ABYSSAL SPIDER (aka MAD SPIDER SEA) (2020) review

There’s a welcome sense of variety to Taiwanese director Joe Chien’s fifteen-year old filmography: horror is his genre of predilection, but within it he rarely repeats himself: there’s the quirky and oblique Buttonman, the grindhouse zombie flicks Zombie 108 and Zombie Fight Club, the classy haunted house mystery The House that never dies II, as well as the phantasmagorical, Silent Hill-like The Apostles, with its admirably bold final twist. And with Abyssal Spider (the more ridiculous title “Mad Spider Sea” appears in the film itself, but not on the posters) Chien tries his hand at a maritime creature feature.

A year ago, an act of recklessness by coastguard Jie (Sunny Wang) caused the death of his boss in a rescue operation. Now shunned by the sailor community of his port town and having to take care of his daughter alone following the death of his wife, he has to beg his resentful father-in-law Han (Andrew Lin) for a job on his fishing boat. The grieving father reluctantly accepts, but most of the crew are hostile to Jie’s presence aboard, all the more so as, unbeknownst to the captain, they’re using this fishing expedition as an opportunity for drug smuggling. There’s also fear of bad luck when a young kitchen aide (Aggie Hsieh) is found to be a woman (with old superstitions saying that a woman onboard will attract disaster), puzzlement when a mysterious castaway (Alice Ko) is found in the middle of the sea, and very short-lived elation at a miraculous catch: along with the netted fish, the fishermen have brought deadly, mysteriously disproportionate spiders onboard.

Far from the ridiculous creature cheapie its title or some of its posters could lead one to expect, Abyssal Spider is a rather efficient little horror film which takes time to properly flesh out its characters, finding interesting shades of grey within them, all the while portraying how humans can resort to unflinching brutality (calling to mind Sung Bo Shim’s superb Sea Fog – all things being equal), their mundane ugliness at times rivaling the spiders’ more indiscriminating menace in the horror stakes. The spiders themselves are passably-rendered, never in the spotlight long enough for the low CGI budget to become too apparent, and with some practical effects thrown in for close quarter attacks. The problem is that dread simmers rather than grows through the film, with the last third being a disappointingly repetitive succession of acts of mutiny and spider attacks, with many a loose end left dangling in the end (not least of all the mysterious castaway). The low-key cast is reasonably effective though, especially an understated and touching Andrew Lin.

Long Story Short: Far from a creature feature cheapie, Abyssal Spider laudably fleshes out its characters and contrasts ordinary human ugliness with sea monster dread. Too bad then, that it ends in numbing repetitiveness and frustrating loose ends. **1/2

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7 Comments

  1. I’ve seen Chien’s two zombie films and they were both pretty dire and sordid affairs. And since I’m arachnophobic, I doubt I’ll be seeking this one out so thanks for suffering on or behalf! :-P

    Reply

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