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The Nostalgic Attic: The Spider Labyrinth (1988)

12 March 2014

The Spider Labyrinth (1988)



"There's no God. There's no light. There's nothing."


A young boy runs into a shed while being chased by his friend. The friend decides to lock him in there as a prank, as kids do. Suddenly, a large spider drops down on the boy, sending him into an hysterical fit of screaming. Professor Alan Whitmore (Roland Wybenga) awakens in his bed from the nightmare, soaked through with sweat. Alan has been heading up what is known as the 'Intectus Project'; a world-wide academic study of a mysterious, ancient cult. He gets called into a meeting with the University directors, who advise him that their professor in Budapest has gone quiet, and that he needs to step up and head over there to find out what is going on.

Alan, reluctant to leave his role as lecturer, bites the bullet and jumps on the next plane to Budapest. He is met by the mysterious but beautiful Genevieve (Paola Rinaldi) who will act as his guide for the duration of his stay. He is soon dropped off at the home of wayward Professor Roth, who gives him some secret documents showing that he has found an ancient tablet involving the cult, and urges him to return later that evening. Before Alan leaves, a leave ball smashes through the window, frightening them both. Roth then disappears, and his wife escorts Alan from the property. She advises Alan that Roth has not been well, and to not trust anything he says.


Genevieve brings him to his hotel for him to rest. Later that evening, he returns to Prof. Roth's home, much against the advise of the hotel owner, Mrs Kuhn (Stephanie Audran; Babettes Feast, Faceless ) who doesn't seem to want him wandering around. He finds the professors home swarming with police; Roth has been murdered, and strange web-like stuff surrounds the ropes from which he hangs. The police are suspicious of Alan, as he was one of the last people to see him alive. They think him mad: Roth apparently has no wife

Later that night, the young maid, Maria (Claudia Muzi), tries to warn Alan about trusting anyone. When she returns to her quarters to sleep, she is murdered by a terrifying witch-like woman and her body hidden. Things soon start to spiral out of control for Alan. Who is the crazy old man chasing him through the streets? Why is there a plot against him? Is it all connected to the cult and its terrifying cosmic beliefs?


If you are familiar with Italian horror from the late 80's, then you will be surprised with how good The Spider Labyrinth is. Good? It's actually great. As the Italian genre industry slowed to a crawl by the end of the decade, many horror 'auteurs' such as Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi found themselves having to make the leap to the small screen in order to stay in a job. Even a respected international name like Dario Argento was struggling with budgets and finding it harder and harder to get a picture made. Despite the changing of the tides and a move away from horror by the industry in general, The Spider Labyrinth somehow manages to feel mature, dark, artistic and genuinely unsettling. 

I've been purposely vague about the plot (where I described to is only about 40-odd minutes in) as to dig any deeper would spoil it for those who haven't seen it. What starts out as potentially uninteresting giallo fare takes a dive into Lovecraftian territory, whilst still keeping those things we loved about the classic Bava and Argento films from the 60's and 70's. The lighting is colourful and the camera work fluid. Great use is made of the sparse sound and score (for once it wasn't over-baked) and the use of animalistic screeches during the murder sequences actually had my hair standing on end. The murder scenes are particularly well handled, and have a nice sense of brutality to them, even if they aren't too gory. Things take a turn for the surreal around the 60 minute mark, and the climax will definitely keep you glued to the screen. Once again, no spoilers, but special effects man Sergio Stivaletti (Terror at the Opera, Demons, The Church) definitely earns his keep with the horrors that unfold in the last 25 minutes.


Throughout the film, director Gianfranco Giagni keeps the atmosphere building through carefully selected camera angles and sound design and lighting. Visually, the film feels like it could have been the final part to Argento's 'Mothers' trilogy, if not quite on the same budget or scale as either Suspiria or Inferno. The film is much less about showing off technically than it is about getting you into the atmosphere to be able to swallow the climax. And even if the final freeze-frame feels a bit naff, it doesn't take away anything from what went before it.

