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I first stumbled on this movie via some clips on the "Switchblade Sisters"
laserdisc and immediately put it on my "wanna-have"-list. And I sure wasn't
disappointed when I watched the complete film (no two weeks
Jack Hill creates a weird story circling about the strange Meryee family which suffers from some strange disease, causing their members to degenerate into primitive pre-human lifeforms (or something like that), or as Lon Chaney puts it out "rotting of the brain". Chaney himself, of course, is - in a fine performance - the loyal caretaker who suddenly has to deal with the fact that some relatives are trying to get their hands on the family estate (and heritage).
Besides great cinematography (under the given budget) and the genuine storyline one has to admire the characters, making the viewer think of something like "Addams Family" on Crack.
Classic stuff, with some bits which really are memorable (e.g. Chaney's groan "It's going to be full moon tonight" when the nerd hero and his love interest are discussing horror films in general and "The Wolfman" in special). And, last but not least, there's always Sid Haig...
Rent it, buy it, see it, believe it.
From the moment the beginning credits role, you know that you're going
to be in for one mental ride! The opening credits themselves are
captivating due to the music and the voice over that plays over them,
and the film never loses this eerie verve that it creates with the
credits. Spider Baby is a captivating and fascinating trek through
mental illness from beginning to end and it's quality certainly isn't
justified by it's reputation. It's amazing how great and influential
films such as this one can become lost and not often spoken of, while
other, far lesser films, have gone on to meet wide acclaim. The
influence that this film has had can be felt on many films, but most
obviously the 70's exploitation classic - The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
The film has the added title 'The Maddest Story Ever Told', and while
that may not quite be the case - this is indeed one very demented tale.
The story follows a family of inbreeds that have been afflicted by a genetic disorder known as 'Merrye syndrome', named after the family in which the disorder developed. This malady causes it's victims to enter a state of age regression that starts at the age of ten and continues throughout the remainder of the person's life, rendering them with the intelligence of a child. The final generation of the family has been entrusted to the care of the family chauffeur (Lon Chaney Jnr), and all is well for these odd people until a greedy branch of the family decides that they want to relieve the family of it's home. Mental illness has always, and will always be, a fascinating subject for horror movies as it probes into the unknown and Spider Baby makes best use of that fact.
The film works because it's extremely macabre throughout, and although we hardly see any gore at all - we always know that something bad is just around the corner, and the film features many nasty happenings, from one of the "children" playing 'spider'; a game which involves her wrapping her victim up in rope and proceeding to 'sting' them with a pair of kitchen knives, to the rotted corpse of the family father still lying in it's bed. The cast of characters are superbly odd, and this helps to create the morbid atmosphere that the film revels in. The two girls are the central focus of the film, and they make for two deliciously creepy leads. Their childlike tendencies make them macabre in a way that few horror villains have ever captured. Lon Chaney Jnr's chauffeur is another great piece of characterisation, which is portrayed by way of a great performance. He brings just the right amount of sorrow and love to his character, and provides the backbone of the movie. The black humour is rife within the film and this, and the setting - a rickety old farmhouse - only further helps to instill the morbidity into the viewer's mind. All in all; a very good and underrated horror movie that any and all horror fans would do well to catch if given the chance!
At one point in this movie, Virginia (Jill Banner), the "Spider Baby"
of the title, grabs a spider from the table and pops it into her mouth.
Her sister Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) quips, "Spiders don't eat
"Cannibal spiders do," retorts Virginia, and this scene sums up everything good about Spider Baby: twisted, funny, and possessing an internal logic that pretty much justifies anything it does, no matter how preposterous.
Originally funded by two real estate developers and locked away for years after a bankruptcy filing, Spider Baby hit the drive-in circuit, made its modest sum of money, and faded away--almost. Somewhere down the line, it developed a cult status despite only being available on low-quality, grainy video. It is now available on DVD in a restored cut that reveals strikingly beautiful black-and-white cinematography. Low-budget it may be, but it's gorgeous to look at.
Lon Chaney Jr. stars as a butler taking care of his deceased employer's children (Washburn, Banner and Sid Haig). The siblings suffer from a hereditary disease that leaves them intellectually childlike but also makes them casual murderers, a problem compounded when distant cousins (Quinn Redeker and the stunning Carol Ohmart) arrive with designs on taking over the estate. The plot is simple and the movie is short (only 81 minutes), but it wastes no time and delivers plenty of creepy thrills, among them cannibalism, implied necrophilia, and midnight chases through the woods.
The acting is a pleasant surprise as well. The entire cast does a convincing job of bringing these oddball characters to life. There are a few missteps here and there: a couple of moments, for instance, when Redeker addresses the audience directly, and it's hard to know if the humor is intentional or not. Overall, however, the quality of each performance is pretty high. Especially touching is a scene where Chaney's character realizes there will be no good end to the situation, and his obvious affection for these mad but dangerous children actually brings a tear to the eye.
