Exploitation guru Jack Hill’s elegantly deranged first picture “Spider Baby” (or “The Maddest Story Ever Told”!) plays just like an affectionate recapitulation of the entire history of the horror genre, from its earliest monochrome flowering in the first days of sound cinema and the heyday of the first Universal Monsters series, with its subsequent cycles and revivals during the forties and sixties; up to the shock tactics embodied by William Castle’s movie showmanship of the late fifties; and culminating in the genre’s current peak, represented at that time by Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. In that sense this quintessential slice of early sixties independent film-making thematically echoes the fictitious genetic medical condition harboured by the fantastical main characters themselves: members of the Merrye family are afflicted by a bizarre syndrome, named after them because excessive amounts of inbreeding down the family line means that they’re the only ones who’ve ever been known to display it. Merrye Syndrome results in a regressive developmental tendency that gradually affects both the mind and body of its victims, setting in at around the age of ten. It leads to sufferers regressing further and further into a state of gibbering infancy, even as they grow into physical adulthood and its attendant sexual maturity. Quoting, in the opening scene, from an official medical text book of ‘Rare and Peculiar Diseases’, Peter Howe (Quinn Redeker), one of the two survivors of the strange and outlandish events about to be relayed to the viewer in flashback form, affably explains to camera how the syndrome’s initial stages of mental and physical retardation are but the prelude to far weirder and sinister retrograde transformations of form: ‘it is believed that eventually the victims of Merrye Syndrome may even regress beyond the pre-natal level,’ he informs us; ‘reverting to a pre-human condition of savagery and cannibalism’.
Hill’s offbeat, tongue-in-cheek celebration of classic cinematic horror is itself an oddly misshapen chimera child, assembled from bits and pieces of the genre’s heritage which are then lovingly and gleefully stitched together as a series of worshipful nods to its illustrious past. But just as the apparent carefree, childlike innocence of the film’s surviving Merrye siblings Virginia, Elisabeth and Ralph, is destined to result one day in their developing the same malformed, bestial appearance and uncontrollable animalistic proclivities as their Aunt Clara and Uncle Ned – who’re forced to reside hidden away in a dank pit in the basement of the dilapidated Merrye family residence -- so the film too hints at darker edges beyond the sixties urge to revive the golden age of Universal Horror.
In his book “The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror”, critic David J. Skal records how the 1930s Universal horror classics gained a new lease of life in Sixties’ America with their syndication on network television and the emergence in the late fifties of publications such as Forrest J Ackerman’s ‘Famous Monsters of Filmland’, resulting in the gradual neutralisation and assimilation of horror icons such as Dracula and Frankenstein into mainstream culture. The year of “Spider Baby’s” original production, 1964, was also the year that ABC and CBS launched “The Addams Family” and “The Munsters” -- family-orientated TV comedy shows marinated in classic monster movie Gothic imagery. With its cookie, light hearted opening animated titles and the humorous Monster Mash-type song accompanying them, “Spider Baby” very much fits in with the general tone of this period of nostalgic reverence for a bygone era, but there are latent intimations of the iconoclastic counter cultural spirit of ‘60s indie film-making (still on the horizon in the form of George A. Romero’s “The Night of the Living Dead”) buried only just below its surface.
The way in which the film’s main narrative begins by appropriating wild-eyed Monogram Pictures supporting artist and comedian Mantan Moreland is a big hint that, while "Spider Baby" aims to mimic much of the approach and style of old black and white horror movies, it also begins to recognise their redundancy. Moreland is seen at the beginning of the film attempting to deliver a letter to the old Merrye residence from the family lawyer, giving notice that the last living adult survivors of the Merrye estate are about to arrive to claim their inheritance. Moreland was known for playing exactly the same kind of bumbling comedic African American bit parts seen here in numerous films throughout the ‘40s, such as the Charlie Chan series of second features for instance; but by the 1960s the civil rights movement had more or less put an end to his career, as his stock-in-trade of stereotypical cowardly black butt-of-the-joke characters had been politicised and were now seen as a demeaning cultural reminder of racial injustice. His brief appearance in “Spider Baby” successfully functions both as a knowing and affectionate wink at the kind of role Moreland was known for, and also a means of finally laying it to rest as the anachronism it by now had become: his scaredy-cat postman character meets a bizarre, comic yet brutal end here, after being pulled through the window of the old house’s unfurnished living room by Virginia, a dishevelled teenage wildcat with spider-like movements, who delivers her fatal ‘sting’ with two carving knives, lopping off an ear (which is then placed in a carved jewellery box as a memento) in the process!
