The Spider Labyrinth (1988)
This is a strange one. If you’ve followed my blogs about horror movies, you know that I’m a sucker for Italian horror movies. I’m always on the lookout for good ones I’ve never seen. Spider Labyrinth is a movie that I kept hearing about, but could never track down– it’s notoriously difficult to find, and never got a proper DVD release– it’s available through Amazon, but even that version is a bootleg.
So: yes, I got this from dubious sources on the internet. You can probably tell, from the channel logo in the lower-right of all my screenshots.
Totally worth it.
There are so many Italian directors that are masters of the craft– Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento, and so on. Gianfranco Giagni belongs on that list, even though– as far as I can tell– this is the only horror movie he ever directed.
It’s pretty bonkers.
It’s about ancient Lovecraftian spider cultists.
A professor specializing in ancient languages gets hired by a private firm to go to Italy to pick up the work of a professor who’s gone off the rails. He flies to Hungary to find the professor and continue his translation efforts.
As soon as he lands, it becomes apparent that much of the town– and the entirety of the hotel in which he’s staying– has something weird going on. There’s a lot of subtly off-putting behavior on the part of the residents, and it’s all beautifully shot, paced, and edited.
He finds the professor and his creepy-ass wife, and receives a stone tablet and a warning to keep it hidden, along with what sound like the ravings of a lunatic, full of terrified discussions of spiders and cults.
The professor then turns up dead (of course).
If you’re familiar with the slow unfolding of macabre Lovecraftian dread and conspiracy theories, or even the bureaucratic nightmares of Kafka, this is fairly well-trodden territory– the professor gets new leads to follow, tracks them down, finds the sources dead or insane.
In this case, it’s a journey well-worth taking.
The special effects, I must add, are fantastic. The special effects for this movie were done by Sergio Stivaletti, who has worked with Dario Argento, Michele Soavi, Lamberto Bava, as well as directing in his own right. These effects are fantastic, even on the crappy VHS transfer I watched. There’s a few stop-motion effects in particular that are just beautiful to see, and genuinely creepy– one of them is a bit spoiler-tastic, so I’ll hide it behind this link here, but it’s amazing.
Here’s another one that’s pretty great:
I really enjoyed this movie, and I’d be first in line, if one of the houses that’s been snatching up obscure horror wanted to put out a really nice DVD / Blu-Ray. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this weird-ass movie.
After my folks split when I was a kid, I moved with my mother to Iowa, and spent time each summer visiting my father in Albuquerque. He worked on the University of New Mexico campus, and so on weekdays, when I was a bored adolescent, I’d walk down to campustown and spend hours milling around, visiting shops, getting coffee and loitering.
I had a full circuit of comics shops and bookshops that I’d try to visit regularly: The Book Case, The University Comics Warehouse, Birdsong bookstore, Living Batch bookstore, Newsland, Addicted to Comics, Salt of the Earth bookstore… all within about a half mile radius. Most of these are now defunct, sadly, but when I was in middle school I spent hours and hours in each of them, nurturing a love for science fiction, horror, and humor; and then more hours in The Frontier restaurant, reading what I’d picked up.
One of my favorite shops was a little gem called Best Price Books. It had a little cafe and coffee shop, where I was first introduced to the concept of the italian soda (my preferred was blueberry with cream) and the latte. They also had a good array of books… and a huge selection of super-cheap comics.
That wasn’t uncommon in used bookstores, of course. The late 80s and early 90s were a strange time for comics, and there was always a lot of inventory to be picked up for pennies on the dollar. Most places had the same old stuff– runs of subpar Marvel and DC books, or reams of kiddie comics (Richie Rich consistently occupied feet of space in ratty long boxes, ferreted away in bookstores’ dark corners).
