Monday, September 9, 2019

“Who’s to Know What’s Real and What Isn’t?” - The Legend of Spider Forest (1971) - Film #151

Let us turn to Peter Sykes's The Legend of Spider Forest (1971) aka Venom aka Spider's Venom. To get it out of the way, yes, there are spiders in this film, not to mention a forest, a lumber mill, and cows with flower wreaths on their heads. These qualities should tell you nearly all you need to know about the film's classic status.

Oddly, many of your universe's critics disagree that it is a classic. For example, reviewer manchester_england2004 (the best critics have places and times for names) writes, "The whole production has the feeling of everyone simply going through the motions....Overall, VENOM is a very boring film." Reviewer the_void, who mistakes Peter Sykes for Peter Sasdy, writes, "The film really does make little sense and while the fantasy elements of it might have lifted it out of the bottom of the barrel, they unfortunately don't." And reviewer platypuschow writes, "It all sounds fairly interesting but the delivery is awful, worse than I could actually put into words. Sure the cast are competent enough, but they can't save a movie with the writing quality of a Sharknado (2013) film."

Is platypuschow correct (as is so often the case)? No. Not at all. Read on for all the details...

In an evocative (and long) opening sequence, a young man and young woman go skinny dipping in an alpine lake. After they make love on a bed of pine needles, shadows approach them. The man screams and falls over, dead. The woman just looks at him, and the camera reveals she has a spider birthmark.

An Englishman named Paul Greville drives away from a German pub, after forgetting a bottle of wine he bought. He drives through the scenic village and along a dirt road, where he encounters charming cows wearing flowers on their heads (does the whimsy of your universe's Germans know no bounds?).

He parks his car in the middle of the road near the top of the mountain, takings out a canvas and paints, and starts sketching the scenery with charcoals. Seconds later, the woman with the spider birthmark arrives and he offers to photograph her, though she, probably wisely, runs away from his camera.

He returns to his car and drives away.

Paul returns to the pub, where he becomes quite suddenly the target of Nazi spies Ellen and her father Herr Huber, along with their henchman Johann. Huber sits down at Paul’s table, explaining charmingly but awkwardly that the little alpine town has a tradition in which the “first citizen” of the town welcomes the first tourist of the season. “You are just a tourist, I suppose.”

“You are the first citizen?”

“Not officially. I own the sawmill. Practically everybody around here works for one way or another.”

Paul asks Huber about the woman with the spider birthmark who emptied the film out of his cameras. Huber does not give any information about the woman, as he is still trying to figure out if Paul is a spy or not. When Paul returns to his room, complimenting the local wine and saying, “Perhaps we could discuss the import/export business sometime,” Huber and Ellen believe they have confirmed he is a spy.

In a reversal of a typical scene from a horror film, we watch Paul get into a bathtub at night and bathe while Ellen breaks into his room. (It should be noted that Simon Brent, the actor who plays Paul, is not averse to showing his backside to the camera.) She is there not to spy on him, however, but to look at his camera—and Paul catches her in the act. Ellen hands him the photo prints that presumably the spider woman stole. This leads confusingly into Ellen and Paul making love on the bed, while they are being watched by a voyeur in the hallway. Afterward, Ellen tells Paul he should leave.

Later at night, in his hotel room, Paul sees the spider woman watching him from the forest. He chases her in the dark, and he witnesses her killing a man in a big fur coat carrying a package as well as a camera and a strip of film. Seen against the moon, a frame of film shows a spider with a cross on its belly.

The package turns out to be a painting: a triptych on hinged panels depicting some hellish kind of story where a frog eats a person.

Back at the inn, Paul asks the bartender/owner Kurt about the spider woman. He replies, “Perhaps she’s a ghost.”

“She looked real enough to me.”

“Herr Greville, this place is alive with stories and legends. Who’s to know what’s real and what isn’t?” He warns her away from the woman.

Out of nowhere, Paul asks if there is anything of historical interest in the local church. Kurt replies, “There used to be a famous painting by Bosch, The Assumption of the Virgin. And other paintings, but they disappeared in the war.”

“They must be worth a tremendous amount of money. What ever happened to them?”

“No one knows.” He adds ominously, “We are simple people here, and we want to live in peace.”

Kurt drives back into the mountains, and within seconds he sees the spider woman again, wandering through the forest. Not only is the spider woman wandering around, but Johann is also in the forest. He confronts her and she says, “Careful, Johann. The threads of some webs are so thin, they may be invisible.”

She shows him the spider/birthmark scar on her shoulder, accompanied on the soundtrack by the rattle of a snake.

While Paul wanders around, having lost sight of the woman, Johann attempts to drown her in a pond. Paul comes to the rescue, however, beating up the big German henchman like a good scrawny Englishman and kicking him into the pond.

The forest is extremely busy this morning: A hunting party passes Paul, shooting at unseen birds, and Paul stumbles upon Herr Huber’s lumber mill, where burly Germans carry logs and swing axes. Huber explains that hunting season has begun. “There are many wild creatures we hunt in the forest. Harmless creatures to people, like foxes, and others not so harmless, like the wild boar, which could gore a man’s torso and scar him for life.”

(Paul does not ask why Huber is so specific about torsos.)

“And there are other things in the forest. Creatures which can’t be run to earth. Like spiders.”


“You laugh, Mr. Greville. Your experience of spiders leads you to believe they are harmless creatures feeding on flies. But we have here in this forest a breed of spider immune to all insecticides, and these spiders, like parasites, draw their sustenance from human blood.”

He goes on to tell Paul about a death in the forest caused by paralysis and spiders crawling over the body. Also, the woman in the forest, Anna, is thought to be a spider goddess.

Perhaps unwisely, Paul tells Huber he “dreamed” of finding a priceless painting in the forest last night.

