Amy Noble, Emma Griffiths Malin, George Maguire, John Regan
(IFC; IFC On Demand: 29 Jul 2011; 2010)
The premise is almost rote - four university students, desperate for someplace cheap to live, travel around the city of London looking for a “squat” (a residential building which that can overtake for free and claim as their own). After a couple of unsuccessful tries, they finally locate a nice looking manor set back from the street. A cursory examination, a little bit too much to drink, some strong vows, and a hard sleep later, the quartet suddenly find themselves locked in, steel doors and windows suggesting that someone else is in the house with them, and is determined to keep them there for a very long time. Then they discover the secret rooms…and the blood…
Spiderhole is indeed nothing new. Even with the UK setting and art school backdrop, it’s Eli Roth’s Hostel transplanted into a hovel. The large decaying house holding our heroes resembles an even dingier version of the place prevalent in Darren Lynn Bousman’s Saw 2 and the threat borrows liberally from all serial killer/isolated location terrors. But thanks to the steady direction of Daniel Simpson (with a few glaring gaps in his accompanying screenplay) and the overwhelming feeling of dread he creates, we can survive some of the film’s more flaccid elements. It’s not perfect. Heck, at times, it’s barely passable.
One of the main drawbacks here is the acting. Granted, we are stuck with four people for the majority of the movie, but their main motivation appears to be to irritate the audience with their whining. These are some of the worst civil anarchists ever, something Simpson could have emphasized before letting them loose in a potential house of horrors. No one is mature. No one has an inside voice. Everything, from outright shocks to surreptitious plotting, is done at a decibel level likened to a room full of infants in wet nappies. Amy Noble as Zoe and Emma Griffiths Malin as Molly can be slightly forgiven: they are girls, and prissy art college versions of same. But what about George Maguire’s Toby and Reuben-Henry Biggs’s Luke. They pout and shriek more than their frail female companions.
Another problem is the underlying subtext - otherwise known as why this is happening to our heroes. Stumbling into the wrong place at the obviously wrong time is one thing, but Spiderhole can’t stop sending out the mixed messages. Is the killer doing this for his dead Dad? An injured parent? The family name? His own internal insanity? Revenge? Because little demons tell him to? All are distinct possibilities. But then there is a last minute twist, something suggested at the very beginning of the film in an off the cuff peripheral manner and then quickly dispensed with, that argues against what we know. It’s not a delightful confusion. It’s more of a “oh yeah - let’s toss this in too!” When we see it, we can’t quite believe this is where everything was going. When it’s over, it makes us question why we even bothered to waste our time initially.
The answer, of course, is part of the predicament facing any fright film fan. As with lovers of the romantic comedy, and in some ways, the serious science fiction film, the fear maven will tolerate almost anything in the name of a nominal good time. No longer is the genre dominated by ideas or the focused desire to disturb. Instead, it’s all about what can be harvested, what is homage, and what can hold up for at least 20 of the usual 80 to 90 minute running time. Today’s horror films are, for the most part, wholly concept based (like many of the movies made in the ‘80s). Someone comes up with a clever idea - a youth hostel in an Eastern Bloc country standing in for a torture club catalog - and then they watch as a dozen or so “admirers’ twist it toward their own means.
The ‘brilliant’ thing about Roth’s Hostel - if one can use such a term in describing the film - is that it never loses focus over what it’s about. The story sees a group of guys tricked and kidnapped into become fodder for a bunch of rich degenerates who come up with top dollar so they can experience the ultimate thrill - torture and murder - without having to pay the actual legal price. It was a masterful reflection on America, what the world thinks of us, how we view the rest of the planet, and the nasty urban legends which swirl around the maze-like streets of the old country. And yet when it came to delivering the grue, Roth never relented. Sure, it was a glamorized gore fest, but in truth, what else could it have been?
In the case of Spiderhole, Simpson doesn’t have the money or the guts - literally - to show us the slaughter. Instead, everything is inferred and suggested, each amputation or moment of eye gouging kept just off the side of the frame. Certainly, it’s unsettling to see the rotting results of such deeds, but when you spend 70 minutes setting up your crazed killer routine, it’s unfair to relegate him to off camera cruelty. Simpson will surely argue budget and audience issues, but that’s the devil in the horror film’s details. Either you show us the hideous handiwork, or you find another way to deliver the shivers.
In this case, the suspense is strong enough to carry us through. It’s not enough to make this a macabre standard, but Spiderhole does have its moments. The setting and situation alone are worthy of consideration and the “what’s happening here?” element does move us over and beyond some of the storyline’s more misguided approaches. But when you come to the table with something scary already sold, you better arrive ready to respond. Hinting at the horrors is just not good enough. In fact, that’s a very good capsule review for Spiderhole: prepared to prey on our ready to be frayed nerves…and then unable to fully seal the scary movie deal.