But Best Price Books had weird stuff. A full run of Star*Reach comics. Cerebus. Big chunks of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Fat Freddy’s Cat. A few scattered issues of Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children. Ted McKeever’s brilliant and bizarro Eddy Current (which got me into trouble when I took it into my fifth-grade Art class and tried to show it off). Even a few copies of Zap and Raw and Weirdo, along with myriad underground one-shots, also-rans and never-weres. They had the usual Marvel and DC stuff too, but mixed in with the Justice League America and Marvel Tales you’d find stuff like Watchmen and Wasteland. They weren’t always in good shape, but they were always cheap.
I bought so many weird comics. If my parents had known the depths of the art-house weirdness I was plumbing with these things, they would’ve either snatched them away in a heartbeat, or congratulated me on becoming a weirdo early on. I didn’t let them know what I had.
(Tangentially, there was an Albuquerque video store I discovered a few years later called “Wavy Brain,” that was unlike any Blockbuster or Hollywood Video in existence. That store had the craziest movies, bootlegs and international versions of things; stuff you couldn’t find anywhere. I remember one weekend I had the house to myself, and I rented:
- The Twin Peaks International Pilot
- A copy of Peter Jackson’s Braindead with Japanese subtitles and an extended cut of the lawnmower-murder scene
- Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain
That late-nite movie marathon warped my fourteen-year-old brain into shapes previously unimaginable.)
I credit those outings– those comics, those movies, those shops, those people– with turning me into a weirdo in the best possible way.
One of the comics I found in the super-cheap bin at Best Price Books was a black and white comic from the UK publisher Harrier. I’d known about them already, because I’d already found– in the same bookshop– some issues of Deadface, Bacchus, and Avalon. This one was called Some Tales From Gimbley.
I picked it up, flipped through it as I sipped a beverage of some kind or another, and was immediately hooked.
Gimbley was different from almost anything I’d come across. It wasn’t a superhero comic. It wasn’t a funny animal comic (or a martial arts fighting-animal comic; those were rampant in those days, after the success of TMNT). it wasn’t Science Fiction, it wasn’t Horror, it wasn’t sword & sorcery. The closest thing I had to compare it to were the slice-of-life stories in some of the black-and-white underground comics, but those leaned toward the edgy and dirty, and Gimbley was much more gentle. These were short little vignettes– many of them only a single page long– incorporating humor, magical realism, poetic language, absurdity, and a permeating wistfulness.
This was comics in a form I’d never seen before– as sequential graphic poetry.
I fell in love with it immediately.
A few years after discovering Gimbley, while in high school, I went on a trip to Denver with my mother, and found a copy of John Porcellino’s King-Cat Comix & Stories in a comic shop. King-Cat hits many of the same notes: wistfulness, clean linework, the incorporation of poetic language and imagery, zen calm. But Gimbley was absurd and funny, in a way that King-Cat usually isn’t.
These were the days before the internet, and Harrier was a UK publisher, so it was years and years before I was able to track down more of Phil’s work, but I carried that copy of Tales From Gimbley wherever I went, reading and re-reading it until it was in tatters. In high school, I used Elliott’s Scenacre Cottage Gimbley short as the basis for a short-short story. I don’t remember if I mentioned the inspiration to my teacher; knowing who I was 25 years ago, probably not. Sorry, Phil.
One of the things that amazes me every time I reread Gimbley is Phil’s style, how malleable and fluid it is. Sometimes he uses incredibly clean linework, in the style of Joost Swarte or Hergé, but then the next page features thick and chunky slashes of expressionist cartooning, and I loved that he could bounce around between these styles, apparently effortlessly, so effectively.
A few years ago I became Facebook friends with Phil, and commissioned him to draw a family portrait. His work hangs up on the wall next to James Kochalka, Chris Onstad, Ivan Brunetti, Jeremy Bastian, John Porcellino, and Keith Herzik.
Recently, Phil posted on his Facebook. “I’ve decided that I can’t keep lugging all my artwork around and am selling everything and anything.”
