BILL’s BIZARRE BIJOU
William D. Carl
This week’s feature presentation:
THE SPIDER LABYRINTH (1988)
Welcome to Bill’s Bizarre Bijou, where you’ll discover the strangest films ever made. If there are alien women with too much eye-shadow and miniskirts, if papier-mâché monsters are involved, if there’s a multitude of drag queens and camp sensibility, if go-go dancers in cages are featured, if your local drive-in insisted this be the last show in their dusk till dawn extravaganza, or if it’s just plain unclassifiable – then I’ve seen it and probably loved it. Now, I’m here to share these little gems with you, so you too can stare in disbelief at your television with your mouth dangling open.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, horror movies were everywhere, and the Italians were making some of the best, and certainly some of the goriest. It was the heyday for directors like Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato, and Bruno Mattei, but by the late 80s, the movies weren’t very original. Most of them were simply copies of American films, and many were certainly not among the decade’s most interesting. Gone were the days of SUSPIRIA (1977), THE BEYOND (1981), or CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980). Instead, we were getting tepid fare such as WITCHERY (1988), AENIGMA (1987), SPECTERS (1987) or (God help us) Dario Argento’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1989). However, in 1988, a little movie was made in Italy that is creepy as hell, contains some whacked-out gore that’s completely original, and it is nearly forgotten. Directed by a man who had never made a horror film and who never would again (Gianfranco Giagni ), THE SPIDER LABYRINTH (1988) is a chilling example of what could be done on a small budget with a great concept.
We begin with a dream/flashback in which a young boy is locked in a large cabinet by another kid, one of those who speak in that bizarre way kids do in Italian dubbed films—they all sound like SPEED RACER characters. The boy is terrified, then fascinated, by a huge, seemingly sentient spider that is in the wardrobe with him. He awakens, now a grown, handsome man (model-turned-actor Roland Wybenga of SINBAD, 1989) named Professor Alan Whitmore. He is summoned by a committee, so he goes to the city, which is obviously in America . . . note the proliferation of American flags, so, yes, America and definitely NOT Europe.
Whitmore walks into an office with a man in a suit, a military officer, and a priest (sounds like the beginning of a joke) after he has a long drive in his red convertible while listening to 1940s swing music. The committee is in charge of a project called “Intextus,” something to do with an old cult that appeared at the same time in various locations around the world. Whitmore is a linguist who corresponds with a field professor named Roth, who is in Budapest. Roth has broken off all communication, so the committee sends Whitmore to Budapest to discover what has happened to Roth and his research.
Whitmore is met at the airport by Roth’s secretary, the beautiful Genevieve, who likes to stand naked in front of her bedroom windows. She takes him to the professor’s house (lovely scenes in the city of Budapest), and he is met by Roth’s wife, who is a dead ringer for Cloris Leachman in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974). There is also a weird kid in the courtyard, swinging on a swing, who disappears. Mrs. Roth informs Whitmore that her husband is very delicate, that he has just recovered from a severe nervous breakdown, and that he shouldn’t believe anything her husband says. She leaves Whitmore alone with her husband, who warns Whitmore to get away as soon as he can, and he hands the younger professor a small tablet and notes. Just then, a black ball breaks through the window and Roth ducks out of the room.
The hotsy-totsy secretary takes Whitmore to his hotel, which is located about a block or two away from Roth’s house. She introduces him to the creepy Mrs. Kuhn, who owns the hotel and constantly pets a mewling black cat. She has also kept her son’s room exactly as it was since the day he died as a toddler. She even sometimes rocks a cradle with a doll in it for hours on end. The lobby of the hotel is filled with people who look like rejects from THE SENTINEL (1977).
In Professor Roth’s notes, Whitmore discovers that the cult worshipped something like a spider that created inescapable labyrinths. As Whitmore heads back to see Roth, he is stopped by a Peter Lorre impersonator who warns him to leave, a stranger played by William Berger (of DEVIL FISH, 1984 and KEOMA, 1976). When Whitmore returns to Roth’s place, he discovers that Roth has been murdered and hanged from a beam in his study, then covered in spider webs. He also discovers the professor was never married! He had no wife! Duh-duh-duuuuh!
Later that evening, a maid at the hotel tries to warn him to leave, but is stopped by Mrs. Kuhn. When the maid goes to the attic to get more towels, she ends up in a huge maze, made up of white sheets hanging on lines, and a black ball, like that which crashed through Roth’s window, rolls into the maze. A snarling creature that looks like Grace Zabriskie mixed with the monster from THE HORRORS OF SPIDER ISLAND (1960) chases her through the maze, stalking her until it catches her and stabs her through the back of the head. It’s a great scene, scary in all the right ways, and really well choreographed and lit with bright neon greens and blues.
One by one, as Whitmore questions people, they are stalked and killed by the Grace Zabriskie monster. Little by little, Whitmore discovers that the spider cult is very much still practicing their rites, and they want to bring back their ancient spider god. In the final, insane scenes, monster babies, spider creatures, and rituals combine for a hallucinatory, surreal finale that defies description, but is gooey and gross and quite perfect.
The movie is filmed like a giallo, filled with sexy women, garishly bright colors, gorgeous photography, eerie settings, suspicious characters left and right, and brutal killings, but it is definitely a supernatural horror tale, owing much to H.P. Lovecraft and John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982). The plot unfolds expertly, giving one clue that leads to another that leads to another, all becoming more and more dreamlike as it proceeds. It’s hard to determine if the screenplay is actually that good, as the dubbing makes all the dialogue seem off-kilter and slightly-wrong, adding to the mysteriousness of the movie. The performances are all fine, with every single person acting as if they could be a part of the cult, except for Roland Wybenga, who plays Whitmore. He seems quite effeminate, gay, but he is supposedly drawn irresistibly to Roth’s secretary. This is weird, but he certainly looks the part of a young academic who is obsessed with the paranormal, an H.P. Lovecraft protagonist if there ever was one. Best of all is the cinematography by Sebastiano Celeste (as Nino Celeste). Every scene, even those in bright daylight, drips with dread and shadowy atmosphere. Everything looks terrific – and those colors! There are also some very cool practical effects involving the cult and their god in the finale that were created by Sergio Stivaletti (OPERA, 1987, CEMETERY MAN, 1994) which are still effective today. Yuck and eww!
Honestly, THE SPIDER LABYRINTH is worth discovering and releasing on Blu-ray (the color would look awesome in 4K). It’s better than many other Italian horror films of the period, and it really stands on its own eight legs as an ultra-creepy Lovecraft homage. I really liked it!
I give THE SPIDER LABYRINTH three and a half Grace Zabriskie monsters out of four.
© Copyright 2017 by William D. Carl