“Spider Baby” has a plot which is even older than the Universal Horror films it pays tribute to: ‘old dark house’ narrative tropes are rife, and while the exterior of the old Merrye residence looks just like that which overlooks the Bates’ Motel in “Psycho”, the scenario, in which various relatives and associates find themselves assembled in the rundown, cobwebby pile amongst regressively odd and half-feral cousins, recalls major features of the plots of “The Cat and the Canary” and James Whale’s 1932 classic itself. The assemblage of relatives allows Hill’s movie to bring its mixing of sensibilities old and new well to the fore in the form of a cast composed of both veterans of the genre and those who would later play a big part in moulding its future. At its head lurks the commanding presence of Lon Chaney Jr. (here credited simply as Lon Chaney) appearing in one of his final screen roles as the Merryes’ devoted chauffeur Bruno. The reliable hangdog retainer has devoted his life to bringing up the surviving children of deceased patriarch Titus Merrye (whose rotting cadaver still resides, Norma Bates-like in its musty, untouched upstairs room) but the unruly siblings are by now proving increasingly to be a handful for this trusting, simple old soul, as their growing teenage bodies regress further into infant-like mischievousness combined with some increasingly psychotic tendencies brought on the by their inherited condition: Virginia (a spellbinding performance by Jill Banner) is a spider obsessed oddball with sinuous, insect-like movements and murderous inclinations. Her favourite game is playing ‘spider’, which consists of attempting to catch victims in her rope net and ‘stinging’ them with wildly slashing kitchen knives clutched in both her hands. Her slyly rebellious sister Elizabeth (former child star Beverly Washburn) is forever chaffing at the hapless Bruno’s attempts to hide the duo from the attentions of the outside world, encouraging her sister to hate their constant confinement within the gated grounds and always looking for a way to subvert their mollycoddled condition. The two look for the chance to cause havoc (hence the demise of poor Moreland in the opening moments) whenever Bruno is forced to leave them unattended while he ferries the sisters’ older but rapidly regressing brother Ralph to doctors in the city -- the Ralph character played here by Sid Haig, Jack Hill’s friend at the time and a future king of exploitation horror.
Ralph is the bridge between the now seemingly innocent days of classic black-and-white horror which are used largely to cement Hill’s stylistic approach to the genre, and the exploitation-rife future the film also anticipates in some of its content, thanks to its director’s formative training at Roger Corman’s AIP outfit. Haig’s performance is at times comic and touching but also edgy and insidiously troubling, as it hinges on a fairly faithful portrayal of a mentally handicapped adult which the script sometimes demands be played for laughs and which is also being closely associated throughout with the idea of monstrousness defining ‘the other’ in the way in which Ralph’s natural surroundings habitually consist of dark cellars and dilapidated cobwebby mansion rooms eerily lit. The character often enters his scenes by being cranked into frame from the depths of the house, with his lanky body squeezed into the dumb waiter, eyes bulging and tongue lolling in infantile regress. His condition is also tied closely to an animalistic, untamed and uncontrollable sexuality which at least one ‘victim’, later in the film, comes to find irresistible after being ostensibly raped by him! All this ‘madness’ is exercised with tongue firmly in cheek and in the spirit of the boundary pushing and iconoclasm associated with the sixties, but nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine such a portrayal pasting muster in a modern day film, unless it were a deliberately tasteless exercise in low budget exploitation such as that which the execrable Troma regularly foists upon the world.
