Beautiful, religious teenager Vita (Aurelijia Anuzhite) agrees to pose for swarthy, libertarian artist Albert (Liubomiras Lauciavicius) who has been commissioned by the local clergy to paint a portrait of the Virgin Mary. Yet when Vita visits the artist's studio his licentious artwork immediately causes her to hallucinate visions of spiders and demons assaulting nude women in hell. Whereupon Albert himself transforms into a monstrous spider-man and attempts to rape her. Vita escapes home. Yet later that night the giant spider reappears to ravish her in bed. Plagued by vivid erotic dreams Vita's newfound sexual curiosity disturbs her mother who confides in their priest. He in turn warns Albert to leave a pure soul like Vita alone, but the sinister, possibly demonic artist maintains he is above such petty concerns as good and evil. On the advice of the priest, mother sends Vita to stay in the country with her Aunt Magda (Mirzda Martinsone) and Uncle Aivars (Romuald Ancans). Here she sparks a romance with her handsome cousin Yaris. However the spider continues to lurk in the dark recesses of Vita's mind, waiting to get her alone.
This arty, erotic, surrealistic horror drama from Latvia lays its psychosexual cards on the table with an opening quote from Sigmund Freud: "Subconscious sexual urges are fast bonded to a sense of fright." Opening with a haunting, lush-lipped closeup on sultry nymphet Aurelijia Anuzhite as she toys with a real regular-sized spider, Zirneklis echoes Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves (1984) as it evokes fairytale motifs as a means of exploring the sexual awakening of young women. It also shares a fair deal in common with Repulsion (1965), Roman Polanski's groundbreaking study of sexual neuroses in that it blurs the line between what is and is not real. The viewer is never entirely certain whether there really is a sexually-rapacious spider-demon out there or if it is a byproduct of Vita's religious guilt as filtered through an overactive imagination. Adding to this ambiguity certain characters react as if Vita's problems were entirely psychological while others treat the monster as very real.
Heavily allegorical, the film's heady imagery evokes the work of similarly challenging auteurs like Luis Buñuel, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Polanski and Andrzej Zulawski whose collective work also set out to liberate the subconscious, break social taboos and explore sexuality. What Zirneklis does not share with these artists is their anti-clericism. In fact when the second half shifts away from Polanski-style psychological horror into an overt monster movie it begins to increasingly resemble The Exorcist (1973), especially the concluding battle between a monster who wants the heroine's body and a noble, self-sacrificing priest. Yet while the positioning of artist as monster and church as moral guardian might lead viewers to conclude the film has a deeply conservative outlook it actually treads an interesting ambiguous line between reactionary and progressive values. If the plot does occasionally resemble one of those Italian Exorcist rip-offs from the Seventies that chasten female sexuality whilst hypocritically wallowing in it, it does not fall into the same trap of easy misogyny. While Vita hallucinates darkly erotic Boschean visions of stop-motion spiders eating each other and demons ravishing naked women, and gets it on in multiple positions with a huge hairy spider puppet in a sequence reminiscent of an infamous scene from Galaxy of Terror (1981), she emerges more curious than traumatized. Screenwriter Vladimir Kaijaks wisely refuses to chasten Vita for either her sexuality or religious beliefs. She remains a positive, upbeat heroine who continues flirting innocently with multiple male characters with no sense of doing anything wrong.
Given Zirneklis' closing image it seems far from denouncing art as an unhealthy influence the film embraces it as a means of navigating the darker aspects of desire and sexuality towards forging healthy relationships. That said the film's steadfastly ambiguous approach does prove perplexing in parts. For example it never adequately address Aivar's seemingly incestuous erotic fascination with Vita nor the clear resentment that instills in Magda. Another minor flaw is the cheesy synth score that never quite gels comfortably with the exceptional, painterly visions conjured by cinematographer Gvido Shulte. His burnished chiaroscuro images segue seamlessly from fantasy to reality, dream (a sequence straight out of Ridley Scott's fairytale fantasy Legend (1985) has Vita traipse through a lush field of flowers) and nightmare (later she stumbles into the spider's lair full of shrieking, cobweb-covered, disemboweled victims). All that plus the climax has both priest and naked teenage heroine fight a giant spider-man-demon in a steam room.