They say Hollywood is a dog-eat-dog kind of town, but the stars of the 1977 cult classic “Kingdom of the Spiders” took that mentality to a whole new level by literally trying to devour their competition.
The film, which finally arrives on DVD on Tuesday, features an army of orange-kneed tarantulas in the title roles, and that furry-limbed critter happens to be cannibalistic, which presented director John “Bud” Cardos with the prospect of an especially tense lunch break each day.
“Each one of those spiders had to be kept in almost like a cottage-cheese container,” said Cardo, who didn’t have the benefit of CGI special effects back in the day and had to use genuine creepy-crawlies (and a few rubber props here and there).
Spider wrangler Jim Brockett of Brocketts Film Fauna imported 5,000 tarantulas from Mexico to star in this arachnid version of “Jaws,” which stars William Shatner as a vet in a small Arizona town who is faced with an infestation of vicious spiders feasting on the inhabitants. The reason for their human appetite? Their natural food supply has been decimated because of the use of pesticides.
Brockett cast orange-kneed tarantulas as the antagonists because “they were readily available and we needed a lot of them and they are also pretty people-friendly, so they actors weren’t going to get bitten.”
These creatures are also reclusive. “They live in burrows,” Brockett says. “The only time they actually come out is to hunt food.”
The 80-year-old Cardos says Shatner was a “real trouper” when it came to working with the spiders. But casting the female leads was a different matter.
“We were over at Culver Studios at the time when we started casting,” Cardos said. “I had two small fish aquariums on my desk and I had one of these big tarantulas in each of them. When the girl would come in to read I would pick up one and put them on her. Some of them ran out of the room.”
But not Tiffany Bolling, who plays a sexy entomologist. “She said, ‘Isn’t he nice?’ and starting played with the spider. I said, ‘This is the girl we need.’ ”
Shatner initially turned down the film, but Cardos, who had worked with the “Star Trek” legend, pulled him into the web. “I went over to his house and we had a few drinks and pieces of cheese,” Cardos said. Before the director left Shatner’s house, the actor agreed to do the film
Also appearing in the film was Shatner’s then-wife, actress Marcy Lafferty, who plays the widowed sister-in-law whom the good doctor is lusting after. Cardos says it wasn’t a package deal to take them both. “I liked Marcy very well,” Cardos said. “It just so happened we were casting and Bill said, ‘How about Marcy?’ I said let’s talk to her.”
“Spiders,” which was shot in Arizona, featured a lot of the inhabitants as extras. Most, Brockett says, didn’t mind playing dead with the tarantulas scuttling over them. “A lot of them just volunteered,” he said. “It was that 15-minutes-of-fame thing.”
Though these tarantulas don’t bite, their abdomen hair can cause problems. The hair, Brockett says, is their main defense. When attacked in their burrows, they use their back legs to flick hair at the intruder.
“Some of them are shaped like corkscrews or … like fishhooks, and they work their way into your skin and make you itch a lot. Back in the 1880s, they used to sell capsules of tarantula hair as itching power.”
Trying to get the tarantulas to move on command was pretty simple. ”You blow a little air on them so they would move away from where the air is coming from,” he says. “So a lot of times we would use a straw and blow at the spider and he’d run away from that.”
When it came to the scenes with numerous tarantulas, the creatures were placed on set with their cups over them so they couldn’t move. When Cardos yelled “Action!” about six people would scurry to lift up the cups so the tarantulas could move. These scenes had to be shot quickly before the tarantulas started to devour each other.
Today, rules for animal and insect safety on sets are far more stringent, Brockett says. “A few spiders were killed,” Brockett admits of the 1970s set. “Nothing was killed intentionally. [These days] when a bug dies [naturally] we put it in alcohol, so when you need to swat a fly or stomp on a cockroach, you use one that’s already dead.”
— Susan King
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