However, this film is better-made than that: it is exquisitely acted and never looks less than gorgeous with its wonderfully rendered chiaroscuro lighting artfully concocted by cinematographer Alfred Taylor. The character of Ralph is a cinematic throwback to the inhabitants of works such as Tod Browning’s controversial MGM misfire “Freaks”, a film reviled at the time of its release in 1932 but which was beginning to be re-evaluated around the time “Spider Baby” was made for its suggestion that the carnival freaks, the deformed and the misshapen sideshow attractions who appeared in the film were more normal than its morally repugnant able bodied characters. “Spider Baby” carries the same message: tender-hearted Bruno attempts to make his odd surrogate granddaughters and grandson look as normal as possible in the company of supposedly sane visitors, while keeping the really disturbing family secret (the fact that Aunt Clara and Uncle Ned have also survived but have regressed into deformed, ape-like troglodytes kept in a pit in the basement) hidden from view when surviving relatives looking to adopt the children and inherent the family fortune arrive with little notice to stay the night and inspect the property. These relatives turn out to be urban city slicker sophisticates, almost all of whom are hugely unsympathetic and unappealing or become so during the course of the movie: grasping Emily Howe (Carol Ohmart, another horror veteran, this time from 1958’s “The House on Haunted Hill”) can barely contain her displeasure at being surrounded by this odd bunch of characters, but later reveals her hypocritical up-tightness to be the result of suppressed sexual energy: she wears garters and suspenders beneath her prim day-wear and turns into a shrieking sex-hungry harridan after getting a taste of Ralph! Family lawyer Mr. Schlocker is a ridiculous little bureaucrat played by non-actor Karl Schanzer as a bumbling Oliver Hardy, complete with toothbrush moustache, providing the movie with its complement of 1930s style humour. While Schlocker berates Bruno for failing to provide proper schooling and following the correct rules and procedures in his care of the three strange Merrye children, his secretary Ann Morris (Mary Mitchel) is making eyes at affable leading man-type Peter Howe (Quinn Redeker), brother of Emily and, despite his screwball Carry Grant persona, the only character who doesn’t even seem to notice that there is anything odd about his long lost relatives.
The interactions between these two groups of related characters are played out in a series of standard ‘comedy of manners’ scenarios involving an initially awkward meeting between Bruno and the guests, followed by his ensuing introductions to the three siblings, during which their peculiarities are made more and more manifest. The comedy stems from the awkwardness experienced by the conventional city-based relatives when they find themselves out of their comfort zone in a remote (and rather rundown looking) region of California, surrounded by freakish, child-like characters whom they have to politely interact with no matter how weird their behaviour becomes. The stand-out sequence during this stage of proceedings involves a macabre dinner scene in which Bruno and the Merrye siblings, unaccustomed to such a procedure, are forced to provide food for the newly arrived gathering. A perpetually gurning Ralph is led out for the occasion dressed in a ludicrous, ill-fitting Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit and the main course consists of a skinned and roasted cat under a silver closh that he earlier caught outside on the lawn, and odd-looking mushrooms harvested by Virginia; the ‘salad’ side dish, meanwhile, is clearly just a bowl of grass and tumble weed scavenged from the garden! The ‘polite’ guests have to gamely solider on with the inedible meal, despite Virginia offering them suspiciously slug-like garnish and the discovery that the ‘rabbit’ (i.e. someone’s pet cat) is ‘undressed’ (it till retains its innards)!
The most important thing about this lengthy sequence, though, is that it clearly foreshadows the famous dinner scene in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” which it predates by nine years. The suggestion of cannibalism (the film was originally titled “Cannibal Orgy” after all) and the generally outlandish behaviour essayed around the dinner table during the scene make it seem likely this was a primary influence on Tobe Hooper’s classic of Southern Gothic, so the film can rightfully be placed at the apex of the later trend for backwoods inbred cannibal horror. Rob Zombie’s first two films, which similarly encourage us to identify with and feel sympathy for the so-called monsters and killers rather than their victims, despite the extremities of their psychopathic homicidal impulses, definitely owe much to Jack Hill’s resurrection and extension of the themes of those 1930s pre-code horrors such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Island of Dr Moreau”, both of which dealt in bestiality, inbreeding and notions of genetic miscegenation which are in this case all kept confined within the gene pool of this one bizarre family.
