Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Spider Labyrinth

1988
Dir. Gianfranco Giagni

A professor of languages working on a project translating ancient tablets from a pre-Christian religion travels to Budapest to find a colleague who has ceased communication, and return with his research. Shortly after he arrives, his ailing and strangely paranoid colleague is found dead. As the young professor delves deeper into the research, he finds himself increasingly entangled in a web of paranoia, grotesque murders and a bizarre cult determined to keep their existence a secret.

The Spider Labyrinth is an obscure oddity of Italian horror cinema. Made in the late Eighties, at a time when lets face it, many Italian horror films, save for the work of Argento and Soavi perhaps, was wildly uneven at best, and down right dire at worst. It manages to subvert expectations as it emerges as a curious entwinement of HP Lovecraft-inspired mythos, giallo trimmings, gothic horror atmospherics and occult conspiracy narratives, creating a highly moody and surprisingly gripping yarn.

While it may begin akin to the likes of such off-beat ‘conspiratorial’ gialli such as Short Night of Glass Dolls or House with the Laughing Windows, in which an outsider is drawn into a conspiracy with deadly and far reaching implications, The Spider Labyrinth later veers into more fantasy, creature-feature orientated horror. With a story revolving around a scholarly young man ensconced in the research of antique texts and artefacts that inevitably lead him to the discovery of some incomprehensively ancient and evil force that will threaten to shatter not only his belief system, but his very sanity, the film has a distinct HP Lovecraft vibe to it. The revelation that a secret and ancient cult known as The Weavers - whose gods are “not myths, but living creatures” and whose members will kill to keep their existence secret – also ushers events down a highly Lovecraftian route.



As an American in Eastern Europe, Professor Alan Whitmore (Roland Wybenga) is immediately rendered an outsider and it is during these scenes, and the way in which they build intrigue and suspense, that The Spider Labyrinth most resembles a fairly typical giallo narrative. Flashbacks of a traumatic event Whitman suffered as a child - when his friend locked him in a closet with a giant spider - also frequently pierce the narrative, lending proceedings a giallo-esque flavour. Whitmore’s ‘outsider’ status is highlighted by the way in which he is regarded with suspicion and outright contempt by various local types who all seem to know something he doesn't. While much of these moments are arguably clichéd, they still create a stifling atmosphere of paranoia and work to thicken the mystery surrounding uncommunicative colleague Professor Roth and the ancient texts he was researching. The marked contrast between the modernity of the university in Dallas, and the air of ancient traditions that linger foggily throughout the winding, empty streets of Budapest is effectively conveyed. It serves to highlight the hold the past has over the present in certain places, nourishing beliefs in ancient ways and practices. A particularly unnerving scene comes when Whitmore and his colleague’s sexy assistant Genevieve (Paola Rinaldi) have a drink at the hotel to calm themselves after the discovery of Roth’s body. Their hushed conversation draws the attention of everyone else in the dining room and an air of paranoia and unease abounds.

Giagni bides his time building a moody atmosphere and cranking up the tension, aided along the way with some darkly evocative conversations, such as the one between Whitmore and Mrs Kuhn (Stéphane Audran), the owner of the hotel. Woken up by screams in the night, Whitmore wanders through the dark and imposing building before happening upon a secret room where he finds Mrs Kuhn rocking an empty crib and pining for her dead child. They have a rather philosophical conversation about faith, God and mortality during which she intones: “God? There is no God. There is no light. There is nothing.”



This fairly low-key approach picks up momentum and eventually goes all out crazy with the introduction of a be-fanged, frenziedly-haired hag who stalks and violently dispatches anyone who tries to help the professor, leaping upon her victims like a spider. In one memorable scene she stalks her victim from the ceiling above, entangling him in webs she salivates, lifting him up to her so she can slit his throat. As the pace picks up Giagni lets rip with some jaw-dropping creature effects - courtesy of Argento regular Sergio Stivaletti. These moments are arguably rather trashy, but they still work within the context of the story and just add to the film’s already weird, off-kilter and quite frankly bonkers tone. Another stand out moment – and one that certainly provides a loving nod to Dario Argento - is the death of Marie (Claudia Muzi), a maid at the hotel who tries to warn Whitmore of the danger he’s in. Awakening in the night when someone whispers her name, she wanders through a vast, luridly green-lit laundry room with billowing white sheets everywhere, before being chased and stabbed in the head; her contorted, screaming face tightly pressed against a sheet she’s entangled in. The pièce de résistance must surely be the jaw-dropping climax that comes complete with a grotesque infant that mutates, courtesy of some squelchy The Thing-type effects, into a giant spider. Eek! The somewhat dated stop-motion spider effects also add to the increasingly delirious proceedings.


