The Spider Labyrinth
Blu-ray ALL - America - Severin Films
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (18th April 2024).
The Film

Linguistics professor Alan Whitmore (Sinbad and the Seven Seas' Roland Wybenga) is the coordinator of a massive international research project titled "Intextus" which is attempting to trace the origins of a religion predating Christ by three thousand years that worshiped a mysterious deity, evidence of which has been found around the globe, including Budapest where colleague Professor Roth had been providing the most promising material until abruptly cutting off communication completely. The college's board of regents send Alan himself to Budapest to reestablish contact with Roth who he finds paranoid and barricaded in his study after suffering a nervous breakdown according to his wife (Margareta von Krauss). Roth's comely assistant Genevieve (Paola Rinaldi) installs Alan in a nearby hotel run by the mysterious Mrs. Kuhn (Faceless' Stιphane Audran) but is unable to provide him with any more information on Roth's research and the source of his fears. After reading a journal entrusted to him by Roth in which he expresses fear of "The Weavers" Alan goes back to see Roth only to discover that he has apparently hanged himself; however, Roth's body is covered in a veil of spider webs and both Genevieve and the police claim that Roth never had a wife. Despite vague warnings from a fearful hotel maid (Malena's Claudia Muzii) and a seemingly crazy derelict (5 Dolls for an August Moon's William Berger), Alan continues his investigations and starts to suspect that the mysterious cult has not died out and both silencing those who might expose them while continuing to spread its influence like a spider's web.

One of the more obscure Italian horror films of the late eighties when the market was shrinking due to the video market and television and their accompanying lower budgets, The Spider Labyrinth is a combination of eldritch Lovecraftian dread and film noir-esque paranoia - The Third Man seems to have been a major inspiration on the film's labyrinthine depiction of an Eastern Europe city – that nevertheless hedges its bets with a Dario Argento-esque mix of supernatural and slasher aesthetics – including a killer who can emit spider webs strong enough to hang people but nevertheless also stabs them not with talons or fangs but with a butcher knife, including one victim who is menaced in a room of billowing sheets and saturated green and blue gel lighting that echoes set-pieces from Suspiria and Inferno – sharing with its Argento-produced contemporaries Demons 2, The Church (also shot in Budapest in some of the same locations), and The Sect the animatronic and stop motion creature effects of Sergio Stivaletti but employing them in a more restrained fashion until the climax which like the aforementioned Michele Soavi gothic horrors owes heavily to Rosemary's Baby. The film's narrative may actually be quite predictable – and watered down by the individual contributions of four screenwriters – but music video director Gianfranco Giagni – who followed the film up with a miniseries adaptation of comic artist Guido Crepax's Valentina – and cinematographer Nino Celeste (The House of Clocks) nevertheless distinguish their film in its deployment of the city's environs, surreal sets including a web-strewn and corpse-littered sewer, and a sex scene that is quite lengthy and graphic for late eighties Italy – when Joe D'Amato was softening things for American cable television (while simultaneously directing hardcore direct-to-video films) – before the de rigeuer freeze frame shock ending.


Despite being one of the more creative Italian horror films of the eighties, The Spider Labyrinth was not picked up for U.S. video, but bootlegs of the widescreen Japanese-subtitled VHS started making the rounds but there was no sign of a DVD or Blu-ray for a long time coming due to the involvement of Silvio Berlusconi-owned funding company Fininvest. A newer transfer did turn up on Italian television from Mediaset – who handled Fininvest's domestic Italian operations – and it was with them that Severin discovered the rights and the negative (presumably while sourcing some of the Italian genre television titles they have since released). Initially released last year as a Black Friday website-exclusive 4K UltraHD/Blu-ray/CD combo and then now as separate standard edition 4K UltraHD/Blu-ray and single-disc Blu-ray editions, the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-ray not only scrubbing away the NTSC video haze of the earlier master and the video noise from the saturated color gels, but also revealing more subtle color choices that give the film a sort of "color noir" as well as the rough edge of old school stop motion effects, latex prosthetics, and a few matte composites that is quite endearing.


Audio options include English and Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 tracks – the former a mix of production audio and post-dubbing in the style of a lot of Italian films from this period that made use of ADR to create composite dialogue tracks – that Severin's case and menu designate as stereo but are actually in mono as the film was originally mixed (the Taiwanese laserdisc's Dolby Surround designation is either misleading or simulated by adding stereo delay to the dual mono track like the Japanese Dolby Surround VHS release of Nosferatu in Venice). Dialogue is always clear, foley effects forceful, and the scoring of Franco Piersanti – who favors Herrmannesque orchestral strings over synths – sound richer here than on the Japanese tape, although the difference between the mono mix of the music and the score's original stereo master can be heard when letting the disc's main menu play (the aforementioned Severin limited edition set having included the CD soundtrack in stereo). Optional English SDH subtitles are available for the English track but there is no translation of the Italian track.


