This is one of those things I get possessed to suddenly see, NOW, and mmmm-mmm did it turn out to be EXACTLY what I wanted. We open with these high-pitched horror strings that segue suddenly into this hideous yet strangely awesome song, “Peaceful Verde Valley,” by Dorsey Burnette, who has supplied several original works for this landmark production. During the credits we note that this is from 1977, the zenith of American culture, stars William Shatner [but we knew THAT], takes place in Arizona, and is directed by a guy named John “Bud” Carlos. I don’t think we have to worry too much about directorial pretension with someone nicknamed “Bud.”
So there’s this adorable cow in a field, who gives some brilliantly terrified reaction shots. Actually all the animals in this film deserve some kind of ensemble acting award. We gets some spider’s-eye-view shots as the menace creeps in toward our cow, then—cut to SHATNER! He’s lookin’ quite fine at the height of his pudgy manliness and the cowboy duds certainly add to his appeal. He’s horsin’ with some fine filly, whom he wrestles playfully to the ground, but then she calls his “John,” and he throws her to the ground like a used Kleenex. Huh, I guess his name isn’t John! He tells her firmly that John is dead, and takes off on his horse. She stares after him, all forlorn.
Shatner’s name is RACK, as in “I want to be laid out on the RACK,” and he rides up as African-American Colby meets him, sick calf in the flatbed. This is a really sweet cow, and I didn’t like seeing it all laid out and foaming at the mouth. Soon it’s dead. We have a little interlude with some local hicks, during which time we hear another Dorsey Burnette song, “The Green Side of the Mountain,” which I regret to say was kind of… listenable, let’s say. Then Rack is at the gas station when this snooty blonde in a white Mercedes convertible pulls up and orders him to fill ‘er up. Around this time you notice that there is a lot of vehicle coordination in this movie; that is, you have a scene going and someone drives up from far away and continues the scene, and then a plane will fly overhead or something—all planned out. Rack flirts with the blonde, who doesn’t know he’s not a lowly gas station attendant, and tells her where to stay in town. By now we’ve noticed that when we’re not hearing songs by Dorsey B., we’ve got a VERY 70s TV score, all sorts of “Whaaawww, whaw-whaaaawww” while cars are driving around and stuff.
So by the time the blonde arrives as the cabin of a woman with short brow hair to stay at her cabin, you’re saying to yourself “This is exactly The Birds.” We have a retail misunderstanding, like in the Bird shop, and now the blonde heroine is coming to stay at the house of the short-haired brunette. There are more similarities to come, but not an overwhelming amount. The blonde is spider expert Diane Ashley, an icy little number in off-putting frosted shades, and the homey brunette is Emma. The town is Camp Verde, by the way.
Camp Verde, you should know, is about to have their county fair, which is apparently the big event of the year, and will bring lots of people and money into the town. The Mayor, Jaws-style, is just telling Rack that they can’t quarantine the livestock because they can’t lose tourist dollars when Diane shows up and says the cow died of spider venom. Rack tells her she’s insane, then says “How would you like to have dinner tonight?” to which she coolly responds “Oh, I probably will. See you tomorrow.” Youch! This lady knows her way around!
But wait! Diane isn't quite done slinging sass. She's knocking a few back at Emma's when she's introduced to Verne and Betty Johnson, who came down for the county fair a few days early, in their mobile home. Mrs. Johnson, above, is fully the most insipid human being on the planet, but that's still no excuse for Verne to start coming on to Diane right in front of her. He offers to buy her a drink, saying a "pretty little thing" like her shouldn't be drinking alone. Catty, cunning Diane, who is on her way to becoming my favorite character, draws Mr. Johnson's attention to the fact that his wife IS indeed right behind him by saying "No thanks you Mr—AND MRS!—Johnson…" This lady has got it going on. She then retires to her room, where we see a creepy spider crawl into a drawer while she's in the shower. Diane sits down at the desk, sees the spider, and—picks it up and baby talks to it! I'm SO going straight for this woman.
