The Legend of Spider Forest (1971) The Legend of Spider Forest / Venom / Spider’s Venom (1971/1975) -**

     If you’ve ever wondered why people who care about such things tend to treat British horror cinema as something distinct from European horror cinema as a whole, have a look at The Legend of Spider Forest. This is a bizarre little movie, even more than you’d expect from a former arthouse weirdo’s first attempt at a conventionally commercial film, and part of what makes it so is that it’s one of the few British horror pictures that feel like they could just as well have originated on the Continent instead. To be sure, a considerable fraction of The Legend of Spider Forest appears actually to have been shot in the woodlands of Bavaria, and several of the major supporting players hailed from West Germany or Czechoslovakia. That would almost inevitably have given The Legend of Spider Forest something of a Euro vibe, regardless of any other consideration. But more importantly, director Peter Sykes and screenwriters Derek and Donald Ford (the latter pair working from a treatment by Stephen Collins, with dialogue assistance from Christ Wicking) brought to the project a fairly convincing counterfeit of Continental sensibilities with respect to pacing, tone, and narrative construction. Although the practiced eye will detect a characteristic British squeamishness here and there, acting in opposition to some of what might otherwise have been this movie’s appealing excesses of bad taste, The Legend of Spider Forest is stylishly insubstantial, sexually perverse, and morally flexible in ways that starkly separate it from the output of Hammer and Amicus. Whereas those studios’ horror films could almost always be counted upon to grant final victory to the forces of capital-G Good, and to end with capital-O Order restored, The Legend of Spider Forest not only ends on a down beat, but takes as its protagonist an opportunist whose actions throughout have no nobler motivation than simple self-preservation warring against the kind of curiosity that proverbially kills cats. And finally, The Legend of Spider Forest shares with many contemporary Continental fright films a thoroughgoing disregard for logic. It starts off baffling, but makes even less sense after its mysteries are solved and its villains’ secret aims are revealed.

     Somewhere in Bavaria’s sub-Alpine forests, a pretty girl (Neda Arneric, of Shaft in Africa and Erotomania) and a rather less attractive guy (Simon Brent, from Love Is a Splendid Illusion and Keep It Up Downstairs) are skinny dipping together in a lake. Something very bad happens to the guy as soon as they withdraw to the cover of the surrounding trees to fuck, but you’ll probably have to watch this scene two or three times before it sinks in that an enormous spider is supposed to have lowered itself onto his back from the branches overhead, and fatally bitten him. Sykes is much more interested in making sure we all notice that the girl has a scar or tattoo or birthmark or something just below her left collarbone, in what’s meant to be the form of a spider. In fact, the mark looks a great deal more like a child’s drawing of an ant. This whole sequence is shot in monochrome, with weird focal and exposure settings, and if you’re watching a British print, it’s also tinted an even weirder shade of mint green. I have no idea what that’s about. American prints render the prologue even more confusing by “correcting” the tint to straight black and white, implying that the action is set decades ago, when the intended timeframe is almost certainly far more recent than that. They also truncate the sequence to the point of incomprehensibility for the sake of a PG-rating, which in 1975 allowed for a limited amount of nudity, but absolutely no sex.

     Forget about that for now, though, and turn your attention to traveling English artist wanker Paul Greville (also Simon Brent) as he parks his Citroen Deux Chevaux on a mountain roadside, and gets out to sketch the view. While Paul draws, Spider Mark Girl sneaks up on him, seemingly intent upon stealing his expensive-looking camera from the open rear compartment of his vehicle. She makes just a tiny bit too much noise, though, and alerts Paul to her presence. He interrupts her before she can get to the camera, and then starts taking snapshots of her with the Instamatic he was already wearing around his neck. The girl flees back into the woods whence she came at that point, and Greville, suddenly contrite, goes off after her, tossing the Instamatic into the Deux Chevaux’s passenger seat. She proves too fast for him, however, and Paul is left wondering what in the hell the girl’s deal really was. At least he’s got a couple photos to moon over, though, right? No! Bizarrely, by the time Greville returns to his car, some unseen third party has absconded not merely with those newest pictures, but with all his Instamatic snaps!

