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From the DVD case: William Shatner stars as veterinarian “Rack” Hanson in this cult classic about an Arizona town infested with eight-legged killers, which turn on the humans whose insecticides have depleted their normal food supply. Woody Strode is Rack’s friend, rancher Walter Colby, whose livestock first fall victim to the angry arachnids. Entomologist Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling) arrives and tries to help Rack deal with the crisis, but with the big county fair fast approaching, Mayor Connors (Roy Engel) refuses to let them quarantine Colby’s ranch. Soon, the remaining residents are barricaded at Emma Washburn’s (Lieux Dressler) lodge, fighting for their very lives, in this skin-crawling chiller featuring Shatner’s then-wife, Marcy Lafferty, as his sister-in-law, Terry. (1977, color)

Mark says: It would be easy to dismiss Kingdom of the Spiders as another schlocky 70’s B-movie, except for the fact that so many of the scenes are genuinely creepy. Viewers ultimately find themselves laughing and cringing throughout the picture. Though the acting is what you’d expect from a low-budget production, I have to give the cast credit: almost all of those spiders crawling on them are real tarantulas. Reportedly, 5,000 of the creatures were wrangled for the film.

Kingdom of the Spiders features a strange love triangle between “Rack” Hansen (William Shatner), his late brother’s wife, Terry Hansen (Marcy Lafferty), and entomologist, Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling). Though Shatner is supposed to be a macho, witty, irresistible, down-home fellow, he comes off as rather lecherous. Rack’s amorous interludes with his sister-in-law are particularly disturbing. If I were an actress, I think I’d prefer to have the spiders crawling on me.

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Dennis Weaver in Duel, 1971

From the video case: A traveling businessman (Dennis Weaver) is suddenly menaced on the highway by a huge diesel truck. Although he can never see the psychopathic driver of the truck, he soon realizes that this guy is out to kill him! Duel is a classic of the action-suspense genre which helped launch the career of director Steven Spielberg. (1971, color)

Mark says: After seeing Duel for the first time as a child, I had sore muscles from tensing up so often. Thank God for commercials, or I may have petrified permanently. Viewing the film as an adult, I am still struck by how much suspense Mr. Spielberg conjures with a simple story and sparse dialog.

Duel was originally a 74 minute made-for-TV movie that later, with added footage, became a cinematic film distributed throughout Europe. Spielberg cast Dennis Weaver in the lead role of David Mann after seeing him in the movie, Touch of Evil. Of course, most of us fondly remember Mr. Weaver as Chester from the old Gunsmoke TV series, or as the title character in TV’s McCloud.

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Darren McGavin is The Night Stalker, 1972

From the video box: Las Vegas is a town where the unusual is considered normal. However, when former top reporter, Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin), meets with police reluctance while covering the murder of a showgirl, his curiosity is aroused.

Suddenly, there is a series of murders, apparently committed by the same killer. When the police again refuse to reveal any facts, Kolchak gets the details on his own and begins to put the deathly pieces of the puzzle together. However, the police and his own editor, Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), make every effort to suppress what Kolchak has learned. The closer he gets to the truth, the less he is able to reveal and the more frightened he becomes. (1972, color)

Mark says: A lot of people remember Darren McGavin as the father from A Christmas Story, but I will always primarily remember him for his role as Carl Kolchak in The Night Stalker.

I was 10 years old when The Night Stalker was released as a made-for-TV movie. I still remember the anticipation of its airing. The TV ads teased us with the scene where Kolchak yells at his editor, “This nut thinks he’s a vampire! He has killed four, maybe five women! He has drained every drop of blood from every one of them!” The Night Stalker did not disappoint, and it left an indelible mark on the psyches of almost everyone who saw it.

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Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, 1974From the DVD case: In a small village in the remote English countryside, several young maidens have been found dead – their beautiful young faces horribly aged almost beyond recognition. Suspecting a supernatural evil at work, the local doctor calls on Army friend and famed vampire hunter Captain Kronos, an expert swordsman formerly of the King’s Imperial Guard. Aided by his expert assistant Professor Grost, the two quickly confirm the gruesome murders are the work of a unique type of vampire, one who drains its victims not of their blood, but of their youth! (1974, color)

Mark says: Captain Kronos was meant to have been (and should have been) the beginning of a Hammer Films’ series, similar to their Dracula productions. Unfortunately, feeble box office sales kept the series from being realized.

