THE SPIDER (1991) Blu-ray
Director: Vasili Mass
Mondo Macabro USA

Mondo Macabro continues its mission of mining the wild side of world cinema with their Blu-ray discovery of the Latvian erotic horror film THE SPIDER.

So eager to celebrate the Ascension Day opening of a homeless shelter, a priest (Algirdas Paulavicius) commissions a mural from libertine painter Albert (Liubomiras Laucevicius) and even agrees to convince virginal protégé Vita (Aurelija Anuzhite, ARCHANGEL) to pose for the artist as the Virgin Mary against his own better judgment. Already unconsciously stirred by the violence and eroticism inherent in more traditional examples of religious artwork, Vita is easily overwhelmed as she explores the lair of the artist festooned with sprawling Boschian canvasses both sacred and blasphemous. Barely escaping a physical assault by the artist, Vita flees to the safety of her bedroom but Albert visits her in her dreams in the form of a spider. Her mother (Mirdza Martinsone) knows nothing of the modeling arrangement but is already concerned enough about her daughter's burgeoning sexuality to appeal to the priest for guidance when Vita wakes up from a violent nightmare covered in spider bites. The priest confronts Albert and cancels the commission but Albert has already told both him and Vita that she belongs to him until the painting is finished. Believing the vanished spider bites to be psychosomatic, Vita's doctor recommends a recuperative stay in the country so her mother sends her to stay with her Aunt Magda and her husband Aivar (Romualds Ancans) at the family's island castle. Vita finds respite in the company of her handsome cousin Juris (Saulius Balandis), but the castle's atmosphere further exacerbates her nightmares involving Albert and the giant spider. When the priest shows up on the island in search of Albert, it appears as though a battle is waging not for her virginity but for her immortal soul.

The first erotic horror film from Latvia – although shot in Russia – THE SPIDER could be likened for the uninitiated to VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS crossed with Mondo Macabro's earlier Greek horror fantasy release MEDOUSA with a more pronounced Freudian bent, more bare flesh, and plenty of eighties-style latex creature effects (the latter more of the Troma variety than Rob Bottin, or perhaps Carlo Rambaldi's phallic octopus). The storyline itself is rather threadbare with repressed virgin torn between the saintly (the priest) and temptations of the flesh (Albert as the devil and the more ambiguous Juris) with repressive agents (her mother and her aunt who may be jealous of the attention shown to Vita by her husband) unwittingly pushing her towards exploration fraught with peril. A few views of the city establish a gray, overcast Eastern Bloc setting, but from the start Vita lives composed of her mother's womblike apartment and childhood bedroom, the medieval church and its cluttered archives, Albert's sprawling flat with its paintings (including some that may be literal tableaux vivants), insect terrariums, and nude models, as well as the island with its medieval castle, sauna, deep woods, and Jungian seaside with representatives of the natural world from spiders to other insects both terrifying and attracting the virgin protagonist. The spider effects – not so much animatronics as armatures and puppetry – are ludicrous (although some unnerving stop-motion bits are reminiscent of THE SPIDER LABYRINTH) but the radiant Anuzhite manages to sell them with her naïve performance and frequent nudity. There is ultimately little beneath the surface psychology, but the little-seen film remains visually compelling.

Officially unreleased stateside and previously only available on unsubtitled torrent files derived from a TV screening, THE SPIDER comes to Blu-ray from a 4K scan of 35mm film materials. Damage is rare but one must take into account the original photography in assessing the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed widescreen encode as more than half of the film is shot with a Vaseline-smeared filter (thicker on the edges than the center) and some other shots with a star filter, while exterior shots appear to be deliberately overexposed. Close-ups and insert shots reveal better detail but it appears as though director Vasili Mass and DP Gvido Skulte (BITTER WINE) employed every old trick in the book towards a dreamlike atmosphere. The English-subtitled LPCM 2.0 track is free of defects with clear dialogue while some exaggerated effects and the music score have a nice presence.

Extras are sparse but informative considering what little has been known about the film. An interview with director Mass (32:34) reveals that he came from a family of cinematographers but started work as a production designer before deciding that he could stage scenes better himself, getting the opportunity to take more control of a visualization of one production whose resources required using a Soviet studio. His opportunity to helm SPIDER came at a time when Russian auteurs like Tarkovsky and arthouse filmmakers from other countries were enjoyed by cineastes at underground cinemas while the state-sponsored ideals of cinema were giving away to more commercial and decadent Western entertainment with independent studios competing with each other now that they had a share in the box office returns (which once went directly to the state). Although horror and eroticism were virtually unprecedented in Latvian and Soviet cinema (apart from horror-tinged elements of the fantasy cinema of the fifties and sixties), Mass recalls that their excesses were not a shock to the audiences or the censors (noting that gratuitous scenes involving nudity were often shot for the edification of the crew and to distract the censors from attention to other elements of the films). He reveals that the film was positively received in both Latvia and the Soviet Union and laments the short period in which such experimentation was possible. An "On Set TV Report" (3:17) from the Latvian Film Archive – excerpted in the interview – shows the director and Anuzhite at work on the set along with lingering looks at the spider and the acrobat inside the suit. The extras close with the usual More from Mondo Macabro Promo Reel (11:10) which has to loop the familiar theme once again to accommodate the greater amount of clips. (Eric Cotenas)