Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Johnny California: Kingdom of the Shatner

by JB

“No one is just friends with a belly dancer.”
-Marcia Knight, Impulse

I finally decided to take advantage of one of the new cultural opportunities being offered to me since I moved to Californi-YAY. I’m speaking of course of “Beyond Fest,” which is presented by the American Cinematique every October. I skipped the Park Chan Wook triple feature on October 2 (though my lovely wife and son attended) in favor of last Sunday’s “Kingdom of Shatner Triple Feature.” Said festival consisted of aging, faded, pinkish 35mm prints of Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) and The Devil’s Rain (1975), a brand spanking new restoration of Impulse (1974) in its theatrical premiere, and Captain Kirk himself making an appearance and holding court during a crazy Q&A.

I finally feel like a real Californian.
The event was held at Santa Monica’s Aero Theater, which reminded me quite a lot of Chicago’s Music Box Theater, the happiest place on Earth. Same vibe, same clientele, same sights and smells. Mostly buttered popcorn and weed.

Because I attended this fun mini-marathon with my lovely wife, Janny California, I have asked her to weigh in on the festivities. She is much more observant than me, is a much better writer, and didn’t fall asleep.

JANNY: The day “Beyond Fest” tickets went on sale was an event for our whole Cali-family, as all three of us logged on to see what tickets we could snap up. When I learned that Johnny had scored us a pair of tix for the 3-film William Shatner marathon—and that Shatner was going to be there IN PERSON for a little quanda (That’s what they call a Q & A out here in Movieland!) I was super excited. Oh Captain, my Captain! I had never seen ANY of the three films being shown. I have never seen Shatner do a live quanda. I have been to the Aero—it’s a delightful indie house with a lot of heart—and I have grown to deeply appreciate B-movies of that era (era) for the way that they often just LEAN IN to their own nutty premises in a way that feels handmade.

JOHNNY: I had not seen Kingdom of the Spiders since its original release in 1977 at the late, lamented Rolling Meadows Theater, where I spent way too much of my misspent youth. William Shatner plays a randy veterinarian (Is there any other kind?) trying to figure out what’s killing livestock in small Arizona town. I remember my friend Tom and I sitting through it, then scurrying to my house to write a parody sketch for that year’s high school variety show. A sampling:

B I’m sitting on my Pappy’s porch,
Drinking apple cider,
Pappy says today is the day
We’ll be attacked by a giant spider!

Oh, I love the country,
Full of clouds and airy swings
Pappy says today is the day
We’ll be attacked by hairy things!

Cut us some slack. We were 15.
I entered the Aero theater wondering if my memories of the film were accurate. (Good God, has it really been 45 years?!) I am proud to say that I successfully remembered 1) the ending, which I will not spoil and 2) the fact that because the film employed no special effects (just thousands of real spiders) my most indelible memory of the film was a scene where the sheriff drives through a town that’s been totally overridden with the eight-legged pests, and because we are seeing a real car drive though real arachnids, every time one of the tires crunches one, it erupts in a mini-geyser of gooey buggy fluids. Yum. It’s worth noting that the film never claims that no animals were harmed in its making. They were!

It was a different time.

JANNY: This is sci-fi horror about big hairy spiders that organize into murder gangs with a taste for human blood... and also cow blood and pet blood. There’s a super-’70s ecology vibe—man’s overuse of pesticides has wiped out the spiders’ food and natural predators, leaving them with chips on their disgusting spider shoulders and remember, that’s EIGHT SHOULDERS PER SPIDER. Shatner plays Dr. Richard “Rack” Hansen, a sexy veterinarian with a shiny belt buckle. Tiffany Bolling plays Diane Ashley, a beautiful arachnologist from a university. I played a normal woman who is terrified of spiders.

First of all, the spiders are not even that big; they’re just your standard ugly-ass tarantulas with extra-powerful venom and a thirst for vengeance. But that’s scary enough because there are THOUSANDS OF THEM. Even though the Aero’s print was very, very, very pink, it was truly creepy to see goddam spiders dropping out of vents and terrorizing children and climbing up a crop duster’s face. The town mayor is straight out of Jaws. This movie has a lively pace. I give this movie ten out of seven fangs! The ending is fantastically bleak. WHEN WILL WE LEARN?

JOHNNY: I believe I first caught The Devil’s Rain during a network showing on the CBS Friday Night Movie. This could not have helped the film in any way because interrupting it with a myriad of commercials would just make the herky-jerky, largely incoherent narrative even harder to follow. Ernest Borgnine plays the leader of a religious cult trying to win souls for Satan. (Real Satanist Anton LeVay was the film’s technical adviser.)

JANNY: Bill Shatner plays Mark Preston, a man of indeterminate career whose family has long served as caretakers for a book they hide in the floor. When Mark’s dad melts in the rain and his mother is kidnapped, Mark goes to a ghost town to put an end to some satanist shenanigans.

If your favorite part of any movie is the middle, then go see Devil’s Rain because it is ALL MIDDLE. It feels long and yet also feels as if there is four more hours of footage somewhere that they just couldn’t fit in the movie, and those hours had all the exposition and character development. There are some genuinely great goo-effects in this film, as bodies melting into goo is a major plot point. There’s also a really fun flashback where Ernest Borgnine “thee and thine”s things up as a witch-pilgrim devoted to the devil. I rate this film three haunted books with a bonus pinata full of souls. Shatner should be in it more!
JOHNNY: At the “Beyond Fest” screening, Jan kept asking if the projectionist had forgotten a reel because the first twenty minutes of Devil’s Rain make so little sense. Though it’s hard to fathom a filmmaking endeavor that could waste the talents of William Shatner, Ida Lupino, Ernest Borgnine, Tom Skerritt, Eddie Albert, and John Travolta, this one certainly does. So thin and odd is the narrative that the filmmakers pad out the running time with interminable special effects footage that seems to go on for half an hour during the film’s very moist climax. The audience at our screening seemed ready to rise up as one and shout, “We know what it looks like when somebody melts AND TURNS TO GOO! Enough!”