Well worth checking out if you're into horror, grim humor, or very, very odd movies.
'Spider Baby' is a wonderfully inventive and original b-grade movie full of mad fun. Writer/director Jack Hill began as a Roger Corman protege, co-writing 'The Terror' and also working on Coppola's underrated 'Dementia 13', before striking out on his own with 'Spider Baby', a movie which became embroiled in a legal dispute and took four years to get released. Hill went on to direct Pam Grier movies and the trash classic 'Switchblade Sisters' in the Seventies, but it's arguable whether he ever surpassed this cult favourite. Horror legend Lon Chaney, Jr stars with a very thoughtful performance(!), and 'Dementia 13's Mary Mitchel and Karl Schanzer, and 'The House On Haunted Hill's Carol Ohmart are among the supporting cast, but the real stars are newcomers Jill Banner as the bewitching Virginia, and the remarkable Sid Haig as the unforgettable Ralph. Banner went on to appear in the dazzling 'The President's Analyst' before her untimely death, while Haig's ongoing career included several movies with Jack Hill, including blaxsploitation classic 'Coffy', and Lucas' 'THX 1138'. 'Spider Baby' is a brilliant example of what can be achieved on a small budget with some originality and willingness to take risks.
Admittedly, I'm not as up-to-par on horror films of the 60's and older
decades (other than some H.G. Lewis splatter) as I'm a child of the
80's and typically prefer blood, guts, tits, and ass over the
black-and-white, "atmospheric" stuff - but I did really enjoy SPIDER
The basic story is about the remaining members of the Merrye family, and their caretaker, Bruno (played brilliantly by Lon Chaney Jr.), and their fight to stay secluded and together against the forces that would split up their "family". The Merrye's have a strange disease that causes them to act strangely (and sometimes murderously...), and some of their extended family want to cash-in on the estate of the now departed father of the family. The kids (including a VERY young Sid Haig) don't want to be separated from Bruno, and will go to any lengths to keep their little "unit" together...
SPIDER BABY is a strange, funny, touching, creepy film that really needs to be experienced as opposed to explained. The performances are all good, especially Chaney Jr., who really is "in character" in this one. Definitely nothing in the way of gore or nudity - but a quirky, interesting and entertaining film nonetheless. In fact, SPIDER BABY has piqued my interest in the films of this era, and I'll probably seek more out after having seen this. Definitely worth checking out - 8/10
I am amazed at some of the earlier comments on this board concerning
this picture. One wonders why the people who hate it with such a
passion bothered to contribute to the comments at all? This film is an
acquired taste to be sure but I happen to like movies of this sort.
Admittedly Lon Chaney did very few things in the 60's that could be called "memorable". THE HAUNTED PALACE and WITCHCRAFT are the only things that come to mind. (Let us forget about FACE OF THE SCREAMING WEREWOLF entirely and that story about Edward D. Wood directing the scene of Chaney climbing the outside of the building is probably hooey.)
Any movie that opens with Lon singing the title song (it was released as a .45 with Bobby Pickett's 'Monsters Holiday' on the "A" side)moves on to a cameo by Mantan Moreland who pops up long enough to get himself killed and which quickly segues to Chaney as surrogate patriarch to a totally insane family can't be all bad. The Merrye Family is definitely one that you would not want to live nextdoor to. I get the feeling Rhoda Penmark from THE BAD SEED would enjoy hanging around with the 2 sisters (Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner) and Ralph (Sid Haig) can cause shudders just by entering a room.
Is this movie a cult classic? Yes! Some people will not take to it right away (qv, some of the other comments on this board) but if you go into it expecting black comedy you will not be disappointed. Sure go ahead and rent this one. It may take more than one viewing but I think, if you keep an open mind, you might learn to like it.
PS: If you want to catch one of Beverly Washburn's earliest performances check out SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN. She is the little girl whose home is visited by the creatures from beneath the Earth. If you want to see more of Jill Banner, start watching reruns of 'Dragnet'.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Spider Baby is an almost perfect blend of black comedy and horror. The
movie is just so bizarre that it must be seen to be believed.
The basic story: Lon Chaney Jr. plays Bruno, the chauffeur and "caretaker" for the Merrye family. The Merrye's suffer from a rare disease that causes each member of the family to slowly degenerate mentally to the point of cannibalism. Chaney is in charge of the last three members of the inbred Merrye family and he understands what fate awaits them should the outside world discover their secret. When some distant relatives show up to take over the estate, madness ensues.
