American journalist Alan Foster (Anthony Franciosa) surprises his famous countryman Edgar Allan Poe (Klaus Kinski) in the midst of an alcohol fueled recounting of his macabre tale BERENICE at a London pub sometime in the mid 1840s. The unstable author is world renowned but definitely on the downward slope, especially as played in foaming-at-the-mouth fashion by the legendary Klaus Kinski, who had already played the equally notorious Marquis de Sade in Jess Franco's JUSTINE (1969). As the night proceeds Foster questions Poe about his stories and writing methods, engaging in an intellectual debate about the mystery of Death, which Poe claims is only a transition to another state of consciousness and being. Foster disagrees, insisting that there is no life after the one dies. Poe's and his drinking friend Lord Blackwood challenge Foster to a bet that the journalist cannot emerge from a night in his remote castle, where previous guests have simply been swallowed up by the haunted structure on the first midnight in November. Foster takes the bet, at a reduced rate since he is a struggling hack journalist, and the rest is film history if you've seen Antonio Margheriti's original film version of this story DANZA MACABRA a.ka CASTLE OF BLOOD, the mood drenched, monochrome Italian Gothic masterwork the director made during a prolific burst of productivity in 1964.
Margheriti caught lighting in a jar with DANZA MACABRA, an oneiric poem of love, death and fantasy filtered through the legacy of Poe. There was no Poe story, outside of BERENICE, upon which the Sergio Corbucci and Giovanni Grimaldi script was based. But it managed to capture his tone and illustrated his most melancholy theme revolving around the death of a beautiful woman. It's a tale told by Margheriti within the matrix of shifting time frames and unreliable narrators. Some sources credit Sergio Corbucci (DJANGO), who was initially engaged to direct, as co-director but Margheriti seems to have directed most of the scenes in the completed film in a two week shoot. The fact that Margheriti and his DoP Riccardo Pallotini shot it in high contrast black and white, staging the action in pools of light amidst bottomless blacks, give it the impression of a timeless nocturnal state where the only illumination comes from candles and torches. Visually immersing and steeped in early 19th Century detail, it's the BARRY LYNDON of black and white horror films. It's also my favorite Italian Gothic of the 1960s, just ahead of Riccardo Freda's THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK (1962), also featuring Barbara Steele. Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY, which established Steele as the central icon of Italian horror, and OPERAZIONE PAURA (KILL, BABY, KILL!) also have to factor into this equation. Marghetiti directed up to 10 features films between late 1963 and early 1965, including the colorful Gamma I Quadrilogy [WILD, WILD PLANET; PLANET ON THE PROWL; WAR OF THE PLANETS and SNOW DEVILS], in what must have been an exhausting undertaking. DANZA MACABRA remains memorable as a ghost story, a love story, and a definitive Italian Gothic horror film.
The fact that DANZA MACABRA was not a financial success inspired producer Giovanni Addessi and director Margheriti to attempt a Technicolor remake 6 years later. Margheriti had plans to use a special Techicolor dissolve process which would depict the sudden disappearances and appearances of the castle ghosts. This did not work out as intended, though, due to technical limitations at the time. He intended to give the visuals a psychedelic* sheen. An inspired strategy, considering that style was very much in fashion in the later 1960s and early 1970s, in music, fashion design, films and other visual arts. The film was a German-French-Italian co-production with a noticeably healthier budget than DANZA MACABRA and featuring well known international stars such as Klaus Kinski, Anthony Franciosa and Michele Mercier (Mario Bava's BLACK SABBATH) in lead roles.
WEB... tells the same story, featuring the same characters, utilizing much of the same dialogue as DANZA MACABRA, the main difference is in the lighting, color format and the tonal variation brought about by the different cast. American film and television actor Franciosa is almost as over-the-top as Kinski in his playing of the the haunted journalist, in stark contrast to the reserved acting of Georges Riviere in the original. French actress Michele Mercier, seems a bit old to be playing a 20-something Elizabeth Blackwood and her blond wig turns her into a kind of negative image of Barbara Steele's gaunt, haunting brunette incarnation of the character. Kinski pretty much dominates the show this time in his startling opening and closing appearances as Poe.
