The film is one of the better-remembered entries in the "nature on the rampage" subgenre of science fiction/horror films in the 1970s, due in part to its memorable scenes of people and animals being attacked by tarantulas; its availability on home video and airing on cable television, particularly on the USA Network; but primarily because of Shatner's starring role.
Dr. Robert "Rack" Hansen, a veterinarian in rural Verde Valley, Arizona, receives an urgent call from a local farmer, Walter Colby. Colby is upset because his prize calf has become sick for no apparent reason, and the animal is brought in to Hansen's laboratory. Hansen examines the calf, which dies shortly afterward. Hansen tells Colby he cannot explain what made the animal so ill so quickly, but takes samples of the calf's blood to a university lab in Flagstaff.
A few days later, Diane Ashley, an arachnologist, arrives looking for Hansen. Ashley tells Hansen that the calf was killed by a massive dose of spider venom, which Hansen greets with skepticism and disbelief. Undaunted, Ashley tells him the problem is serious and that she wishes to examine the animal's carcass and the area where it became sick. Hansen escorts Ashley to Colby's farm; and moments after they arrive, Colby's wife, Birch, discovers their dog is also mysteriously dead. Ashley performs a quick chemical test on the dog's carcass and concludes that like the calf, it died from a massive injection of spider venom. Hansen is incredulous, until Colby states that he recently found a massive "spider hill" on a back section of his farmland. He takes Hansen and Ashley to the hill, which is covered with tarantulas. Ashley theorizes that the tarantulas are converging together due to the heavy use of pesticides, which are eradicating their natural food supply. In order to survive, the spiders are joining forces to attack and eat larger animals--and humans.
Hansen and Ashley return to the Colby farm to burn the spider hill. As the scientists and the Colbys are walking past a barn, a bull erratically stampedes out, also being attacked by tarantulas. Ashley notes that the spiders likely will not be afraid to attack people either. Colby douses the spider hill with gasoline and lights it on fire, seemingly destroying the spider menace. However, many of the spiders escape out of a distant tunnel. Colby is attacked by a group of tarantulas as he is driving along in his truck the next day, sending the truck over the side of a hill and killing him. Hansen happens upon the accident scene and helps the sheriff, Gene Smith, examine the wreckage. Colby's body is found encased in a cocoon of spider webs. Meanwhile, Ashley is notified by her colleagues that a sample of venom from one of the spiders is five times more toxic than normal. Hansen is then told by the sheriff that several more spider hills have been located on Colby's property.
Hansen, Ashley and the sheriff examine the hills along with the mayor of Camp Verde, who orders the sheriff to spray the hills and the surrounding countryside with a pesticide. Ashley protests, arguing that pesticide use is what caused the problem to begin with and that the town would be better off using birds and rats (tarantulas' enemies in nature) to eradicate them. The mayor dismisses the idea, fearing that having a large number of spiders and rats all over the countryside will scare away patrons of the annual county fair. A crop duster is enlisted to spray the pesticide; but once airborne, the pilot is attacked by tarantulas, causing him to crash the plane and perish before he can successfully disperse the spray.
The spiders eventually begin their assault on the local residents, killing Birch and Hansen's sister-in-law, Terri. Hansen arrives at their home and rescues Terri's daughter, Linda, from the spiders. Hansen, Ashley, and Linda then take refuge in the Washburn Lodge. They consult with the sheriff, who tells them that the spiders are everywhere and Camp Verde is cut off from the outside world. Officer Smith drives into town, while Hansen and the other survivors at the lodge plan to load up an RV and escape. However, the spiders have them trapped in the lodge, and they barricade themselves inside. Meanwhile, Smith arrives at Camp Verde and finds the town in screaming chaos, as it is under siege by the spiders. Smith tries to escape, but is killed when another car crashes into a support post under the town's water tower, causing it to fall on his vehicle and crushing him to death.
Back at the lodge, the power goes out, and Hansen is forced to venture into the lodge's basement to change a blown fuse. He succeeds, but is besieged by spiders who break through one of the basement windows by using their combined weight. He makes it upstairs just in time to be saved by Ashley.
The film concludes the next day, with the survivors rigging up a radio receiver and listening for news of the attacks. To their surprise, the radio broadcast doesn't mention the attacks, indicating that the outside world is oblivious to what has happened. Hansen pries off the boards from one of the lodge's windows, and discovers that the entire building is encased in a giant web cocoon. In the final scene, the camera pulls back to reveal the entire town of Camp Verde encased in cocoons as well.William Shatner - Rack Hansen
Natasha Ryan - Linda Hansen
Marcy Lafferty - Terry Hansen
Tiffany Bolling - Diane Ashley
Woody Strode - Walter Colby
Altovise Davis - Birch Colby
Lieux Dressler - Emma Washburn
David McLean - Gene Smith
Joe Ross - Vern Johnson
Adele Malis-Morey - Betty Johnson
Roy Engel - Mayor Connors
Kingdom of the Spiders was one of several horror and science fiction films of the 1970s that reflected a growing sentiment of environmentalism in North America, such as Day of the Animals, Night of the Lepus, Killer Bees, Frogs and Silent Running. It also reflected a horror trend that suggested that mankind's worst enemy was not supernatural monsters, but creatures already present in nature, as seen in Jaws and the numerous copycat films that arrived in its wake, as well as the Alfred Hitchcock classic The Birds.
A particular parallel to Jaws is that, in both films, local civic officials are more concerned with making money from tourism than with properly dealing with a very serious environmental problem. In both films, these decisions lead to unsuccessful attempts to eradicate the creatures, ultimately with horrific consequences.