Of course, the film isn't flawless. Some elements seem a little obscure and unexplained, and more information would have been welcome in the first half of the film. Some people do find the first act a tad slow, but it works well enough for me. Roland Wybenga is particularly bland in the leading role, but it may be more to do with the dubbing than his actual performance. Still, a stronger leading man would have worked better, even if he was going for plain-old university professor. The ladies more than make up for him, however, with Paola Rinaldi doing good work, both in and out of clothing. Audran is also fantastic as the creepy hotel owner. 


Sadly, Giagni didn't do much else as a director in horror, and it is a great pity. Coming across as the bastard child of The Wicker Man and Inferno, The Spider Labyrinth is one that has shamefully been overlooked. I'm unsure as to whether this is due to legal reasons or lack of interest, but the film has yet to be released on DVD anywhere. Please don't miss out on this one if you get a chance to see it, especially if you are a fan of the genre output from Italy. The film for me is one of the last great 'hurrah's of the spaghetti horror industry, before Cemetary Man finally closed the coffin lid on it altogether, six years later.


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12 Comments:

At 13 March 2014 at 00:57 , Blogger Wes M said...

Excellent stuff John, this one is completely new to me and it sounds great - colorful lighting, fluid camerawork - I am there ! Trailer looks fantastic too, and always a treat to hear the soft, soothing tones of Nick Alexander on dubbing duties. I'll definitely seek this out... Late 80's Italian Horror is an unfamiliar country to me, I have a few isolated films in my collection, all strictly big-hitters though - Demons, Phenomena, Opera, Stage Fright, and really that's it. Speaking of Michele Soavi, I hated Dellamorte Dellamore, my two attempts to watch the film were both abandoned half-way thru, so I've closed the book on that one, and am probably scared off seeing The Church and The Sect. Having said that I did like Zombie 4: After Death which is every inch the scrapheap you’d imagine but enjoyable nonetheless…

 
At 13 March 2014 at 03:16 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Wes, this film is right up your street - though don't expect anything as flashy as what Argento does in terms of camera work, it all fits the film perfectly, making it stylish but understated.

As the film industry went into decline in the 80's due to the sudden emergence of TV in Italy, it meant we had a lot of our familiar names making stuff directly for TV, and the quality is a lot lower due to budgets, etc. Those few you mentioned fell at pretty much around the time of the major decline, with only a few notable films to follow, and you mentioned them. Both The Church and The Sect are defintely worth your time, they are more 'Demons' than Dellamorte Dellamore, so you should be safe enough!

What was it about Dellamorte that put you off? I initially had a tough time with Rupert Everett, but he grew on me, and I absolutely loved the style of the film. It was a suitably quirky ending to Italian horror in the 90's, though Argento did at least make one final last great film with Sleepless...

 
At 13 March 2014 at 06:07 , Blogger Wes M said...

Yeah, I just did not like Dellamorte Dellamore - I thought Rupert Everett was okay, definitely not a showstopper... my memory is a bit sketchy on the film but I just felt it had too many incongruous elements, or perhaps a slight whiff of Terry Gilliamness, which Soavi might have picked up when he was shooting second unit on Baron Munchausen...speaking of Gilliam, he was on the Late Late last Friday week humping around his latest film and jeez, he came across as really snotty. Aside from Brazil and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, he falls well short of the kind of genius-director Empire readers consider him. Just because he's left behind a litany of unrealized films doesn't make him Orson Welles. But I digress... No one it seems is in agreement with me over Dellamorte Dellamore so I'll have to concede defeat on this one, but it inspired me to start this thread over at the Cult Labs board, a sort of therapy group for people routinely beaten over the head with the classics...

Yep, I did enjoy Sleepless much to my surprise. I pretty much wrote off anything Argento done past The Black Cat episode of Two Evil Eyes, and my suspicions felt nicely confirmed with his subsequent films. I came to Sleepless awfully late in the day, it was only when critics were burying the hatchet in Giallo that I decided to see how bad things had become - and of course the film turned out to be so strong that I had to rethink my strategy. If The Stendhal Syndrome comes my way, I will check it out, but I might sit out Mother of Tears and Dracula...

