Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told Review
I can’t help but adore this movie.
"I caught a big fat bug right in my spider web and now the spider gets to give the bug a big sting. Sting! Sting! Sting! Sting! Sting!"
Arrow Video unleash an absolute gem from the genre of the degenerate gene-pool in Jack Hill's bizarre, brilliant and absolutely bonkers Spider Baby, and its arrival on UK Blu-ray is something to applaud. Subversive, insane, brutal and deeply twisted, this tale of the weird descendents of a cursed family and their efforts to thwart being ousted from their ancestral Californian mansion by greedy distant relatives, is just as funny as it is ghoulish. Made on a shoestring and showcasing one of the last performances from the great monster-man, himself, Lon Chaney Jnr., Spider Baby (aka The Liver Eaters, and Spider Baby, The Maddest Story Ever Told) totally embraces the style and mood of the traditional haunted house pictures - strangers disrupt the dark harmony of a seriously kooky household, and pay the ultimate price - but mixes it all up with a jokey, yet strangely probing and boundary pushing observation upon mental illness and inbred retardation.
Its Drive-In origins are worn with pride, and its undoubted cult status seems to permeate every single quirky frame.
The Merrye Family has suffered a terrible syndrome that has reduced the surviving members of the clan to a level of dangerously unhinged regression. They live in isolation in the family mansion up in the hills outside of Los Angeles, looked after by the dutiful family servant Bruno (Lon Chaney Jnr.), who has sworn to protect them and keep their various dark secrets safe. All that are really left of the brood are the sisters Virginia (Jill Banner) and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and their brother Ralphie (Sid Haig) … but there are definite rumblings down in the cellar, and there is certainly somebody asleep upstairs. Bruno keeps things running smoothly, however. Until a distant wing of the family suddenly shows up to claim the estate. Suddenly the greedy city-folk, Aunt Emily Howe (Carol Ohmart) and Uncle Peter Howe (Quinn Redeker), with their money-grubbing lawyer, Karl Schanzer’s shifty Mr. Schlocker (“Mr Shocker?” “No, Schlocker.”) and his very pretty assistant Ann (Mary Mitchel), are going to become unwanted guests in the maddest, sickest, most outrageous house this side of downtown Hades.
Although physically adults, the Merrye offspring have the minds of children. Virginia thinks and acts like she’s a spider. And, to her, these outsiders are just big fat juicy bugs. Elizabeth has a dark and scheming mind, and if these people have got plans for her misfit band, she’s got other ideas. Ralphie … well … Ralphie finds the arrival of these new ladies very interesting, especially the busty one in the stockings and the high-heels. And poor Bruno is going to have his work cut out trying to keep the peace. But, home is where the heart is, and he did swear a solemn oath to old Master Merrye that he’d defend the house and the family … and that he’d love the kids no matter what they did.
Its inspiration is The Old Dark House with its queer old family of serious oddballs , but cross-pollinated with the arch decadence of Southern Gothic mood, the dire delinquencies of Herschell Gordon Lewis, the bloodline curse and retributional shenanigans of Corman’s Poe adaptations, and then seasoned with an unhealthy dash of Ed Gein and Norman Bates. But if its roots are so obvious, then its influence is even more far-reaching and intriguing. The very set-up pre-empts the rotten family values of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. The image of Virginia and Elizabeth leering at victims from the shadowy stairs, or plotting and planning amid escalating dementia was lifted by Jose Ramon Larraz’ sleazy England set exploitation classic Vampyres (BD reviewed separately).
Dark haired Virginia, advancing upon hapless prey, wicked blades in hand, was a clear precedent for George Romero when he unleashed a zombified daughter upon her doomed mother with a trowel down in the farmhouse basement. Even the concept of having a bickering brother and sister arrive into a black-and-white world of familial duty at the start is immediately reminiscent of the introduction to Night of the Living Dead. An element of bestial rape leading to the victim falling head-over-heels in love with her obviously extraordinary attacker later bled into Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, when the voluptuous Madeline Kahn fell for the terrifically well-endowed monster played by Peter Boyle. Even the witty wordplay with characters’ names seems to have filtered into Brooks’ masterful spoof.
Plus, it's hard to imagine that the awesomely kaleidoscopic TV show, American Horror Story, could ever exist without it funked-up, inbred allure.
