Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This entry for this film in the eye opening Incredibly Strange Films book leads one to expect an exercise in utter depravity. What we have instead is a creative and affectionate nod to chiller films, produced on a shoestring yet fashioned with care and imagination. So many other low-to-no budget films die a slow death on the screen, revealing a vacuum where ideas should be. Jack Hill's Spider Baby is a genuinely weird variation on a haunted house theme, blessed with a very dark sense of humor.
Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.) serves as chauffeur and caretaker for the depraved Merrye family, which suffers from a strange degenerative disease. Two older relatives are locked in the basement, while youngsters Elizabeth, Virginia and Ralph (Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner & Sid Haig) run free. Ralph is an infantile menace, while Virginia likes to play "spider" when strangers call -- with knives. Lawyer Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) shows up with Emily and Peter Howe (Carol Ohmart & Quinn Redeker), distant Merrye relatives interested in liquidating their inherited property. Peter decides to take Schlocker's pretty secretary Ann (Mary Mitchel) out to dinner, but Emily and Schlocker make the big mistake of staying the full night in the Merrye house of horrors.
Jack Hill explains that his sales screening for distributors came to a rude end when the prospective buyers all left in the first 20 minutes, and one can understand why. In 1964 movies with Spider Baby's particular brand of non-commercial weirdness just didn't get picked up by major chains. Offbeat shows weren't given major runs even if they had big stars, and Spider Baby lacked the requisite clockwork killings to qualify as a horror matinee. Not only that, its subject matter and tone were highly questionable. Sick humor about mental retardation was confined to fringe humor magazines, and the Lolita-like perverse sexuality of Jill Banner's Spider Baby was definitely not going to fly. Elizabeth and Virginia Merrye were located somewhere between Dracula's vampire brides and a pre-echo of Charlie Manson's teenaged groupie killers. 1964 horror matinees were limited to 'safe' tales of people being axed to death or buried alive, and any children on-screen were usually completely innocent. Jill Banner's, slinky, creepy crawly Spider Dance as she stalks the camera is great, provocative performance art.
Although most of us probably wouldn't have gotten the joke in 1964, Spider Baby is a comedy. The silly title theme sung by Lon Chaney Jr. sets us up for something like Mad Monster Party but the 'meet the Merryes' plot has just enough ambiguity to make us wonder what crazy thing will happen next. The amusing Mantan Moreland meets a fate that gets the story off to a grim start, the kind of sick joke appropriate to "The Addams Family", not the TV show but the original, mordant New Yorker cartoons. The Merrye kids are amusing tricksters who play adult games of violent sexual assault. Virginia snuggles up to her latest 'bug' Peter Howe and pouts when he doesn't share her love of spiders. Seeing Virginia gobble up a spider crawling on the table, Elizabeth asks what kind of spider she is if she eats them herself, and Virginia replies, "A cannibal spider." Standing together in their nightgowns they make a fetching pair of jailbait cannibals, curtseying in unison. As for the bald brother Ralph, Sid Haig seems to have based his performance on the moronic pinhead Schlitze in Tod Browning's Freaks. Come to think of it, parts of Spider Baby are sort of a "Freaks Lite" effort.
The 'normal' characters are interestingly arrayed. Quinn Redeker and Mary Mitchel (of Panic in Year Zero!) are the straights, a cheerful pair of squares that are quite accepting of the Merryes, their cousins. Karl Schanzer's lawyer is less sympathetic, and offers the notion that the Merryes turned out the way they did because of inbreeding. Carol Ohmart is something of a minor acting legend; her other memorable film is William Castle's House on Haunted Hill. I remember a mysterious L.A. Times article on her, back in the 1980s when the paper did interesting Hollywood-related articles. Ohmart's Emily behaves as if she's back in another haunted house. She shows her revulsion for the Merryes but then feels comfortable enough to get ready for bed by stripping to sexy underwear and doing a narcissistic dance in her bedroom. Naturally, the infantile but sexually alert Ralph becomes a peeping Tom, hanging like a bat outside Emily's bedroom window.
This is one of Lon Chaney Jr.'s more interesting roles, actually, as he carries most of the exposition for the background of the Merrye clan and plays a central part in the group dialogue scenes. Bruno sincerely wants what's best for those in his care and the girls dote on him; he's the perfect caretaker. Jack Hill honors him with a couple of career acknowledgements. At one point Bruno lets everyone know that, "There's a full moon out tonight." When he can't prevent a number of gosh-darn regrettable slayings, Bruno reverts to a state of simplicity reminiscent of his 'can I feed the rabbits?' days.
Spider Baby is indeed a classic, and one that has thrived on obscurity. Although it has found plenty of adherents, it's not likely to wander far from the Kooky Kult Korner. Lovers of fantastic movies like it because it's an oasis of creativity among a lot of drek ... Spider Baby may not be perfect but its terrific cast meshes beautifully with the warped material. I cannot think of another movie that's even remotely similar.
Dark Sky's DVD of Spider Baby far outclasses earlier video versions, one of which I believe was missing a short scene. The enhanced B&W transfer has perfect picture and audio quality, rescuing the show from the Hell of PD versions with poor contrast and indistinct audio.
Jack Hill and Sid Haig speak out on the full-length commentary, remembering the nature of the production and the extra effort put in by all who worked on it, like cameraman Alfred Taylor. Three featurettes by Elijah Denner are included. The Hatching of Spider Baby is an overall assessment of the show. Chris D. and Joe Dante offer enthusiastic endorsements. The Merrye House Revisited has Jack Hill returning to Highland Park, where the 'remote' Merrye manse is revealed to be surrounded by other houses; Hill had to be very careful with his camera angles.
A third featurette, Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein tells the composer's story, starting with his work on Roger Corman's westerns in 1955. The all-inclusive extras section has a slightly extended alternate scene, an alternate opening title sequence (for Cannibal Orgy) and an extensive still gallery.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Spider Baby rates:
Movie: Excellent for fans of the fantastic-exotic
Supplements: Commentary, two featurettes, alternate scenes, stills (see above)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 23, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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