Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told (1964)
Written and Directed by Jack Hill. Produced by Gil Lasky & Paul Monka Music: Ronald Stein Credited cast: Lon Chaney Jr. - Bruno, Carol Ohmart - Emily Howe, Quinn K. Redeker - Peter Howe; Beverly Washburn - Elizabeth, Jill Banner - Virginia; Sid Haig - Ralph, Mary Mitchel - Ann, Karl Schanzer - Schlocker, Mantan Moreland - Messenger
Also Known As:
Attack of the Liver Eaters (1964)
Runtime: 81 minutes
Some Merrye Pranksters...
Most reviewers of this film quote Jim Morton's description of Spider Baby as "a television sitcom directed by Luis Bunuel." One wonders why, as Spider Baby lacks the pedestrian production values of 60s TV, although it may share some of the silly dialogue.
As for it being a Bunuel ripoff, that seems even sillier. Spider Baby is not a surreal flick by any stretch, nor does it remotely touch on Bunuel's favourite themes. Granted, it certainly is odd. But that does not surreal make. Bottom line, Spider Baby is a first-feature, low-budget, imaginatively creepy movie that benefits from a generally offbeat cast and an obviously keen director.
Spider Baby tells the story of how the ironically-named Merrye family manages to cure itself of a horrible family disease. All the Merrye clan suffer from an extremely rare condition called the "Merrye Syndrome". As we learn in the movie's introduction, cheerfully told by distant cousin Peter Howe (played by Quinn Redeker), victims of the Merrye Syndrome suffer from "progressive age regression" that may "progress beyond the pre-natal level -- reverting to a pre-human condition of savagery and cannibalism."
The plot is pretty straightforward. The family patriarch, Titus Merrye, lives in a mansion out in the sticks. He has two daughters, Virginia and Elizabeth, a son, Ralph, a chauffeur/butler, Bruno, and Uncle Ned and Aunt Martha. Following Titus' deathbed request, Bruno assumes the role of nursemaid and promises to take care of the children. Not as easy as it sounds. These kids need a lot of supervision.
The plot tracks the unraveling of this secretive, bizarre family group. A messenger, played by Mantan Moreland, delivers a letter which announces that distant relatives Peter and Emily Howe will be visiting, along with their lawyer, Schlocker, and his secretary, Ann. Bit of bad timing for the postman, however, as he arrives during one of Bruno's infrequent trips in the family limousine and is captured by Virginia, who wedges him in the window and then plays her favourite game, "Spider", which culminates in a frenzy of flashing scissors (sting! sting! sting!) and a quick exit for Mantan, who is immediately sloughed off to the basement for dinner with Ned and Martha.
Bruno returns and chastises the naughty girls, then reads the letter. Oops, the clan are arriving today! Typical tardy delivery service. Sure enough, the four outsiders show up, and meet the Merrye cast. And what a cast it is.
Bruno is the long-standing loyal servant who, in essence, has taken over as the family head. His responsibilities include Ralph, the oldest kid, who is the farthest gone. He's a drooling, bald, leering imbecile who skulks around in Buster Brown outfits. Speech has left him. He can usually be found riding up and down in the house's dumb waiter. Next-in-line Virginia loves spiders. She has a collection of tarantulas hiding in a writing desk. She eats small bugs and, when available, casts her web over larger prey -- before descending with carving knives. The youngest, Elizabeth, is least afflicted, and mostly spends her time admonishing Virginia. Uncle Ned and Aunt Martha live in the basement. Actually, under the floor in the basement. That's still too close.
The four visitors decide to stay overnight, and, predictably, only two survive. The lawyer, Schlocker, and Emily end up in the basement, and Peter and Ann survive some harrowing experiences before escaping the madness. By this time even Bruno is reading the writing on the dimly lit walls, and he realizes its just a matter of time before the place is overrun with outsiders and his little spider's nest will be gone forever. Bruno collects the entire family in the basement to play a new game, and his eyes water with tears as he gathers all around him and lights the fuse on a bundle of dynamite he's stolen from a road crew's shack.
