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They're creepy and they're kooky! Proving his talent for macabre chills far beyond what in 1964 was acceptable matinee fare, filmmaker Jack Hill directed a true horror original in Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told. This film's entry in the eye-opening book Incredibly Strange Films 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. Spider Baby is a genuinely weird variation on the haunted house theme, blessed with an impish, dark sense of humor.
Writer-director Jack Hill's story is like a '50s family show gone completely crazy. 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. When strangers call Virginia likes to play "spider" with them -- brandishing sharp knives. Elizabeth's careful plans all seem to end in murder. 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 hopeful sales screening for Spider Baby came to a rude end when the prospective distributors all left in the first twenty minutes. One can understand why. In 1964 a major chain wouldn't touch a film with this particular brand of non-commercial weirdness. Offbeat shows with big stars weren't necessarily picked up, and Spider Baby lacked the requisite clockwork killings to qualify as a horror matinee. Not only that, its subject matter was in highly questionable taste. Sick humor about what was then called mental retardation was confined to fringe humor magazines, and the Lolita-like sexuality of Jill Banner's Spider Baby was definitely adults-only content. Elizabeth and Virginia Merrye, regressed to a semi-infantile state of "cute" savagery, remind us of Dracula's vampire brides. They also seem a creepy precursor of Charlie Manson's teenaged groupie killers. Mid-sixties horror matinees were limited to 'safe' tales of people being axed to death or buried alive, and any children depicted on-screen were usually completely innocent. Jill Banner's, slinky, creepy crawly Spider Dance stalking the camera is provocative performance art.
Although viewers can be forgiven for being confused, Spider Baby is basically a comedy. The silly title theme sung by Lon Chaney Jr. sets us up for something like Mad Monster Party but the off-balance 'meet the Merryes' plot continually makes us wonder -- or dread -- 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 playing 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 can possibly be. 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. Haig has the part down pat. 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 straight, cheerful squares 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 about Ohmart from back in the 1980s when the paper still 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 yet feels sufficiently comfortable to prepare for bed by stripping to sexy underwear and doing a narcissistic dance in her room. Naturally, the infantile but sexually alert Ralph becomes a peeping Tom, hanging like a bat outside Emily's bedroom window. Ms. Ohmart's sober but sensual screen presence somehow makes all this nonsense seem entirely reasonable.
Lon Chaney Jr. hadn't had a role this interesting since the 1940s. He delivers 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. The girls dote on him. 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 Chaney's 'can I feed the rabbits?' days.
Jack Hill's film had almost no life when new and was not really discovered for years. But it has seemingly thrived on obscurity and become a horror classic. Although it's not likely to wander far from the Kooky Kult shelf, lovers of fantastic movies recognize it as an oasis of creativity among a lot of drek. I cannot think of another movie that's even remotely similar.
Arrow Video's Region B Blu-ray of Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told is for fans will all-region players. A second, DVD disc comes In Arrow's package, but it is Region 2 PAL.
Jack Hill reportedly supervised the transfer, which is excellent. The HD resolution brings out the cobwebby details of the Merrye household, and the rejuvenated soundtrack makes the location sound (think background noise) more audible than ever. English subtitles are provided, but they aren't needed to follow any of the dialogue.
Arrow's lineup of extras repeats the full stack of featurettes and other goodies from the 2007 Dark Sky Director's Cut DVD. 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 sees Jack Hill returning to Highland Park, where the 'remote' Merrye manse is actually packed into a dense neighborhood. 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 in 1955 with his work on Roger Corman's westerns. Ted Newsom hosts and Mr. Stein's widow gives us a good picture of his career ups and downs. Also present are a slightly extended alternate scene, an alternate opening title sequence (for Cannibal Orgy) and an extensive still gallery.
New to the Arrow disc is a videotaped post-screening Q&A held at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Linwood Dunn theater on Vine Street and Hollywood. Jack Hill, Quinn Redeker and Beverly Washburn are given a warm welcome. Even more interesting is Jack Hill's 1960 UCLA student film, a half-hour production entitled The Host. The talented Sid Haig is a lonely cowboy who wanders into a bizarre situation. The B&W film is well acted, well directed and very effective overall. An opening title tells us that The Host was inspired by James George Frazer's The Golden Bough, and gives evidence that Francis Coppola (a fellow film student with Hill) used it as an inspiration for his hastily rewritten Marlon Brando conclusion for Apocalypse Now.
Arrow's insert booklet (not provided with this screener) reportedly contains several articles, one of them an essay by Stephen R. Bissette.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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