The oddly mis-spelled words flash on screen: “Klaus Kinsky as Edgar Allan Poe.” He stumbles through a tomb, dressed in 19th century period garb, lit candle in hand. A score by Riz Ortolani indicating a European B-movie of the 1970’s meanders on the soundtrack, an electric guitar as fuzzy as the cobwebs in our man’s path. He stops in front of Berenice Morris’ grave. Kinski swallows down a bottle of booze, smashes it, takes up a shovel and begins digging up the grave in a frenzied manner that only he can do. This is the first scene of Antonio Margheriti’s (aka Anthony M. Dawson) Web of the Spider (1971). After a couple more scenes, Kinski disappears from the film and we are left with Alan Foster (Anthony Franciosa) as our protagonist, a journalist who accepts a creepy bet.
Web of the Spider is derivative on a number of levels, but not necessarily in a negative sense. The first ten minutes set up the viewer for an adventure involving Poe as a character, but then veers into the story of Foster taking up a bet to stay in a remote haunted mansion overnight in order to make some money. This structure is far more along the lines of Shirley Jackson’s short novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959) than anything by Poe that I am familiar with. By the early 70’s it seems as though this idea had already been done to death, even by the formidable director Mergheriti himself, who had basically made the same film previously in black and white, with Barbara Steele in Castle of Blood (1964).
After Kinski’s exit, the film dwells for a while in awkward territory, leaving us to wonder if this everyman, Alan Foster, can keep our interest, wandering around at length in the cobwebbed mansion. The nods to Poe continue for a bit more–a jump scare caused by a black cat, a grandfather clock chiming that invokes “The Bells” and a tick-tock that can be related to “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Finally, new life is given to Web of the Spider as characters begin to pop up around the haunted spaces, increasingly straining Foster’s composure. By the halfway mark, the film hits it’s stride with a series of events that become more and more bonkers.
Foster quickly falls for a ghostly blonde by the name of Elisabeth Blackwood (Michéle Mercier) who inhabits the mansion–or does she? Julia, (Karin Field) a brunette seen in a painting–such a consistent trope in Italian gothic cinema from Black Sunday (1960) to The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972)–comes alive, jealous of the passion between Foster and Elizabeth. However, it is a bit of a twist who exactly she is jealous of. Eventually we run into Dr. Carmus (Peter Carsten), a character Foster attempts to find order in, only to spark more confusion and hallucination. Carmus is interested in people made up of three parts: body, spirit, and senses. This allows for more of a sensual tone to enter Web of the Spider, something welcomed in the otherwise visually straightforward picture.
By the time we reach the labyrinthine depths of the film, which include a flashback sequence long enough for us to lose hold of any temporal coherence, Web of the Spider approaches the insanity of a film released one year earlier, In the Folds of the Flesh (1970). No particular spoilers here, but by this I mean that the film pivots on twist after twist after twist. It disregards any precise way of cinematic storytelling in order to take the audience on some kind of joy ride.
The reality of Foster’s being is brought into question and he takes a backseat, becoming very much like the audience themselves, as one of the women is revealed to be as murderous as a praying mantis–or a spider weaving a thick web, perhaps? What at first seemed like a cheap horror picture glossed over with an appearance by Klaus Kinski in the role of a famous macabre figure, eventually becomes a quality work of cinema that is in some ways psychedelic and mind expanding. Yet it owes far more to the gothic stories of nearly 200 years earlier, than the hippie counterculture at the time it was made.
Garagehouse Pictures has just released a blu-ray edition of Margheriti’s film, which in addition to a nice HD scan, includes two audio commentary tracks, one with Stephen Romano, the other with George Reis and Keith Crocker. Some entertaining super8 movie digest reels are thrown in, along with your usual deleted scenes and trailers. Some viewers unfamiliar with Italian and European horror cinema of the time period may be a bit put off by Web of the Spider, but it will surely please those who are avid or adept fans of the genre. It is a film that promises Klaus Kinski, but delivers something entirely different, along the lines of frenzied filmmaking and gothic terror.