Bruno (the late, great Lon Chaney Jr.) is a gentle man who makes his living as the driver and caretaker of the Merrye estate. Not only does he take care of the grounds but he also looks after the three Merrye children - Ralph (Sid Haig), Virginia (Jill Banner) and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn). Sadly, these three children are all afflicted with a condition so unique that it's been named after them, causing them to mentally regress to the point where they are, in many ways, quite primitive and prone to acts of cannibalism! Bruno swore to the children's late father that he'd take care of them and try to shelter them from the rest of the world, who really wouldn't understand them, but that all changes when the postman (Mantan Moreland!) shows up to deliver a letter and is killed when Virginia decides to 'play spider' with him.
The letter, which Bruno reads, announces that a few distant relatives of the Merrye clan intend to visit the estate and take custody of the children from Bruno. Uncle Peter (Quinn Redeker) and Aunt Emily (Carol Ohmart) bring their lawyer, Mr. Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) and his assistant Ann (Mary Mitchell), along for the ride and soon enough wind up at the decrepit family home. If their intentions were honorable that would be one thing but Bruno is suspect and it turns out that the new additions to the family are hoping that with the children will come a sizeable inheritance. Bruno's none too keen on letting them into the home for the night, but he relents only to find that Virginia is intent on playing another game of spider with the new house guests.
Shot in 1964 but not released until 1968 thanks to some financial problems that the producers ran into, Spider Baby (also known under the more sensationalist titles Cannibal Orgy or The Maddest Story Ever Told) is a strange little film. Famed exploitation director Jack Hill keeps the action moving at a good clip and paces the film well but the script is smarter and a little more cerebral than your average drive-in horror film. Couple the more sensitive aspects of the storyline with great performances from Chaney (who also sings the opening song!), Haig, Washburn and Banner and we find ourselves with a horror film where we care more about the poor, sympathetic cannibals then we do about the other characters. It's an interesting little twist, with Chaney really standing out and doing a fantastic job as the 'genuinely nice guy.' Haig's performance is also quite interesting as it's very physical, he has very little actual dialogue in the movie but still manages to give Ralph a true personality. Elements of black comedy run deep in the film and the quirky lead performances really fit nicely in the script's mix of shocks and laughs. It's amazing that it all works, when you consider that the film deals with incest, cannibalism and children suffering from a mental condition!
The strange score from composer Ronald Stein fits the eerie locations and stark black and white cinematography very nicely, ensuring that the picture has the right kind of music to fit and compliment that unusual visuals. Hill sets the story up quite nicely so that what transpires actually has an impact. The scares and more shocking moments of the film happen for a reason, it never feels completely gratuitous. There are moments where the film seems to be repeating itself but thankfully not enough of them to hurt the picture in the long run. In the end the film isn't as gory or as crazy as you might expect, instead it's clever and rather charming despite its unorthodox subject matter.
Dark Sky presents Spider Baby in a rock solid, director approved 1.66.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that looks very good. There is a bit of print damage evident in some spots and at times the contrast gets a little high but for the most part the image is clean and clear and noticeably improved over the previous Image DVD release. Sharpness looks good and foreground and background detail remain pretty strong. A bit of edge enhancement shows up now and again but it's minor - there's not much to complain about here. The film will never look pristine, nor should it, and this transfer certainly does the visuals justice.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack isn't going to blow your mind but it does supply clean and clear dialogue without any hiss or distortion issues. There are a few moments where the mix sounds a bit hot but they're minor instances and not really that big a deal. The score sounds nice and the sound effects are well balanced. Optional subtitles are provided in English only.
Dark Sky has done a fine job on the supplements with this release, starting with a great commentary track courtesy of director Jack Hill and star Sid Haig. Anyone who has heard Hill speak before knows that the man has got a sharp memory and is a veritable treasure trove of information and this track is no exception to that rule. He and Haig speak quite candidly about their work on the film, the talk about some of the effects work, the location shooting and tell stories about some of the other cast members. It's a fast paced and enjoyable track that contains some good information relayed with a casual and relaxed attitude which makes it fun to listen to.
From there, check out The Hatching Of Spider Baby which is an interesting half hour documentary on the history of the film. This is a pretty extensive piece which explores how the film was put together as well as the impact and influence that it's hard in certain circles. Look for on camera interviews with Hill and his cinematographer, Al Taylor as well as Carol Ohmart and fans Joe Dante and Chris D.. A second featurette, Spider Stravinsky: The Sounds Of Ronald Stein is a look back on the life and times of the late composer who not only scored this film but also many other classic exploitation pictures like Dementia 13 and The Terror. The third and final featurette, The Merrye House Revisited, is an interesting look at the house that was used for the primary location in the picture courtesy of Elijah Drenner who tours the abode with Jack Hill in tow. It's kind of fun to compare the house then to how it stands now and note what has changed and what has not.
Rounding out the extra features is the alternate Cannibal Orgy opening titles sequence, a brief extended version of the scene where the Merrye kids meet their relatives, a still gallery of promotional materials, animated menus and a chapter selection option.
Spider Baby is as strange now as it was when it was made, time has not diminished this in the least. Dark Sky's DVD looks and sounds quite good and the extras are extensive and very interesting as well. Not a film for all tastes, but regardless, the release comes highly recommended for those who appreciate such things.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.