     Paul returns then to his base of operations, the inn run by a human rump roast named Kurt (Gertan Klauber, from Cry of the Banshee and The Hands of Orlac) who might as well be one of Count Dracula’s peasants. The artist’s arrival is noted by a handsome yet severe woman (Children of the Damned’s Sheila Allen) and her date, a peevish-looking, leather-clad blond guy (Derek Newark, of The Black Torment and War-Gods of the Deep), both of whom have obviously been on the lookout for out-of-towners. The woman gets up, goes to the telephone, and calls an elderly gentleman (Gerard Heinz, from The Projected Man and Devils of Darkness) to inform him that Greville is on the premises. Then she returns to the table, where she stages an attention-getting row with Herr Peevish. None of this behavior is rendered any less perplexing when the man on the phone comes downstairs, pours Paul a goblet of a much more expensive wine than any he’s likely to get from Kurt, and introduces himself as Huber, the owner of the sawmill that underpins the entire local economy. Huber’s younger accomplices turn out to be his daughter, Ellen, and his foreman, Johann. The ensuing conversation leaves Paul with the distinct feeling that there’s some obscure subtext he isn’t following. Huber seems a bit out of sorts, too— most likely because he isn’t getting quite the responses from Greville that he was expecting, but something close enough to them to suggest that Paul might be the man for whom he’s been waiting just the same. When Paul announces that he’s turning in for the night, Huber dispatches Ellen to his room with instructions to check the film in his cameras for the image of a spider.

     Paul is in the bathtub when Ellen reaches his room, making her cocky enough to let herself in and begin turning the place over for spider pictures. Again, however, Paul’s acute hearing comes to his aid, so that he is able to interrupt Ellen in mid-ransack. The woman tries to deflect his questions with small talk, and when that doesn’t work, she divests him of his towel and resorts to feminine wiles instead. She’s most annoyed, though, to find that Greville has far more interest in Spider Mark Girl— or Anna, to give the mystery chick her proper name— than in her, however quickly he might have taken up Ellen’s invitation to bed. In any case, Ellen leaves Paul’s room quite convinced that she was mistaken before, and that Greville really is just a tourist. That being so, she suggests on her way out that it might be to Paul’s advantage to run along to the next stop on his itinerary in the morning.

     The actual object of the Hubers’ interest is a fellow called Gregor (Passion Potion’s Ray Barron), who comes along later that evening, after his local co-conspirators have all gone home from the inn. Kurt gives him directions to the mill, though, so maybe they’ll get their shady business squared away after all. Meanwhile, Paul notices Anna spying on him through the window of his room, and once again gives chase into the forest. Before he catches up to her, though, either she or someone who looks a great deal like her (hint, hint) catches up to Gregor in the same woods. That meeting goes as badly for Gregor as the tryst under the trees went for Paul’s lookalike in the prologue, although there’s even less sign of any killer arachnids on this occasion. Greville arrives on the scene soon thereafter, and finds a few interesting things in addition to the stranger’s stiffening corpse. For one, the dead man was carrying a camera, and on the film roll inside it is a single developed shot of a big, weird spider marked with a white cross on its abdomen. But the real show-stopper is a large wooden triptych panel bearing a painting by Hieronymus Bosch that isn’t supposed to exist anymore, having last been seen while the Nazis were looting the artistic treasures of Europe. Greville is in the midst of pondering what to do with the latter discovery when he spots Anna through the trees, and resumes his pursuit— and by the time he returns to collect the painting some while later, it, the camera, and the corpse will have disappeared just as thoroughly as his Instamatic snaps that morning. On the upside, the girl allows herself to be caught this time, and the pair spend much of the remaining night making friends after a fashion. Paul still can’t say he actually knows anything about Anna, though, beyond that he apparently reminds her of some former acquaintance, and that her lovers supposedly have a habit of coming to grief by spider-bite. And when he pumps Kurt for information upon returning to the inn, the man will say only that all the locals shun the girl in the woods, associating her, for reasons he won’t explain, with an ancient pagan spider goddess.