The next day Colby and his wife Birch—played by Altovise Davis, wife of Sammy Davis, Jr., and also featured in Can't Stop the Music—discover a huge mound of tarantulas out back. They speculate that there are maybe a thousand living inside. Rack goes out to visit his sister-in-law and 5-year-old niece, Linda, then spies Diane driving by on the way home. Rack's a straightforward man, and he knows that when you want a woman to go out with you, the quickest, most effective way to win her over is simply to run her car off the road. He then insists that they have dinner, and takes the wheel of her car, despite her protests. They have dinner, discussing women's lib, and Diane maintains an amused, but appalled, attitude. However, her main problem with Rack is that he's seeing another woman, and this argument falls away when he explains that she's his sister-in-law, a widow, who he takes care of, and that he also volunteers at the local old folks' home and loves quiet nights doing cross-stitch. I made those last two things up. Nevertheless, he just kind of ASSUMES that they are TOGETHER [and after all, she's a woman, he's a man, they're in the same state…], and although Shatner is sexier than ever here [to ME, that is: you know, Western gear, acting like a horny ogre], I kind of wanted Diane to turn around and say "Excuse me? Have you received ANY indication that I am interested in you?" In either case, by 50 minutes in, she's offering to fetch beers for him, and all her smart sassitude has fallen long by the wayside. Anyway, Diane intuits that humans are killing off the insects [that the spiders eat] with DDT [then a hot topic], and so they're migrating West, like some sort of arachnid gold rush, and the peaceful town of Camp Verde just happens to be right in the way. Rack and Diane decide to go out and burn the spider hill. I'm not really sure how burning half the surface of a large hill, where the thousands of spiders reside safely underground, is going to help anything, but it was the 70s—people were dumb then.
SPOILERS > > >
So Rack takes Diane over to his sister-in-laws's house, and the sister is all smiles, until she returns to the kitchen and we see—her secret pain! She's in love with her brother-in-law! And really, she's already tested out his gene set, why take a risk with someone else? At this moment we KNOW, however, that she is going to die—because then it'll clear the way for Rack and Diane to be together without anyone having to feel guilty. Things happen fast and furious now. Colby is overrun by spiders while driving his truck. We continue our series of wonderful animal suspense performances as a horse delivers some excellent reaction shots. I'm dying to know what they showed these animals to get them to react this way. Colby is found, covered in a cocoon of spider webs! Please do not bring your knowledge that tarantulas do not spin webs to bear on this film. Thank you. Then they discover 20 or 30 more spider hills just like the first one! Then the Sheriff comes out and says he wants to spray some horrible chemical all over the place, because the most important thing in life is that COUNTY FAIR! This causes our Diane to say, right to his face, that this is happening because "a lot of ignorant people like yourself have killed off all their food with your stupid DDT!" Anyway, this doesn't happen, because the plane pilot didn't bother to check for one or two or seventy or two hundred tarantulas under his seat before flying, and he crashes into the barn right next to our heroes!
Shocking events continue to pile up. First, they decide to call Birch Colby, but she can't pick up, as she is stupidly trying to shoot spiders with a handgun. She gets one on her hand—and blows off her own fingers! RIGHT there on screen. As predicted, the sister-in-law is toast. We discover that if you leave an empty car unattended for 60 seconds, it will be filled with tarantulas. These spiders also apparently leap, or indeed fly, when no one is looking as, though we never actually see them levitate, they suddenly appear in high places they couldn't reach. The cute 5-year-old gets some spiders on her—so they douse her in deadly chemicals from a fire extinguisher! Uh, I don't think that's very healthy. Idiot Rack opens a vent directly above Betty's head, and I'll bet you can guess what happens. Of course, maybe he did that on purpose, she is fairly insufferable. And—the entire town is in chaos! Spiders EVERYWHERE! People are leaping on the sheriff's car like zombies, trying to get in!
< < < SPOILERS END
I wouldn't dare even HINT at the shocking ending that awaits you, but I will mention that tarantulas WERE harmed during the making of this film. You realize this when you see them scurrying off as they set the spider hill on fire, but soon our characters are stomping them good, and by the time the entire town is being rampaged, there is indeed a mushy PASTE of spider guts on the ground! It's shocking. The IMDb says that they used 5,000 spiders in the movie, and well, many of them didn't survive. I wonder what they did with the leftovers?
Anyway, this was LUDICROUSLY enjoyable. You have killer animals, my favorite, and it turns out that spiders are actually pretty creepy—you never really know where they are, and if you are sensitive at ALL, you can't help but start imagining that they're lurking all around you in your home. In addition, we have the 70s, the world's most golden period, with all the music and styles that made them great, you've got a sexy Shatner in cowboy gear, you've got a smart sexy feminist that isn't afraid of spiders, kids in peril, unrequited love, insipid tourists, riveting dramatic acting by farm animals, a goddamned TON of spiders—and a blatant disregard for their well-being. Plus it's just fun. You should totally go for it.
Yes! It's a wonderfully fun and cheesy animal attack movie!