Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Spider Labyrinth (1988)

When I was young, I wanted to be a makeup effects artist.  The work of such artists as Jack Pierce, Dick Smith, Rick Baker, and Rob Bottin fired my imagination (names like Sergio Stivaletti and Gianetto De Rossi were still unknown to me, and where the hell’s the comprehensive book about the FX masters of Italy [he wondered as he jotted down a note to himself]?).  Rather ignorantly, I used to say that I wanted to be in special effects, not realizing that the two are not wholly the same thing.  But I wanted to create cool-looking characters like Rawhead Rex or the Mummy (in fact, I used to wrap myself in Ace bandages [or as much of myself as the couple we had in the house would allow, which wasn’t much on a portly kid]) not wire bullet squibs or build retractable blades.  Today, I’d probably kill for the opportunity to do any of it.  

Back to the point (which I so rarely have), one Halloween I got a werewolf makeup kit rather than one of those rigid masks and plastic non-costumes that were staples of the holiday for decades.  This makeup required the application of cotton to my face with a green (yes, green; I suppose the makers didn’t want kids being mistaken for rabid dogs and being shot in the streets, though I would suggest they had nothing of the sort to fear) liquid latex.  A set of vampire teeth to complete the illusion, and I found myself staring into the mirror at one of the worst monster makeups I had ever seen, even for one applied by a child.  The instructions said that if you removed the makeup gently, it would come off in one piece and could be used again (how droll).  Well, it didn’t come off in one piece, but I wasn’t terribly broken up about it.  My love of practical makeup effects continues to this day, and if this escapade taught me anything it is that even cruddy work can consume an inordinate amount of effort.  But there is still a difference between work that simply doesn’t succeed and work that doesn’t succeed because of laziness.

When Alan (Roland Wybenga) was a child he was traumatized by a giant (stop-motion) spider while hiding inside a wardrobe during a game of Hide & Seek.  As an adult, he is a professor of Oriental Languages and part of the Intextus project, whose committee calls Alan in to discover the whereabouts of one Professor Roth (László Sipos) who has gone incommunicado while working on the project in Budapest.  Alan meets Roth’s pretty assistant Genevieve (Paola Rinaldi) and even manages to meet with the Professor himself who warns Alan that he is being drawn into something from which he is not going to be able to extricate himself.  After a large black ball smashes through Roth’s window, and the older gentleman is subsequently found hanged and covered in webbing, things get really weird.

To say more about the plot of Gianfranco Giagni’s The Spider Labyrinth (aka Il Nido Del Ragno) would be unfair, since the whole thing hinges on mystery.  However, it is almost impossible to talk at any length about the film for the same reason, so there may be some spoilers ahead (I’ll try to avoid them, but I can promise nothing).  It has also come to my attention via IMDB that I watched what is probably the shortest version of the film available, so I can’t be certain that any of the film’s shortcomings are intrinsic to the film or its various forms.  I hate that.  Onward…

If you look anywhere that this film is written or talked about, the obvious references will be to the Giallo and Horror genres, and they are prevalent throughout, no argument (though I would suggest that this leans more toward the latter than the former).  However, I also noticed a heavy Noir aspect to the film, and I think it’s here that hairs can begin to be split.  Alan is a Man of Letters but he has a past which haunts him into the present.  In fact, the film is obsessed with motifs of the past.  As the film opens, Alan drives in an old car listening to Oldies music.  He sees a young boy decked out like one of the “Dead End Kids” at multiple points in the film.  Roth lives in an old, decaying apartment building.  The Intextus project is interested in old religions and (probably) older gods.  

Further, Alan is a man who is held prisoner by a fate he cannot escape, and this accounts for the arachnid and maze themes.  Consequently, there are spider webs galore as well as piles of wood and barbed wire which block roads, a labyrinth made up of windblown sheets, and long stretches of road which reveal nothing of a way out, just more confusion.  The filmmakers string the plot along like a gumshoe flick from the Forties, with questions leading to answers leading to more questions.  There are heavy shadows and low angle lighting in almost every interior shot of the film, as well as the use of poor weather as a portent of doom and thick fog which obscures the truth and in which danger lurks (as well as a little illumination).

The Spider’s Labyrinth also deals at length with concepts of conspiracy, paranoia, cultism, and institutions versus individuals.  When Alan is called before the Intextus committee, he is essentially cajoled by a priest (Bob Holton) and coerced by the tacit implications in the presence of a pair of corporate executives (John Morrison and Bill Bollender), that being the threat of losing his livelihood.  Of course, the Intextus committee is fully aware that they are sending Alan into a perilous environment, but they mention nothing of this to the man.  Nearly everyone in Budapest gives Alan sideways glances, and there are a great many shots of people around our main character trading knowing looks with each other.  Add to that, everyone who discovers anything about the Weavers tends to become overly suspicious of everything, and their dialogue tends to lean toward the realm of street corner preachers.  The members of the Weavers are all characterized as classic cult members; hive-minded, zombie-esque, untrusting, and untrustworthy.  Of course, the inferences of trust can also be applied to the Christian representatives in the film.  Thus, Alan is alone in a hostile world, torn between two deities, and losing his sense of self in the strands of some very metaphorical webs.

And so we come to my grievance with the film.  Without getting too far into details, Giagni and company drop a huge reveal fairly early in the going (in the scene with Maria the hotel worker, played by Claudia Muzi).  Afterward, the film seems to want to keep up the pretense that what we have seen may not have been entirely real, despite certain aspects of the event being true in the cinematic world based on how they are depicted in the film and (far more significantly) who witnesses them.  That the film maintains this façade for as long as it does is frustrating, since the movie could just as easily have moved into this strange, new territory and continued developing itself in that direction.  But since the film wants to be Giallo, Mystery, Horror, Noir, and Psychodrama for as long as it can perpetuate any one of them, it eventually crumbles in the end, falls back on the easiest of these to pull off (or the easiest in terms of wrapping up a film and giving the audience a cheap thrill), and leaving the audience stuck between bemused and befuddled.  Despite this, it is an intriguing and entertaining film, and I’d like to think that an inspection of its extended cut would provide a smoother transition between its disparate flavors.

MVT:  The general atmosphere surrounding the film is moody and effective.  The film also looks great thanks to some fantastic scenery and the cinematographic eye of Sebastiano Celeste (credited as Nino Celeste).  So, even if you’re let down by the way this film was written, you certainly cannot say the same thing about the way it was photographed.

Make Or Break:  The Make is the scene of Alan’s first night at the hotel.  As he is getting settled, he spies Genevieve (at least I think it is she) across the way undressing and cavorting around her place.  It brings to mind Hitchcock’s Rear Window, DePalma’s Body Double, and other films while being alluring and runic all on its own.

Score:  6.75/10  

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