers to beat me up.

I’m sure that Kingdom of the Spiders would be good with or without Shatner, but he definitely brings his magic touch to it, and more than likely elevates it a notch or two. In other words, it would still be GOOD without him, it just wouldn’t be THE SAME without him. I, for one, am grateful for his presence.

And just for the record, I think the entire cast rises to the occasion and helps to make Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) a true masterpiece of #NotQuiteClassicCinema that can be enjoyed time and time again on any given #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. I really haven’t talked enough about the director, John “Bud” Cardos (or at all, actually) – but I should have – and I undoubtedly will on another #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. 

Friday night at the home drive-in: Tarantula (1955)

I’m almost certain that I first saw this movie on Not Quite Classic Theatre back in the 1980s. For those who don’t know, Not Quite Classic Theatre was the late night movie show that really solidified my love of old monster movies (and other B-horror films). I wrote about it a while back, to explain my use of the #NotQuiteClassicCinema hashtag.

I don’t specifically remember Tarantula (1955) being on that show, but it is so exactly the kind of movie that I saw week after week, that I feel it must have been. I do remember a couple of other specific titles which were aired (Monster on the Campus (1958) & The Monolith Monsters (1957)). They were produced and released by the same company as Tarantula (Universal Pictures). I suspect that Universal sold a package of films to Not Quite Classic Theatre, and it makes perfect sense that Tarantula would have been part of it.

In any case, I first saw Tarantula on late night TV many, many years ago. Watching it at the home drive-in last Friday was a wonderful blast from the past. It took me right back to my younger days, when giant spiders and other bugs were totally new to me. It’s movies like this that made me want to make movies (or at least be a writer). Unfortunately, I fell into a deep, dark hole of theatre and playwriting which took me about as far away from giant monsters as a writer can get.

I remember a good friend of mine, who I perceived as a very successful playwright, once giving me this piece of advice: “Write want you want.” I took it to mean that he had fallen into his own deep, dark hole where he was constantly being asked to write things that he was uniquely qualified to write, but did not excite him. He must have felt trapped; unable to turn down the paycheques. I did not have that problem back than. No one was paying me to write stuff, and it seemed like a pretty good problem to have….

…but now I find myself looking back on 20 years spent writing things that I did not care about.

Okay, that’s not quite true. I found a way to care about everything I worked on, and I wanted them all to be the best work I could do. However, they were always somebody else’s idea; somebody else’s dream project. In most cases I was paid for my work (often not enough, mind you), and that is a good feeling (and helps to pay the bills). Unfortunately, many of the projects I worked on never saw the light of day. But even if they had, they would have been somebody else’s babies, not mine. In retrospect, I have to wonder if my time would have been better spent writing B-movies like Tarantula. No one would have been paying me, but I certainly would have had more fun with them.  And when they were done, they would have been all mine, to do with as I pleased.

“Write what you want.” I should have paid more heed to those words. At least I can revisit movies like Tarantula and be transported back to a time in my life before I had made those mistakes. Is it possible to go back for real, and become the person you were always supposed to be? I’m not sure. But I am sure that Tarantula (1955) is a masterpiece of #NotQuiteClassicCinema and I will be using it to travel through time again in the not too distant future…