Sunday, November 23, 2008

Horrors of Spider Island (Intercontinental Film GmbH, Rapid Film, Pacemaker Pictures, 1962-65)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles brought over the last Mystery Science Theatre 3000 “Digital Archive Project” DVD collection disc — which supposedly completed the extant episodes of this series even though there are some titles from its last years I have on VHS that are not included here (mostly, I suspect, Universal productions which are still under copyright and therefore could get the people in charge of this site in trouble) — and I cued it and noticed one movie that seemed like it might not be half-bad because it was in black-and-white. The cheapo color horror/sci-fi cheapies from the 1960’s are generally even tackier than the black-and-white ones — as if the producers, in an era in which color production was still more expensive, saved it for the scripts that were so bad they really needed the bolstering of their commercial appeal from filming them in color.

The movie we watched was Horrors of Spider Island, and it turned out to have had a convoluted production history: it was originally made in West Germany and Yugoslavia in 1960-61 under the title Ein Toter hing im Netz, which literally translates as “A Dead Body Hangs in a Net.” The plot features a troupe of eight dancers who are stranded on a desert island — with the sort of magnificent indifference to geographic sanity characteristic of ultra-low-grade productions like this, the dancers are en route to Singapore from Los Angeles via New York (I suspect the German producers had access to no other stock film clips of an American city viewed from the air), but their plane crashes and burns and, after four days in a life raft, they and their male employer and guide, Gary Webster (Alex D’Arcy), end up on a desert island. They find an archaeologist’s hammer, which indicates that other people have been there, and then they find a cabin with the other person inside — only, as you might have guessed from the title (especially the German one), the archaeologist is dead, stuck to a giant-sized web spun across his living room (and in fact crudely tied together from ordinary ropes — whatever technology Universal had for creating those marvelously huge spider webs in the 1931 Dracula was unavailable to the German producers of this one).

The original intent of the German producers was to make a nudie film, with eight (reasonably) attractive ladies in various stages of undress cavorting around “island” locations (actually a park in Yugoslavia) and a few giant spiders and a horror plot around mostly as a pretext. In 1962 the film got released in the U.S. with a dubbed English soundtrack and got played at the underground theatres that showed nudies in defiance of what was left of the Production Code, and in 1965 it was re-edited with all the actual nudity removed and what remained passed off as a horror/sci-fi film called Horrors of Spider Island. In the process, most of the cast members shed their German names and acquired Anglo ones — though director and co-writer Fritz Böttger became “Jaime Nolan,” which briefly made me wonder if this were a Mexican production. The leads, D’Arcy and Barbara Valentin (as Babs, the most sluttish and sexually rambunctious of the dancers), retained their original names — though “Valentin” became the more (in English) normal “Valentine” — but Elfie Wagner became “Donna Ulsike” and Dorothée Parker became “Norma Townes.”

For the first half-hour or so this is actually a reasonably entertaining movie — it’s visibly cheap, even without the nude scenes it’s clear that the filmmakers are more interested in the cheesecake than the horror, there are horrendous lapses in continuity and an overall indifference to narrative sense, but it’s fun, the sleazy pop-jazz score by Karl Bette and Willy Mattes is appealing and what you’d expect from a movie like this, and even the “giant” spiders — actually about a foot and a half long — are reasonably credible, with silly cartoon heads but sufficiently intricate bodies that one can suspend disbelief (and the filmmakers didn’t make the common error of movies like Them! and posit the existence of arthropods larger than about a foot and a half, which is about the upper limit of how big an exoskeletal creature can be in earth’s gravity without its shell collapsing on its internal origins and therefore destroying it). Then the writers (Böttger, Eldon Howard and Albert G. Miller — I suspect the latter two did the English-language dialogue but had nothing to do with the original movie) make a BIG mistake: they have Gary bitten by one of the sub sandwich-length spiders and thereby turned into a were-spider who starts killing off the rest of the cast members. (Actually all they do is slather some hairy makeup on his face and give him claw-like gloves to indicate his “spideriness” at this point, and the only thing we see him do is lay his fingers, which look like they’ve acquired the Mother of All Hangnails, on the shoulders of his intended victims.)

From then on the movie just gets sillier and more boring, especially when two other guys show up — Bobby (“Allen Turner” née Rainer Brandt) and Joe (“Temple Foster” née Harald Maresch) — who are supposed to represent friends and assistants of the dead archaeologist (ya remember the dead archaeologist?) — who seem determined to outdo each other in male-chauvinist attitudes as they cruise the girls. Even the MST3K gags seemed a bit “off” in this one — though there were some truly inspired ones, riffing off the film’s shaky geography and such deep contempt for women even Ernest Hemingway couldn’t have watched this film without getting angry at its sexism — especially when during one of their interstital segments, we see Mike Nelson encased in a spider web on board the Satellite of Love before we’ve seen this happen to anybody in the actual movie (and it’s an indication of just how cheap this production was that the rope web on the MST3Kset is every bit as credible as the one in the movie!).