Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told

(1967) Written and directed by: Jack Hill; Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Carol Ohmart, Quinn K. Redeker, Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner, Sid Haig, Mary Mitchell and Karl Schanzer; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Rating: ****

“One thing that has come to my attention over the years about this film is that young girls of the age they’re supposed to be here find this movie so touching and so warm, and they have become really big fans, and I think it has to do with the unconditional love within the family, that no matter how naughty you are, you’re still loved. And I think that’s one of the things about the movie that makes it perennially popular.” – Jack Hill (from Arrow DVD commentary)

Some movies slip through the cracks, as lost relics from another time. Others crawl out of the cracks, only to find a second life years later. Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told (originally titled Cannibal Orgy), continues the tradition of eccentric families in gothic houses,* such as The Cat and the Canary, The Old Dark House and The Addams Family. Take elements from each, adding a homicidal twist, and this only begins to scratch the surface of this macabre comedy. Writer/director Jack Hill, a disciple of Roger Corman, shot the film in 1964 on a budget of roughly $60,000. Sadly, Hill’s movie was locked up in litigation several years before it finally saw a nominal release. The film eventually resurfaced on home video, and as these things sometimes go, has steadily built a small but dedicated following.

* Fun Fact #1: The house in the film is located in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Through careful framing and editing (intercut with shots from the Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills, California), the filmmakers created the illusion that it was tucked away in the middle of nowhere. The once dilapidated house, built in 1899, has since been restored.

From the opening credits sequence, song spoken/sung by star Lon Chaney Jr,* you can tell this isn’t going to be your usual genre flick. The goofy/creepy lyrics serve as a fitting introduction to the tone of the story that’s about to unfold. The film begins with a brief explanation of (the fictitious) Merrye Syndrome, a degenerative neurological disorder causing sufferers to regress to an earlier stage of life. Cut to an unassuming courier (Mantan Moreland), as he locates the secluded Merrye estate, only to subsequently meet his demise when one of the occupants, Virginia (Jill Banners), partakes in a friendly game of “spider.” The family caretaker Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.), arrives home, to find the courier’s body and his undelivered letter (informing them of an impending visit by a lawyer). Enter gold-digging relative Aunt Emily (Carol Ohmart), with her mild-mannered brother Paul (Quinn Redeker) in tow, who meet up with her aptly named attorney Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) to assess the Merrye children’s living conditions. Things go from weird to weirder when situations force them to spend the night in the house.

* Fun Fact #2: According to director Jack Hill, Chaney was his first choice for the role of Bruno, but the actor’s agent wanted too much money. Hill subsequently decided to pursue John Carradine, but when he discovered Carradine had the same agent, Hill fell back to his initial pick. Chaney settled on a smaller paycheck because he was eager to play the role.


At the core of Spider Baby is Chaney’s terrific, underappreciated performance. He seems to be enjoying himself, in one of his juicier late-life roles, which exploits his full range as an actor. The family finds safe harbor in Bruno, entrusted with the care of the children. He’s the glue that keeps the family together, as their surrogate father, chauffeur,* disciplinarian (which amounts to mild rebukes), and moral compass (“Elizabeth, how many times have I told you it’s not nice to hate?”). In their own dysfunctional way, it’s a system that works, only thrown into disarray when someone infringes on their family unit. Bruno inhabits a difficult place, straddling both worlds – trying to preserve the insane ecosystem within the house while serving as a buffer to the outside world. His role also provides some droll comic moments. In one scene, where the guests discuss old horror movies, inevitably mentioning The Wolf Man (1941), Bruno remarks in his deadpan Larry Talbot voice, “There’s going to be a full moon tonight.” Chaney displays the more emotional side of his character in another scene, when he comes to the tearful realization that people are going to follow in the lawyer’s footsteps to break the family apart. He tries in vain to keep a brave face for the sisters, but he knows it’s a lost cause.

* Fun Fact #3: The classic Duesenberg featured in the film cost $100 a day to rent, which was coincidentally the same rate for the actors.

The three “children,” (all young adults) live in a state of arrested development, caused by their inherited condition (a byproduct of inbreeding). Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn),* who’s nominally more responsible than her siblings, is left in charge. She appears to be more in control of her impulses, but appearances are deceiving. As her arachnid-obsessed sister Virginia, Jill Banner steals the show whenever she’s on screen, conveying a combustible mixture of innocence and na茂ve malevolence. It’s a remarkable, fearless performance, considering it’s her first (she didn’t tell her family she was working on the movie). Elizabeth and Virginia’s brother Ralph (Sid Haig) is the most devolved of the three, with his feral behavior** and the intellect of a mischievous toddler. While Emily and Schlocker are repulsed by the kids, Peter seems to take everything in stride, commenting about Ralph’s childlike exuberance and cheerfully accepting a helping of rabbit that’s served on his plate (Spoiler: It’s not rabbit). In one of the squirmiest scenes, Virginia seduces Paul, much to his chagrin, sitting in his lap and teasing him as a prelude to her “spider” game.  

* Fun Fact #4: According to Washburn, she and her co-star, Banner were bestowed with affectionate, if less than flattering, nicknames by Chaney, who respectively called them “Cracker Ass” and “Bubble Butt.”

** Fun Fact #5: In preparation for his role Sid Haig observed primates at the zoo and children cavorting on a playground. Haig observed in the DVD commentary that both groups displayed similar behaviors.

Spider Baby is a spirited mixture of dark comedy and horror that rewards on repeat viewings. It engages the eyes and ears with moody cinematography by Alfred Taylor, spooky set designs by Ray Storey, and an energetic score by Ronald Stein. In spite of the family’s strange, sometimes reprehensible actions, when filtered through the sympathetic lens of Bruno, we can’t help but like them. Perhaps the assortment of oddball characters and moral ambiguity was too eccentric for the tastes of mainstream audiences at the time (even now it would probably be a tough sell). But if you’re looking for something that’s not the same old thing made by committee, this might be well worth your time. Who knows? In spite of yourself, you might just find yourself falling in love with the Merrye family.

 * Fun Fact #6: Hill wrote an (as of this date) unfilmed sequel, Vampire Orgy, which would have followed the continuing exploits of Ann and Peter. 

8 comments:

  1. I recently commented in Twitter that I needed to see this one again. Your review just reenforces that. Thanks, Barry!!

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    1. You're welcome, Ernie! I really dig this one. It's well worth re-visiting. :)

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  2. Excellent review, Barry! 馃憤
    I saw this film for the first time a few years ago on Turner classic movies.
    I really enjoyed it and was impressed with Lon Chaney Jr.

    I was hoping your review would include information on whether or not any animals were harmed in the making of this film. That dinner scene looks very unnerving to me.

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    1. Thanks so much, John! This is one of my favorite Chaney performances.

      Hmmm... According to the commentary, the main course was actually a rabbit, cooked by the film's set designer. I'm not sure how they acquired it, however.

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  3. Love this movie! You are right, Chaney is so great here. Classic.

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  4. I saw this for the first time just a few months back and thought it was great. It is as you said; you find yourself falling for the family maybe against your better judgement. They are reminiscent of the Sawyer family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and yet you want no trouble to befall them because they are so clearly innocents.

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    1. Right! I think Jack Hill did a good job portraying the Merrye family through a sympathetic lens.

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