Home Video Hovel- The Spiders
Hidden treasure! Daring escapes! Disguises! Hot air balloons! Trap doors! Double-crosses! Underground cities! Secret societies! Fritz Lang gives you all this and more in his 1920 two-part serial, The Spiders, out now on DVD from Kino. This is archetypal early Lang in many ways, which is to say it’s as breathlessly exciting as it is often kind of a drag to watch. Lang was the master of the set piece; nobody could construct tension and thrills like he did at the time. But his films, particularly those he made in Germany, are frequently marked by people sitting around and spelling out unnecessary plot details in a fairly droll manner. And I love Metropolis and M as much as the next guy, but this is not that; still, when it’s on, it’s on, baby, and it’s fascinating to look back at a film that now seems like the prototype for the modern blockbuster.
As mentioned above, The Spiders is actually two films – The Golden Sea and The Diamond Ship – the second of which really is, all things considered, broken up into two distinct stories, making it feel like a trilogy shot in the manner of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. The first film introduces the characters and sets them off on their first adventure – Kay Hoog (sure, it’s not exactly “Indiana Jones”) is a wealthy man of indeterminate means who spends his free time sailing between America and Asia (you know, for funsies), until he’s sidetracked by a message in a bottle promising buried treasure! Unfortunately, a secret organization called The Spiders is on the same track, and they’re not exactly friendly competition. The rest of the film is a race to the treasure – but will the treasure really be all they made it out to be?
The second film deals in an all-over sense with the hunt for a certain diamond, with a the sudden introduction of a kidnapping plot serving as the main thrust of the second half, but by now you sort of know what you’re in for. The tropes, piled on as they are, will easily appeal to any fan of pulp adventure stories, though it comes with the usual caveats. As previously alluded, the exposition comes by the truckload, and this being a 1920s production, the racial stereotypes are not few (you know when, in The Diamond Ship, two actors are cast as “A Jew” and “A Chinese” respectively, it’s gonna be one of those kinds of films). But Lang, as was his habit, moved past those obstacles and delivers the kind of straightforward, thrilling adventure serial that has now moved to television, but was once the province of cinema.
Kino has done magnificent work in presenting The Spiders on DVD. Once thought to be a lost film, it was rediscovered in the 1970s and has been incrementally restored ever since. The last restored edition was released on DVD in 1999, clocking in at 137 minutes, which has nothing on the mammoth 173-minute running time of the new Kino release. According to the composer Kino enlisted for this release, the difference is mainly due to transfer speed. It’s notoriously difficult to nail down the proper frame rate on silent films due to the shooting process – hand-cranked cameras means a lack of uniformity. Films from the era typically run between 18 and 22 frames per second instead of the eventual industry standard of 24, but would often vary within that range from shot to shot, and with no soundtrack to sync it to, it’s up to DVD producers to determine what the director might have wanted. This new edition allows for more breathing room and the death grip of tension Lang probably intended.
Beyond that, the quality of the image is marvelous, but as I’ve insisted many times in the past, it’s a matter of grading on a curve. The Spiders was an enormously popular series in its day, and whatever elements were struck upon release were thoroughly wrung out and eventually wasted. Undoubtedly, the print discovered in the 1970s is the only one remaining, and is still the print being used today. As such, one has to accept that the damage is inherent to the print, though it thankfully does not overly obstruct the images. Frames are missing as well, and the image flutters about the screen for its duration. But Kino has done a remarkable job with what it has, giving us a clear view of the print they were lucky enough to work with, and delivering rich, bold colors.
Wait, did I say colors? That’s right – The Spiders was a tinted silent film, meaning that although it is a monochromatic film, the single color would change from scene to scene to vary the mood. Very rare, in fact, is the shot that’s presented in true black-and-white. Lang uses some typical choices – blue for night, amber for light interiors, etc. – but once you get into the bright-pink cave, all bets are off! I was particularly taken with his use of green as well, and in many ways, The Spiders utilizes color better than some early Technicolor pictures.
The Spiders is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and Kino have done a great job of packing nearly three hours of movie onto one DVD without sacrificing the quality of the transfer.
Obviously, a silent film requires nothing in the way of sound restoration, but Kino has provided a new score by Ben Model, which marvelously takes us through the picture without falling back on a designated theme.
Special features are limited to a gallery featuring the original program book, poster images, and stills from the film, which are certainly of note. A short bit on the restoration process – even in the form of an essay – would have been much appreciated, but as it stands, the opportunity to add this rare Fritz Lang film to one’s collection is irresistible, particularly for fans of the director. Kino have done a remarkable job carefully transferring this film to its digital medium, and I continue to be in awe of the work they do in preserving silent film in the 21st century.