Movie – “Web of the Spider” (1971)

Spend a night in a haunted castle; win a hundred pounds. Familiar set up for a ghost story but this one has a few nice touches mixed in with various bits of silliness.

Like many horror films of its era, Web of the Spider was released with wildly different names in different countries, ranging from And Comes the Dawn… But Colored Red to Dracula in the Castle of Terror – though Dracula does not appear and there is only the slightest reference to vampirism – to several titles involving spiders – though, again, no actual spiders appear in the movie. Its origin is Italian and it is supposedly a remake of a 1964 movie Danza Macabra (aka Castle of Blood in the US and UK.) There’s a restored version of that movie available so I’m going to scare it up.

Poeposter

The version of the movie I saw was hardly restored and in fact, it presented a collection of faults from various source media. There were scratches from film stock and several passages of chromatic aberration likely from video tape transfers. And a maddening pan-and-scan attempt to collapse the widescreen composition to a TV. I feel like an idiot mentioning these problems, like a book reviewer who comments on the margins. The overall feel of the movie is a psychedelic mishmash. The costumes don’t match in period; the colors are wondrously lurid; the soundtrack is distortion and harpsichord; the audio felt like it was dubbed in later. In other words, a pleasant enough way to spend a summer afternoon.

This movie appeared on my Netflix queue because it features Klaus Kinski playing Edgar Allen Poe and because it is supposedly based on a story by Poe. Like many of the Corman Poe movies, the resemblance to anything actually written by dear E.A.P. is mostly one of suggestion and mood. Given Poe’s insistence on mood as the primary effect of literature, this isn’t as damning as it might be of other adaptations. Kinski is only on screen for 10 or so minutes in the framing story but his performance is everything I expected, a deranged, drunken, brooding Poe who insists that his writing is journalism, that everything he has described he has actually observed. There is a particularly nice P.O.V. shot of Kinski smashes open a coffin lid, filmed from inside the coffin.

I found Web of the Spider interesting as well as irritating. Some of my criticisms of the story could be directed at some ghost stories. I think the high brow academic description is the changing rhetorical position of the protagonist. Our hero, American journalist Alan Foster enters the house and spends most of the first act poking around, giving himself scares by seeing himself in mirrors, etc. Then he mistakes a portrait for a person and begins having auditory hallucinations (voices, music.) He plays a keyboard and thus joins the music/delusion and then is invited into a very physical interaction with Elizabeth, one of the ghosts. Nudge-nudge. Know what I mean. She is murdered by another ghost, then disappears. Then Alan happens upon a Dr. Carmus, a book of whose Alan has just been reading. Carmus is a metaphysical researcher and he lectures Alan somewhat tediously throughout the middle of the movie until Carmus leads Alan to a vantage point to observe a ghostly party. For a large portion of what I estimate is act two, the protagonist is even less than a passive observer. He is not depicted in the action and he does not interact with what he presumably is watching. He’s as good as taken the seat beside us in the theatre. After this segment ends, Alan is able to watch a previous attempt to spend the night in the now haunted castle, again as a pure spectator, and to see the tragedy repeat. However, this time, Alan appears in the frame of the action and actively tries to interact and prevent the tragedy. He cannot and the participants again dissolve. After that “play” has ended, poor Alan finds himself all too apparent to the ghosts, now who move in narratively convenient slow motion. They need his blood to live, evidently, though that metaphysical explanation didn’t seem to be adequately foreshadowed. All he needs to do is survive a few minutes more and to escape through the castle grounds. But he dies, crushed by the castle gates and in a voiceover Alan says he did it to spend eternity with Elizabeth, the ghost he was intimate with earlier. The various rhetorical placements of the protagonist with respect to the action could have been exploited better to be more effective. For instance, say Alan finds he is no longer able to carry a candelabra that he once was carrying around. There are moments shown when he is unable to move certain doors but the overall effect was to muddy the action rather to heighten the terror.

I am not a gore-hound but I really would have appreciated a bit more vivid depictions of the deaths. It was sometimes so understated (or censored?) that it wasn’t entirely clear who was being killed. Also, geesh, a little more sex too, or at least “chemistry,” that electric attraction between characters. I find it hard to believe that Alan would give up his life for such a passion-less one-night-stand. But then again, little is revealed about Alan’s character. Perhaps he was fated to land in this particular spider’s web… and I would have felt so much more satisfied if I had the slightest inclination that was the case. There was really nothing connecting the central character with the events of the story.

Quibbles all. As I mentioned earlier, I think the mood of the piece was Poe-esque and to be brutally honest, Poe’s own characters and plot-lines were often not the most interesting aspects of his stories. Web of the Spider was a good popcorn movie, not particularly scary though moderately intriguing. Think about screening it next January 19th (Poe’s Birthday)

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