Time hasn’t been kind to this loveable 1964 oddity, but it remains a
memorable film with unforgettable performances.
SPIDER BABY was the debut film of exploitation legend
Jack Hill, and
remains his most bizarre film. For that matter, it’s one of the
strangest horror indies to emerge from the mid sixties (the film was
caught up in three years’ worth of legal hassles, and so wasn’t actually
released until 1967), a period that saw more than its share of strange
films. If it resembles anything it’s THE MUNSTERS and THE ADDAMS’ FAMILY,
both of which (in their original episodic TV incarnations) premiered
around the time SPIDER BABY was being made, but of course it’s much
darker and more artful than either.
We’re introduced to the bizarre Merrye family,
apparently the only known sufferers of the so-called “Merrye Syndrome,”
a disease brought about by inbreeding that causes mental retardation and
cannibalism. The Merryes live in a secluded mansion, where one day a
mailman makes the mistake of poking his head through an open window.
He’s promptly sliced up by the teenaged Virginia, a deranged teen who
likes to pretend she’s a spider luring men into her web. Her sister
Elizabeth is supposed to be looking after Virginia and seeing that she
stays out of trouble, but in fact Elizabeth is just as loony as in her
own way as her psychotic sis.
Also living in the house is Bruno, a kindly chauffeur
who looks after the family, as well as the girl’s halfwit brother Ralph
and deranged Uncle Ned and Aunt Martha, who reside in the basement. And
let’s not forget about the late family patriarch, whose skeleton resides
in an upper room of the house.
Into this madhouse comes the smarmy Uncle Peter and
Aunt Emily, who lead a procession of unassuming normals looking to
foreclose on the Merryes’ home. Bruno is understandably nonplussed when
these interlopers announce they’re going to spend the night.
Bruno and the kids reluctantly fix dinner for the
normals, with a meal that includes “rabbit” (actually a fried cat) and
“garden greens” (actually grass). Aunt Emily believes the Merryes are
faking their oddness, and during the night she and one of her male
companions attempt to explore the house. The guy winds up stabbed to
death in the basement by Virginia and Elizabeth.
From there all you-know-what breaks loose. Uncle Peter
is tied up by Virginia and Emily thrown into the basement lair of Uncle
Ned and Aunt Martha. Around this point Bruno decides it’s time to stop
taking care of the Merryes, precipitating a none-too-cuddly climax.
If I’m not quite as enthusiastic about this film as so
many other cult movie buffs are it’s due to the many distracting
elements endemic to low budget movies of the sixties, in particular an
excess of obvious padding (in protracted scenes of people walking,
ascending stairs, etc) and a too-uneventful narrative. Much more could
have been done with this material, which is more an extended appetizer
than a full course meal.
Nonetheless, Hill’s control and mastery of tone are
impressive. This is evident in the loony dinner table sequence, in which
humor and grossness are inextricably mixed in a way that remains unique,
and Virginia’s climactic seduction of the tied-up Uncle Peter, which in
its elegant perversity rivals anything in LOLITA.
Also, despite Hill’s claims that he “didn’t know
anything about actors” when he made this film, the performances are
quite strong. The standouts are Lon Chaney Jr, who imbues Bruno with a
real and unexpected pathos, and also the late Jill Banner as the spider-obsessed
nymphet Virginia. Former 50s starlet Carol Ohmart also makes a sizeable
impression as Aunt Emily, both in the early scenes in which she displays
annoyance at the Merryes’ antics and the later ones where she runs
around in her underwear (for which I’m certainly not complaining).
I will say this for SPIDER BABY: it may be dated in
many respects, but it’s far more accomplished in most every respect than
the early films of Jack Hill’s better known contemporaries Francis Ford
Coppola (DEMENTIA 13), Peter Bogdonovich (VOYAGE TO THE PLANET OF
PREHISTORIC WOMEN) and William Friedkin (GOOD TIMES).
SPIDER BABY; OR, THE MADDEST STORY EVER TOLD
Director: Jack Hill
Producers: Paul Moinka, Gil Lasky
Screenplay: Jack Hill
Cinematography: Alfred Taylor
Editing: Jack Hill
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Carol Ohmart, Jill Banner, Beverly Washburn, Sid
Haig, Quinn Redeker, Mary Mitchel, Mantan Moreland, Karl Schanzer