Many, many years ago in LaLa Land (that’s LA, for those of you who don’t know), back in the days of spiked hair, pointy shoes, padded shoulders and torn sweatshirts worn inside-out (early to mid 1980s, in other words), it was still possible to go to the real grindhouse theaters where the films being shown inside weren’t always the ones up on the marquee outside. The Casino on Broadway (R.I.P.) did that occasionally, as did all the grimy Asian-run porno holes on Main Street the few times I checked them out, but the place where I went the most often and that did it most often was a now long-gone hole in the wall a few doors down from Langer’s Deli on Alvarado between 7th and 8th Streets in the Westlake district.
The films, usually with Spanish subtitles, seldom matched the names outside, and one had as good of a chance to see some second-run exploitation film as an obscure Bavarian lederhosen comedy or a scratchy Chinese costume flick. (Probably the oddest combo I caught there was Pyun’s The Sword and the Sorcerer [1982 / trailer] with, I think, Beim Jodeln juckt die Lederhose .) It was there that I was introduced to the wonders of the Shaw Brothers, in copies so scratched and torn that they remained un-understandable no matter what language they were in. In all truth, I was less than impressed by them and for years they stood alongside Bavarian lederhosen films as my least favorite film genre.
But whereas the lederhosen films still leave me cold, over the years, through the experience of the later Hong Kong costume classics of the late 80s/early 90s—Chinese Ghost Story I (1987 / trailer) & II (1990 / trailer), Bride with White Hair (1993 / trailer), etc.—and the occasional incredibly strange oddity—Miracle Fighters (1982), Mr Vampire (1985 / trailer)—I have warmed up substantially to Hong Kong Chop-Chop Suey and, in turn, the Shaw Brothers. Particularly now that so many of their films have been digitally cleaned and made available on DVD, I have to say, the Shaw Brothers are awesome.
Take The Web of Death, for example, currently available as a digitally remastered DVD. Little did I know that in 1976 Mario Bava did a job for hire for the Shaw Brothers…. OK, maybe he didn’t, but director Chu Yuan, a man well-known to Shaw Brothers and classic Wuxia film fans, does a damn fine imitation of the Italian master in this film, filling the screen with wonderful shades of vibrant, deep color (mostly reds and greens) and wafts of fog. The colors and wonderfully intricate artificial sets of the film also bring to mind the films of Hammer, for the interiors of The Web of Death have a richness of detail and scope found in the best studio-bound set pieces of the great house of horror (far more so than the Shaw Brothers & Hammer joint production of 1974, the cheesy but fun Seven Brothers Meet Dracula [trailer]). Sure, the special effects of The Web of Death are often cheap and tacky, particularly whenever the spider with its elephant roar shows up, but for that there are some cool acid-bath deaths, spurting blood, fun (but too few and too short) fight scenes and enough plot twists and intrigue for a dozen films. Indeed, the plot of the film is almost Shakespearean in its intricacies, side tangents and sheer breadth of characters. There are dozens of characters of differing importance that show up just long enough to move the plot (and plot tangents) forward and then disappear again until needed again later—or to die. Good and bad characters come and go, as do clans and clan leaders and disciples, not to mention identities and loyalties and love and betrayal; for much of the film one can’t help but wonder how all the narrative strands are ever going to mesh together into a coherent whole—but they do.
The Web of Death starts in the middle of a fight in what must be somewhere in the distant past; this brief scene serves to show just how deadly the "Five Venom Spider" is in full Ed-Wood-like glory. Then the film moves forward to some other time in still-ancient China, to a meeting of the five clans of the Five Poison Web, headed by Wang Hsieh (Ku Feng), the clan leader of the Scorpion Clan. Liu Shen (Lo Lieh, who taught Dr. Evil how to laugh diabolically), the leader of the Snake Sect, wants to regain the respect of all other clans by using the Five Venom Spider to win the next boxing meeting, but Wang Hsieh refuses to bring the deadly, virtually unstoppable weapon out of its hiding place of the past centuries. Little does he know that Liu Shen is bonking his concubine (Angela Yu Chien) and that the two plan to dispose him. Liu Shen spreads the rumor that the Five Venom Spider has reappeared, upon which the other clans send out the young disciple , Fei Ying-hsiung (played by Yueh Hua) to find it. He crosses paths with a martial-arts-gifted bum who, unknown to him, is the daughter of Wang Hsieh (Ching Li). Before long, as clans die and drop along the way, both his brother (Wong Chung) and a female co-clan member (Lily Li) who’s hot for him are also on the trail of the Spider. A spider’s web of love, death, betrayal, death, marriage, death, loyalty, death and tragedy follows…
The Web of Death is a fanciful wuxia film with shades of horror, complicated and over the top, both fun and tragic in its narrative developments. It is not the most action-packed of the genre, but it is nonetheless often thrilling and enthralling. The occasional unintentional giggle is instigated—particularly the bit about an obvious girl dressed as a boy that no one notices is a girl and whenever the spider goes into action—but the film never bores, and it has far more highlights than low points. The camera work is often startlingly fluid and stylized (and, once or twice, amazingly unfocused), as are some of the finer set pieces (such as the Indiana Jones like episode in the Five Venom Tomb), and while some out there say the film is not the best the Golden Age of Flying Chinese sock-em chop-em costume “dramas”, it is nonetheless one of the better ones easily available.
The Web of Death gets a hearty recommendation from us as yet another fine film to waste your life watching.