The film also latched onto the sixties trend for subverting the Nuclear Family into genre anarchy. Television had just encountered The Addams Family and The Munsters and Spider Baby, quite by chance, occupied the same niche bracket of chronicling the antics of the odd bunch that live in the spooky house at the top of the hill. Due its long-delayed “proper” release, by four years, many people assume that it was designed to copy those cherished shows, but that is not the case at all. It just fits in with monster-mayhem-amid-suburbia vibe that ran like a weird radical offshoot from the sitcoms and the soap opera. It was the sixties, and the monsters were moving into the neighbourhood.
Jack Hill ushered himself into the filmmaking game, like so many others, from under the guiding influence of Roger Corman, and even taking notes from the young Francis Ford Coppola on Dementia 13. Working on his own short The Host (which can be found as an extra on this release), and then Blood Bath and The Terror, he understood the cost-cutting, improvisational verve that was required to get his movie made. And learning from Corman’s go-getting, nothing-ventured, nothing-gained attitude, he also thought big. Thus, with such confidence, he was able to get aging Universal poster-boy Lon Chaney Jnr to take on the lead role, and procure the uber-glamourous TV star Carol Ohmart to bring some prime sex appeal and sass to the unfolding madcap drama. The sixties had allowed the genre to become more explicit and to explore darker, more mature themes. Originally entitled Cannibal Orgy, which would have gone down a storm with the industry punters glancing through the pages of Variety, Hill’s film was financed via risky real estate deals and took only twelve days to shoot, with a glorious Victorian mansion on the outskirts of LA bringing a touch of the Psycho house to the proceedings.
“It wasn’t me that did it. It was her. She was playing Spider. You should hate her!”
Although occasionally crude and clunky, the film has a wonderful aesthetic of sunny mystery, and a sublime sense of the surreal. Some of the camerawork from Hill’s buddy Alfred Taylor is actually quite inspired, even given the low-rent nature of the shoot. A lover of black and white photography, Taylor aspires to the classical look of the old Universal pictures, finding lots of elements to exploit in the dilapidated sets and around the daunting abode. His framing of the two sisters in the shadows is terrific, with them frequently paired-up like a vampirical duo looming out of the gloom, and he works well with Hill’s off-the-cuff direction.
The dinnertime sequence is a definite forerunner to how Tobe Hooper handled similar material in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in that we are inescapablyinvolved in the unsettling proceedings. Kudos must go to the comical/horrified reactions to Bruno’s “Voila!” moment of meal-reveal. And even if the day-for-night stalking of Emily through the woods gets stretched out for rather obviously decorative purposes – Carol Ohmart is flouncing through the trees in provocative stockings and suspenders – his creepy accompaniment of Schlocker’s foolish investigation down into the cobwebbed crypt of a cellar is straight out of Browning’s Dracula. Hell, there is even a shot of Ralphie climbing down the side of the house, headfirst, to spy on the undressing Emily – very akin to that famous scene of Stoker’s vampire count traversing his way down his own castle walls.
Menace is never far away. The grinning enjoyment that the Merryes have whenever they are involved in terrorising and murdering is very akin to those gurning rural sadists in Lewis’ Two Thousand Maniacs, and the ferocity of the hacking and slashing definitely takes the bloody knife from Psycho’s Norman Bates as if it were a baton-change in the genre, even if the killings are pretty much bloodless. But the most lunatic aspect of it all is that we are either willing the victims to get away, or actually goading-on the carnage that the Merryes commit. In this way, the film plays a clever rug-pulling trick on us because our moral compass is always spinning this way and that. We are simply along for the ride, and pretty much unable to be judgmental.
Taking the lead role, Lon Chaney is terrific as the doting and ever-loyal retainer, a man who made a ceaseless number of oaths to his late master. With his chauffer’s garb on, and his by-now whiskery, doughy face, he looks just like Lionel Stander’s iconic Max, the grizzled, cigar-chomping butler to Robert Wagner and Stephanie Powers in TV’s Hart to Hart. I’ve never understood why critics snipe at Chaney. He never gave less than his all to a part - even the anguished and exploited Man-Made Monster had a level of pathos and anguished dignity about his misbegotten lot – and this was the man who breathed hugely sympathetic heart and soul into the backward Lenny in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Despite his size and strength making him pretty much essential casting for anything menacing and macabre, it was his hangdog plight as the tortured Wolf Man, Larry Talbot, that directors most sought out to employ. Hill’s script even makes sure to throw the former Wolf Man a bone, as it were, when Bruno gets to satirically remark that “there’s a full moon tonight.” His jittery glances as he begins to work out just what these “relatives” really have in mind are quintessential Chaneyisms, and you can definitely see some of that old twitchy beast awakening in him. And we even get to hear a welcome howling from the hills.
