Cult Cinema: The Spider Labyrinth (1988) - Reviewed

Courtesy of Medusa/Penta Film
Though he’d later become known for his television and documentary film work, Italian director Gianfrano Giagni started his filmmaking career with a bang of surreal horror spoken of the same breath as such giallo masters as Dario Argento and Mario Bava.  After directing the short film Giallo e nero, producer Tonino Cervi reached out to Giagni with the prospect of directing his first feature length film which became known as The Spider Labyrinth.  

A Lovecraftian effects-laden Euro-horror piece with subtle nods to both Argento as well as John Carpenter featuring arresting visual effects work from legendary artist Sergio Stivaletti, this largely forgotten gothic macabre gem is most definitely more than ripe for rediscovery by Italo-horror aficionados. 
Young language Professor Alan Whitmore (Roland Wybenga) is working on an intercontinental project translating ancient pre-Christian texts when a colleague assigned to it goes silent, leading Whitmore to Budapest, Hungary where he finds his partner acting strange while carrying on as though nothing is out of the ordinary.  

A day after giving Whitmore a secret notebook with vital information, the man turns up dead and soon after a mysterious witchy woman is serially murdering nearly every character Whitmore came into contact with.  Encountering a beautiful young seductress on his search, Whitmore in search of answers finds himself in over his head including but not limited to the occult, red herrings and a wealth of increasingly visual atmospheres. 
Moving the original script from Venice, Italy to Budapest and starting out as a slow burn before gradually erupting into bonkers Lovecraftian creature effects, surreal oversaturated colors and lighting, foreboding set pieces and even stop-motion animation, The Spider Labyrinth is proof positive virtue comes to those that wait.  

Channeling everything from Bava’s Kill, Baby, Kill! right down to its spiral staircase shot to the exaggerated colors of Argento’s Suspiria and even some more overt nods to Carpenter’s The Thing, this first (and only) horror effort from the eventual prolific documentary filmmaker is most certainly firing on all cylinders. 

Shot beautifully by Sebastiano Celeste (Zorro) who takes full advantage of the Budapest, Hungary locations including but not limited to an archaic steam filled bathhouse that’s downright disorienting, the handsomely composed photography starts out formal before veering over into Dutch angles and confrontational close-ups of the actors faces.  

Music is also an essential component of this surreal waking nightmare, scored by eventual Terraferma composer Franco Piersanti whose orchestral soundtrack amplify the eerie unease of the settings and tone.  Performances by Wybenga and character actor William Berger are generally good though the one audiences will remember most vividly is that of Romanian actress Margareta von Krauss as the demonic witchy creature terrorizing the streets of Budapest.

Sadly, this inspired and shiny little Italian horror gem has never made it beyond a Japanese VHS release and poorly rendered YouTube uploads of faded copies, begging the question why with the renewed interest in all things Italian horror, this one remains undervalued.  A real shame as it is probably among the best horror debuts of the 1980s you’ve never heard of: a creature feature with a difference, a unique spin on Lovecraft and generally speaking a solid Euro-horror piece.  Here’s hoping the good folks at Arrow, Severin and Vinegar Syndrome are listening in!

--Andrew Kotwicki