Spider Baby (1968)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2015-06-12 16:24
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Spider Baby (1968)
Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: June 9th, 2015

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman




The movie:

You’re not quite sure how to take the opening credits of Spider Baby. It’s subtitled “The Maddest Story Ever Told,” yet its overture looks like something from a long lost network Halloween special. Chintzy, stock horror images of cartoon spiders and webs fill the screen as a raspy-voiced Lon Chaney croons about goblins and ghosts over a playful, jangly bassline. These days, you’d expect to find it on a holiday compilation CD alongside the likes of “The Monster Mash.” Spider Baby feels like it’s going to be a harmless, kooky party situated in yet another old dark house. Here it spins a deceitful web, wrapping its audience in the comforts of familiarity as it lurks above, waiting to strike with an ahead-of-its-time tale of depravity.

Attuned, modern audiences at least know what to expect from grindhouse godfather Jack Hill, but contemporary movie-goers must have felt blindsided by his warping quaint gothic staples (including dear old Chaney) into a grotesque horror show. A clean-cut young man (Quinn Redeker) introduces us to the plight of the Merrye family, a clan afflicted by a curse that damns its offspring to a regressive, infantile, and homicidal state. However, our narrator assures us we have nothing to worry about, as the last of the bunch was sadly eradicated years ago, where this mad tale begins to shed its comforting façade and unfold properly—or, rather, improperly, I suppose.

It lays a typical scene: a decrepit old house rests on a hill, surely hoarding its fair share of ancient, familial secrets. A visitor (classic horror staple Mantan Moreland) arrives, surely oblivious of the horrors awaiting within when he’s greeted by a pair of insouciant sisters, Elizabeth and Virginia. The latter decides to play a game of spider and fly, which ends with her butchering the ill-fated guest. While Hill keeps the carnage largely off-screen, Virginia—whose sweetness belies her insanity—hacks away with a rough, jagged fury that announces Spider Baby’s violent, almost invasive intentions. It might look like an innocuous spook show destined to haunt fuzzy television screens as late-night Shock Theater programming, but it’s actually a bizarre, quasi-subversive snarling of the genre.

As early as the film’s conception in 1964, the horror genre had become a pattern fit to be undone by audacious filmmakers like Hill. Clearly operating with a knowledge of how these films unravel, he has more visitors (one is narrator Redeker, the other House on Haunted Hill’s Carol Ohmart) trek to the Merrye mansion, this time distant relatives with a lawyer and his assistant in tow looking to cash in on the family fortune. Such visits never end well, of course, but most similar old dark house films proceed with decorum. Even as driving rain, lightning, and thunder rage without, some tactful family members attempt to uphold decency within, as their horrible secrets (usually some demented—or at least tormented—relative) are confined to a basement or dungeon.

What Spider Baby supposes is that the entire goddamn family has lost it. Rather than keep its unfortunate souls out of sight, it has them lolling out of the back of the hearse in broad daylight. This is how we’re introduced to Sid Haig’s Ralph, the most degenerative member of the Merrye brood, whose mind has been completely ravaged and reduced to a permanent infant state. Communicating only via grunts, Haig provides another offbeat flavor to an already strange brew.

Speaking of strange brews, an inevitable dinner scene only reveals more Merrye madness. In an exchange laced with black humor, the snobbish guests can barely contain their repulsion of the family’s boorish manners and disgusting dinner plates (you wonder if the Merryes ever shared dinner tips with the Sawyers). For cousin Peter and the assistant, Ann (Mary Mitchel), the scene reminds them of a horror movie, and the two attempt to bring levity to the bizarre situation with a discussion of vampires and wolfmen (with Chaney’s side-eye serving as both a wink and, perhaps, a warning).

These two almost feel like audience surrogates: even when confronted with the Merrye’s uncouth conduct, they still assume they’re among the comforts of quant gothic horror surroundings. They have no idea that the Merrye daughters actually kiss their father’s corpse goodnight, nor are they prepared for the further horrors lurking down in the cellar (yes, the Merrye’s do keep some traditions intact, and you spend the whole film wondering how awful these unseen family members must be if they have to be squirreled away).