Both the 4K UltraHD and Blu-ray discs include the film's international trailer (2:01) and an audio commentary by Dr. Will Dodson, Professor of Rhetoric and Media Studies, and Ryan Verrill, host of The Disc Connected. This is an unusual commentary track for an Italian horror film in that Dodson and Verrill offer no shooting anecdotes or express much knowledge of the cast, crew, or Italian genre film making practices of the period. Instead, the pair attempt to engage with the film's themes of language and communication, and how the plot cinematically embodies the literary genre of "the weird" to which belongs the Lovecraftian dread of the influences of cosmic forces and the inability to express it through logic. While they do make some stimulating points that make the film worthy of additional viewings, it is difficult to determine just how much of this was intentional and how much of it might have been left unexplored due to "nightmare logic" or having the director and four different screenwriters working on the script at different stages.

"Caught in a Web" (45:10) is an interview with director Giagni who reveals that he had grown tired of making music videos – both freelance and for an Italian music television program – when producer Tonino Cervi (Queens of Evil) who he recalls as exciting due to his prominent producer credits like Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert and Bernardo Brertolucci's The Grim Reaper – as well as being the son of actor Gino Cervi – but also striking him as unreliable (Cervi operated his office out of his "furnished apartment" and had Giagni drive him around). Of the four screenwriters, he recalls working mostly with Riccardo Aragno – which was his real name despite, Giagni notes, being reminiscent of the Italian word for spider – and Gianfranco Manfredi, a singer who he knew from music videos but also as a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. He also recalls that Cervi wanted to shoot the film in Todi, Perugia but Giagni convinced him it would be cheaper to shoot in Hungary and the location choice afforded them a larger crew despite older equipment like wooden dolly tracks, and he recalls that Wybenga had been a ballet dancer and Rinaldi came from theater. He also working with cinematographer Celeste and visual nods to other films including The Third Man as well as not only Rosemary's Baby but more explicitly The Tenant.

In "Arachne" (40:39), screenwriter Manfredi reveals that the original script Cervi provided dated back to the seventies and was more directly inspired by Rosemary's Baby, that the hero was originally a detective sent by the Vatican, and that Cervi wanted a role created for Audran. The spider aspect was Manfredi's contribution, inspired by the Eastern European setting and a reading of Hanns Heinz Ewers' "The Spider" along with his love of Val Lewton and specifically The 7th Victim. He was not on location for the shoot but present during the editing and believed the sex scene between Wybenga and Rinaldi was real. He also recalls the reaction of Lamberto Bava (Demons) to the film's slow pace.

"All the Colors of a Spider" (19:56) is an interview with cinematographer Celeste who recalls having a great relationship with Giagni, more so than with Cervi, and that while he was inspired by the lighting of Suspiria the aforementioned murder scene in the maze of sheets was created on the spot because the original set was not ready. He recalls that the Dallas crew were baffled by him not using a light meter and gifted him one, while also recalling the presence of the mafia throughout Budapest. He also discusses his choices of colored lighting in different locations as well as finding the film's Hitchcock references unnecessary.

In "Smile of the Spider Woman" (34:05), actress Rinaldi recalls going to stage school until she landed the role of Ophelia in a production of "Hamlet" by Gabriele Lavia (Deep Red) in 1980 which opened more doors for her, and that she had also done a few small film roles before being offered a larger role in The Spider Labyrinth. She relates the film's dichotomy of female sexuality as both overtly sexual and mysterious to the differing approaches of Cervi – who put her through hours of fittings of form-fitting wardrobe with designer Nicoletta Ercole (Under the Tuscan Sun) – and Giagni; and that both she and Giagni attempted to find a synthesis between the conflicting perspectives on both the character and the commercial aspects of the film. She also recalls how she and Wybenga approached the film's nudity and sex scene, as well as reuniting with Celeste on a soap opera.

In "Death in Stop Motion" (39:09), special make-up effects artist Stivaletti discusses his love of Ray Harryhausen and fellow countryman Armando Valcauda and the art of stop motion animation, but that he had a hard time pitching its use to different directors, and that it was his idea to employ it in The Spider Labyrinth (Stivaletti had already employed it in minor sequences in Demons 2 and the made-for-TV horror film Dinner with the Vampire as well as some maggot effects in The Scorpion with Two Tails and the firefly in Phenomena). Of the film, he discusses the greater creative freedom he had with Cervi and Giagni, the difficulty of animating all the appendages of a spider, finding the right framerate to photograph the animation, the spider web effects, as well as his own DIY "Dynamation" to place a scale model creature in a live action scene for the climax.

"Web of the Weird: Placing Spider Labyrinth in the Weird Genre" (17:25) is a discussion with Dr. Will Dodson, Ryan Verrill, Erica Shultz – author of "The Sweetest Taboo: An Unapologetic Guide to Child Kills in Film" – and others that distinguishes the "weird genre" from the Gothic with which it shares some tropes, and examples of the film's approach to cosmic horror.


Despite being relegated to the bootleg and import circuits for English-speaking viewers, The Spider Labyrinth is one of the more creative Italian horror films of the eighties worth rediscovery.


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