 
At 13 March 2014 at 08:00 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

I might suggest a re-try on Dellamorte at some point in the future for you, I think it is one that feels a bit more interesting on a re-watch, as to be honest, I was kinda let down on my first viewing. Saying that, you may hate it even more, I dunno.

You know, I'm fully agreed with you on Gilliam. I love Brazil, 12 Monkeys (even with Pitts horrible performance) and Fear and Loathing, but was far less than impressed by Tide Land, which missed the mark completely for me. Everything since has looked pretty terrible, and I haven't bothered with anything he has done since. I actually quite like The Fisher King, which tends to get overlooked when it comes to Gilliam.

Yeah, The Black Cat was great, but Trauma and Stendhal were fairly weak, despite protests from Argento die-hards. Mother of Tears is entertaining, but you could never tell it was made by the same director as Suspiria, and has very little in common with the previous entries in the trilogy. It has some great gore scenes, however, and some fun cameos. Watch it some night and expect the worst, but you may be somewhat entertained. If you are needing a modern giallo, check out Eyes of Crystal, it is worth a gander if you missed it. About on par with Sleepless, though not as bonkers...

 
At 15 March 2014 at 02:18 , Blogger Wes M said...

I rarely close the door on films, so Dellamorte Dellamore will get another day in court at some stage... I've been turned around on many films over the years - when Bronson first came out I absolutely hated it, the film irritated me no end, but one night I caught about 40mins of it on TV and whatever happened in the meantime, my opinion of the film was completely reversed... I remember seeing Blade Runner for the first time in the late 80's and hating it - not enough spaceships, robots that didn't look like robots, and hard-to-follow (and that was when the film had the voice-over). Admittedly I was probably 11 or 12, much too young and entrenched in 2000AD to appreciate Blade Runner's God-like genius. It took me a few go's to warm up to Once Upon A Time In The West as well...

Thanks for the recommendation for Eyes of Crystal. I will investigate... What happened to Dario Argento ? I've been extolling his virtues for years to friends (or rather my one friend who vaguely knows his work) but his last few films have caused me some embarrassment, and I think it's become a trend now in the press to greet each new film with mockery. Back in 2002 I felt sufficiently outraged to take Total Film magazine to task about calling Argento an Italian Schlock director, but y'know, the position is becoming increasingly hard to defend...

 
At 16 March 2014 at 06:29 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Sadly, like a lot of directors from his generation, Argento has had a tough time making the transition to modern audiences. What was once seen as terrifying now becomes 'camp' to a younger generation, and I can't imagine the Saw crowd really going for the likes of Inferno or be willing to give it time at all. Argento's films are definitely products of the time, but like any great art, they can still transcend the generation gap and be admired for what they are, thoroughly unique experiments in horror.

I think as the budgets became smaller, and distribution deals less fruitful, Argento having to scale back meant he ditched a lot of what made his films so unique; the style and sense of atmosphere. If he had of been able to adapt for a modern audience in the way he did with Masters of Horror (I'm not crazy on Jennifer, though a lot of people liked it) he might have stood a chance with getting younger fans in. But then again, the likes of Carpenter, Argento and Romero have been so influential on a generation of filmmakers that their current work no longer feels fresh as it once did. I mean, when Romero was making his Living Dead films, nobody could hold a candle to him for sheer scope and vision. Now, every second zombie film and video game borrows so heavily from him that he can't do what he once did, rely on his own ideas, as they are no longer his and have been assimilated into the general genre lexicon.

I think the same can be said for Argento, though his heightened sense of reality probably wouldn't play as well with modern viewers, even if his work is still being heavily pillaged. I just hope he gets to make that 'Last Great Film' before he vanishes completely.

 
At 17 March 2014 at 13:39 , Blogger Wes M said...

