L’araignée d’or (1908)
aka The Gold Spider
Written and Directed by Segundo de Chomón
This one is a special treat. Not only is it the earliest big spider movie I’ve heard of, but it’s also one of the oldest surviving representations of a spider on film! It’s only eight minutes long, and one shot is badly damaged, but L’araignée d’or is a splendid example of early narrative film and special effects.
Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (1968)
aka Yôkai daisensô (Big Monster War)
Directed by Yoshiyuki Kuroda
Written by Tetsurô Yoshida
Starring Yoshihiko Aoyama, Hideki Hanamura, Chikara Hashimoto, Hiromi Inoue, Akane Kawasaki, and Gen Kuroki
Yôkai is one of the Japanese terms for monsters, particularly ghosts or apparitions. Some were drawn from genuine folklore, but many sprang from the imagination of artists. Whatever their origins they’re the inspiration for a lot of modern Japanese entertainment, particularly comics and animation. The best-known designs for some of them are based on the suits created for Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare.
Warning Shadows (1923)
aka Schatten — Eine nächtliche Halluzination
Directed by Arthur Robison
Written by Arthur Robison and Rudolph Schneider
Starring Alexander Granach, Fritz Kortner, Ruth Weyher, and Gustav von Wangenheim
A lot of amazing stuff was going on in cinema during the 1920s. Feature films became predominant, telling longer and more complex stories to audiences willing to invest time in them. Movie palaces, seating a thousand and more patrons, became a part of the American cityscape. The advent of synchronized sound in 1927 remained the biggest game-changer until movies could be shot in color. In this climate of popularity and growth, some filmmakers were inclined to be more adventurous in their efforts. Such a director was Arthur Robinson, who decided to make his film Warning Shadows even more silent than the medium required.
Doctor Mordrid (1992)
Directed by Albert and Charles Band
Written by Charles Band and C. Courtney Joyner
Starring Jeffrey Combs, Yvette Nipar, Jay Acovone, Keith Coulouris, and Brian Thompson
Remember being a kid. Maybe you liked chocolate bars. Perhaps it was gum drops. Think back to when you first discovered that you could have so much of it that it stopped tasting great. Did you keep going? Did you have so much that you got a stomach ache? Did you get sick? For me, watching Doctor Mordrid was a lot like that.
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953)
Directed by Roy Rowland
Written by Dr. Seuss and Alan Scott
Starring Mary Healy, Hans Conried, Tommy Rettig, and Peter Lind Hayes
Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) is a treasured part of our cultural consciousness. He wrote and drew seemingly hundreds of books for children, taking them through basic language lessons and whimsical diversions to allegorical fables of tolerance and equality. Say “one fish, two fish” to someone raised with English as a first language, and they’ll probably reply immediately with “red fish, blue fish”. (I would also believe this to be true for the speakers of the dozens of languages into which his books have been translated.) Seussisms are a shorthand language that we reference freely in the certainty of being understood. Even if someone doesn’t instantly recognize the word sneech, within five words of explanation they remember the story of the sneeches having stars placed on and then removed from their bellies in order to appear superior to each other. What most have forgotten, if they ever knew of it at all, was that the first live-action Seuss film was The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.
Ator, the Fighting Eagle (1982)
aka Ator l’invincibile
Directed by Joe D’Amato
Written by Joe D’Amato and Michele Soavi
Starring Miles O’Keeffe, Sabrina Siani, and Ritza Brown
The sword and sandal genre once thrived, with heroes like Hercules and Samson knocking down pillars and wrestling lions. Maybe it died off because other cheap fare was more marketable, or perhaps an audience that had rejected tight shorts on men now demanded their heroes wear pants. Whatever the cause, it wasn’t until Arnold Schwarzenegger donned the loincloth for Conan the Barbarian that buff men running around in their underwear muscled their way back into theaters.
Writers: Brian Brinkman and Micho Rutare
Director: Mark Atkins
When you find yourself watching an Asylum film, you have two options: set the bar low, or go wash the dishes. There was something fermenting under all the tableware in the sink, so I chose to keep watching “Dragonquest”. Besides, I’d been assured that the fantasy adventure contained a big damn spider for no damn reason.
As it turns out, there’s no reason for most of what happens in “Dragonquest”, but I’ll get to that later. First, there was a rocky outcropping…
The movie opens with some long aerial shots of terrain, then settles on a ledge high on a barren cliff. Here, a hooded figure (Brian Thompson, recognizable to any fan of “The X-Files” as the alien bounty hunter) squeezes a large gem until blood pours out. His name is Kirill, and his ritual summons a crap CGI dragon made of crap CGI shadows.
