NOTE: This is an update of my previous review of Spider Baby now that the good folks at Arrow have sent us the final product. The content review is the same, but the technical review is updated.
Jack Hill's Spider Baby (shot in 1964, released in 1968) is a guaranteed delight for cult film lovers. Director Hill may be best known, if at all, for his later exploitation pictures with Pam Grier, like Foxy Brown and the recently reissued Coffy, but Spider Baby shows off Hill's talent at its genre-bending best. With its story of a freakish inbred family who react murderously to outsiders wishing to encroach on their broken-down mansion home, Spider Baby must have played some part in inspiring Dan Aykroyd's misbegotten directorial effort, Nothing But Trouble, except that Spider Baby gloriously succeeds in the areas where Nothing But Trouble so gloriously failed. Spider Baby is a comic horror film that manages to be both funny and scary, and it even makes us care about its twisted main characters.
The neighbors already know to stay away from the Merrye House. When a messenger, played by comedian Mantan Moreland, asks for directions to the Merrye House, he is given no reply. When he finds the place, he probably wishes he never did. Although... can dead men wish for things?
The master of the Merrye House is long dead, but his teenaged children, afflicted with a disease that turns them into animalistic savages as they grow older, are cared for by the sweet and understanding chauffeur Bruno (a warm and wonderful Lon Chaney, Jr.). The two girls, Elizabeth and Virginia (Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner), are overgrown children in the mold of Carroll Baker from Baby Doll. They wield their burgeoning sexuality like a toy, but unfortunately Virginia also likes to wield frighteningly long knives as a toy too. She is obsessed with spiders and frequently tries to "play spider" with guests, which involves snagging the guest in a net and then using her "stingers" on them. Elizabeth tries to make Virginia feel guilty by saying that her actions will make Bruno hate her, but one gets the sense that Elizabeth would be willing to kill if it came right down to it. Their brother Ralph (Sid Haig, a Jack Hill regular) seems more regressed than the girls, with his pinhead looks and tendency to climb in and around all the open spaces in the house.
Life for the Merryes is thrown into minor chaos when it turns out that some forgotten relatives have decided to claim custody of the children and the mansion in which they dwell. House on Haunted Hill's Carol Ohmart plays the visiting, gold-digging aunt Emily Howe, who brings along her good-natured brother Peter (Quinn Redeker) and a shifty lawyer with a Hitler mustache named Mr. Schlocker (Karl Schanzer). Mary Mitchel plays Ann Morris, Mr. Schlocker's assistant who bonds with Peter over their shared love of classic horror movies.
As expected, the Howes' stay with their relatives does not go quite as they hoped. Dinner becomes a series of hilarious gross-outs. Sleep becomes an impossibility with Ralph peering in the second story window. Bruno, who is truly a loving and understanding presence, tries to get the children to behave, but the arrival of this fresh meat-- er, I mean, these visitors demonstrates that the children are a lost cause.
Spider Baby delivers plenty of genre thrills, with ladies running screaming in their underwear, gory murder scenes (most of them implied, but still effectively icky), and creepy-crawly spiders coming out of dark corners where you least expect them. What is surprising, though, is that despite the heightened campiness of much of the film, there's a genuine sweetness in the scenes between Lon Chaney and his surrogate children. If there's a reason that Spider Baby has lingered so long in the annals of low-budget genre classics, I suspect it is this touching, good-hearted core, even more than the cleverness or shockingness or sexiness of the film, that makes it continue to resonate with new viewers.