Yeah, I completely agree John, a lot of great art is difficult and challenging, but I wouldn't have it any other way - I really do hate things that are safe and stick to the rules. Apart from brilliant film making, I think it's Argento's willingness to throw away rational thought that really keeps his film vital for me - the last Argento I watched was Deep Red, and I really loved the wind-up toy that Glauco Mauri attacks - the whole sequence should be absolutely absurd, but somehow it works... But you bring up a great point about the audience for these films. The question of why I like these kind of films is not easy to answer, but broadly speaking I like these films for the same reason the Saw crowd don't - because they swim against the tide of fashion, and perceived good taste. I remember with some pain it must be said, when I went to see The Exorcist on its theatrical re-release in the very late 90's and the audience laughed and howled all the way thru - I brought my brother along with me, and I found the whole thing an ordeal to sit thru, I was cringing as these fucking assholes were pissing all over this great masterpiece. So y'know, you gotta take your beatings every now and then, which reminds me - a friend of mine watched Inferno a few weeks ago on my say-so and hated it ! (the same friend who watched The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and shrugged his shoulders!)

I'd love to think that Argento's demon hasn't abandoned him, but looking thru the filmographies of Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter and George Romero, none of them have made good important film in years, so I wonder is Horror a young man's game ? I didn't mention Cronenberg in that roll-call of the damned but I must admit, I haven't really liked anything he's done since Spider...

 
At 18 March 2014 at 13:45 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Yup, I hear you on what you said regarding 'rational thought' - sometimes those moments are the most truly terrifying things that happen in his films, such as the blind man being savaged by his own dog, or my personal favorite; when the person is attacked by the swamp at night time in Inferno. Now that is truly horrific.

As we tend to watch a lot of arthouse films, we are probably more in tune with what Argento is trying to do in those films, as were many cross-genre pieces from the 70's.I mean, can you imagine teenagers sitting down and trying to watch Eraserhead of Tarkovski's Mirror? I'm not trying to paint a generation with the one brush either, as I was once a teen watching those films, but the majority of cinema goers my age would never watch that kind of thing, so it's a losing battle to get younger audiences into an auteur such as Argento's works...

Oh man, I was there with you during those The Exorcist screenings... I had the exact same experience as you did. And do you know what is even worse? The Horrorthon in Dublin that runs every halloween in the IFI has gotten so bad for heckling films that I refuse to go anymore. The audience of alleged horror fans (many in their late 30's/early 40's, might I add) seems to be made of drunk hipsters who think everything is 'ironic', especially if it's old... you should have seen the guffaws of laughter that accompanied Dracula: Prince of Darkness, or the walk-outs and boo-ing over a genuinely incredible film like Amer... boggles the mind to think this is what the common horror fan thinks. Needless to say, Hatchet 3 went down a storm with the crowd.

I wonder if it's just not a genre that you can stay relevant in for a lifetime, regarding Hooper, Romero, and Carpenter. I mean, all of those guys made some extreme early films, with strong ties to the politics/sociology of their decades, but as we have just discussed, if you don't evolve the audience will move on. Even those guys look back at their early films and wonder where the anger came from, but hey, you can't be a young man all your life, sadly enough! Cronenberg, for better or worse(I enjoyed History of Violence and Eastern Promises, but they don't feel like Cronenberg) has managed to re-invent himself for modern audiences. The other that has managed to keep doing what he always did is Lynch, but he is now back to where he began, which is kind of incredible in itself. He made his gamble for mainstream success which was mixed beyond Twin Peaks, but I still love that he is doing what he loves; unnerving the audience.

 
At 24 April 2014 at 05:29 , Blogger James Gracey said...

Nice write up, JP. I managed to watch Spider Labyrinth online somewhere last year (complete with imbedded subtitles) - it's just crying out for someone to re-master it and release it on DVD. Or Blu-ray! It really reminded me of Argento's Inferno; indeed it boasts quite a few aspects that invoked his Three Mother's Trilogy.

 
At 24 April 2014 at 06:04 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Absolutely, it's certainly a better fit for an ending to the trilogy than Mother of Tears was. Glad you enjoyed it as much as I did, James, as you said, I would happily drop cash on a Blu Ray for this!

 
At 12 June 2014 at 19:17 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

I have never heard if this one - but if it makes it out onto a real release on disc - I'd certainly give it a watch. Spiders are creepy, man.

 
At 13 June 2014 at 02:47 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

This is worth holding out for a legit release, Craig. I reckon it will look lovely on Blu Ray.

 

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