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Spider Baby (Blu-ray/DVD Combo)
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.
Spider Baby comes in a 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo. Both discs contain the same bonus material. The Blu-ray can be played in Regions A & B, the DVD will work in Regions 1 & 2. It comes packaged with an attractive 38-page booklet that includes an essay on the film and a short oral history of the production. Reversible cover artwork that highlights the original poster design is also included.
The AVC-encoded 1080 1.66:1 transfer that Arrow is offering is outstanding. The grayscale is wonderfully nuanced, with excellent shadow detail and inky inky inky blacks. The fine detail is jaw-dropping for such a low-budget production. The film is on the grainy side -- again, presumably because of the low-budget -- but I find the texture incredibly appealing. This is a gorgeous restoration.
Unfortunately, the LPCM mono audio is not so easily spruced up. The recording is inconsistent, with muffled passages and distracting audible crackles in places. Obviously, this is due to the age of the materials and probably again the low budget production of the film, which makes these issues potentially irreparable. Considering the quality of the video, I must assume that they did the best they could with the audio. It's a shame, but the track is still quite listenable. There is one subtitle option: English SDH.
- Carried over from the 2007 DVD, this chat offers a frequently witty nostalgia trip with the longtime friends and collaborators.
Arrow Films delivers another top-notch cult classic release. The cast is memorably unhinged, and the story consistently delivers chuckles and chills. If you like your horror flicks a little funny and a little sexy and a lot twisted, then Spider Baby is the flick for you. Highly Recommended.
Justin Remer is a frequent wearer of beards. He directed a folk-rock documentary called Making Lovers & Dollars, which is now streaming. He also can found be found online reading short stories and rambling about pop music.