Being a bit of a dullard, the originality of Captain Kronos was lost on me in my boyhood (I was 12 when it was released). The concept of a vampire which drains its victims of youth rather than blood was confusing to me, and Captain Kronos, being a swashbuckler rather than a Peter Cushing-type vampire slayer, seemed odd and unpalatable.

Now, as old age creeps up on me like a bat on the back of a chair, I find the concept of a “youth vampire” more menacing. I’ve also come to appreciate the comic book approach to the film. Captain Kronos is a true adventurer, complete with sidekick in the form of Prof. Hieronymos Grost.

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From the video case: After a team of surgeons botch his beloved wife’s surgery, leaving her for dead, the emotionally distraught Dr. Phibes creatively concocts a fatal prescription for revenge. Using the Good Book as his guide, Phibes unleashes a score of Old Testament atrocities – from a plague of locusts to an attack of rats – on his enemies that climax in what may be one of the eeriest endings on screen record. (1971, color)

Mark says: When my sister and future brother-in-law took me to Dr. Phibes at a drive-in theater as a kid, the playfulness of the story was lost on me. I just thought it was one of the scarier Vincent Price movies I had ever seen (I was already a fan by the age of 10).

As an adult, you can’t miss the wonderful tongue-in-cheek quality of the film. It could have been played as a straight horror, and been moderately effective, but it’s the skillful combination of horror and dark humor that makes this film so unique and memorable.

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Count Yorga, 1970

From the video case: Two lovers, Paul and Erica, make a grave mistake. When they park their van outside of a foreboding, vine-covered manor, the new owner – a vampire – decides to feed on the trespassers. The next morning, Paul has a terrible headache and Erica has two mysterious puncture wounds in her neck. Now, Paul must figure out just what happened before he loses the love of his life – and his own life – forever! (1970, color)

Mark says: Though this is not my favorite vampire movie, it does have some redeeming qualities.

Count Yorga is probably one of the first films to bring vampirism into the modern day. The setting is Los Angeles during the 1970s. In an opening scene a truck hauls a coffin-shaped crate through city streets. As we watch the truck weave through traffic, the narrator (George Macready) informs us of vampire legends and suggests that vampires may not only be an ancient phenomenon, but a modern one as well.

Though Count Yorga is full of vampire cliches (howling wolves, flashes of lightening, a spooky mansion, etc.) it also provides some unusual backdrops. The juxtaposition of Count Yorga, in full vampire attire, climbing into a Volkswagen Minibus to attack a pair of lovers is somehow startling, and a bit amusing, at first. However, I have noticed with more frequent viewings, that a vampire in a minibus does not seem that out of place.

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Moon of the Wolf, 1972From the DVD case: After several locals are viciously murdered, a Louisiana sheriff begins to suspect that he may be dealing with a werewolf. (1972, color)

Mark says: The first thing that grabbed my attention regarding this movie, is that it stars one of my favorite scream queens from the 1950s, Barbara Rush (It Came From Outer Space, When Worlds Collide). She’s a bit older in this film, and dressed in a ridiculous 70s wardrobe, but she still maintains her scream queen charm.

This made-for-tv movie features some recognizable character actors as well: David Janssen is Sheriff Aaron Whitaker; John Beradino is Dr. Druten, and Geoffrey Lewis plays local hillbilly and werewolf victim, Lawrence Burrifors.

Because Moon of the Wolf was made for television, I’m giving it more slack than I would give a theater release. The acting is solid and the plot line is not too ridiculous, though it does have some soap opera elements.

Moon of the Wolf fails as a mystery, because it is quite obvious early on which character is the werewolf. We are given three suspects to ponder, but any novice tv detective could solve this case blindfolded. The main clue is that the killer is left-handed, and Sheriff Whitaker wastes no time in asking each suspect if he is a southpaw.

The werewolf does not actually show himself until nearly the end of the story. There’s no transformation scene, and when we finally do get a good look at the critter, we are apt to laugh. The poor beast looks like someone rubbed black shoe polish on his nose.

Still, this is a fun movie, and worth a view especially if you are a fan of werewolf flicks. I picked up this DVD gem, brand new, for only $2.50 at a local video store. I would say the entertainment value was certainly worth the price of admission.

Directed by Daniel Petrie.

Scene to watch for: Dr. Druten and Sheriff Whitaker don’t seem to have any qualms about drinking hard liquor on the job.

