1976 | Hong Kong
Director: Chor Yuen
AKA: 五毒天羅 (Wu du tian luo)

It wouldn’t be difficult to interpret The Web of Death — the third in director Chor Yuen’s long cycle of films adapting contemporary popular wuxia novels — as something of a cold war parable. In it, a Martial World clan by the name of The Five Venoms Clan is in possession of a super-weapon so powerful that the clan’s leader has decreed that it should be put under wraps and hidden away for the good of the Martial World as a whole. That weapon, the Five Venom Spider, is revealed to us in the film’s opening minutes, and that’s a good thing; while definitely kind of neat in a cheeseball sort of way, the Five Venom Spider is not the kind of thing that could live up to an extended build-up. What it is, in fact, is a normal-sized tarantula that, when released from its ornate cage, glows green, emits the roar of a raging elephant, and then shoots a deadly, electrified web to the accompaniment of much billowing of smoke and flying of sparks.

It’s a weapon that will be deployed to amusing effect throughout Web of Death, but which has the unfortunate side effect of saddling Chor with a conclusion in which a room full of fighters who have been established as the Martial World’s bravest and most accomplished cower away from a prop spider. But more about that later. As the films opens, a number of the Five Venom Clan’s chiefs — including the Snake Chief, Liu Shen, played by Lo Lieh — are beseeching its leader to allow that the Five Venom Spider be brought out of mothballs. It seems that, since the weapon was taken out of play, the clan has fallen somewhat in the eyes of its peers, which is not surprising. You see, the clan has sort of made the Five Venom Spider its whole “thing”.

This is evident not just from the clan’s name, but also from the fact that both their palatial lair and their garments are covered with spider and web motifs. So the whole situation is similar to if the United States’ flag, rather than being covered with stars and stripes, was instead covered with atomic symbols and mushroom clouds, and then we tried to present ourselves as a model of restraint. In that case, I think even the most lily-livered country would be justified in snickering at us behind its hand a little bit. Of course, the Five Venoms leader, being a man of principle, refuses to back down. This turns out to be of no matter, however, because, as we will soon learn, Liu Shen is fooling around with the leader’s wife (Angela Yu Chien), and is secretly plotting with her to obtain the spider for himself so that he can rule the Martial World.

Coming at this early stage, Web of Death is something of a transitional film in Chor’s wuxia series. It lacks the rough, exploitation movie edge of his earlier Killer Clans — which I think was the result of Chor being influenced by the types of films that were coming out of Japan at the time — and, to a much lesser extent, The Magic Blade, while at the same time being not quite as mannered and dreamlike as his next feature, the more distinctly Chinese-feeling Clans of Intrigue. That latter film would set the tone for all of Chor’s wuxia adaptations to come, one that would be crystallized by the time of films like Murder Plot, and would approach the point of self-parody with the ridiculously convoluted and stylized-to-within-an-inch-of-their-lives Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber movies.

While, like those later films, Web is not without its elements of romance and tragedy, those elements are not as heady and enveloping as they would become, nor is the world that the director creates on screen so completely sealed off from reality. Yes, the set-bound exteriors with the conspicuously phony-looking painted-on moon and clouds are still there, but not at the expense of a certain amount of actual location and back lot shooting. This is not to say that all of those thing that would become hallmarks of Chor’s swordplay films are in short supply in Web of Death. I think that fans of his films will be more than satisfied with the number of beautiful and atmospheric sets, Bava-esque green and red lighting schemes, frequent and often spectacularly staged fight scenes, and the abundance of exotic weaponry on display.

In this last regard alone, there is not only the Five Venom Spider itself, but also the centipede-shaped sword wielded by the Centipede Clan’s chief, the Venom clan’s array of poisonous darts and vapors, Lo Lieh’s snake-shaped bazooka (for lack of a better word), and an entire clan of fighters equipped with flaming metal gloves. To my mind, the most interestingly conceived of these death-dealers is the Venom Clan’s “Poisonous Nether Flower”, which is capable of turning a person’s actual blood into a weapon against the spider — although once that blood is released, it will not stop flowing until its owner is completely drained.

Added to this is the fact that Web of Death compensates for the comparative lack of its successors’ swoony romanticism with a surfeit of something fairly unique to the series: the type of cheap “B” horror movie thrills seemingly derived more from 1950s American drive-in fare than from the Chinese folklore that martial arts films typically look to for their spook-show elements. This is again, of course, largely due to our friend the Five Venom Spider. Both the whirlwind of crude special effects he stands at the center of and the rigors that cast and crew alike put themselves through to convince us that he’s scary make this whole enterprise seem like spiritual kin to the work of shlockmeisters like Roger Corman and William Castle As a result, the movie is lent a sort of ragged, three-legged-dog charm that’s far from what Chor’s other more stately and genteel offerings typically convey.

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