Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Spider Labyrinth (1988)

Professor Alan Whitmore (Roland Wybenga) is the American coordinator of a large international archaeological project with the goal of combining the international research efforts regarding an occult group of gods that were seemingly worshipped in otherwise culturally unrelated parts of the world.

All participiants of the project have already reported their findings to Whitmore, only Professor Ross in Budapest hasn't been heard from for some time. Whitmore's bosses send him to Budapest, all the while insinuating that their project might be much more important and dangerous than the Professor himself believes. This being an Italian movie, Whitmore more or less shrugs and packs his bags instead of asking what the hell they are talking about.

In Budapest he is greeted by Ross' assistant Genevieve (Paola Rinaldi), leaving the viewer puzzled about how incommunicado Ross really is, a question Whitmore seems too distracted by staring at the poor woman's legs to ask. At least Ross is at home, even if his wife (Margareta von Krauss, I believe) explains to Whitmore that her husband isn't in a state to do much work.

Ross acts quite paranoid. He seems convinced that someone (or something) is after him and doesn't even trust his wife. In an unobserved moment, the older man slips Whitmore a notebook and two fotos of a strange tablet, only to just disappear into thin air after someone throws a brown orb through a window. Whitmore decides to return later in the evening.

Genevieve already awaits him outside, eager to show him his hotel, and even more eager to tell him that its directly opposite of the house she lives in. Why, he could even be able to see through her window! The hotel is a weird place. It's run by Mrs. Kuhn (Stephane Audran), a middle-aged woman just a little too interested in Whitmore. Everyone else there can't stop staring at the scientist, too, although our hero seems quite oblivious to it.

After a little notebook studying and a look at Genevieve flashing her breasts through her window at him, the Professor decides to return to Ross' places, only to be apprehended by a mysterious man (William Berger). As is the duty of mysterious men prowling dark streets, he warns Whitmore of some undefined, yet terrible danger that awaits him, and urges the American to get away quickly. Whitmore doesn't listen, of course, and finds Ross' abode surrounded by police.

Ross has been murdered and is now hanging from the ceiling of his room bound with something that looks very much like cobweb. It's all made even more mysterious by the fact that the woman Whitmore believed to be Ross' wife is nowhere to be found. Worse, Genevieve doesn't know of anyone living with the old man. The inspector in charge doesn't really suspect Whitmore, but still takes his passport away and "asks" him to stay in the country a little longer.

This is just the beginning of the strangeness the scientist has stumbled into. Soon everyone who is trying to help him or warn him is murdered by an Italian horror film witch (heavy metal edition) with arachnid tendencies and Whitmore finds himself in the possession of a tablet containing the names of the Gods of a hidden cult of people who have become something not completely human. This cult is still very active today and its members will do anything in their not inconsiderable power to prevent these names from being known.

For Whitmore himself, they have worse plans.

1988 wasn't a great year for the type of occult horror The Spider Labyrinth deals in. In fact, the end of the 80s wasn't a good period for Italian horror at all, so finding a solid film like this, made by an unknown like Gianfranco Giagni, is a minor sensation for the fan of Italian genre films.

And an Italian genre film it is, probably very much inspired by Argento's supernatural films, and full of the things that drive the detractors of this part of the horror genre just nuts. For example, there's the typically cool, slightly artificial acting, the even more artificial sounding dub and the film's disinterest in being part of the kingdom of linear logic. The latter I do see as a strength in a film that is very much about someone leaving the rational world and discovering that the universe is mad, dark and chaotic. The film is even subtly Lovecraftian, with its insinuation of dark gods who are worshipped by hidden cults all over the world, and Mrs. Kuhn's explanation to Whitmore that there is no light to worship, but only darkness (and spiders and their webs).

The film also has some genuinely original ideas, especially in the way the cult members are changed.

If a viewer is willing to go with it, Giagni's film is really quite something, starting out slowly and innocently, but building up to one of Silvio Stivaletti's most freakish monster designs when Whitmore finally meets one of the gods. On the way, Giagni makes extremely good use of the cobweb and labyrinth metaphors, driving Whitmore in circles towards a center he probably would prefer not to find.

More problematic than the film's pace or its inclination towards the nonsensical are some problems you should probably blame on the director's inexperience. Giagni has obviously decided to use some of the stylistic elements typical for Argento or Mario Bava, but his use of colour and his lighting technique look rather heavy-handed compared to the work of his models or even of someone like Michele Soavi. The heavy metal witch also looks a little too silly to be shown this often and is rather bad for the dark mood the film strives for.

Of course, not being as good as the best films of Dario Argento or Mario Bava is more a luxury than a true problem for a film to have, and The Spider Labyrinth still is a very fine piece of cinema, as good a film as Italian directors were able to produce at the time.


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