Line to listen for: “Well, we’re lucky you ain’t got a pocketful of dimes, aren’t we?”

Mark’s rating: ! ! ½ out of 5.

IMDB Link

Empire of the Ants, 1977

From the video case: In this chiller based on H.G. Wells’ terrifying novel, Joan Collins is an aggressive land developer trying to turn a swampy island into an exclusive residential community. In the process, her builders rupture a can of atomic waste that has washed ashore. A colony of ants feasts on the substance, which causes them to grow into voracious monsters with heightened intelligence and cunning. The night of Marilyn’s gala opening arrives, and the ants are ready. With a vicious persistence, the monsters attack the guests, cutting off their only means of escape. Forced into the jungle, their only hope of survival is a risky, one-in-a-million chance that could destroy them all. (1977, color)

Mark says: Every now and then I watch a movie that is so bad that I actually feel embarrassed for the cast. Empire of the Ants is just such a movie.

Don’t get me wrong, this movie has plenty of merit as a schlock great, and I enjoy it immensely. When you see Bert I. Gordon’s name (Earth vs The Spider, Tormented) attached to a film (in this case, producer and director) you know you are in store for a few good chuckles. But he really outdid himself with this monstrosity. The laughs come so fast and often that Henny Youngman would be envious.

Just when your sides are aching from laughter with the horrendous 1970s dialog, the “special” effects of the giant ants come on screen to finish you off. This movie shows no mercy. The characters are so unlikable that you’ll find yourself cheering whenever the creatures kill off another castaway. But this movie is fun. Terrible, terrible fun. Be sure to watch it with friends to share all the schlock goodness.

Look for Robert Lansing (4-D Man) in the role of Dan Stokely and Jacqueline Scott (Duel) as Margaret Ellis. Tom Fadden (1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers) plays Sam Russell.

If you want to watch a genuinely good giant ant flick, let me recommend 1954’s Them!

Scene to watch for: Harry and Velma emerge from their shack haven to find themselves surrounded by giant schlock ants.

Line to listen for: “You’re so terrific in the sack that it almost justifies the extensive salary that I have to pay you.”

Bonus: Pamela Shoop, one of the stars, shares stories and photos from the filming of Empire of the Ants.

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! out of 5.

IMDB Link

The Day of the Triffids, 1963

From the video case: For reasons unexplained by science, hundreds of meteorites begin to fall to Earth and blind those who witness the phenomenon. The few who retain their sight are horrified to encounter dandelion-like fluff known as Triffids. These Triffids multiply and grow into man-eating plants that begin to march on civilization, destroying everyone in their path. Join four survivors of the terrifying onslaught of Triffids as they search for a means of destroying the menacing plants. (1963, color)

Mark says: Considering this film’s ridiculous premise, it’s surprisingly fun to watch. It is based on a novel by John Wyndham, whose book, The Midwich Cuckoos, was the basis for the sci-fi classic, Village of the Damned.

The Triffids themselves are not that impressive, and are hardly menacing. They uproot themselves and walk about in a fashion more apt to make you laugh than shudder. Though they have the ability to sting and gobble up humans, they move too slowly and look too silly to be truly sinister. Their only real threat seems to be in their numbers. These beasts multiply like weeds.

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Night of the Living Dead, 1968

From the DVD case: Inspired by Richard Matheson’s novel, I Am Legend, this grimly realistic 1968 shocker revolutionized the horror film, followed by two sequels (Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead) and many more imitations.

It begins as squabbling siblings Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) visit their father’s grave outside Pittsburgh, a visit that becomes a nightmare when Johnny is killed by a walking corpse. Soon Barbra and the resourceful Ben (Duane Jones) are besieged along with a family in an isolated farmhouse, as each new victim rises again to pursue the others in its relentless quest for living flesh. (1968, b&w)

Mark says: Talk about recreating a genre, director George Romero really broke the mold with this film. After Night of the Living Dead it became blatantly obvious that directors did not need a large budget to set their audiences on edge; disturbing concepts, high tension, and social poignancy are more than enough.

Duane Jones is excellent in the role of Ben, our protagonist. It is often noted that portraying a black man as hero in a racially charged era was more than a little significant. Immediately social norms are challenged. What’s more noteworthy, though, is that Ben’s color is never mentioned in the film, even by the character (Harry Cooper) who seems he would be the obvious bigot. A wonderful touch, I think.

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