Kantor told Fangoria magazine in 1998 that the film did indeed use 5,000 of the large, hairy spiders, though a number of rubber model spiders were also used during production. The live tarantulas were procured by offering Mexican spider wranglers US$10 for each live tarantula they could find; this meant that $50,000 of the film's $500,000 budget went towards the purchase of spiders.
The large amount of tarantulas kept on-hand led to some unusual production difficulties. Not only did each spider have to be kept warm, but because of the creatures' cannibalistic tendencies, all 5,000 spiders had to be kept in separate containers. Additionally, tarantulas are usually shy around people, so fans and air tubes often had to be used to get the spiders to move toward their "victims". Indeed, in a number of the scenes where the tarantulas are "attacking" people, it is obvious to the viewer that the spiders are merely moving around, usually away from their intended victims.
Contrary to popular belief, the venom of most tarantulas is not dangerous to humans, causing no more harm than a bee sting (unless the person is allergic to the venom). The worst injury most of the actors suffered was troublesome itching caused by the spiders shedding their bristles (Tarantula urticating bristles has been used to make itching powder sold in joke and novelty stores).
Due to the film's low budget, most of the music used in the film (particularly the "startle cues") was taken from the logs of stock music used on suspense TV series. For example, most of the music used in the film during the scenes with the spiders can also be heard in notable episodes of The Twilight Zone, including "To Serve Man" and "The Invaders", as well as in at least one episode of The Fugitive. The country music songs heard on the radio in the movie, as well as over the opening and closing credits, were performed by country singer Dorsey Burnette.
Although Shatner and Bolling were ostensibly the "stars" of the film, many who have seen it (along with the producers) have said that the movie's "great performances" came from the extras (according to Kantor, usually friends and family of the crew) who were required to stay motionless (since they were portraying dead victims of the spiders) as several live tarantulas crawled all over them.
Rumors have occasionally surfaced that a sequel to Kingdom of the Spiders was in production; however no such film has yet been made. Shatner told Fangoria in 1998 that he was working with Cannon Films in the late 1980s to produce a sequel, titled simply Kingdom of the Spiders 2. The actor claimed that he supplied the film's premise, which would have featured a man being tortured by his enemies, preying upon his intense fear of spiders, to get him to reveal a secret. Cannon went so far as to take out a full-page ad in Variety magazine announcing that Shatner would direct and star in the film; however the studio went bankrupt before production could begin.
In 2003, the website for Port Hollywood, a film production company run by Kantor and Howard James Reekie, posted a brief synopsis of the plot of another proposed sequel, to be titled Kingdom of the Spiders II, suggesting that the villainous spiders would this time be driven to attack humans due to secret government experiments involving extremely low frequency (or ELF). The synopsis also details Native American imagery that would factor into the plot.At the time of filming, Shatner was married to Marcy Lafferty, who plays Shatner's character's sister-in-law in the movie. The couple has since divorced. Altovise Davis, who plays Birch Colby, was the wife of Sammy Davis, Jr.
Woody Strode, who plays Walter Colby, was probably best known to film audiences for his role in the Lee Marvin/Burt Lancaster western film The Professionals. Sports historians know Strode as one of the first two African-American football players to break the National Football League's color barrier in the 1940s, when he joined the Los Angeles Rams.
The film was nominated for the Best Horror Film award by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, but lost to The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, which starred a young Jodie Foster. At the awards ceremony (which was broadcast in TV syndication), Shatner performed one of his noted spoken-word versions of a pop song, in this case Elton John's "Rocket Man". Footage of this performance was featured in the Comedy Central Roast of Shatner.
Two people involved in the film's production went on to win Oscars. Ve Neill, a makeup artist on the movie, won shared Oscars for her work on Mrs. Doubtfire and Ed Wood. Steven Zaillian, a co-editor on the film, won for his screenwriting of the Steven Spielberg film Schindler's List.
Kantor hinted in his Fangoria interview that Arachnophobia, which Spielberg produced, bears several similarities to Kingdom of the Spiders. "I thought it was a copy", Kantor stated, "but you don't go and sue Spielberg!"
According to Cardos, several actresses were considered for the role of Diane Ashley but were rejected when they showed apprehension towards handling live tarantulas. (Cardos kept two of the hairy spiders in an aquarium on his desk while meeting with actresses to gauge their reaction). Ironically, two such actresses, Barbara Hale and Donna Mills, appeared in other "killer spider" pictures: Hale in The Giant Spider Invasion and Mills in the made-for-TV Curse of the Black Widow, though in neither of these films did the aforementioned actresses work as closely with the spiders as they would have in Kingdom of the Spiders.
The film is mentioned on an episode of the animated sitcom The Critic. In the season 2 episode "From Chunk to Hunk", Jay Sherman reviews a new action movie starring Jean Paul LePope (a thinly-veiled parody of Jean-Claude Van Damme). Sherman remarks, "Jean Paul LePope is the worst actor I've ever seen... and I've seen all of William Shatner's movies, even Kingdom of the Spiders!"
Rifftrax used the movie as a subject of ridicule in an April 23, 2013 video on demand download featuring the movie with a running mocking commentary by Mystery Science Theater 3000 alumni Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett.
The film is briefly mentioned in the Warren Zevon song "Life'll Kill Ya."
GoodTimes Entertainment released a twenty-fifth anniversary edition DVD in 2002. It was a pan and scan bare-bones disc with no bonus material.
Shout! Factory released Kingdom of The Spiders: Special Edition on DVD in early 2010.