I reached out to him immediately, and got two of my favorite single-page strips from the series. They arrived yesterday:
It’s difficult to express the delight and excitement I had when I opened up the package and held the original art for those pages in my hands– those pages I read in one of my favorite bookshops as an adolescent a quarter-century ago, those pages I’d re-read dozens of times over the years, those pages that informed, entertained, and delighted me.
I think I’ll hang the first one in the guest room.
Phil recently collected all of the Tales From Gimbley in a self-published collection called In His Cups. You can get a copy from him, at an unbeatable price, here, and I’d recommend that you do so. You can also visit his website here, and if you want to read more Gimbley, he’s put a bunch of them up online here.
My left optic nerve and surrounding, 2017.
My right optic nerve and surrounding, 2017.
I miss my friend Bill. I am so sad that he has left this world, and I am so sad that the world doesn’t get to have him in it anymore.
Bill was sweet. Bill was kind. Bill was extremely helpful. Bill was intensely funny. Bill was brilliant, and knowledgeable, and deeply sardonic, and gleefully dark, and fun. He had far-ranging, eclectic, and obscure taste in music, and he was always excited to share it and talk about it and make it.
He was a constant creative partner. From the old radio show, to zines, to art, to music, to short stories, he was always excited and delighted to take part in any number of ridiculous things.
We had so much fun over the years. I loved him so much.
Bill in bunny suit, 2009.
[CHAT LOG, March 31, 2009]
Keef: Let’s rent a bunny suit and I’ll take pictures of you for many hours on Thursday doing strange things.
Bill: haha. word. I’ll wear a bunny suit for you.
Bill: what’s the suit look like?
Keef: no clue. they have several “bunny” suits.
Bill: we’re talking full body with a bunny head, right? Not “bunny suit” like the Christmas Story?
Bill: one of those is infinitely cooler than the other
Keef: correct, full suit and mask over the head
Keef: which will be uncomfortable and hot and awful
Keef: especially if you have to run, which i may ask of you.
Bill: no one said art was comfortable.
Bill: I’d have a fuck of a time saying no to this, dude.
Keef: ahahahaha saying no to what?
Bill: wearing a bunny suit for art.
We rented that suit, and took pictures; and, when it became apparent that we wouldn’t get everything done in one day, I went ahead and bought the suit (it was cheap), and then we just kept doing photo shoots, resulting in one of the creative endeavors which I am most proud of having finished in my life.
There’s no way in the world I could’ve done it without him.
Last year, Barb and Bill took Rosie on an outing to to some restaurant or other. Later, Bill posted this photo of himself and Rosie:
I beamed with pride. I was so happy for him. I was so happy for Rosie. I was so happy that they were close.
He loved doing bedtime with her. It often didn’t work very well in terms of bedtime– they’d be reading books and singing songs and she’d never get tired enough to go to sleep. I wish I’d kept some of that baby monitor audio of him singing to her. “Pancho and Lefty,” or some esoteric Randy Newman thing, or the Eagles. A lot of old country music. Sometimes she’d wordlessly sing along.
I joked with him: “You’re going to be the fun uncle she can call when she needs to get bailed out of jail.”
Now, when I walk around the house, wherever I go, whatever I see, I remember Bill and Rosie doing something in that spot.
Posted up in front of the little chalkboard, scribbling together.
Bill pushing her really fast in her little cart down the lane that runs through the kitchen, her legs lifted up, with an enormous grin, squealing laughter.
In her miniature “kitchen” in the back room, demanding that he “sit!” and pulling on her miniature potholder to make him cookies (which were “really, really hot!”).
Sitting at the back table, drawing together in a sketchpad.
Every single place I look, there’s a memory of Bill and Rosie.
I treasure them all.
In 2001, I took classes at the Iowa City public access television station, and started working on making short films. One of the very first things I wanted to do was to go out to the Coralville dam. There’s a spillway out there that’s basically an enormous gray concrete plain, a third of a mile on a side. I wanted to film someone running from the opposite corner, so they’d be extremely tiny for a very long time, and then come into view and zoom by in a flash.
