Horrors of Spider Island / The Girls of Spider Island / It’s Hot in Paradise / The Spider’s Web / Body in the Web / A Corpse Hangs in the Web / Ein Toter Hing im Netz (1959/1962/1965) -***½
Germany is frequently overlooked as an exporter of tawdry exploitation films. Sure, we all know what a big deal the Germans were back in the silent era, and we’re similarly well acquainted with the country’s more recent arthouse heavyweights— Werner Herzog and the rest— but Germany is hardly the first country that springs to mind when one thinks about guys in tacky monster suits menacing half-naked girls. And that, my friends, is why everybody who cares about movies in which guys in tacky monster suits menace half-naked girls needs to see Horrors of Spider Island, the second of the highly eccentric low-budget horror flicks produced by Wolf C. Hartwig in 1959. Hartwig was, first and foremost, a smut peddler. Having gotten his start in 1953 with a taboo-breaking dramatization of the romance between Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun, he was certainly no stranger to controversy, and by the 1970’s, he had become one of the country’s most successful— and scandalous— film producers on the strength of the endlessly prolific Schoolgirl Report series of pseudo-documentary skin flicks. But nothing else he made can match Horrors of Spider Island and its companion-piece, The Head, for sheer weirdness.
I’m tempted to speculate that Hartwig had his eye on audiences abroad right from the beginning— certainly, he did everything in his power to make it easy for foreign distributors to downplay Horrors of Spider Island’s German origins. The story picks up amid the palm-lined boulevards of Los Angeles, where talent scout Mike Blackwood (Walter Faber) is meeting with Gary Webster (Alexander D’Arcy, later seen in Fanny Hill and Blood of Dracula’s Castle) and his assistant, Georgia (Helga Franck), to discuss the recruitment of a troupe of dancers. Webster needs seven girls to accompany him to Singapore, where he means to stage some sort of salacious song-and-dance show, and he’s been relying on Blackwood to do the legwork for him. The talent scout is well worth whatever Gary is paying, for he and Georgia are able to fill their roster completely from the candidates Blackwood has assembled. A few days later, Gary and his assistant are aboard an Asia-bound airliner, together with Gladys (Dorothee Parker), Babs (Barbara Valentin, from The Head and Call Girls of Frankfurt), Ann (Helga Neuner), May (Gerry Sammer), Nelly (Eva Schauland), Linda (Elfie Wagner), and Kate (Helma Vandenberg, of The Festival Girls).
They never make it to Singapore. Instead, their plane spontaneously catches fire, turns into stock footage of a flak-mauled B-17, and crashes into the Pacific Ocean. By an astonishing coincidence, the only survivors of the wreck are Gary and his entourage— his complete entourage, at that. Gary and his girls drift around on a raft for a while, and right about when they’re starting to feel really desperate and hopeless, one of the dancers spots an island on the horizon. Isolated though it may be, it has a pleasant climate and ample fresh water, and its dense palm forests would seem to offer workable shelter, at least for the time being. Then, while the crew is exploring the interior, Gary makes an exciting discovery. Lying in the underbrush is a pickaxe, of the sort one might use “for excavating mineral ore— probably uranium.” (Because, as everybody knows, you’d use a totally different type of pickaxe to excavate uranium than you would if you were digging for coal or gold or tungsten…) If somebody’s on the island prospecting for uranium, then the place must not be as far off the beaten track as Gary and the girls believed, and what’s more, somebody will surely be along fairly soon to collect the prospector, or at least bring him some fresh provisions. Hell, just making contact ought to solve all of their most immediate problems. Their spirits lifted, the castaways delve deeper into the bush, looking for any sign of the miner or miners, and after a while, they are rewarded when one of the girls spots a cabin in the next clearing. Not only that, they find its owner, mineralogist Professor Greene, inside— except that he’s dead, his body strung up in a huge spider web. A quick perusal of Greene’s diary turns up no clues as to his situation or to how he met his grisly fate, and elation quickly turns to dread over what unknown terrors might stalk the island’s jungles. I myself am thinking it was probably spiders that got the professor, though, and probably really big spiders, too.
