Spider Baby (1968)

Director: Jack Hill

Stars: Lon Chaney Jr, Carol Ohmart, Quinn K. Redeker, Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner, Sid Haig.

Out Monday 17th June 2013

Arrow Video are about to re-release Jack Hill’s horror class, Spider Baby, on dual format DVD and Blu-Ray. In the film (To quote from IMBD) “A caretaker devotes himself to three demented adults after their father’s death”. Ian Johnston got his hands on a pre-release copy, here’s his review.

Spider Baby, also entitled at various junctures The Liver Eaters, Cannibal Orgy or (most accurately) The Maddest Story Ever Told, defines the term cult movie. A truly original and bizarre noir comedy horror picture, Spider Baby at times resembles, as Jim Morton accurately opined in the splendid 1986 RE Search book Incredibly Strange Films, “a television sitcom directed by Luis Bunuel.” Made in 1964, according to director and writer Jack Hill for $65,000, the black and white Spider Baby was filmed over just twelve days. Briefly released in 1968, then ’lost’ until the advent of the home video age, featuring an incredible cast, led by Universal monster star Lon Chaney Jr, The Wolf Man (1941), in arguably the finest performance of his career, Spider Baby is a highly enjoyable subversive romp from start to finish.

The picture opens with a wonderful child-like credit sequence and a terrific mock spooky rock ‘n’ roll theme tune (the score by Ronald Stein is magnificent throughout), emoted rather than sung by Chaney in an unforgettable fashion, warning that “we better beware, there is a full moon out tonight” and that we are about to witness “the maddest story ever told.” This is definitely a song that The Cramps should have covered and undoubtedly adored.

A narrator, as yet unidentified, tells of three orphaned siblings of one Titus W. Merrye, who suffer from “Merrye Syndrome” – a rare genetic condition that causes them to mentally, socially, and physically regress backwards down the evolutionary scale, eventually into a state of savagery and cannibalism. Yet they retain the physical strength, a certain knowingness and sexual maturity of adults. Elizabeth (Elizabeth Washburn), Virginia (the remarkable Jill Banner), and the oldest and most regressed ‘child’ Ralph (a bald, crazed looking and totally convincing Sid Haig) are cared by the faithful family chauffeur Bruno (Chaney Jr), who made a solemn oath to Titus Merrye that he watch over the ‘children’ forever.

Unfortunate deliveryman Mantan Moreland (the memorable chauffeur Birmingham Brown in the 1940s Charlie Chan films) has a grim encounter with Virginia, who is playing a deadly game of ‘spider’. In the letter Moreland was delivering, Bruno learns that Peter (Quinn Redeker) and Emily Howe (Carol Ohmart, former beauty queen, muted Paramount replacement for Marilyn Monroe and star of William Castle’s 1959 B-picture, The House On Haunted Hill), two distant cousins of Titus Merrye, together with their lawyer Schlocker (Karl Schanzer, a real private detective turned actor, of sorts) and secretary Ann (Mary Mitchel) will be arriving that very day.

 

When they arrive it is clear that repressed nymphomaniac Emily Howe, added by the insufferable, rapacious capitalist Schlocker, wants to make a claim for the Merrie inheritance, while the affable Peter is just following in his sister’s wake, eager to meet new people, no matter how odd they, and they way they live, appears to be. The fate of the family seems set. The visitors insist on staying the night but there is a dinner for everyone to attend in the mansion and, as Bruno points out, there is a full moon on the rise….

Featuring detailed art direction by Ray Story and the stunning cinematography of Alfred Taylor (even more astonishing given the meagre budget and shooting schedule) that gives Hill’s humorous, self-reflective script (numerous references are made to other horror pictures, especially The Wolf Man) a suitably sharp edge, Spider Baby gleefully subvert the then clean-cut image of the all-American family and copious bourgeois conventions. Simultaneously, Spider Baby elicits real affection for the ‘outsider’ family’ and the unconditional love of their world-weary protector, Chaney Jr and the radical solution he devises to end their plight. Spider Baby is not simply a ‘camp’ diversion, but a professionally executed film that withstands comparisons with the work of surrealist visionaries. It has knowing references to Hitchcock’s Psycho (the stuffed animals that are festooned around the house, the discovery of the final resting place of Titus Merrye), but also anticipates The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes and the films of David Lynch.

