Monday, August 10, 2015

The Spider Labyrinth

The Spider Labyrinth Directed by Gianfrano Giagni (1988). 

By Richard Glenn Schmidt (

After waking up from a nightmare where his childhood self is tormented by a spider, Professor Alan Whitmore (Roland Wybenga) is called to work on a project for the university to connect all religions and beliefs through some ancient texts. His colleague named Roth has disappeared and now his rather shady bosses want him to travel to Budapest to complete his research.

Of course, everything is weird as balls when Alan arrives in Budapest. He is greeted by the lovely Genevieve Weiss (Paola Rinaldi), assistant to Professor Roth. She takes him to see the poor man. Roth’s wife Celia (Margareta von Krauss) warns Alan not to take her husband too seriously because his mind has become unhinged. The very paranoid Roth gives him a secret journal that he’s been keeping and a tablet that he claims contains the names of a sect of evil immortal beings. 

A mysterious man (William Berger, whose character is named “Mysterious Man”) delivers the wonderfully cryptic warning that if he doesn’t leave now, he’ll get “sucked into the vortex”. When Alan returns that night to meet with Roth, he finds the police and a bunch of onlookers waiting outside Roth’s place. The man has been murdered, hung from the rafters with a web-like substance all over him.  When Alan asks to speak to Celia Roth, the cops claim that the man had no wife. 
Now it’s Maria (Claudia Muzi) the maid’s turn to warn Alan that he needs to get the hell out of town before it’s too late. She makes a tactical error by warning him within earshot of Mrs. Kuhn (Stéphane Audran), the owner of the hotel who, of course, is part of the conspiracy. Kuhn is also totally insane, rocking the cradle of her dead son at night to pass the time. Maria is brutally murdered by a redheaded snaggletooth witch that hiss-screeches (I’m finding it really hard to describe this hideous sound) at her prey. 

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How about exactly like the hissing of cracking open a can of tepid Shasta?

As Alan continues to follow the clues to what the hell is going on, everyone who potentially could help him ends up skewered by the Screech Witch. He finds some solace between the legs of Genevieve but her seductive charms are leading him down the path that all men must take at some point. No, not marriage! I’m taking about the Super Secret Spider Cult! 
I’ve always thought it was weird that more Italian horror fans weren’t jumping all over this film. It’s just so damn good. Director Gianfranco Giagni’s only horror outing to date is really eerie, grotesque, bloody as hell, and bizarre enough to stand out in a pretty uneven period for Italian horror. Though it has moments that feel oddly like some of Hong Kong horror’s strangest flicks, The Spider Labyrinth has a dark and mysterious tone throughout with just a few explosions of total fucking insanity.

The music score by composer Franco Piersanti, in his only horror outing, is both robust and haunting; it’s a big reason why this film works so well. Producer and co-writer Tonino Cervi, once upon a time (1970, to be precise), directed the wonderful horror film, Queens of Evil. Cinematographer Sebastiano Celeste is certainly no stranger to the horror genre. He worked (as camera operator) on Night of the Devils (1972) -a favorite of mine- and would work on both of Lucio Fulci’s TV horror movies, The House of Clocks and The Sweet House of Horrors (both 1989). 

My first of two negative criticisms of The Spider Labyrinth is of the writing. It took four credited screenwriters to come up with a story that has a lot of gaping holes in it which are patched over with weirdness and atmosphere. For my tastes, that’s a compliment. 9 times out of 10, I love when a horror film just shrugs its shoulders and goes, “Okay, we’re doing this now.” When the giant rubber spider pops up in Murder Obsession (probably because that’s what Riccardo Freda thought audiences in 1981 wanted to see), I stand up and cheer.

The Spider Labyrinth owes quite a bit to Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Inferno, especially with the stalking and killing scene of Maria the maid. But it intentionally references Hitchcock with a rain-soaked umbrella sequence straight out of Foreign Correspondent (1940). Another film that I felt like Giagni was channeling was Pupi Avati’s The House with the Laughing Windows (1976) and that is a very good thing in my book.

My second problem with this movie is Roland Wybenga as Professor Alan Whitmore. I don’t know where they found this guy but he is kind of the worst thing about this movie. He holds his own for the most part but he’s a little too stiff and dull. As the miasma of paranoia and death swirl around him, it’s kind of hard for the viewer to care when you have such a dud in the lead role. The scary part is, with every viewing, Wybenga’s hammy performance is starting to grow on me. But that’s because I’m insane.

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That's right my hammy combination of Val Kilmer and George Michael will grow on you too!

I’m glad that Stéphane Audran was having an interesting latter half of the decade as she was in this and Jess Franco’s Faceless the year before. The always reliable William Berger makes the most of his totally underwritten character. Sadly, he passed away only 5 years later but left behind a vast body of genre film work having been directed by Mario Bava, Jess Franco, Fernando Di Leo, Enzo G. Castellari, etc.  

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Don't tell my grandchildren I was in this or Faceless, they won't visit me!

It wasn’t much of a surprise when I cracked open Luca M. Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta’s Spaghetti Nightmares to find that their paragraph-long review calls this movie “overrated” but I think the opposite is true. As much as I love their book, I am often at odds with these two Negative Nellies. This movie, even with its faults, stands proudly among its late 1980s Italian horror brethren. Thanks to its beautiful setting, moody lighting, over-the-top monster effects (from the legendary Sergio Stivalleti), suffocating paranoia, and fun Italian horror silliness, I highly recommend you track this one down. Hopefully, someone will give this films its HD debut at some point. 

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Remember those Spider Labyrinth Madballs from the 80's? 


  1. Luca M. Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta are way too judgmental in their reviews.

    1. The book is a great resource and jumping off point for one's exploration of Italian horror. But yeah, they don't seem to like anything. The worst crime of the book is all the spoiling of giallo plots in the review section. Not cool.


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