From this ominous beginning, the story shifts to an idyllic rustic village, where an idyllic young peeping tom uses a spyglass to see what an idyllic young maiden has under her blouse. Sadly, this sexual-predator in the rough is our hero.
His name is Arkadi, and he lives with Grandfather, the kind of wise old man who always winds up watching over orphaned protagonists in hiding. He is not amused by Arkadi’s antics — chasing girls and smoking what appears to be fairy dust. The little pervert probably keeps Tinkerbell locked in a chest with his dirty scrolls.
Sensing the coming of plot, Grandfather gives Arkadi an amulet. It’s very shiny for an artifact that has been hidden away, and it’s shaped like a cross between a knot and a honeycomb. Our hero is sent several inches away so that Grandfather may confer not at all secretly with another villager.
It seems that Arkadi is destined to succeed where Grandfather has failed. We’re left to imagine that this most be something important, but not for long. The shadow dragon arrives and starts burning everything in sight. Grandfather, of course, dies sending the dragon away. He did manage to send his friend to warn the King.
As for Arkadi, he is sent to find Maxim (about whom he knows nothing). The fate of the partially disrobed village girl is not known.
Grandfather’s pal goes to the King’s castle and tells everyone he meets about Arkadi before admonishing them against telling anyone else. One of the King’s men promptly hies himself to Kirill to spill everything.
There follows an epic battle between the forces of good and evil, represented by about five dudes taking turns falling down. Arkadi stumbles on this scene, and he talks briefly with the King before his majesty gets flambéd by Kirill’s dragon.
In what becomes a recurring theme, Arkadi stumbles blindly away from the action.
It is telling that some of the only dark-skinned actors in the movie are the bandits who jump Arkadi as he wanders toward his destiny1. It is also telling that the only reason for this attack is to introduce Katya, a warrior trained in the arts of applying make-up and fighting in corsets. She rescues Arkadi and leads him to Maxim — portrayed by Marc Singer as a growling land-pirate — who finally puts the plot train back on the rails.
It seems that Maxim, Kirill, and Grandfather were all part of an organization called the Brotherhood. Their purpose is unclear, but it somehow involves continually hiding a bunch of gems that represent virtues and getting people to collect them again. Grandfather got all of them but one — humility — and apparently after some time limit was exceeded the gems were taken away from him and re-hidden. I’m speculating here, but no reason is ever given for why they all have to be found again.
The amulet that was given to Arkadi is for turning the gems into one amazingly gaudy bauble. For some unclear reason, Grandfather believed that Arkadi was possessed of the necessary virtues to collect them all — meaning that there must be gems for lechery, laziness, and generally being a doofus. It’s hard to know for sure, as after an initial, rapid rundown most of the virtues are never again mentioned. Regardless, Arkadi is now the Keeper, and it’s his job to prevent the quaffle from passing through his goal hoops. Or to prove himself virtuous enough to create his own crap dragon, whichever.
From here, the story settles into the titular quest, and we see Arkadi blunder from one pointless challenge to another as he wanders toward his inevitable, unearned victory.
Typical of these challenges to his virtue is what I call the Challenge of Pretending There’s a Big Damn Spider. Arkadi has been sent off on his own while Maxim and Katya go somewhere else (hopefully to call their agents). Seeing a cave, our hero decides to poke around in it. He finds himself in an improbably well-lit tunnel, where he stands as a giant spider saunters past him. Then he looks down and sees a gem.
There may as well not have been a spider at all. Or a cave, really.
Every now and then you can see some slim connection to a virtue (chastity, represented by not immediately rubbing parts with a stranger), but none of it is particularly challenging or proves much of anything unusual in his character. That’s the really frustrating thing about the movie; Arkadi’s rewards feel like prizes for participation, not a proof of his superior inner qualities.
Asylum has a reputation for churning out low-budget genre films with generic plots and slumming B-list actors. The surprising thing about “Dragonquest” is that the familiar fantasy elements are thrown together into a completely incoherent mess. Nothing fits together except for the constant refrain of collecting the Stones of Virtue, which activity is so random and non-challenging as to suggest divine intervention.
That could explain why the spider’s legs disappear at certain points in its ambling. Or maybe it’s just that nobody really cared enough to put forth any kind of effort for an Asylum feature.
- It was awfully nice of Kirill to wait until Arkadi got the amulet before launching his attack.
- I honestly couldn’t tell if the King put himself out of his misery or stabbed at the dragon as he burned to death.
- I need to watch a good movie soon.
- Unsurprisingly, this is the first screen-writing credit for both of the writers, Brian Brinkman and Micho Rutare.
1. If the only black actors in your modern movie are bandits, you should probably take a sensitivity course. I mean, yay for breaking up the blinding glare of paleness, but would it kill you to spread people around?