JANNY: Johnny California promised me that Impulse (1974) would be in Esperanto, a language that has fascinated me since I was a child. I am not joking, that’s really the kind of child I was. But Johnny was thinking of Shatner’s 1966 B&W horror film Incubus. Bebo, kial vi mensogis al mi? This isn’t the first time he’s been wrong. We got to the fest more than an hour early because Johnny California had the wrong start time!

The “Beyond Fest” hosts were very proud of the fact that they were showing us a soon-to-be-released restoration of this horror-thriller—with good reason. This one definitely had the most colors of all three movies (#MovieExpert). It also provided Bill Shatner with his most complex character: Matt Stone, a con-man villain with a troubled past, a classy wardrobe, and the sort of rape-y vibe that used to pass for masculine charm. This movie is more “bananas” than Tina’s mom’s friend Julia! “Julia” is played by Ruth Roman as the sort of blowsy, 50-ish rich widow that was EVERYWHERE in 1970s cinema. Kim Nicholas is young teen Tina, who sees Stone for the psycho he is. Harold “Odd Job” Sakata plays a menacing character from Stone’s past named “Karate Pete,” which fact alone should make you want to see Impulse. It’s not very mysterious but there are some good thrills and two of cinema’s most batshit chase scenes – one through a cemetery and funeral home, the other through a carwash. It’s the slowest, soapiest chase EVER. The ending is predictable but I rate this movie “YES PLUS” for its very ’70s everything and for Shatner at his Shat-iest.

JOHNNY: I must confess I had never before seen William Grefe’s Florida-lensed drive-in oddity Impulse. This restoration looks great, considering that the film’s original budget (Shatner estimated it was one or two hundred thousand dollars) and release were not, as we might say, DELUXE. Shatner plays a con-man who, because of childhood trauma, develops a jones for murder. This third film really cemented my admiration for Shatner who, though he has been accused by better minds than mine of occasionally overacting, comes across as an asset in every film in which I have ever seen him. During this Shatner-A-Thon, I began to see William Shatner as the Bela Lugosi of the ’70s. Say what you want about their films, neither man ever phoned it in.
During the final hour of the fest, Shatner took the stage for a lively Q&A. During that time, he opined on the miracle that was 1970s low-budget filmmaking, the use of a William Shatner mask as “The Shape” in John Carpenter’s Halloween, and his recent adventures aboard a real-life rocket ship. I had never seen Shatner live before, and I have formed the following opinions: 1) William Shatner lives for applause; 2) William Shatner never lets the truth stand in the way of a good story; 3) William Shatner is delightfully himself, a quality I treasure in people; 4) William Shatner gives you your money’s worth (I laughed, I cried); and 5) I hope I am as vibrant, verbal, funny, thoughtful, and entertaining as William Shatner when I too am 91 years YOUNG.
JANNY: First things first: I made that up about Q and A sessions being called “quandas” out here. That’s what my car’s voice-to-text lady called it when our son texted me and Johnny C. about the “Shatner-thon” while we were driving home. We took the 405 to the 101! We live here now!

More importantly: William Shatner, at 91, still knows how to entertain people. He’s still got that TJ Hooker charisma. I’m really glad I got to see him live before that opportunity passes from this world. Yes, he told a few stories about making movies—no one asked about Star Trek!-- but my favorite moment was when someone asked him about his 2021 trip to space with Blue Origin. He told us he was moved to tears; the trip made him realize that we need to take care of this gorgeous planet because we are all connected.

It was supposed to be a story about horses. And that beautifully sums up this day.


  1. HAZAAA!!!! Thanks JanB and JB! Looove the write-up and thoughts on the fest. Most of all its great to hear that Shatner still brings it to the stage...unbelievable that his storytelling chops are still finely honed at 91.

    Kingdom of the Spiders will always hold a special place in my heart as it and its cheesier cousin TV movie "Tarantulas the deadly cargo" played nicely into childhood fears of those 8 legged villains during the 70s. Even moreso that i played it for my son..who loves spiders..during the last year. Great final shot!

  2. I'm jealous, sounds like an awesome day!

    I recently made it my long term goal to push Shatner into the number 1 spot on my Letterboxd list of "most watched actors" (a spot currently occupied by SLJ), so I've been trying to watch more of his movies. This month, I saw a TV adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, in which The Shat appears much too little, and I have American Psycho 2 and Impulse still on my watchlist for the month (though now I'm wondering whether I should wait for that new restoration of Impulse rather than watch a low-quality transfer on YouTube).

  3. That low-quality transfer of Impulse on YouTube might be a better representation of what the film looked like on a drive-in screen in 1974!

  4. "leaving them with chips on their disgusting spider shoulders and remember, that’s EIGHT SHOULDERS PER SPIDER"

    This made me laugh. I'm glad that in absence of the "happiest place on earth", you have both found another adequately happy place.

    I would love to see Shatner live. I've been watching through all of TJ Hooker recently, so I actually associate him as much with that show as with ST. I noticed some sort of Halloween special with him that I might check out on Netflix.

    1. Wow, I couldn't for the life of me find it on Netflix. After scouring his lengthy IMDB, I believe it was called A Twist in the Tale. Gone from Netflix! It was there yesterday! That's a weird and unfortunate coincidence.

  5. This was a delightful read, sounds like an amazing time, and now I will be referring to all Q and A's as "quandas." Thank you, Jan and John!