Face-Off: Kingdom of the Spiders vs. Arachnophobia

This weekend will see the release of SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, which isn't the sort of movie we cover here on Arrow in the Head. However, with Spider-Man getting a new movie that is firmly set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe being the big event of the week, I wanted to mark the occasion in some way. The way I came up with was to give the week's Face-Off a spider theme. As everyone knows, Spider-Man got his amazing powers from being bitten by a radioactive spider. The spiders in the two movies I'm looking at today, 1977's KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS and 1990's ARACHNOPHOBIA, do a whole lot of biting, but rather than give people super powers, these spiders only bring death. But which spider movie is the better of the two?
Valley Verde, Arizona is a very pleasant community, and if you don’t want to take my word for it just listen to the theme song, which is about love and the peaceful valley instead of anything to do with killer spiders. It’s a sleepy little place, populated by ranchers and simple country folk. Nothing much happens around here except for the annual county fair, which draws in tourists from states away. The environment looks a bit harsh, as the town is surrounded by desert, but the locals seem to deal with it just fine.
Another killer spider infestation, another small American town. This time it’s Canaima, California, the sort of place where everybody knows each other and everyone is mixed up in each other’s business. The residents are also quick to turn against outsiders. There’s a reason there were no songs written about how nice this place is; if a town were to get eradicated by super spiders, Canaima, California is the sort of place you wouldn’t mind to see go. The only problem is, where would the spiders go after Canaima is gone?
The spiders in this case are tarantulas who are fighting to survive while on the run from pesticides. These chemicals have driven them out of their homes and killed off their prey, so they have become extremely hungry and aggressive – and in order to take down whatever meals they can find, whether it be animals like cattle or humans, these tarantulas have developed a venom that is five times more toxic than normal. Making these tarantulas “super tarantulas” was kind of a necessary step for the filmmakers to take, because regular tarantulas aren’t that dangerous. Their bites can be painful, especially if a person is allergic to them, but they’re not deadly. These tarantulas are very deadly.
Rather than give a boost to (and possibly tarnish the reputation of) existing spiders, the makers of ARACHNOPHOBIA decided to create their own arachnid: a hybrid of a very lethal spider just discovered in the rainforests of Venezuela, a specimen of which hitches a ride to California with a corpse, and some sort of domestic spider. The result is a new species of spider that can cause death with just one bite. Thanks to advances in special effects, they didn’t only let some spiders loose on the set, either. Some of these spiders are standout individuals. Specifically, there is a General and a Queen that need to be located, and we can tell these two apart from the drones that do most of the running around.
KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS stars William Shatner as a veterinarian nicknamed Rack who is a love triangle of sorts with his brother’s widow (he just can’t take it when she accidentally calls him by his brother’s name) and entomologist Diane Ashley, who he sweeps off her feet quite quickly when she comes to town to help with the spider problem. It’s always fun to watch Shatner in action and his co-stars are likeable. Other characters include Rack’s little niece, the Mayor who doesn’t want anything to mess up the upcoming fair, and Woody Strode as a rancher who really gets the worst of the spider infestation, which begins on his property.
Jeff Daniels is incredibly endearing as the lead character, arachnophobic doctor Ross Jennings. Ross and his wife Molly have just brought their children to Canaima to escape the crime and grime of the big city, and the Jennings are a nice bunch. Nearly everyone else in Canaima is a pain; the obstinate older doctor, the bully turned police officer, the blabbermouth mortician, the fitness-obsessed family. The entomologist who discovered the Venezuelan spider isn’t so appealing, either. However, we do get the great John Goodman as quirky exterminator Delbert McClintock, and his presence makes up for a lot of the annoyance caused by others.
It doesn’t take much for some people to be creeped out by spiders, all the spider has to do is just show itself. Others will need convincing that spiders can be a threat; they might ask, “Why don’t people just smash them?” Director John “Bud” Cardos does a good job at making the spiders seem threatening, flooding the streets of Valley Verde with the little things and frequently having them sneak up on their victims, climbing up the backs of seats or hiding in dark spaces. One tarantula might not seem like a problem, but when there’s millions of them they become more intimidating. It still looks a little goofy when people are backed into corners by a bunch of big spiders crawling on the floor. One person even goes so far as to shoot herself in the hand just because a tarantula is crawling on her fingers.
ARACHNOPHBIA’s spiders don’t need as much help in the creepiness department as KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS’ tarantulas did. Director Frank Marshall does eventually follow Cardos’s lead and send a whole bunch of the spiders at his characters at once, but the fact that just one bite from one of these little things can kill a person makes each of them extremely creepy. All you need is to see one of them crawling in the vicinity of a person and a feeling of unease sets in. These things are everywhere – in slippers and helmets, inside toilets, jumping on your face in the shower - and are much more lethal than the tarantulas... And yet no one shoots themselves in the hand because of them, even though it would have been more warranted this time. To make up for it, there’s an equally ridiculous moment involving a nailgun.
There’s not much that can be done about these tarantulas. The Mayor’s answer to the problem is just to hit the countryside with more pesticide, but that’s what caused all of this trouble in the first place. Characters try burning a large spider hill, but the spiders manage to escape out a back tunnel... and there are dozens more spider hills. Diane Ashley’s suggestion is to let nature take its course: bring in birds and rats to feed on the spiders. The Mayor shoots down that idea before we can even find out if birds and rats would be effective against these super tarantulas. It may be that there’s no way to stop these things.
It takes a long time for the town of Canaima to accept that they’re being invaded by killer spiders, so there aren’t that many tactics used against the arachnids. Delbert McClintock sprays and crushes any spider that crosses his path, but the characters are able to deduce that there is one way to wipe out this species before it spreads around the world. The spiders have a hierarchy, and that is their weakness. All that has to be done is that the General and the Queen spiders have to be destroyed, and that will put an end to this. No more of these spiders will be born. The ARACHNOPHOBIA situation is less dire than the one in KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS.
KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS and ARACHNOPHOBIA are both great films, and are both favorites of mine in the "nature run amok" sub-genre. I didn't go into this Face-Off favoring one over the other, and while ARACHNOPHOBIA managed to pull off a victory in the end, when I was putting the article together a KINGDOM victory and a Tie almost happened as well. This was a close one for me, but the entirely fictional spiders and John Goodman managed to overcome the super tarantulas and William Shatner.

Would you have given the win to ARACHNOPHOBIA, or would you have gone with one of the other two possibilities? Share your thoughts on these films in the comments section below. If you'd like to send in suggestions for future Face-Offs, I can be contacted at [email protected].



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