In an age of franchises and “cinematic universes” that seems to number in the thousands, it should come as no shock that the idea of feature length, serialized motion pictures date back to the earliest days of silent cinema. However, while most cinephiles are obviously familiar with franchises like James Bond and Star Wars, and even lay people are cognisant of the Marvel “CMU”, few people outside the realm of film scholarship mention the silent serials like Louis Feuillade’s Fantomas. Even when legendary auteurs are the creative forces behind them.
Such is the case with Fritz Lang and his superb action/adventure serial, The Spiders. Drawing inspiration from the aforementioned Feuillade series, this 1919 serial was originally intended to be a four part epic, with only two “episodes” being filmed. Broken into The Golden Sea and The Diamond Ship, the story introduces us to a man named Kay Hoog (Carl de Vogt), a world renowned yachtsman, and wannabe adventurer. After discovering a bottle with a message inside (whose origin we see in the film’s prologue), Hoog sets out to aid in the rescuing of the Harvard professor who we see in the previously mentioned prologue send the message in distress. Finding a once thought lost civilization with Incan ties, the professor stumbled upon a potential treasure, and is in dire need of assistance.
While discussing this message at a dinner party, the devilishly beautiful Lio Sha (Ressel Orla) overhears the wild tale, and is profoundly intrigued. However, it doesn’t take long until the viewer becomes privy to Sha’s real intentions, as she is part of an evil crime syndicate known as The Spiders. Along with her cronie Dr. Telphas, she embarks upon this journey as well, hoping to bring her group great wealth and even more power. A romantic angle is even brought into play here, as Kay rescues and ultimately woos an Incan priestess named Naela (Lil Dagover), a gorgeous woman with alluring charisma and endless beauty. The romance, of course, ends disastrously, and subsequently sets up the second film, which is one of the earliest templates, on screen, for the prototypical revenge picture. Kay goes on the hunt not only for the legendary Buddha’s Head diamond but to, once and for all, kill the evil Sha and the organization that took the life of his beloved.
Clocking in at just under three hours, this is the earliest film from Fritz Lang’s career that is still known to be in existence, and it’s an entrancing viewing experience. Fleshing out genre tropes as old as time, Lang’s narrative here feels delightfully primal, in that within each frame of this proto-double bill is the skeleton for the type of franchise picture we still see running roughshod over theaters across the planet. With the adventuring of an Indiana Jones and enough enthralling action set pieces to make Michael Bay blush, it’s a treat to see modern Hollywood-style cinema boiled down to its earliest and most raw state. Also Lang’s most raw state, the film feels less grandiose than say a Metropolis, but is without a doubt something far greater than just a historical curio. There is some truly superb production design and set work, and Lang’s camera may be static but the action set pieces here, particularly in the second feature, are deliciously thrilling. It’s ostensibly a film of various tableaux, but what makes this experience so exciting is both Lang’s handling of scale as well as his uncanny knack for understanding proper cinematic pacing.
It also looks superb thanks to a new Blu-ray from Kino Classics. Originally released on DVD a handful of years ago, this Blu-ray is ostensibly a port of the previous DVD, in that zero special features are included here. A true bummer as the company is also releasing Lang’s Destiny on Blu-ray with not only a new 2K restoration but also a superb commentary track, the restoration is thankfully quite good here. A hard sell at an MSRP of $29.99, a good sale price could make this a worthwhile snag online. Gorgeously composed by one of film’s great underrated legends, Lang’s Spiders is a genuine delight to watch, with entertaining performances making an already beautifully shot series of tableaux all the more engaging. It’s just a genuine shame that some supplements couldn’t be included here to add context to a groundbreaking work.