Lon Chaney Jr.
Quinn K. Redeker
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Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told (1968)
26th Mar 09
Distant relatives unwisely try to take away their cousins' house, unaware that they are very, very mad.
Review Spider Baby, or the film that was trapped in an unfortunate purgatory for over 25 years when only substandard VHS copies were all that was available, until a dedicated print search finally yielded results in the mid 1990’s. Thank God.
This drive-in cult classic may have seemed plain strange at the time of initial release, but time has a habit of treating minor works with a favourable sheen, eventually rendering them minor classics. Spider Baby has many reasons to be hailed as such, one of which is that it features cult legend Sid Haig (Captain Spaulding from House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects) as well as an elderly Lon Chaney Jr, the original 1942 Universal Studios Wolf Man. In fact it is he who sings the theme tune which opens this weird little classic, in a bizarre late 60’s style Beat, talky style, confirming to the viewer from the outset that this is no ordinary drive-in experience. Think The Addams Family with incest and cannibalism.
Once the titles have rolled, we see Peter - a regular clean-cut nice guy - making an opening monologue about the Merrye Syndrome: a progressive degenerative disease which has only ever affected one family – the Merrye Family (funnily enough). The disease begins to take affect at about age 10, and thereafter the victim’s mental faculties essentially rot away until only primal instincts remain. It is in this final stage of the disease that the victim’s cannibalistic urges begin to surface. The older the sufferer, the worse the case. Peter then proceeds to tell us about his encounter with the family ten years prior...
So, it's an old movie and it's a flashback so as sure as night follows day, we are treated to the blurry screen process before seeing a messenger (Mantan Moreland) carrying an important telegram, looking for the Merrye house in rural Peaceville. “Anybody home?” He shouts as he finally arrives at the creaky old house. He then gets trapped in a window frame and stabbed (or “stung” - you decide) by Virgina – spider babe. Soon Bruno – family chauffeur and sole guardian arrives home with brother Ralph to find that the letter carries the worst news possible – that a distant cousin is taking legal action to steal then sell their house. But they have no time to prepare, as Aunt Emily, Uncle Peter and Mr. Schlocker (sleazy lawyer with Hitler ‘tache) are arriving to start proceedings that very same day. The worried guardian tells the children that they must be on their best behaviour for the visit, but somehow we have a feeling they won’t be. They’ve just killed a harmless messenger, so heaven knows what’s in store for nasty people who want to take away their house...
Welcome to the Merrye House. This is where outsiders become “dirty bugs” and victims to Virginia’s heinous spider ‘game’ involving 'stings' to the head (that's scissor stabbing to the rest of us). This is where the loveable Lon Chaney cleans up their mess and does his best to keep him solemn oath of family guardianship to their dying father. This is where Sid Haig (Ralph) jumps around in man-child mode, killing cats for dinner and freaking us out with his baby-like gestures, movements and expressions. This is where Uncle Ned and Aunt Martha exist mysteriously in a dark basement, hidden completely from the outside world. This is where “Daddy” is dead, dead, dead but still in his bed. Welcome to the Merrye House. You’ll never leave. Unless, that is, you’re Uncle Peter from the start of the film.
Spider Baby is an amazingly original, risk-taking little film. It possesses such a great sense of fun and has so many loveable quirky touches that it’s difficult to deny its unique, twisted sense of charm. The overall standard of acting is surprisingly good for a quickie B movie. Lon Chaney turns in a stunning performance as the loyal-to-the-death Bruno and one can’t help to give respect to the elderly actor for taking a risk with such an odd film in his twilight years. He even gets to squeeze in a joke relating to his days as Universal’s Wolf Man during the dinner scene when he says, with a tortured lycanthrope’s worried look, “There’s going to be a full moon tonight!” His performance really can’t fail to touch in some way.
Sid Haig’s first role as the hulking Bruno is hard to describe. If you’ve ever seen Ted Post’s 1970 oddity The Baby, you’re in the right area, except Haig really pulls out the comic stops and brings a creepy tone to the unfortunate soul of the grunting character. I laughed out loud when he got dressed up for dinner with the “guests” – where DID he get that hat?! An ingenious touch is the method by which he transports himself (and victims’ bodies) between floors of the house – in a manual, cranky old dumb waiter, making his entrances always memorable.
Beverly Washburn and Jill Tanner are both superb as they are sexy as Elizabeth and Virginia respectively, bouncing off each other with graceful ease and playful delivery. They’re obsessed with the word ‘hate’, always saying “Bruno’s going to hate you”, instead of reacting in any kind of normal way. Nothing is normal here.
Spider Baby is skilfully made, too. Jack Hill was a protégé of the B-movie Saviour himself, Roger Corman, and it looks like he learnt a hell of a lot about doing the best he could with everything at his disposal on this, his first film. Alfred Taylor’s cinematography is intermittently brilliant but consistently beautiful, shot in gorgeous black and white, carrying echoes of Psycho throughout.
If 81 strange minutes of stunningly original, wicked fun is what you’re in the mood for, you’ll love this nugget of B-movie gold.
Versions Attack of the Liver Eaters
Cannibal Orgy, or the Maddest Story Ever Told
Spider Baby (USA) (short title)
The Liver Eaters