Paul wanders back into the forest and again stumbles upon Anna, who seems fortuitously easy to find for a legendary spider goddess. Fluent in English as well as German, Anna tells Paul that her parents are dead and she has a guardian, Frau Kessler, who watches over her in the forest. She also tells him, “If any man touches me, the spiders come.”

He touches her shoulder.

Giggling, she runs through the trees, and he follows. They kiss, and she grabs what appears to be a big spider, though we never see it directly. “It was coming for you,” she says.

Next, as is wont to happen in German forests, six Germans including Johann jump down from the trees to surround Paul and Anna. Anna runs away and the men beat Paul unconscious and tie his hands and feet to stakes in the ground, leaving him in the forest. He wakes up to see a tarantula crawling on his chest, but he is quickly rescued by Ellen Huber on horseback.

She cruelly knocks the spider off Paul with her riding crop, then crushes it under her boot. Then she starts kissing Paul, though he resists strenuously.

Walking through the sawmill at night (not a euphemism), Paul encounters Huber’s murdered body, represented by a pair of legs covered in sawdust.

Instead of calling the police or another emergency service, Paul breaks into Huber’s office and calls Kurt at the inn. “I’m in trouble,” he says. “I need help.”

He catches sight of Anna yet again and chases her into the forest. He finds her sleeping in an old barn, but she knows nothing about the murder. “I love you and I won’t die,” he tells her. “You’ve got to believe that.”

He drives her to her surprisingly large mansion in the forest, where her guardian Frau Kessler stands in an upper-story window. At the front door, Anna tells Paul about all the other paintings hidden in the forest. After she has gone inside and left Paul, Anna walks through a biology lab inside her house and feeds a grasshopper to a tarantula. The killing of the grasshopper provokes a flashback to the young man dying at the beginning of the film. This time, however, her flashback ends in her writhing in a sheet of spiderwebs in the trees.

She wakes up screaming and Frau Kessler (whose appearance one might favorably compare to Alan Hale, Jr. in old lady drag) enters her room.

“Those dreams again? Do not worry, Anna,” she tells Anna ominously. “They will not last forever. They will be over soon.” Frau Kessler leaves the room and, surprisingly, nods to Ellen Huber, who is also in the house.

The next day, Paul and Anna go to the lumber mill for no apparent reason, where they hide and watch Ellen Huber, wearing a fancy pirate/rocketeer outfit, take over the place. Within seconds, she has her new employees raise Johann on a crane and whip his back (cranes and whips being standard components of a sawmill’s operation).

When the men notice Paul and Anna, Ellen is able to utter that timeless cinematic phrase: “Get them!”

They run to Paul’s car and he drives Anna away. Unfortunately for them, the entire pack of men jumps out onto the road. Paul accelerates, while helpfully honking his horn, and the men scatter. Paul drives back to Anna’s mansion in the forest. He leaves her with Frau Kessler, then drives back to the sawmill, brave Englishman that he is. After Johann fires his rifle at the car, however, Paul loses control and plunges down a tree-lined hill before the car hits a tree and explodes.

Shockingly, Paul is not in the burning car. He wakes up in the cellar of Anna’s house, where he and Anna are confronted by Ellen. Ellen explains that the spider birthmark is actually the mark that the white cross spider makes when it poisons someone (somewhat akin to Batman being summoned by the Bat-Signal, perhaps?). She is the only one who survived the bite of the spider, due somehow to the biology lab upstairs.

Paul wants to leave with Anna, but, being no fool, he also wants the Bosch paintings. He overhears Ellen speaking with someone upstairs about a weapon they are building for their people. He and Anna walk through the laboratory and hide in a storeroom, where they find the Bosch paintings and where they eavesdrop on a convenient meeting between Ellen and some scientists.

“The nerve drug, developed from the venom of spiders,” says a former Nazi scientist. He adds helpfully, “We must dispose of these last paintings to finance completion of ours.”

Anna also reveals the Nazi scientist is her father. “Him?” asks Paul.

“But it’s a secret,” she says.

“Yeah, okay.”

In an inventive shot, Paul and Anna stand against a projection of a spider devouring a grasshopper while Paul explains: “They used you as a figure of fear, knowing how superstitious the people are around here. You’re no more cursed than I am.”

Inconveniently, Johann chooses the same moment to hold Frau Kessler at gunpoint and demand the paintings. In the ensuing confusion, Anna dumps the spiders out of their cages. Kessler is killed, and Johann strangles Ellen.

Paul races out of the house after Anna. When she turns around, however, it is actually her father in a red wig, not Anna. (This is never explained.)

Paul screams, “Oh my God!”

Her father runs back into the house, is attacked by a tarantula, and sets fire to the place with a Bunsen burner.

“It’s over now,” Paul says.

Anna just shakes her head. Fulfilling some kind of destiny or another, she walks into the house and goes up in flames.

The Legend of Spider Forest is a harrowing exercise in suspense because it is so plausible. We all know Nazi scientists that survived the war were working in the mountains of Germany to create a deadly nerve drug derived from the venom of tarantulas and other spiders that can be injected into people and kill them (the veritable holy grail of evildoers). I would wager that their descendants are still working on the project in picturesque alpine mansion/laboratories, just waiting to fill syringes full of spider venom and travel around the world to commit murder and terrorism. Wake up, people!

All of this is to say I have no immediate plans to visit Spider Forest. (Though if the airfare were reasonable, it seems like a decent place to visit, as long as one avoids the ubiquitous sawmills, even though the forests appear to be crawling with spider goddesses and thugs. Perhaps someday...)

In any case, The Legend of Spider Forest is a fascinating look at an innocent Englishman's journey into horror and love, symbolized by spiders. (Whether the spiders symbolize horror or love is an exercise left to the reader.)