The 2.35:1 Techniscope format also changes the way the tale unfolds, into a lateral rather than an in-depth space. WEB... opens out the story and gives the characters breathing space, albeit illusory, since their fates are equally sealed. Riz Ortalani pumped up his original score this time which is in sync with the overall operatic aesthetic. The run-time of the Italian cut of the film, retitled NELLA STRETTA MORSA DEL RAGNO (In The Grip of the Spider), is 110 minutes. It doesn't add nearly 30 extra minutes of material to what is in the much shorter original, but draws out the pacing of pre existent scenes, such as the balletic demises of Elizabeth and Foster in the final scene, which is quite effective in contrast to the dispatch of the twist which ends DANZA MACABRA. One might miss those bottomless blacks of DANZA..., the black holes which seem to indicate dimensions beyond death, but Margheriti was an artist who deployed his cameras with confidence. There are sudden, delirious tilts and lapses into slow motion which indicate another realm parallel to the one in which the players are inhabiting.
Most effective is the opening sequence, in which Poe's BERENICE is acted out by Kinski in a heavily cobwebbed crypt set which he wordlessly, desperately prowls in search of evidence of his dead beloved. The amped up music, Kinki's jagged, unpredictable movements, his unsettling stare and theater-of-cruelty mannerisms make any dialogue superfluous. He seems more Antonin Artaud than Poe. He is, indeed, in the grip of the spider. This opening, scripted in a revised screenplay by Margheriti himself and Addessi, was one addition to the original script which works out well because it establishes a Gothic delirium without dialogue and references an actual Poe story visually rather than as something recited by the author, as in DANZA... . Actually, considering the time of its release and the cultural circumstances in Western Europe, Italy and North America, WEB... can be seen as an attempt to make a contemporary allegory of Poe's ideas floating in a new world re-imagined by the counter culture of that era. Kinski's Poe might be closer to such light and dark gurus as LSD advocate Timothy Leary or Helter Skelter programmer Charles Manson. Franciosa's skeptical journalist is the "straight" world's representative in this context, who doesn't believe in ghosts, hallucinations, drinking/drug binges. The Blackwood castle could represent the global change of consciousness which was going on in every developed country. The "straight" Foster cannot survive this All Hallows Eve, he can only join the ghosts in an endlessly repetitive past.
The new Garagehouse presentation offers both cuts of the film, WEB OF THE SPIDER and the 110 minute Italian version, NELLA STRETTA MORSA DEL RAGNO, for comparison and contrast. Both versions look better than ever finally seen uncut, in their original Technochrome, Techniscope format. The HD restoration of WEB OF THE SPIDER, from an uncut, domestic US theatrical negative, edited for US release by foreign film post-production specialist Fima Noveck (who also supervised the US re-edit of Harry Kumel's DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, among other imports) illustrates that he went beyond just mere pruning of scenes. Franciosa is voiced by veteran English language dubber Ted Rusoff, a good choice. It looks clean, clear, crisp and as colorful as intended, revealing that the detailed work of set designer Ottavio Scotti is superior to the cinematography. The absence of longtime Margheriti cinematographer Riccardo Pallotini is really illustrated in HD. It's like finally seeing the film for the first time and gives one a chance to discard the numerous sub standard tape and DVD releases which have accumulated over the decades.
The English language WEB OF THE SPIDER is sharper, more richly detailed, with resonant pastels apparent throughout, blowing away all those previous sub-par DVDS of the past in 1080p HD while the English subtitled SD presentation of NELLA STRETTA MORSA DEL RAGNO is a very welcome bonus feature. The commentary tracks include DVD-Drive-In's George Reis and filmmaker Keith Crocker conducting a lively, entertaining and informative discussion on the film's distribution history, how it differs from DANZA MACABRA, the film itself, the performances, photography and much more. A separate solo track by Stephen Romano is also included. My favorite special feature is the inclusion of a rare, vintage Super 8mm digest of the German version, DRACULA IN THE CASTLE OF TERROR, presented in two approximately 16 minute parts. The fact that this digest is in black and white and cut down into a mini-featurette only makes it a more fascinating collector's item. A deleted scene, involving a seduction by Julia (Karin Field) of the Elizabeth's lover (Raf Baldassare), which only appeared in the German version, is also included. Since this scene was neither in the US or Italian release versions it's an especially welcome addition. An art gallery of various posters, lobby cards and video boxes, along with an Antonio Margheriti trailer reel, containing vintage trailers for CASTLE OF BLOOD, LIGHTNING BOLT, THE GAMMA ONE QUARTET, CODE-NAME: WILD GEESE and other films by the director, are also included making this a fully loaded HD presentation of two versions of a film which has its own special place in cult movie and Italian Gothic cinema history. HIghly recommended.
*Margherti discusses the way his strategy to incorporate psychedelic visual effects went awry in a detailed interview by Peter Blumenstock in VIDEO WATCHDOG # 28, 1995, p.45.
(C) Robert Monell, 2017