Giangi frequently doffs his hat to the likes of Argento and Bava throughout The Spider Labyrinth. Some of the scenes bear an uncanny resemblance to those in Argento’s Suspiria follow-up, Inferno; with characters wandering through a vast, formidable house in an almost dream-like state before being murdered in moodily lit set pieces. There’s also an interesting similarity in the appearance of Mrs Kuhn and Daria Nicolodi’s character in Inferno. Indeed, if you substitute the bizarre spider cult with the denizens of Mater Lachrymarum, you could well have another contender for a bona fide Three Mothers film, a la The Black Cat. The black ball that bounces into various shots just before someone is gruesomely dispatched echoes similar moments in Mario Bava’s deliciously gothic revenge-from-beyond-the-grave film, Kill Baby, Kill. While there are more than a few nods to the Masters, The Spider Labyrinth still unravels as an interesting and pretty unique film in its own right. It is also a very obscure film. The copy I watched was a VHS rip – complete with Japanese subtitles – courtesy of Midnight Video. For fans of Italian horror it is well worth seeking out, and one would hope that the likes of Shameless will one day give it a home on their label, lovingly restore it and allow it the chance to be seen by a wider audience.

15 comments:

John Baxter said...

Great review James. We were meant to show this in the Movie Bar last year before we had to cancel the season. You brought back fond memories.

James Gracey said...

Cheers John. Yes, I remember being very excited about seeing this alongside The New York Ripper. Shame it was cancelled. Were you able to obtain a decent copy from somwhere? Mine was downloaded from a VHS rip - complete with subtitles. Not ideal, but the alternatives seem VERY limited.

Erik (Drunketh) said...

Man, I've really got to break out my old VHS rip with subs and watch this again. It's been years. I remember loving it the first and only time I watched it so long ago, and man, what a Freaky ass ending!

James Gracey said...

I've watched it twice since 'acquiring' it last week. I loved it. Yes, it's kinda trashy in places, but overall, it's a pretty original flick with some really rather creepy and memorable moments. Aside from crazy spider-lady, my favourite aspect has got to be the moody atmosphere - it's just drenched in the stuff. And yes, freaky-ass ending is strangely perfect.

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

This is a new one on me. I'm not at all familiar with this obscurity James; But your review has whetted my appetite and I'll be sure to track down a copy (in the most dubious fashion) and give it a watch.

James Gracey said...

Hope you like it Shaun! Just looking around for it online led to the discovery of just how obscure and sought after (well, in certain circles) it actually is. The copy I acquired (also somewhat dubiously) was very grainy and washed out; but I still enjoyed every moment of it. It's just left me hankering to see it in decent quality now - I'm sure it would look amazing in remastered form.

Jon T said...

This one is totally new to me, James. I watched the trailer on youtube and it does look like a lot of fun! Interesting what you say about the Argento influences on this and The Black Cat. The lighting definitely reminds me of Suspiria and Inferno. Funny because I had always thought that those two films were unique, and I hadn't realised that others had tried to emulate their style! Great write up!

The Film Connoisseur said...

I'll definetly be searching this one out in one way or another, it looks like a must watch thanks for the heads up! I also hope that it gets a proper dvd release at some point.

James Gracey said...

@Jon - At times The Spider Labyrinth really feels like Inferno - particularly the scenes involving Maria's death and the professor's tentative exploration of a creepy antiques store. Like Mark and Sara's search for an ancient tome in Inferno, Prof Whitman is also looking for an ancient tablet that will supply him with doomful information. That a lot of the spooky stuff takes place in a vast and moody looking hotel, also calls to mind the sinister dwelling places of the witches in the Three Mothers films. Of course, this could just be my Argento-infatuated head reading too much into it, but I couldn't help noting these similarities. ;)

@Film Connoisseur - Hope you are able to check it out! There's so much in it that fans of Italian horror will love.

Hernan Y. said...

I'm sorry i have never seen this movie because after reading your review and checking the trailer i know i'm losing alot. It's good i found this post so now i'll search for this movie, thank you.

James Gracey said...

Hope you're able to track down a copy, Hernan. Sadly I had to resort to downloading it. I'm sure you'll enjoy it!

Terence said...

I really want to see this but alas, finding this dubiously is harder than I thought *cough0seedscough*. It definitely looks more serious and competent than The Black Cat.

Another extremely rare film I would like to see is the Italian Rosemary's Baby rip-off: A Black Ribbon For Deborah which has Marina Malfatti (All the Colours of the Dark).

James Gracey said...

Terence I want to see A Black Ribbon For Deborah too! All the Colours of the Dark certainly had its 'Rosemary's Baby' moments, didn't it? Let me just see if I can remember where I found TSL... *cough*

Terence said...

Oh my god thank you so much! I was pleasantly surprised by this. I loved how eerily quiet the characters were and the music is very fitting. Although the Spider Woman freaks me the hell out! This definitely deserves a proper DVD release.

I'm still desperately searching for A Black Ribbon For Deborah. The title, the posters, the premise and Marina Malfatti are so enticing that I just want to get my hands on this! I've really enjoyed Marina Malfatti's appearances in Italian horror (esp. in All the Colours of the Dark).

James Gracey said...

Yay! Glad you got the chance to see it, and that you dug it! It's pretty cool, isn't it? I've watched it a couple of times now. Best of luck tracking down A Black Ribbon For Deborah.