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Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Horrors of Spider Island (1960)

Director: Jaime Nolan
Stars: Alex D'Arcy and Barbara Valentin
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

You may have a picture in your mind of how a 1960 film called Horrors of Spider Island is going to play out, but you'll be wrong. You might be closer to the truth if you mishear the title as Whores of Spider Island but unfortunately not too much closer. Originally a German/Yugoslavian coproduction whose title translates to A Corpse Hangs in the Web, it ran 89 minutes long and contained quite a lot of nudity. Released Stateside in 1962 under the title of It's Hot in Paradise, all that risqué material is supposedly intact as it was an adults only release. Finally in 1967 it was trimmed down into this version, which supposedly runs 77 minutes but by the time it made it to the public domain box sets ended up as a mere 74. And whatever you think it's going to be you're wrong. Trust me. It's so bad that the director apparently took his name off the thing. He was Fritz Böttger but he's credited as Jaime Nolan and he never directed again.

Of all things it begins with a saxophone solo, suggesting that Spider Island is a hip and happening place, backed up by the abundance of fins on the car that pulls up outside Mike Blackwood's agency. Inside are a string of bored looking women. 'Here's Singapore', one reads to another along with a string of facts, because apparently Mike Blackwood leaves the CIA World Factbook in his waiting room instead of Vogue. Another girl just plays with her pantyhose and talks about nightclubs, but then she's blonde and buxom and stereotypes were alive and well in the sixties bad movie world. Into their midst waltzes Gary and his girl Georgia, who are looking for a dozen girls for a dancing troupe in Singapore. Gary promptly takes over Mike's office, putting his feet up on the desk and doing more crossing and uncrossing of legs than Basic Instinct could have dared. He's signalling Georgia. Honest.

You see, we're in the audition part of the film, which is a strange and mysterious thing. May is the finest dancer in town, who used to be with the Coquettes. She has a polka dot dress and she shows her legs, so she's hired. Babs is the sassy blonde who shows her legs without even being asked. She's hired too, as long as she doesn't have any affairs. 'Mr Webster doesn't stand for any fooling around,' points out Georgia. 'I've had all the boys I can take,' she replies. Bitchy. Gladys and Doreen get hired just because they want to stay together and go overseas. To compensate for them not having to show their legs, Linda starts disrobing the moment she walks through the door. She's a stripper with a husky voice so yeah, she's hired. Nelly has the rhythm in her bones so she has Georgia slide some wax on the tracks and jives around in her high heels. She's hired too, but anyone who doesn't trip over doing that routine deserves to be.

But Carolyn? She's just a professional from the National Ballet so actually has to audition and Gary isn't interested. He's after dancers, not people with grace like this. She's obviously just there to twirl around for a little while to bring some class to proceedings then get the heck out of the picture so we can get on with the fantasy. Yet to prove that he's not just after pretty legs, Gary also turns down Rhonda, who isn't a dancer but picks things up real fast. I point all this out to highlight the numbers. He hires six out of eight girls, even though he was looking for twelve. By the time we get to the island there are seven of them, but they don't all match the ones in the auditions. Am I not supposed to notice this sort of thing? What happened to Doreen? Where did Ann come from with her Swedish accent? Well, accents change quite a lot here, so perhaps we're not supposed to worry about such things.

Nine minutes in we're on a plane and ten minutes in we're still there. Well, actually we're outside the plane like a gremlin on the wing because the filmmakers couldn't afford to construct a set so just used some stock footage. At this point we're wondering if they could afford to find an island or build a spider. They certainly couldn't afford a stunt so we watch a World War II bomber burn up and plunge into the sea with a couple of close ups of girls screaming to mildly suggest that there was really only one plane after all. Obviously nobody could survive that crash but back in the States Mike Blackwood is hopeful. After all, the only things they know for sure are that the plane caught fire and they lost contact four days ago. What could possibly be wrong? Well we have an hour to go and we haven't seen a spider or an island yet so we have to assume that he's right and sure enough we soon find everyone floating around in a liferaft.
Beyond one girl moaning about not having enough water, these dancers are pretty solid material for a male fantasy and that's what this film is. They all survive the plane crash without a scratch, while the pesky crew just vanish as if they were never in the same movie to begin with. Their skirts get ripped dangerously up the sides because this is a German film so there's no Production Code to worry about. And yet not one of them loses her high heels. Wow! That's talented stuff, even though they float around for four days going precisely nowhere before they finally notice the two large islands sitting just off the starboard bow. And in case you weren't watching the numbers, this all leaves Gary in a pretty awesome situation. He's the one man stuck with eight lovely young dancing girls in high heels and slit skirts. With my luck I won't remember my dreams tonight but I'm pretty sure I can imagine what they're going to be comprised of.

