Review: Spider Baby

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“Nothing is VERY bad.”

I first saw Spider Baby in the mid 1980s, where it was very much the unknown quantity on a remarkable double bill issued by eccentric video label Hikon – the other film being Reefer Madness. Seeing the film for the first time is quite the experience, possibly more so then than now, given that this was a film that was remarkably obscure – no references to it appeared in horror movie books or magazines. Soon after that, it was the subject of an essay in the influential Re/Search book Incredibly Strange Things, and from there, the cult began to grow.

But even now, with years of theatrical revivals and critical praise for the film, it’s still rather unbelievable to have a Blu-ray of the movie. Unbelievable but wonderful.

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Spider Baby began like as Cannibal Orgy (it also managed to be titled The Liver Eaters at some point) and is subtitled The Maddest Story Ever Told – quite a boast, but one the film comes close to living up to. Playing like a rather warped mix of The Addams Family and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, this highly eccentric horror comedy manages to match laughs and shocks perfectly, creating a bizarro atmosphere that even now is unlike anything else ever made.

The film tells the story of the Merrye Family, an unfortunate brood who suffer from an incurable regressive brain disease caused by in-breeding that sees them devolve into sub-human monsters over their lifetime. The only surviving members are a couple of aunts and uncles who are so far gone that they are locked in the basement, and three teenagers – the mute Ralph (an unrecognisable Sid Haig), Virginia (Jill Banner) and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), all of whom are looked after by doting chauffeur Bruno (Lon Chaney). Into this insular world come four outsiders to upset the apple cart. Emily (Carol Ohmart) is a grasping relative with designs on the Merrye estate, while her bother Peter (Quinn Redeker) is just along for the ride; smug lawyer Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) turns up with secretary Ann (Mary Mitchell) to see to the legal details. Despite Bruno’s best efforts to explain that none of this is a good idea, Emily and Schlocker are determined to take over and soon, things start to go badly wrong. After one of the most uncomfortable dinner scenes in cinema history, Ralph has his hormonal urges triggered by peeping on Emily’s fantastically gratuitous posing in lingerie, Schlocker meets a sticky end at the hands of the two girls (in a scene that moves from comic to disturbingly brutal in a heartbeat) and Virginia takes a fancy to Uncle Peter, leading to one of the creepiest, sexiest attempted seduction scenes you’ll ever see. Knowing that the demise of Schlocker will just lead to more people investigating the strange family set up and the ‘kids’ being institutionalised, Bruno is forced to drastic measures.

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The weirdness of Spider Baby is in no doubt – from the opening scene with the legendary Mantan Moreland meeting his sticky end at the hands (or, more accurately, knives) of Spider Baby Virginia, it’s obvious that this will be a very odd movie. But while the black comedy and oddball horror are what make the film so appealing, there’s a lot more going on here. The film is genuinely moving, oddly sexy and somehow stands entirely alone within cinema – there’s nothing else quite like it anywhere. Jack Hill, making his feature film directorial debut, crafts a story that is about people who are, by any normal standards, monsters (they’ve killed, after all), but then makes them seem the victims with manipulative, scheming relatives out to rob them of their birthright and expose them to the outside world. This is, essentially, a story about family – the love of people (in this case Bruno, the pseudo father figure) who will ultimately forgive all because he knows it’s not the fault of the ‘children’ and the children who want nothing more than that level of unconditional acceptance. When Virginia makes her clumsy attempt to seduce Peter, his unspoken rejection is genuinely heartbreaking, even if it is the right thing to do.

The film is full of astonishing performances and characters. Haig, as the child-like but psychotic Ralph, is incredible, one moment a ridiculous man-child squeezed into a far too small sailor suit, the next a true horror movie monster chasing and raping Emily (the off-screen rape scene – or more accurately Emily’s subsequent reaction to it – is possibly the most contentious moment in the film for modern audiences). Redeker, as the perpetually cheery Peter, is the closest we get to a ‘hero’ character, but he’s not quite right somehow – you get the impression that the Merrye Syndrome hasn’t entirely passed his side of the family by. Former pin-up girl Ohmart is impressively hissable as the film’s main villain and remarkably sexy when stripped down to her suspiciously sexy undies, while Mitchell, like Redeker, makes her potentially limp character fun and rather oddball – the pair’s conversations about old monster movies are not what you’d expect from the romantic leads and white bread heroes of a movie.

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But of course, the film belongs ultimately to Banner, Washburn and Chaney. As Virginia, Banner steals the show – she’s pouty, flirty, excitable and deranged, and you can’t take your eyes off her. Her demented ‘spider dance’ and dangerous innocence give her crazed character a genuine charm. Washburn has, rather unfairly, been overlooked by many critics over the years in comparison – Elizabeth is the more knowing of the two girls – she’s the one who tends to instigate the attacks on the ‘invaders’ – and Washburn plays her with a knowing, gleeful malevolence (one fantastic moment sees her face literally light up as she thinks of a cunning plan). The two girls together make a remarkable team who, as we see early on, are capable of switching from their sweet insincerity to murderous psychosis without warning.

But Chaney is the real revelation, if only because of the fact that familiarity with his work doesn’t even hint at the idea that he is capable of anything like this. While a beloved genre icon, he was not exactly the world’s greatest actor and by 1964 his time in the spotlight was pretty much over with his alcoholism affecting his work and his connection to a long-gone era of horror cinema reducing him to increasingly low-rent movies where he barely even tried. Somehow, all that bitterness and disillusionment seems to come together here to work in his favour. Bruno is a tired old man, angry at the modern world intruding on his family and it’s hard to imagine anyone playing the role better than Chaney – his world weary sense of resignation, his sadness and his beaten down desperation feel all too real. The scene in which he explains to Virginia and Elizabeth that there will be more and more Schlockers coming won’t leave a dry eye in the house.

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Spider Baby looks astonishing, especially in this HD director’s cut. Careful lighting and crisp photography from Alfred Taylor give the film a look that belies the low budget and almost makes you wish all movies were shot in black and white. The atmosphere is helped by Ronald Stein’s music that mixes horror and whimsy (and of course, the theme song performed by Chaney is one of the weirdest things you’ll ever hear on a horror movie soundtrack). With fantastic sets (the Merrye house is the best horror location this side of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and a sense of the bizarre that has yet to be beaten, this is an astonishing film – certainly unique and one of the genre’s finest moments. Creepy, funny, unsettling and oddly – for a film dabbling in murder, rape, necrophilia and incest – charming, this is horror cinema at its most inventive and inspired. If you only buy one Blu-ray this year, it really should be this one.

Arrow’s new release features numerous extras – Jack Hill’s short film The Host, made in 1960 and again starring Haig, is the most impressive, a moody existential drama that is well worth seeing. There’s also a thirty-minute ‘making of’, a somewhat chaotic cast and crew panel discussion from 2012, other featurettes and a commentary by Hill and Haig. Not included here is the reunion documentary with Johnny Legend, so completists might want to hold on to their DVDs.

DAVID FLINT

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