While Browning’s “Freaks” pitted moral rottenness against physical deformity, Hill sets out the thesis that the ‘madness’ which draws the Merrye family closer and closer to a primitive pre-human state with each generation actually offers a release from the repressive civilising norms of modern urban living. Lon Chaney’s touching relationship with the three crazy youngsters is genuinely moving at times, allowing the film to combine the outrageously macabre with a quiet and tender sentimentality. Both Banner and Washburn are vivacious, mesmerising presences who play well alongside the veteran Chaney; and Banner in particular displays an alluring mixture of dangerous unpredictability and raw sensuality, particularly in her climactic scene when she traps Quinn Redeker in a rocking chair with her rope web and alternates between attempts to seduce or slay him.
“Spider Baby” has had a chequered history on screen and in the home viewing market. It was shelved for five years after its property surveyor producers went bankrupt with the sudden end of the property bubble that was keeping them afloat and which had financed the movie to start with. Only with the video boom of the 1980s did the film begin to find an audience for itself, although it was one based on drastically poor-quality prints pirated from 16 mm film copies which mainly succeeded in convincing Jack Hill that he had to find a way of bringing the film before the public in a form much closer to that which he had intended.
The discovery of the original 35 mm print has finally enabled that dream to become a reality and the full story of the making of the film (shot in seven days), its disappearance from view for many years and now its triumphant return in the form of the pristine HD transfer used for this Arrow Video Blu-ray release, is told elegantly and in full in the comprehensive extras package which accompanies it. The movie itself now looks fantastic, with beautiful deep blacks and excellent contrast revealing new levels of detail in the image, all of which will be a revelation to fans accustomed to previous grainy copies. This is one of Arrow Video’s dual disc editions, meaning a standard definition DVD version is also included with the set. SDH subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are included.
The extras are headed up by an excellent commentary by Hill and star Sid Haig, which provides a light summery of the circumstances surrounding Jack Hill’s early career working for Roger Corman, which is where he met the majority of the crew who came to work on “Spider Baby” and a fair percentage of the cast members as well. Both talk about their experiences on the set during the frantically paced shoot and topics include the location and discovery of the turn-of-the-century house used for the exteriors of the Merrye residence, and the natural talent of Jill Banner who got the part of Virginia Merrye only after lying about her age and turning up on set without telling anyone in her family she was playing the role. A half hour making of documentary “The Hatching of Spider Baby” contributes more detail, especially surrounding Jack Hill’s rediscovery of the original film elements, which required a little subterfuge from him in order to be able to get hold of a high quality video transfer. This also includes interviews with fan of the film Joe Dante and surviving stars such as Sid Haig, Mary Mitchel, Karl Schanzer, Quinn Redeker and Beverly Washburn.
Also included is an entertaining panel discussion held after a screening of the restored film (alongside a similarly restored copy of Herk Harvey’s “Carnival of Souls”!) at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Film-To-Film Festival and featuring Hill and stars Redeker (who seems slightly confused and discombobulated throughout) and Washburn. Also included is a touching video biography of composer Ronald Stein who is remembered by his widow Harlene Stein, Jack Hill and historian Ted Newson; “The Merrye House Revisited”, in which Hill revisits the original house used as the main location of the film in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles, in the company of filmmaker and fan Elijah Drenner; an alternative opening credit sequence with the original “Cannibal Orgy” title card; an extended scene with more dialogue during the initial meeting between The Howes, Schlocker and the Merrye family; a gallery of behind-the-scenes stills; and an original trailer.
Finally, the set also includes Jack Hill’s 20 minute student film “The Host”, which also stars Sig Haig, this time as a mercenary in a drought-ridden 18th century Mexican border town who finds himself being turned into a god by impoverished villagers – but there is a heavy price to pay for the perks that initially make the title seem attractive.
As is now the Arrow Video custom, this dual disc package also features a reversible sleeve featuring a choice of the original artwork or a newly commissioned illustration by Graham ‘Evil Dead’ Humphries, plus a collector’s booklet with a piece on the film by Stephen R. Bissette and an extensive article re-printed from FilmFax: The Magazine of Unusual Film and Television, which features interviews with cast and crew, and which is illustrated with original stills and artwork.
“Spider Baby” is a unique and beguilingly strange piece of offbeat cult cinema, and I have no hesitation in recommending this superb Arrow Video treatment of it as an essential purchase for all genre fans.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!