And now for the catfights… Between the tropical heat and the confinement of the cabin, tensions run high among the dancers, and much sniping, bickering, and even outright violence results. Rapidly reaching the end of his tether with the women’s behavior, Gary leaves the cabin for a head-clearing walk, just as a storm is developing. Out in the jungle and well out of sight from the cabin, Gary is set upon by one of the spiders that killed the old professor— although now that we see one, they seem to be not so much spiders as some kind of insane cartoon crossbreed between a spider and a monkey. The creature that attacks Gary is about the size of a very large horseshoe crab, its foremost legs (which are much shorter than the other six) terminate in tiny, simian-looking hands, and there’s a distinct but indefinable primate-like quality about the spider-thing’s face, too. Stranger still is what happens when the creature bites Gary. Though Professor Greene apparntly died when he was bitten, Gary is instead transformed— and it happens almost instantly— into what I gather is supposed to be some sort of were-spider. He grows dense mats of black hair on his hands and face, his fingernails thicken and elongate into flesh-shredding talons, and his teeth are replaced by needle-like fangs identical to those of the eight-legged beastie that bit him. Gary will spend the rest of the film lurking in the shadows and menacing Georgia and the dancers, beginning when he kills Linda the stripper while the rest are out beating the bushes in search of him.
On the 28th day after the plane-wreck, with the provisions stockpiled in Professor Greene’s cabin nearly exhausted, Ann and May notice a ship sailing by not too far from the shore. Their efforts to attract the sailors’ attention come to naught, but there is hope even yet. That ship belonged to the company for which the professor worked, and it came to the area to drop off Greene’s assistants, Joe (Harald Maresch— credited in the US prints as “Temple Foster”) and Bobby (Rainer Brandt, from The Avenger and The Horror of Blackwood Castle), with a load of fresh supplies. While Joe is schlepping gear inland to the cabin, Bobby hears female voices laughing, and goes to investigate. He finds four of the girls skinny-dipping in a rocky, sheltered cove, and he gets so excited that he sneaks down to the water and ambushes Gladys. Her companions think she’s been attacked by whatever killed Linda (and ran off with Gary, or so they believe), and they run to fetch the others. Meanwhile, the others are busy waylaying Joe, who for all they know could just as well be their hitherto unseen nemesis. All is quickly resolved, however, and before you can say “Kamanawanaleia,” the girls have orchestrated a big hula-and-bikini party in celebration of their impending rescue. Ann falls in love with Joe, Gladys falls in love with Bobby (which doesn’t stop him from making out with literally every woman on the island save Georgia and Ann), and a good time is had by all. Unfortunately, it hasn’t dawned on any of the revelers that were-spiders might get a kick out of hula-and-bikini parties, too…
Horrors of Spider Island first entered the US in 1962, playing as an adults-only sexploitation movie under the title It’s Hot in Paradise. Three years later, it returned under the more familiar name, shorn of all the nudity that wasn’t obscured by a thick screen of seawater and with advertising that suggested a mostly conventional drive-in horror film. The 1962 promotional campaign was more honest, though, because even the “clean” version is extremely lecherous for the turn of the 60’s, and garter-belt fetishists are going to be in heaven nearly from start to finish. Of course, great lovers of crappy monster makeup are going to be in heaven, too, even though the were-spider doesn’t get as much screen-time as I would have liked. Indeed, with the were-spider and its little hand-puppet monkey-bug friends on the one hand, and all the lifted skirts and shimmying hips on the other, Horrors of Spider Island would have easily scored enough points to qualify it as a minor classic of trash, but its creators weren’t satisfied with those things alone. Their hearts overflowing with generosity, they also gave us some simply beautiful not-even-trying dialogue and a storyline of such all-encompassing inanity that even I had not seen the like of it in a good, long while. Now if only I could track down the uncut version, and witness Horrors of Spider Island in the full bloom of its lascivious tackiness…