Gary soon removes his shirt to highlight how much he looks like Clark Gable in Mogambo. Well, this is his fantasy, after all. He really comes off more like a cheesy Stacy Keach, but then again this is a German film. It turns out that actor Alex D'Arcy is really Egyptian and while I don't recognise him in the slightest I've actually seen him in silent films, French films, American films and now a German film. He certainly got around and his filmography is utterly bizarre. After films for Rex Ingram, René Clair and Leo McCarey, he found his way to movies for Roger Corman, Russ Meyer and Al Adamson, all in a mere 40 film career over six decades. If only he'd written an autobiography, I'd be first in line to buy a copy. This is certainly a low point in a career that ran as high as Forbidden Games, The Awful Truth and The St Valentine's Day Massacre, because he gets to play macho for a little while then turn into a werespider and apparently vanish.

I'll let that sink in for a moment and then whisk you back to the survivors of the horrific plane crash who have been dying of thirst for four days and nights. Yep, they're all absolutely fine and dandy now and can happily wander around the island. They find a hammer. 'A hammer! There must be someone on this island,' Gary assumes, which is pretty fair, but he has leaps to make yet. 'A hammer with a long handle. It must be for the purpose of excavating some sort of metal, most probably uranium.' Wow. If hammer then uranium mine. I'll need to remember that. Next thing you know they've found a cabin which contains a dead man leaning against a giant web. The next line of dialogue is stunning. 'A dead man. In a huge web,' cries Georgia. 'Oh Gary!' I should reiterate that the original title of the film translates to A Corpse Hangs in the Web, but that's not much of an image to hang a title on, especially when the corpse keeps twitching.

Having finally found a hint of a spider in this movie, a pretty huge spider at that given the size of the web, we can't help but find a little hope in the movie after all, but it's soon dashed. All the girls flounce away to congregate under a tree, which has some sort of miniature giant spider in it, climbing down behind them. When they leave we get a good look at it, sitting there on the ground with its bug eyes and clawed hands, and it gives them the finger. Let me repeat that for anyone who just fell out of their chair. This claw fingered, bug eyed, miniature giant spider gives the girls the finger. It doesn't talk but if it did, you just know it would say something like, 'Curses! Foiled again!' Well, unless it had a voice like Cartman, which would be utterly believable, in which case it would be something more like, 'Goddamn bitches! I'll get you skanky hoes later! Right now I'll finish off these cheesy puffs.'

Such dialogue would certainly fit in with what's actually in the movie, which is cheesy beyond comparison. Take the next conversation as an example. Georgia opens with a diary and a death: 'The poor professor, when he made the last entry in the diary, he didn't know how horribly he would die.' Gary raises with uranium and riches: 'Well his discovery of the uranium deposits didn't help him any, even if it does represent a tremendous fortune.' Georgia counters with a premonition: 'We must keep it from the girls that Professor Green had a premonition of his fate.' Gary ignores that entirely and counters with precisely the same premonition: 'You see, here in the last paragraph he says he thought something terrible was going to happen. He just felt the danger.' Georgia forgets the giant web entirely: 'I wonder where that peculiar hissing came from that he always heard. Oh Gary, I'm terribly scared. I'm so afraid.' Finally Gary wins by playing the man card: 'Don't worry, Georgia. As long as I'm around nothing will happen to you. I promise!'

