Sunday, November 11, 2012

Spider Labyrinth (1988) dir. Gianfranco Giagni

a.k.a. Il nido del ragno

Logline: Professor Whitmore (Roland Wybenga) is recruited by a priest and two businessmen not to enter a bar with them, but to go to Budapest in search of an all-too-silent researcher they hired to study relics of a spider-worshiping religion practiced, inexplicably, throughout the many isolated communities of the ancient world. While in this foreign land, Whitmore dreams of spiders and gets lost in the sticky labyrinth of madness, with squishy black orbs, flame-haired demons, and spider babies around every shadowy corner.

Spider Labyrinth is an excellent late period Italian horror film, a conspiracy-tinged giallo infected with cult and supernatural elements. It reminded me throughout of Pupi Avati's superb and atypical giallo The House with Laughing Windows (1976), with which it would make a perfect uneasy double feature. Like that earlier film, Spider Labyrinth wallows in subtle menace before exploding into absurd, surreal terror at its conclusion, having deliberately ill-prepared its audience for the tonal and aesthetic shifts. Furthermore, the film's cult elements recall a couple other conspiracy gialli, particularly Francesco Barilli's The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974) and Aldo Lado's Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971), but Spider Labyrinth's intermittent supernatural splatter is so intense and shocking in contrast to those earlier films' more brooding atmospheres that Giagni's film emerges as being quite unique among Italian genre flicks in general and of an astonishingly high quality considering its late date of production. Italian fantastic cinema was, as far the country's filmmaking machine was considered, all but deceased by the late 1980s, so the fact that a film as worthwhile as Spider Labyrinth was skulking out there in the ether attests that some filmmakers still saw potential in the genre. (Sadly, Giagni has yet to direct another horror film, saving his talents for the sporadic documentary or TV project).

Approximately the first half of Spider Labyrinth is devoted to its central mystery involving the questionable religious practices of a spider-worshiping group called the Weavers. As Professor Whitmore lazily travels about Budapest uncovering the macabre secrets of an ancient tablet, the film remains endlessly compelling despite the culprits being apparent. (The culprits are, to no big surprise, almost the entirety of Budapest's population, who all belong to the Weavers cult and who make sure to collectively give Whitmore the evil eye for the duration, which he fails to ever notice). The film remains compelling because of some excellent scenes of tension building, like one wherein Whitmore is loudly discussing his progress in uncovering the cult's secrets over dinner in the dining room of the hotel he's staying at. As he lays out this information, the camera cuts to numerous shots of the various other diners eavesdropping and frowning with menace. One by one, they exit the dining room in deliberate fashion, leaving Whitmore and his companions as the dining room's sole occupants. (Other noteworthy moments of tension: Whitmore's lone, cryptic encounter with the paranoid researcher Holt shortly before his mysterious death; a scene in which he catches the hotel owner, Ms. Kuhn (Stéphane Audran), sitting in the windowless room of her "dead" child and spouting lines like "one gets attached, even to scars"; and some Rear Window peeping as he catches his escort and love interest, Genevieve (Paola Rinaldi), seductively undressing across the way). These aside, it's also the barely felt presence of those wild supernatural elements tantalizing from around the film's corners that keep the viewer enthralled before building to a crescendo of insanity.

For when the tension explodes, it does so with demonic gusto. The film is punctuated with set pieces structured around labyrinths (a subterranean tunnel as labyrinth, the city streets of Budapest as labyrinth), and its most impressive is a slice of Argento-esque opulence involving a construction of hotel bed sheets into a labyrinthine structure through which a shrieking Maria (Claudia Muzi), a hotel chambermaid who betrays the cult, is compelled by sets of hands groping from between the cracks, attempting to pull her under. After this stylish and horrific moment, the proceedings take a turn for the explicitly nutty: we witness squishy black balls that bounce menacingly into frame and presage the demises of the victims, stop-motion spiders (one that blooms out of a black flower), a witch demon with a shock of fiery hair who croaks with fury and can lynch you with her web-like drool, and finally a spider god who at first resembles a shriveled, scalp-less Kuato before messily turning into the spider alien from Carpenter's The Thing. Moreover, while the film elides spelling out every detail of its supernatural manifestations, the cultist nebulousness has a certain sick logic to it, and one wouldn't be wrong to call the film Lovecraftian with its cosmic implications. Spider Labyinth leaves one slack-jawed for the majority of its final ten minutes, which is (from a hardened genre fan) the highest of compliments.

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