Hill would go on to make numerous successful B-movie cult pictures, including Pit Stop (1969, also with Beverly Washburn), Switchblade Sisters (1975) and four 70s pictures with Blaxploitation queen Pam Grier (including Coffy and Foxy Brown), but Spider Baby endures as his preeminent work: an utterly distinctive offering of gallows humour and the ghastly.

As befitting its solid gold cult film status, this superb Arrow Spider Baby Blu-ray/DVD dual edition comes packed with a whole host of ‘Jack Hill approved’ special features. There is a frank, informative and amusing audio commentary featuring Jack Hill and his perennial star Sid Haig and a filmed panel discussion from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences “FILM-TO-FILM” Festival, recorded September 2012, featuring Jack Hill and stars Quinn K. Redeker and Beverly Washburn.

There is also a fine 30 minute documentary, The Hatching of Spider Baby, featuring interviews with Jack Hill, Sid Haig, star Mary Mitchel, Spider Baby devotee director Joe ‘Gremlins’ Dante and more on the making of the film, coupled with Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein, a short overview of the brilliant career of the composer of The Terror and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and countless other pictures, remembered by Harlene Stein, Jack Hill and Joe Dante.

In the brief but intriguing The Merrye House Revisited Jack Hill visits the original house that was used as the main location in the film. Located in Highland Park, Los Angeles, the spooky, hill-top property (listed on the US National Register of Historic Places) dates back to 1887. It is a further testament to the consummate skill of cinematographer Alfred Taylor that in the movie none of the surrounding houses on crowed El Mio Street, or the nearby urban sprawl of Los Angeles, are perceptible.

The package also contains an alternate opening title sequence, an extended scene, a trailer, a gallery of revealing behind-the-scenes images, and a reversible sleeve featuring the original poster and marvellous newly commissioned artwork by the gifted artist Graham ‘Evil Dead’ Humphreys. There is also a collector’s booklet featuring writing on the film by artist and writer Stephen R. Bissette, and an extensive article re-printed from FilmFax: The Magazine of Unusual Film and Television featuring interviews with the cast and crew, illustrated with original stills and artwork.

Perhaps most fascinating of all the extras is The Host (1960), Jack Hill’s early 30 minute short UCLA student film, featuring Sid Haig in his first starring role. Heavily drawing upon the writing of anthropologist Sir J.G. Frazer in The Golden Bough, his seminal 1890 qualified study of myth cults and religion, Hill’s The Host features Haig as ‘The Fugitive’, a wanderer in an arid California wasteland, who discovers a small, remote village. Here he encounters an attractive, mysterious young girl, ‘The Priestess’ (Sharon Bercutt), but is suddenly shot at by ‘The Spaniard’ (Joseph Hanwright), a solitary gunman with an old-fashioned musket. The girl informs Haig that her people are experiencing a famine and that the Spaniard is responsible. The Spaniard is their ‘deity’ but he has failed to make their crops grow and now he must be sacrificed to guarantee further fertility for the area. Remarkably, the final scenes of The Host, in which Haig assumes by force the mantel of the village fecundity ‘god’, can be directly compared to the grand finale of Apocalypse Now (1979) – made by Hill’s old friend, fellow UCLA student and co-worker on several pictures, Francis Ford Coppola – in which Martin Sheen slays Brando’s Kurtz. Among the books that Kurtz is seen to be reading in his heavily fortified compound in Apocalypse Now is an old copy of Frazer’s The Golden Bough.


John Milius had written the script for Apocalypse Now but Coppola found his ending unsatisfying, so he had fashioned a new conclusion while filming in the Philippines. In Calum Waddell’s 2009 book Jack Hill: The Exploitation and Blaxploitation Master, the director states that Steve Burum, the cameraman on The Host, and a second unit cameraman on Apocalypse Now, had noticed the similarity and had joked that they were remaking Hill’s student film. Coppola’s reaction is not recorded.

With an impressive high-definition transfer of the picture (available in the UK for the very first time), this edition of Spider Baby is a must for lovers of haunting Midnight Movies. Halloween has definitely arrived early this year.

Spider Baby is released on Monday 17th June 2013. The IMDB page for the film can be found HERE.

All words by Ian Johnston. More of Ian’s reviews on Louder Than War can be found in his author’s archive.

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