Spider Baby (aka The Maddest Story Ever Told) is the tragic tale of a bizarre disease called the Merrye Syndrome and the helpless children inflicted with the sickness. In essence, the syndrome makes children revert starting at age ten, backward, to even a pre-natal syndrome, becoming savages.
The three Merrye children, Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), Virginia (Jill Banner) and Ralph (“The Devil’s Rejects”’ Sid Haig), suffer from the bizarre symptoms of the syndrome. They are under the care of Bruno (Chaney), the family chauffer. Bruno is content, caring for the children in their family estate safely distant from the rest of the town. Soon, their distant and protected world is infiltrated by relatives seeking to visit with their lost family members.
Peter (Redeker, who co-wrote “The Deer Hunter”) and Emily (“House on Haunted Hill”’s Carol Ohmart) Howe come to join the family, creating new tension and terror in the lives of the Merrye clan. It’s obvious that Peter’s a dead-beat and Emily is a money-chasing thrill seeker. The pair is joined by their lawyer, Schlocker (Karl Schanzer), as they investigate their new home.
Schlocker’s hunger for money, coupled with the Howe’s sweet and sour take on the children, creates an instant air of contention. While Bruno attempts to provide the hospitality, the current of two different worlds cuts like a knife between the Merrye clan and their newfound relatives.
Though the industry has become dependent on children as a plot device to cause fear and terror, “Spider Baby” does it the right way, even before “The Exorcist” took the proverbial ball and ran with it. The Merrye children each harbor their own degree of psychotic intent, with Virginia’s naïve brutality leading the way. It also sets the precedence of the open ending, paving the way for a mysterious sequel.
Chaney is fabulous as the collective conscience of the Merrye clan. He alone possesses the translation between the demented children and the gravity of their actions to the outside world.
The movie is consistently punctuated with a fantastic balance of eeriness and comedy, thanks to the original music by Ronald Stein. Stein, who died in 1988 of pancreatic cancer, also scored films like Dementia 13, The Little Shop of Horrors, and Undead Girl.
The film is self-aware, with the script even asking Cheney to recite a line from his most famous role as 1941’s “The Wolfman”. It has alternatively been titled “The Maddest Story Ever Told” and “Liver Eaters”. The 2007 release includes several extras, including the alternate opening sequence, extended scene and still gallery. There is a full feature-length commentary with Jack Hill and Sid Haig. In addition, there are several featurettes including “The Hatching of Spider Baby”, “Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein”, and “The Merrye House Revisited”.
For fans of the genre, “Spider Baby” serves as a case study, a single film that provides launching grounds for several industry trends. The use of children as a plot device, the open-ended finale’ and the mixture of self-aware comedy in a horror film are all evident in this brilliant work by writer/director Jack Hill.