William Shatner’s career wasn’t exactly soaring when he agreed to star in the low-budget 1977 horror film Kingdom Of The Spiders. A decade after Star Trek (and two years before Star Trek: The Motion Picture), Shatner was barely staying afloat with TV guest appearances and the occasional B-movie. His turn as a podunk veterinarian beset by arachnids wound up being one of the most substantial roles he’d have between stints as Captain Kirk. And darned if Shatner isn’t thoroughly ingratiating in Kingdom Of The Spiders, playing a beer-drinking, cowboy-hat-wearing, clear-headed man of science who has to be convinced by Arizona State entomologist Tiffany Bolling that a nest of DDT-enhanced tarantulas poses a threat to every mammal in the county. If Shatner felt the least bit embarrassed about what his life as an actor had come to, he certainly didn’t show it.
It’s because of Shatner’s performance—and the creepy deployment of live spiders—that Kingdom Of The Spiders became a surprise hit in 1977, and a cable staple in the early ’80s. The movie is squarely beholden to The Birds and Jaws, in that it’s partly about how the unexpected massing of thousands of small creatures might force the cancellation of a revenue-generating county fair. But Kingdom Of The Spiders also works as a proto-Tremors, in that it’s also about a handful of quirky small-towners trying to concoct clever strategies to ward off impending catastrophe. Kingdom isn’t as funny or self-aware as Tremors, but it’s similarly oddball, from its incongruous opening country-rock song to its scene of a crop-dusting pilot shrieking like a girl while trying to brush off tarantulas mid-flight.
Shatner’s offbeat appeal as a hero is well-matched by Bolling’s. An experienced B-movie actress, Bolling has a lightness that manifests in unscripted interjections and a guileless reading of lines like “The spiders in this area—so far only the tarantulas—have organized themselves into an aggressive army.” Yet as nonchalant as Bolling is, her hand still shakes when the movie’s real stars surround her. The genius of Kingdom Of The Spiders is its use of actual spiders, which spark authentic reactions from the actors. If Shatner and company seem unusually unselfconscious about appearing in a cheesy creature-feature, credit the tarantulas; it’s awfully hard to think about your future in showbiz when a hairy, fist-sized bug is crawling up your face.
Key features: A charming 15-minute interview with Shatner, plus an interview with the movie’s writer and its spider-wrangler, home-movie footage from the set, and a jovial commentary track with director John “Bud” Cardos and some of his crew.