“Hey, Bill,” I said. “How would you feel about running naked toward a camera for a third of a mile?”
He laughed. “That is hilarious,” he said.
The first take went well, but I wanted to do a second one. He gave me a dirty look, but jogged all the way back out to the far corner and started running back. As he was about halfway back, an official Department of Natural Resources jeep crested the hill behind us, and he started yelling, “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” out of breath, zooming past the camera and diving into the back of the car.
Here is a photo of the filming that my father took. (Yes, my father was there. He always really liked Bill, and Bill always really liked him.) That’s Mike taking photos, me manning the videocamera, and, of course, Bill, nude and running, in the distance.
I maintain a list of every concert I can remember attending. A month ago, after a Facebook meme about concerts made the rounds, Bill messaged me:
“I’m now going through your show list to see which ones I went to with you, or which ones I remember… I’m leaving off Bassturd & Buglies performances and SXSW parties, because I’ve been to too many of them to be accurate or remember. 94 that I’m sure about. Realistically? definitely over 100. That’s 17 years of show going. This was the first one: Sep. 21, 2000 – Gabe’s, Iowa City – Alto Heceta / Joan of Arc / Jets to Brazil.”
One hundred shows– and that’s a very conservative estimate– out of five hundred total. One out of every five concerts I’ve ever attended during my lifetime, Bill attended with me. The most recent was Uglyfest, which was both a Buglies and SXSW show; before that, it was Drab Majesty, in February. They’re a post-New-Wave band, playing that sad 80s synth sound, which was not Bill’s cup of tea at all.
But I asked him if he wanted to go, and he was happy to go with me. He was almost always happy to go with me. And vice versa.
In 2000, I was going to live in a house near campus with my friend Mike. We each had a room in a three-room apartment, and needed a third.
“We should get my friend Bill to move in with us,” he said.
“Who is this guy?”
“A friend from back home. He’s in a band, the Corporate Donuts. He goes by ‘Bill Donuts.’ He’d be great.”
I shrugged, and asked, “Yeah, but man, is he cool?”
The fact that I even asked that question is hilarious to me now.
Bill ended up living in the dorms, but he immediately became part of our tight group. I found an old blog he wrote about the first time we met. Here is that:
“I want to share the first memory I have of Keef. I was sitting in the apartment he and Mike shared in Iowa City on my first night in Iowa City, in August of 2000. Keef was out with Irving at the time. Suddenly, while we were watching Kids In The Hall episodes Mike had taped, Keef burst through the door with a gigantic sack full of frozen meats and tossed one to Mike, and another to their room mate of two weeks, Bob. He was talking sort of like Charlton Heston and Santa Claus and very excited about the gigantic sack of frozen meats. Then he hugged me. It was love at first sight.”
I had forgotten about that completely. I’m so glad he remembered. I’m so sad about all the other things he remembered which have now been lost.
Just a handful of days before he passed away, Bill and I took Rosie to a park to play on the swings and the slides. Swings are her favorite. She’s a two-year-old, and just reaching that point where she mimics and repeats things. As we got out of the car to walk to the park, Bill turned to her and said, “Come on, dude!” She ran after him and grabbed his hand, and they walked toward the playground.
As they got closer to the swings, she started running ahead, pulling him behind her. “Come on, dude!” she yelled. “Come on, dude!”
“Thanks, Bill,” I said. “Thanks a lot for teaching her to sound like an episode of Full House.”
He laughed and laughed and laughed. “Come on, dude!”
Bill and Rosie, May 21, 2017.
Last weekend, after Bill’s funeral, Rosie wanted to show me something she’d set up in her little dollhouse. She grabbed my hand and pulled me along. “Come on, dude!”
I teared up, but did so gladly.
Bill gave this to me on my birthday last year. It’s a magnificent encapsulation of him: his generosity, his creativity, his humor.
I am so glad to have known him.
I am so sad that he is gone.