One from the re watch pile…
Spider Baby (1964)
Film: Jack Hill has made some pretty damn amazing films in his career, film that people talk about with a fondness reserved normally for cats and chocolate. He wrote and directed films that are synonymous with sub-genres of film. Film like Coffey and Foxy Brown which whilst are not the first are certainly prime examples of blaxploitation, and The Big Bird House and The Big Bird Cage which again, weren’t the first Women In Prison films, but certainly nailed the definition… totally tongue-in-cheek too, I might add.
Here, though, with Spider Baby, Hill ascends any genre definition and creates a film that looks like a 1940s comedy, but acts like a… I don’t even know what to describe it as. It’s madness incarnate. It’s a quaint look at unconditional love. It’s a horrible look at genetic faults. It’s ridiculous.
Spider Baby tells of the tragedy of the Merrye family, who suffer with a genetic affliction that is particular to their family, which it why it has the name ‘ Merrye Syndrome’. It is a disorder which effects the mind, making the victims slowly regress, after reaching a particular age, to an almost primal state.
The last three children of Titus Merrye, Elizabeth (Beverley Washburn), Virginia (Jill Banner) and Ralph (Sid Haig) are cared for by beloved chauffeur, Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.) but cousins of Titus, Peter (Quinn Redeker) and his sister Emily (Carol Ohmart) turn up at short notice with their lawyer, Mr. Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) to try and lay claim to all Titus’ property… but what they don’t know is the three children have irresistible murderous intentions, and not just bodies are hidden in the basement of their house…
The performances are the best thing about this film, which also has a surprising cast: legend from Universal films like The Wolfman, Chaney Jr as the kindly old doomed chauffeur chews his dialogue like it’s the most important film he’s ever made, and his career at Universal is mentioned as a wink to the audience too. House on Haunted Hill’s Carol Ohmart is the epitome of sexy mean girl here and provides just enough eye candy to remind you she was once one of Marilyn Monroe’s contemporaries. The real surprise though is the appearance of comedy actor Mantan Moreland from King of the Zombies, as the telegram deliverer who’s fear-filled appearance could have influences Shaggy from Scooby-Doo.
Speaking of Universal films, Hill’s cinematography is influenced by them but has a few quirks that give it a look that takes that familiarity and alienates it, like the entire idea of the film with its odd-family set up.
The problem with this film though is in two areas. One is how queer it is paced, and the language of film seems to be abandoned so there doesn’t seem to be any great escalated peak, but instead it just simmers. The other thing is it seems to take a serious subject of inbreeding and disease and tries to make it amusing not with a clever script but instead with crazy, comedy styled parodies of horror film tropes.
As far as the history of cinema is concerned this film deserves a look at just for the place it sits in the evolution of backwards horror, it just doesn’t sit properly as entertainment. See it once for the performances of former greats.
Format: The reviewed copy of this film was the Dark Sky Films U.S. release on DVD. This film was presented in a pretty nice 1.66:1 black and white image with a clean 2.0 audio track.
Extras: There’s a cool bunch of extras on this disc.
The Hatching of Spider Baby is a cool look at the making of the film with comments by Joe Dante, Jack Hill, Karl Schanzer, Sid Haig, Alfred Taylor, Mary Mitchel, Quinn Redeker and Beverly Washburn, and has some great recollections from the cast and crew.
Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein really speaks to me as I love my horror movie scores. This looks at the career of Stein and is a touching tribute to his work.
The Merrye House revisited sees Jack Hill return to the house used in Spider Baby to reflect on the filming there.
There’s a still gallery which is something that always annoys me, and it does so here, though some of the pics of the leading ladies are nice.
There’s an alternate title sequence and an extended scene which are nice for completion’s sake.
There is also a commentary by Hill and Haig which is informative and kind of endearing.
WISIA: It’s quaint and amusing, but won’t be on high circulation on your Rewatch list.