Even as Spider Baby lurches to an inevitable conclusion, it continues to surprise, particularly in its depiction of the Merrye family. Modern horror films are less hesitant about holding sympathy for its madmen, but 60s audiences would have been shocked by Hill’s strangely loveable brood. Less the film’s villains and more the victims of opportunistic money-grubbers (it’s no coincidence that Ohmart’s prim façade eventually yields to a scandalous striptease in black lingerie), the Merryes are an indelible bunch.

Banner is the obvious show-stealer as the title character with a playful, sing-song inflection to her voice that’s discordant when paired with her teenage sexuality. Her wide eyes give her a doll’s face that perfectly masks her savagery. On-screen sister Washburn is comparatively more mature, but just barely. The sibling rivalry between the pouty Elizabeth and the bratty Virginia is another screwy twist in the proceedings that makes this feel like an even screwier version of the Addams Family. As their caretaker, Chaney’s hound-dog persona was rarely put to better use, particularly this late in his career.

Where his three charges are broadly-stroked portraits of madness, Bruno is a tortured soul torn between his love for these children and his realization that they are abominations. Hill seems to especially sympathize with Chaney, who was rarely granted the opportunity to escape the shadow of his own family legacy. His barely-contained tears during a climactic sequence here feel channeled by this melancholy realization. For a film that toys with expectations as much as Spider Baby does, Chaney’s turn is perhaps the biggest surprise because that long face carries so much weight and gravitas here. You wonder if contemporary audiences greeted it with the same surprise John Ford held for John Wayne’s performance in Red River. Who knew the big son of a bitch could act?

Horror fans certainly do, and Spider Baby almost feels like Hill’s love letter to what would have been a budding fan base by the 1960s. As much as his film seems designed to disgust mainstream audiences with race and incest, he seems equally enthused by embracing the eccentricities of a subculture that reveled in an increasingly macabre genre, one that was beginning to spew forth unhinged gore films and legitimately bizarre freak shows. Spider Baby feels like it was made for an early generation of Monster Kids—for them, it’s every bit the party promised by the opening credits.

For anyone else, it must have (and perhaps still does) felt like an assault: filmed in stark black and white, Spider Baby is as gothic as it is grungy and as atmospheric as it is graphically violent. A bridge between two eras, it has the Merrye sisters welcoming guests like Dracula’s brides and Chaney essentially re-enacting the climax of Bride of Frankenstein, yet it’s all in the service of ferrying audiences to a more deranged strain of horror that would come to dominate the next decade and beyond.

Considering it was originally conceived in 1964, it feels downright prophetic in its anticipation of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and its many imitators. In Biblical terms, you might say that Spider Baby begat that film and several more in a fittingly incestuous lineage that stretches all the way down to Rob Zombie’s Firefly clan. When the closing “The End” tag arrives with a question mark, it’s a final, playful note, but also a question that’s been answered for the past five decades, where the Merry Syndrome has infected the genre time and time again.

The disc:

Affection for Spider Baby has gained traction during the past decade or so especially, and its place in the cult canon is hard to deny, especially now that Arrow Video has graced it with a wonderful Blu-ray special edition. Not only is it the best the film has looked since it haunted drive-in screens 45 years ago, but it’s also accompanied by hordes of special features headlined by a commentary with Hill and Haig. “Hatching Spider Baby” is a 32-minute retrospective that further explores the film, while “The Merrye House Revisited” has Hill literally retracing his steps back to the film’s stunning Victorian mansion.

Composer Roland Stein is the focus of another featurette, and Hill returns alongside Redeker and Washburn for a panel discussion. One of Hill’s student films, “The Host” (which marks Haig’s on-screen debut),” is presented alongside some alternate and extended footage, a trailer, and a stills gallery. This is truly an exhaustive edition for a film that has deserved it even in light of Dark Sky’s previous DVD release.

After this film, Hill would of course to go on to helm a slew of exploitation films and become a preeminent name on the drive-in scene. It was here, though, among the ghosts of the genre’s gothic past, that he crafted his absolute masterpiece in Spider Baby, a film that falls somewhere between the art-house and the grindhouse and stands in a spot all its own despite decades of copycats. Maybe it is no longer the maddest story ever told, but it is one of the most unforgettable.
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