     This is where that cat-killing curiosity I mentioned starts to get the better of Our Hero. Despite having been told by Ellen that he’d be better off leaving town; despite getting the full “superstitious villagers” act from Kurt; despite Anna’s warning that no man who touches her lives to tell about it; despite clear evidence not only that there’s a conspiracy afoot, but that at least some of the conspirators may be literal goddamned Nazis— despite all that, Paul just will not be satisfied until he gets to the bottom of everything. And so he persists in snooping around after Huber tells him all about the huge, deadly, blood-drinking spiders that infest the surrounding woods, contributing to Anna’s reputation. He persists some more after he catches Johann trying to rape Anna in the woods, and wins his enmity by rescuing the girl. He persists after Johann ambushes him at the head of a six-man mob, beats him to a pulp, and leaves him staked out in the forest as spider-bait. He persists even after persons unknown complicate the hell out of the picture by feeding Huber into one of his own lumber saws after hours one night. And eventually, all that persistence is rewarded by the revelation that Anna is the daughter and star guinea pig of fugitive Nazi mad scientist Dr. Lutgermann (Theatre of Death’s Terence Soall), who has been hiding out in the woods making chemical weapons out of spider venom, and testing out his recipes by murdering the girl’s lovers while dressed up as her. I hope that preposterous revelation is enough for Paul, because it’s just about the only thing he’s going to get for all his trouble!

     Yes, you’re right. I just blew the ending. But The Legend of Spider Forest is so lackadaisical about getting there that I doubt anyone could watch it all the way through without the incentive of knowing up front that they’ll eventually get to see something truly bonkers. This is another case of a perfectly legitimate suspense-generating technique going desperately awry due to clumsy mishandling. Specifically, the filmmakers want to ensure that the audience never knows any more than Paul Greville does about what’s happening up in those mountains. That’s all well and good, but a successful mystery on that model parcels out clues of sufficient meaning, and at a steady enough rate, to keep the audience invested in figuring everything out alongside the protagonist. Every piece of the puzzle ought to tell us something, even if that something points in what turns out to be the wrong direction, or is ultimately revealed to mean a great deal more than it appeared to at the time. In The Legend of Spider Forest, however, it’s just one “Well, what the fuck is this?!” after another, not least because the big picture itself is almost totally nonsensical. And in fact a few of the pieces never mean much of anything at all. For instance, if there’s any reason why Paul should look just like one of Anna’s doomed former boyfriends, I never found it.

     Another thing that hurts The Legend of Spider Forest is that Peter Sykes himself doesn’t seem to be terribly enthusiastic about making this movie, and so keeps resorting to goony formal-experiment tricks in order to maintain the minimum level of give-a-fuck necessary to direct a feature motion picture. Take all the camera tomfoolery during the prologue, for example. I’m not a bit surprised that the American distributors did their best to undo as much of it as they could, because frankly it all looks like a tangle of mistakes. The same goes for the bizarre overuse of tight closeups, so that the frame often looks panned and scanned even in its original widescreen composition. Returning to what I said before about The Legend of Spider Forest resembling a horror film from Continental Europe, it more specifically resembles the work of somebody like Leon Klimovsky or Massimo Pupillo, whose artier indulgences seemingly derive less from any coherent vision than from the mere recognition that Eurohorror is supposed to have a certain look and feel. But whereas Klimovsky and Pupillo are usually junky fun, The Legend of Spider Forest mostly just left me wondering how it was possible for a movie this screwy to be also so tedious.



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