There’s a long, disreputable history in cinema of women being sexually pursued by animals – from the racist allegory of the original King Kong to the notorious dream sequence from Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast. Leave it to Latvian filmmaker Vasili Mass, however, to recognise the one thing the genre sorely lacked: a film in which a pious young woman dreams about being violated by a giant spider.
Released at the dawn of Latvian independence, The Spider (Pauk, 1991) is billed as an erotic horror film, and Mass certainly puts his all into fulfilling each genre’s criteria. Its narrative is unique enough: a girl is requested to pose as the Virgin Mary for a sleazy painter, whose advances she rejects; but she is subsequently plagued by arachnoid sex nightmares. Decamping to a mysterious castle off the Baltic coast to recuperate, she is plagued by further hallucinations, before engaging in a fight to the death with the now-manifest giant spider in a sauna.
As befits such an absurd premise, The Spider sits squarely in so-bad-it’s-good territory. The music is pure ‘80s Doctor Who synth, and the acting is uniformly ludicrous. This is not to say that it is without redeeming features: some of the special effects (such as the titular arachnid) are impressive, and there are some genuinely atmospheric moments. Unlike the campy, self-aware horror comedies of Nobuhiko Obayashi (House) and Peter Jackson (Braindead, with which Mass’s film shares an arse-kicking priest), The Spider seems to be taking itself seriously – which, at times, only makes it funnier.
That laughter comes with somewhat of an unpleasant aftertaste, however. I would usually be reluctant to single out a film for exemplifying Laura Mulvey’s male gaze theory, given that it permeates all of cinema and – despite popular misconception – is not at all specific to sexualised depiction of women. But The Spider is so insistently fixated on lead actor Aurelija Anuzhite’s body that she virtually disappears as a character; a process only heightened by the script’s shortcomings.
This is objectification in a different sense to that practiced by other heterosexual male filmmakers. Borowczyk, for instance, objectifies in the literal sense, which is to say that he has the animator’s knack for reducing all bodies and body parts – and, indeed, nearly anything else in frame – to tactile fetish objects. His characters, however, retain their (general and sexual) agency. Like so many other b-grade ‘erotic thrillers’, however, The Spider thoroughly de-subjectivises its protagonist. For all its ostensible exploration of psychosexual hang-ups, her dreams are clearly not her own.
You can read more about my 50 countries project (and see the list of films and countries) here.