Wait. There's an epilogue. Peter and Ann end up getting married, Peter inherits the Merrye fortune, and they have a charming daughter. As Peter crows about beating the Merrye Syndrome curse, Hill's camera tracks his daughter out into the garden, where she stands transfixed, lost in the wonder of a spider building a web....
Spider Baby is Director Jack Hill's first feature-length movie. It was also the only movie he did in which he had already written the script, and he found two neophyte producers who wanted to get into film with money they had made in real estate. Even so, the budget for the film was just $65,000.
This film has very good cinematography by Alfred Taylor (only once does he cheat on a day/night scene), but it ultimately succeeds because of the casting and acting, resulting in a strange mixture of performers and performances. Lon Chaney, Jr. is looking pretty rough by 1964, but according to Hill, Lon was so excited about the part -- about playing in a comedy -- that he took a pay cut and didn't drink for eleven of the twelve days it took to shoot. His acting is mysteriously soft, his big alcoholic eyes like toilet bowls over deeply lines cheeks, his voice quiet and silky, his actions slow and dancerly. He was probably pissed the entire time. Bonus: Lon warbles the movie's opening theme song: "This cannibal orgy is strange to behold and the maddest story ever told!"
Sid Haig, a veteran of many exploitation films, is completely over the top with his playing of Ralph. Head-twisting, drooling, hand-wringing, ape-walking.... it's a physical tour-de-force, as Ralph is so far gone there's not much emotion left to milk, save the intensity all animals bring to bear at the moment before death.
Seventeen-year-old Jill Banner is creepily sexy and naive in her role as Virginia the Spider Baby. Harsh and jerky when excited, soft and languorous while stalking, she does a believable spider imitation. In contrast, Beverly Washburn, an experienced stage actress and a former child star (she starred in Old Yeller), tends to overplay her role as the finkish younger sister. It works well, tho, as these contrasting performances underscore the varying degenerative mental states of the Merrye children.
Carol Ohmart and Quinn Redeker are equally effective. Ohmart (a '50s starlet who never caught on with audiences) plays the tough, gimme-gimme greedy cousin to perfection, and has an amazing scene in which she strip dances in front of a mirror, is shocked by a peeping Ralph, runs into the night, and is chased throughout the grounds by the girls before Ralph grabs her and drags her into the bushes. Her confused demeanor thereafter (before visiting the basement) is a testament to the joys of pre-human sex, one assumes.
Redeker (who wrote the initial version of The Deer Hunter, and starred for years in The Young and the Restless) acts as the consummate charmer. His performance is smooth and unctuous... and maybe slightly out of place, given the circumstances.
The performance I find the weakest comes from Karl Schanzer as Schlocker the lawyer. His acting is right out of the high school play -- self conscious, jerky, with a lack of timing and no subtleties.
Mary Mitchel is great as Ann, who experiences the only truly shocking scenes in the movie -- meeting Titus, whose skeleton is still in his bed, and dealing with the children in the basement while Ned and Martha try to pull her under....
Spider Baby was filmed in 1964 but it didn't see the white of a drive-in screen until 1968 due to bankruptcy hassles. With the movie frozen in courts, director Hill watched helplessly as theaters increasingly demanded color movies -- and Spider Baby was filmed in black and white. When Spider Baby was finally released, it was shoved to the bottom half of a drive-in double feature. Its obscurity was secured for the next two decades.
What goodies do we get in the DVD version?
* footage from the cast and crew reunion at a Spider Baby screening in Los Angeles in 1994.
* audio commentary by Jack Hill.
* additional film footage not previously available. Hill discovered this footage, thought long lost, while examining several release prints of Spider Baby with hopes of salvaging a few good copies for future screenings. One of those prints, incredibly, turned out to be the original "answer print" from the film lab. This print was created before the distributor made the final cuts for the movie's theatrical release.
This is a very interesting movie, notable for its ability to cross genres. Not a true comedy, not a complete horror, Spider Baby stands out as a happy coincidence of fun and fright, guaranteed to entertain and amuse, while still offering lots of little "didja notice..." opportunities throughout the story. It's fun.
© Rick "Ojo" McGrath 2000
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