Chaney is fantastic in the role of Bruno. IMO, this may be his best performance outside of his better known Wolf Man character. His comic timing is almost perfect, but he's equally adept a the dramatic moments. There is one very emotional scene when Chaney realizes what he must do that is so well played that I almost cried along with him. It's nice to see Chaney having so much fun with one of his final roles. It's also nice to see another of my favorites, Mantan Moreland, in one of final performances. Although it's a small part, his character is necessary to set up the madness to come. But the real 'stars' of Spider Baby are the children. Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner, and Sid Haig are so incredibly bizarre and demented that I really can't say enough about how good and perfectly suited for their roles each is. Terrific performances by three young unknown actors.
There are so many wonderful and freaky scenes that going through all of them would take pages of writing. One of my favorite scenes is the dinner scene. Some really great comedic moments mixed with repulsion over what's going on. I love Chaney's line during the dinner about the full moon. Who said that Scream was so original for being a self-referential horror movie? There are only two negative things I can say about the movie. One is the performance of Karl Schanzer as Schlocker the lawyer. He just doesn't seem 'real'. My second complaint is the amount of time given to the relatives living in the basement. I would have really enjoyed seeing more of them.
If you're looking for slick, look elsewhere. SPIDER BABY is a uniquely off-kilter movie that has no pretensions to being anything other than a very twisted horror comedy. It parodies movies in general, the horror genre, and itself with equal facility. There has certainly never been another film like it. This story of the revealing of all the skeletons in the closets of the Merrye House unites Lon Chaney Jr. (in the best performance of his career), Mantan Moreland, Carol "House on Haunted Hill" Ohmart, Beverly Washburn, Sid Haig, Mary "Dementia 13" Michel, Jill Banner (17 years old when she made the film!) and others in a loony stew of murder, madness and hilarious mayhem.
There's a blase, desensitised, black-comedy sensibility to the treatment of
horror, violence and sex in this movie which not only anticipates "Night of
the Living Dead" a few years later, but also Tarantino's approach decades
later, let alone the lesser inheritors of that approach.
There are plenty of moments in this extremely strange little picture which capture the same nightmare-logic of the family banquet scene in "Texas Chainsaw Massacre", or pretty much the whole of "Eraserhead". While "Spider Baby" is funny in a lot of places, and intended to be, the choice of a hereditary neurological disorder as the source of the horror elements, rather than one of the standard horror movie devices (vampire, werewolf, mad scientist, whatever) gives the movie a case of the creeps that starts early and never goes away.
The most bizarre thing in the movie, isn't the weird members of the central family (although they're plenty weird enough to be going on with), it's how director Jack Hill does some things efficiently, some with amazingly ambitious creativity, and others with an equally mind-boggling klutziness. Blame the budget for the latter, I'd guess.
Amidst some amazing performances, (the two sisters and the brother), some blaringly cheesy ones (most of the "straight" roles), Lon Chaney Jr and Carol Ohmart stand out. Chaney, who is evidently not in tiptop physical condition for (ahem) some reason, nonetheless plays completely straight, in a strange, tender-hearted role (particularly in the black comedy context here) which is probably his best work other than "Of Mice and Men". Ohmart has a blowsier version of the strange, nasty, sexy role she played as Vincent Price's wife in "The House on Haunted Hill", and she is one of the most unusual screen presences you'll ever see. One good character part in a moderately-budgeted studio picture with a decent director would have been enough to make her more than a footnote name known exclusively to horror movie nuts.
Sustained weird atmosphere, and a movie unlike any other. Rather than a horror movie, or black comedy per se, it's an exceptionally twisted adult fairy tale. Probably not as good-hearted as "Curse of the Cat People" or "Edward Scissorhands" in the same rough ball-park, but at least as memorable as either.
"Spider Baby" is weird. It's demented. It's insane, and it's easily one
of the creepiest movies you'll ever come across. Here's one movie that
never comes up in discussions of low budget horror films, but really
should. There are virtually no effects, few 'boo' moments, instead
relying on classic methods like an intimidating house, creepy shadows
The movie has a simple plot: a couple of distant relatives and their lawyer arrive at a spooky old house with a bad reputation to take control of the estate only to find three teens with 'Merrye' syndrome, a bizarre disease named after the family caused by generations of inbreeding. When the caretaker loses control of the three siblings horrific and hilarious results follow. The buildup is excellent, including the highlight of the film, a hysterical and very creepy dinner scene with several unorthodox menu choices.
The characters are memorable. Lon Chaney Jr. is great as usual in the role of the dangerous children's caretaker, but Sid Haig easily steals the show with a bizarre performance as the spider-like and mentally disturbed Ralph, who does a lot of fun stuff over the course of this movie, like passing off cat as rabbit. The ending shot is quite excellent as well.
All in all this is pretty much the definition of cult classic. It's fun and creepy and hysterical and though it has a following it hasn't suffered from overexposure. No, it's not the best film ever made on a technical or narrative level, but it's wicked fun and it's very, very unique. Enjoy!
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