This conversation is the epitome of Z grade movie dialogue, every line raising the cheese factor another notch until we can't take it any more and we have to sit back and let the film roll over us for a while. The girls make themselves at home. They take inventory. They talk about setting up smoke signals from the highest cliff. There are catfights over shirts. Well nearly. We should have had some catfights. This film really needed more catfights, but naked catfights are presumably what were stripped out, pun well and truly intended, and now I need to track down the It's Hot in Paradise version to find out what's missing. 'I simply can't stand this frightful heat any longer,' says Linda the stripper. She takes her top off and does her makeup because her purse survived the crash. Most of the girls go to sleep outside, clad rather scantily and draped seductively all over the porch of the cabin. Yes, I definitely need to track down the full version.
Gary finds the professor's revolver, as jovial as ever. He's always jovial, whatever the circumstances, but then he's one guy stuck on a desert island with eight young lady dancers. Wouldn't you be jovial? Unfortunately he's also doomed. 'This damned heat!' he cries as Georgia catches him in a clinch with one of the half dressed dancers. 'I don't know what I'm doing any more!' he exclaims and proves it by wandering off into the storm. Yes, there's a storm now because it's time for him to be attacked by the miniature giant spider. We get a great view of it between a couple of trees, all wizened with nothing but muscle and bug eyes. And hands. It has hands. With claws. It's like Popeye the Sailor Man had too much spinach and turned into an Alien facehugger that leaps onto his neck instead and bites him. Gary does shoot the thing dead but he's been bitten and so turns into a werewolf. Not a miniature giant spider, a werewolf.

So Horrors of Spider Island is a werewolf movie? You might assume that at this point but Gary claims one victim and promptly vanishes. He waits for the girls to go searching for him, leaving only the stripper to sway seductively to saxophone music in front of the cabin and when she goes down to the pond he stands behind her to cast an ominous shadow in the water and then strangles her with his claws. Just in case you think you're hallucinating here, let me recap. The miniature giant spider bites Gary and turns him into a werewolf so he can strangle women with his claws. What planet are we on here? Did they have no biology books in Germany? We're still puzzled by this when we get a real catfight and a little bit of whipping action with a belt, but Gary hovers his claws surreptitiously around Georgia's neck in the doorway so the girls scream and he runs away to be hardly seen again. Perhaps he's ashamed at his technique.

Perhaps Gary's fantasy was just to be shipwrecked with seductive young dancers and then turned into a werewolf, while the two men who replace him on the island want to share the place with seductive young dancers and get drunk. Yes, there are two new guys, Joe and Bobby, the professor's assistants, the ones he never mentioned in his diary and didn't appear in the script until now, who arrive with whiskey and supplies just in time to watch the girls frolicking around and skinny dipping in a lagoon. I should point out that after 28 days they're close to starvation because the food is running out and cruise liners rudely fail to stop when passing, so desperate that Ann tries to jump off a cliff, but when the guys arrive they're skinny dipping in a lagoon having a whale of a time. Oh, and the expedition ship will be here in two days so they're all rescued and they can just spend the rest of the film partying on down. No, I'm not kidding.

Now it's a soft porn movie without any nudity. Here's Joe taking his shirt off. There's Bobby hurling out euphemisms. He'll do anything on legs and he starts working through the dancers, rendezvous after rendezvous. Here's Babs slouched on the ground licking his hand while Bobby poses in a macho stance. It's orgy time, without any sex, and he gets most of the girls because Joe is a little more sensitive and claims Ann for himself, romancing her politely. 'I'm really glad that your aeroplane crashed,' he says and she falls for him in return. Gladys falls for Bobby but he isn't faithful to her, the cad, and suddenly we're in a soap opera for tween girls. Even the guys end up fighting over how Bobby talks about Ann. 'What are dancers?' he slurs after a few bottles. 'Hot goods for cold nights.' Six women aren't enough for him this night so it's fight time, until he remembers he has a date. Oh, how they laughed. Oh, how we wept.

By the time this film was over I was rather confused as to what I'd seen and even more confused as to what the filmmakers thought they'd made. Then I realised that it isn't a horror movie at all. After all this place could hardly be called Spider Island given that there's precisely one spider and it gets killed after two brief appearances. There are only horrors plural because Gary turns into that werewolf spider with claws but he vanishes as soon as he arrives and only turns back up at the end to push Gladys off a cliff and be chased to his death in the quicksand. Suddenly It's Hot in Paradise makes more sense as a title. The horror is just a distraction, this entire film is about getting trapped on a desert island with a bunch of young dancing girls like buxom Barbara Valentin to flesh out a wild orgy. In other words the entire point of the film is what was cut out of it for this version. What that leaves is an Amish porn movie and who wants to watch that?

1 comment:

james1511 said...

It's a thing of wonder, isn't it? The sheer maleness of the fantasy is quite stunning. Apparently Alex d'Arcy also claimed to have actually written and directed most of the film, which I'm inclined to believe if only because I can't imagine why he'd want to take the blame if it weren't true...