If ever there was a film more aptly subtitled “The Maddest Story Ever Told” than Jack Hill’s Spider Baby I’m not unaware of it, and to be sure, there are many crazy movies out there but with this entry, Jack Hill brought to the screen a collection of wonderful oddball characters in a story that only he could tell and in a fashion that was so off-the-wonderful that it has to be admired if not applauded, so sit back and take a fun journey to a little out of the way place that is just down the lane.
This is a story about unconditional love, which may seem odd for a movie subtitled “The Maddest Story Ever Told” but at its center is a theme of unconditional love as writer/director Jack Hill’s Spider Baby is a film about one man’s unwavering love for his charges and as bizarre and outlandish as things get along the way it never strays from that simple truth. And exactly who is being loved in this film? The basic premise of Spider Baby surrounds a family that suffers from something called the “Merrye Syndrome” which is a genetic affliction unique to members of the Merrye family that starting in late childhood causes them to regress down the evolutionary ladder mentally, socially, and physically. Living within the decaying rural Merrye House we find three children of the Merrye family, sisters Virginia (Jill Banner) and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) as well as their older brother Ralph (Sid Haig) but when intruders from the “normal world” collide with that of the Merryes, well, think the Addams Family only vastly more disturbing and even weirder.
“They’re creepy and they’re kooky. Mysterious and spooky. They’re all together ooky. The Merrye Family”
Their guardian, protector and chauffeur is the long-suffering Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.) whose pledge to his deceased master is the crux of the story, him trying to keep the three Merrye children safe from the world and the world safe from them, and all three “children” exhibit playful innocence mixed with brutality and feral madness. With Ralph being the oldest he has regressed further and become a mentally deficient simpleton, who uses the dumbwaiter to travel through the house, but more disturbing is the fact that his childlike behaviour is a weird counterpoint to his sexual proclivities and when new females are entered into the mix things quickly advance from leering to abduction and rape.
The youngest member of the family is Virginia, who is known as “Spider Baby” because of her obsession with spiders, and she is our introduction to this homicidal family as she murders a poor delivery man (Mantan Moreland) who had the misfortune of sticking his neck into her web and paid the ultimate price. Her older but equally vicious sister, Elizabeth, is more manic and gleeful in her actions and she is often the one to goad her younger sister into action, that is not that Virginia needs much goading. Things come to a head when two distant relatives, Peter Howe (Quinn Redeker) and his sister Emily (Carol Ohmart), arrive followed by their lawyer Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) and his secretary Ann Morris (Mary Mitchel) in order to examine and claim the property as rightful heirs. Needless to say, Bruno is quite uncomfortable with these visitors as he knows exactly what his charges are capable of doing. What makes things even more interesting is that “Uncle Peter” is such a nice and affable guy, to the point of being so completely oblivious to the danger that one has to wonder about his sanity, but somehow this innocence within allows him to survive, even after allowing himself to be tied to a rocking chair, so that Virginia can play her “Spider” game with him, he somehow comes out alright.
On the other hand, we have his shrewish sister Emily who, along with her scheming lawyer, only sees dollar signs when they look upon the Merrye House and it’s their own blindness to the true nature of their surroundings that leads their fates to a less than pleasant outcome, with Emily being stalked and raped by Ralph while Schlocker’s nocturnal explorations of the house lead him to a fatal encounter with the two sisters. This is where Jack Hill’s film is at its best with its oddball dark humour and hilarious dialogue, such as Schocket’s attempt at talking his way out of getting murdered, “Now see here. This won’t do. This has gone quite far enough. This has gone well beyond the boundaries of prudence and good taste.”
• The film was originally titled “Cannibal Orgy” but while there is an allusion to cannibalism in this movie there are definitely no orgies depicted on screen, maybe we would have gotten them in the proposed sequel “Vampire Orgy” but sadly, that sequel never happened.
• The wonderfully goofy title sequence was by E.I.P. who also did Corman’s titles for Little Shop of Horrors, and it along with Lon Chaney Jr. singing the title song perfectly set the tone for this dark comedy.
• With all the stuffed birds mounted all over the house one must wonder if the place was decorated by Norman Bates.
• Carol Ohmart starred in the Vincent Price classic House on Haunted Hill, so you’d think she’d know how to behave when occupying a house full of murder.
• To that last point, maybe dancing around in sexy lingerie is not the best idea when you’re staying overnight at a house full of weirdos, especially if one of them is being played by Sid Haig.
As bizarre and “out there” as the premise of this movie is, and it really is bizarre, it’s the performances by this very talented cast that is able to ground the film and allows you to actually sympathize with this odd and demented collection of crazies; from Sid Haig’s infantile animalistic Ralph, to Beverly Washburn’s precociously sadistic Elizabeth and Jill Banner as her delightfully playful and murderous sister Virginia, it’s these characterizations that both solidifies the film’s core while also giving it an almost surreal nightmare quality to it all, one that takes hold of you and never let’s go, of course, the true anchor of Spider Baby is Lon Chaney Jr. as his performance as Bruno is not only the heart of the film but he also showed the world what a deft hand he had at comedy.
Jack Hill’s Spider Baby is one of those films that fell through the cinemagoing cracks at the time of its release but since then it has developed quite the cult following and viewers today are often surprised at just how well-crafted this low-budget flick is because along with that insanely talented cast, who can somehow make you cry over doomed cannibal murderers, but it also sported top-notch cinematographer Alfred Taylor and provided a wonderful haunting score by composer Ronald Stein. Overall, this dark comedy delivered way more than could be expected and is an entry into the horror genre that really needs to be experienced by more people so if you are one who likes a walk on the dark side check out Spider Baby.
Note: This film could be considered the ancestor of such films as Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, which also starred Sid Haig.
Spider Baby (1967)
Movie Rank - 7.5/10
From Carol Ohmart dancing around in her black lingerie, as the wicked relative who comes with her lawyer to “steal” the estate, to the cannibalistic creatures living in the basement, there is a lot to love about Spider Baby, a film that gleefully embraces madness, murder and rape with director Jack Hill’s deft touch at dark comedy.