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We here at SYFY WIRE FANGRRLS spend a lot of time discussing the intersections of sex and geekdom, and one of our absolute favorite topics is the weird and wonderful world of hot monsters. We love nothing more than the metaphorical sensual spree that are feverish narratives featuring women, sex, and the truly monstrous. We’ve discussed such illustrious examples as sexy Thanos, the robot from Lost in Space, muscled zaddy Professor Hulk from Avengers: Endgame, basically any and all vampires, and of course, every creature created by Guillermo del Toro. But typically, these monsters are distinctly humanoid in form. Whether they be mammal, amphibian, or cybernetic, genre’s hot monsters are more likely to take shapes similar to our own than anything truly otherworldly. There are exceptions, of course, but there’s a reason the sexy fish man in The Shape of Water has two arms, two legs, and a hidden penis.
So what about those stories of sexuality, power, and control — the favored themes of the monstrous romance narrative — that center on creatures who are undeniably our opposite? Do the same rules apply, or does the fantasy become too shocking? To answer that question — or, at the very least, to add new shades to this conundrum — we head to Latvia for the 1991 film Zirneklis, also known as Spider. Guess what this movie's about.
(WARNING: The trailer is NSFW, so follow the link at your own risk.)
The sole directorial credit of Vasili Mass — because once you've made a movie with human-arachnid f***ing, why bother trying to top that? — is a hidden gem from the Latvian film industry that’s garnered a cult fanbase thanks to an undeniably enticing central premise and its blend of hyper-unnerving influences. Think the women-driven magical realism of Angela Carter mixed with the garish surrealism of Ken Russell, the body horror shocks of David Cronenberg, and the overwhelming aesthetic of a Bosch painting. Much of the movie feels like a nightmare you can’t help but be somewhat entranced by, not unlike the works of Clive Barker, a man who knows a thing or two about the connecting tissue of sex and horror. But Zirneklis is a creature unto itself.
The film follows the beautiful but conservatively raised Vita (Aurelijia Anuzhite), who agrees to pose for a strange artist named Albert (Liubomiras Lauciavicius), who has been commissioned by the local church to paint a portrait of the Virgin Mary. It does not take long for Vita to become his latest obsession. When she visits his studio, where naked individuals are posing for another painting, she begins to hallucinate images of giant spiders and sexually deviant demons, all inspired by Albert's lascivious artwork. Among these horrifying waking nightmares is the image of Albert turning into a giant spider to rape her. She flees and returns home, but soon she is having graphic erotic dreams about the giant spider, and soon her newly awoken sexual spark has her religious mother in panic mode. On the advice of the local priest, who seems to know Albert's true intentions, she is sent to stay with her aunt and uncle, as well as her handsome cousin Yaris. But the dreams don't stop.
This is not a film aiming for any level of subtlety. Zirneklis is happy shouting its psychosexual intent from the rooftops. The subtext of Vita's arachnid sex dreams is pretty clear in all its repulsive glory, blending her naivete with the palpable inner urge to go out into the world and experience something, anything beyond her own limited view of life. What is striking about Zirneklis is that it never plays off Vita’s dreams as delusions or the mere manifestations of her own addled psyche. There is a literal giant spider going into her bed at night and he is literally having sex with her, sometimes consensually but other times not. The monstrous threat of unbridled sexuality is wholly real, even if most of the people in Vita’s life won’t acknowledge it. If basic sexual desire of the human variety is already deemed to be morally questionable by a constrictive society, then forcing that social taboo into the unavoidably monstrous only heightens the hypocrisies.
Despite this angle, the film still has a curious moral center. The divide between the corruptive force of the overtly sexual artist (and his very sketchy ponytail) and the unshakable ethical force of the clergy adds a reactionary edge to the spider f*cking proceedings. There is a very clear good guy and an obvious bad guy in this story, and the ultimate conclusion is one where Vita settles for heteronormative safety with, er … her cousin. Yeah.
If the film is going for ambiguity — who has Vita's best interests at heart? — then it stumbles in the narrative execution. Vita isn’t scorned for her desires, and the film does not position her in a negative light as she innocently flirts with the men she encounters, typically while dressed in floaty see-through white cotton. Vasili Mass may have been aiming for depicting the impenetrable psyche of female desire, but often the end result is more that of another story where male filmmakers just don’t entirely seem to know how women work.
And then there is that spider. Clearly a big puppet operated rather clumsily by some harried crew members, it is nonetheless eerily effective in the wider narrative. It’s so utterly inhuman, so shudder-inducing in its unreal nature, that the mere idea of it being sexualized cannot help but put you on edge. Forget the sheer biological mechanics of the situation — but don’t worry, the film lets you know how it’s done — what proves so unnerving is the idea that Vita likes it. Human nature is so unfamiliar to her that passionate arachnid embraces with dubious consent are just as reasonable as missionary with your rather good-looking cousin. Some psychoanalysts view spiders as a symbol for one devouring their mates, so it could be that Vita sees sex as something all-consuming and beyond her own limited understanding of power dynamics. Unlike other beastly romances, where a woman is typically seduced by a creature with an understandable aesthetic appeal, this spider is, to put it bluntly, disgusting. It’s hairy and dirty and overwhelming, making it near impossible to understand how any young woman’s psyche would go there. Therein lies the deeper fascination. We may never figure out such things, but they’re oh so easy to become obsessed with.
Despite a shaky narrative and some hard-to-decipher ideas, there is plenty to recommend in Zirneklis. As a purely sensuous experience, there’s much to enjoy, especially with how unabashedly out there the film gets with its visuals and that giant spider (spoiler alert: said spider also has tentacles, because why not tick off all your niche kink boxes in one go?). The film benefits from being knowingly schlocky too. It’s sleazy and it knows it, which will probably bother some viewers, and with good reason. This is deliberately tough-to-swallow material that wants to challenge and gross you out. But would you want or expect any less from a movie where a woman has sex with a giant spider? Bless you, Latvia.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.