I have been planning to write a review of the 1964/68 cult film Spider Baby for quite some time. What better time to do it than Halloween.
My first exposure to this film was in some clips that were incorporated into a Goodtimes home video compilation Horrible Horror, hosted by Zacherley. Those scenes are taken out of context make this film look like a bad proto-slasher film with goofy characters. The complete film is an underrated classic, which has only become popular in the last few years thanks to cable TV and home video.
It is interesting that this film was made in 1964, when the three most popular TV sitcoms featured Halloweenish subject manner. Spider Baby was sort of a darker and more warped cousin of Bewitched, The Addams Family and The Munsters. One of the few comedy horror films that isn't a parody or send up of other horror films.
Unfortunately, it was not released to theaters until 1968, due to the distributor filing for bankruptcy. It changed hands (and titles a few times). Originally it was called The Maddest Story Ever Told, as a parody of The Greatest Story Ever Told. At one point the film also went by Cannibal Orgy and The Liver Eaters.
The film is built around the concept of a fictional condition called Merrye Syndrome, which inflected the Merrye family. The Merrye family was rich and powerful at one point but liked to inbreed. The condition caused the members of the family to regress into childlike behavior before reverting into violent inhuman cannibals.
The last surviving members of the Merrye family are contacted by the Howes, two long lost cousins and their sleazy lawyer, Mr. Schlocker (Karl Schanzer). The cousins include Peter (Quinn Redeker), who acts like he might also by the long lost cousin of Dick Van Dyke, and Emily (Carol Ohmart), a greedy, blonde bitch. Peter also provides an introduction to the film.
The Merryes are three young adults that behave like small children. Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) is a bratty older sister who wears a party dress, Virginia (Jill Banner) pretends she is a spider and Ralph (Sid Haig) is a large, bald toddler. They are all cared for by a soft-hearted caretaker Bruno, played by Lon Chaney Junior.
The family learns of the impending visit by Emily and Peter, after Virginia kills a messenger, played by African-American comedian Mantan Moreland, while pretending to be a spider. Emily and the lawyer insist on staying the night, even though Bruno tries to persuade them to go to the inn at the nearby village. Peter, not rally wanting to be involved with Emily's effort to commit the "children" and take control of the Merrye fortune, says he will stay in town with the lawyer's attractive young secretary (Mary Mitchell).
The lawyer insist on Bruno serving dinner for Emily, Peter, the secretary and himself. Virginia gathers mushrooms and greens for a salad and Ralph kills a cat, which is roasted and served (although Bruno never tells the guest what it is).
The "children" overhear Emily and Schlocker plotting to institutionalize them and get her hands on the Merrye family fortune. Elizabeth talks Virginia into getting back at the "bad people" with a little help from the some of the other remaining Merrye relatives, who live in a boarded up room in the basement.
Spider Baby was directed and written by Jack Hill, who later directed Switchblade Sisters, Coffy and Foxy Brown. It was filmed in seven days at a mansion once owned by a former judge who wrote occult books. Whoever is responsible for the lighting, should get some recognition (I couldn't find it on IMDB). The dark and light contrast add to the atmosphere of the film. This film features a great cast. This would have to be the last great role Lon Chaney Jr. had. He appeared in other films but was not very good, due to his poor health. As Bruno, he plays a kindhearted father figure, trying to instill in the children morals and protect them from the people on the outside who would harm them.
Washburn, Banner and Haig are great as the three children. I have come to see Haig's role as Ralph in a different light recently, after watching my eighteen month old great-nephew. Haig has the mannerisms of a toddler down and incorporates them into the role. Beverly Washburn gives us this great switch toward the end of the film. She goes from being the pretty, tattletale bratty to raving psycho. I love when she screams "KILL HIM!" at the sight of the weaselly lawyer Schlocker.
Jill Banner, as Virginia, pretty much steals the show from the moment she hacks off Mantan Moreland's ear with a butcher knife. She gives Virginia both childlike and erotic qualities. She and Washburn are great in the scene where they overhear Emily's and Schlocker's plans. The way Banner answers Washburn with the phrase "I know" is creepy and humorous.
This is a movie that you have to see at least once. It is a fun experience. Some people would hate this movie, but remember what Bruno says "Children, we shouldn't hate."