“I don’t think the master would like this.”
Chaney had a ball making the picture, one of his final films. His salary was a fraction of what he normally worked for, but he became genuinely enamoured of the script for its theme of “unconditional love”. He managed to keep his drink problem under wraps, and spent his time off-set making mustard in his trailer and treating the younger cast to wonderful anecdotes. His passion for the film even extended to his performing the incredibly catchy song that plays over the animated title sequence. Bursting with playful references to vampires, werewolves, mummies, ghouls and all manner of other supernatural beasties, this is Spider Baby’s equivalent to the title song of The Blob, or those of The Munsters and The Addams Family. It is achingly addictive. Chaney even sounds like some throaty, smoke-fuelled New Orleans crooner. In fact, the more I think about it, he gives his rendition a sort of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins voodoo R&B vibe!
Hulking B-Movie bad-boy Sid Haig, his head shaved into what would become his usual bullet-bonced style, his eyes bulging, and his gangly frame contorted into all manner of pre-pounce poise, has the appearance of one of the “pinheads” from Tod Browning’s troubling masterpiece, Freaks. Seeing him kitted-out in his dinner-party attire – an ill-fitting Little Lord Fauntleroy suit – is both highly amusing and deeply embarrassing. Having regressed far more than his sisters have, we meet him at a point where he is at the borderline between being human and … well … nobody’s really too sure about what the next level for him is. I love the fact that although Virginia is the one most affiliated with spiders – she even keeps a troupe of tarantulas - it is he who perfects the stalking monstrousness of one as he rises, arachnid-like, up behind the unsuspecting kitty, or scuttling down the side of the house. Seeing him delivered via dumb-waiter is another curious highlight of distinct discomfort.
But the most fun is to be had from Quinn Redeker, who delivers marvelous value as the happy-go-lucky Uncle Peter. A familiar face from TV at the time, he seems to be channeling Dick Van Dycke into his perpetually upbeat performance, enabling the ridiculously accommodating city-boy to be never anything less than loveable. He may do some drink-driving – and his loquacious tongue-flip over Wolf Man Ann is brilliantly done – but he is possibly the nicest “hero” you could ever hope to meet. Even when trussed-up and in dire jeopardy he is more likely to laugh off his tormentors’ deeds as mere boisterousness. It’s quite an odd performance, the sort of thing that would work in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He’s as dumb as Evil Dead’s Ash, but infinitely more forgiving, though far less adaptable. His exuberant innocence is charming – it’s almost like he’s fallen into the film from one of the Jetsons’ jet-cars! A little romance with Mitchel’s monster-movie-luvvin’ legal secretary adds a further kooky dimension. Mitchel was a veteran of deranged fantasy, herself, with the great Panic in Year Zero and Dementia 13 to her credit. This plays well when she and Redeker’s Uncle Peter commence their wooing by getting all enthusiastic about various creature-features.
Totally playing to the strengths of the genre is the outstanding musical score from Ronald Stein. One of the genre’s great unsung heroes during the fifties and sixties, Stein created many wonderful scores to films that, by and large, didn’t deserve to have such fabulous embellishments bestowed upon them. He’d worked on Dementia 13 for Coppola, The Terror and The Haunted Palace for Roger Corman, and many incredibly naff atomic-age chillers like It Conquered The World, Attack of the 50 ft Woman and The Day The World Ended, but his music for Hill’s Spider Baby could well be his best and most atmospheric. Apart from the insanely catchy theme song, he plays it all straight – with lots of brooding menace and spine-tingling percussion, brass and harp, very much in the vein of Frank Skinner and Hans J. Salter and Paul Sawtell, only ramped-up a gear or two with rad new flavours of swirling mysterioso and cheeky exotica.
“Please treat the children tactfully. They’re not accustomed to strangers … and they might act wild … if encouraged.”
The best horror comedies get both elements just right. And they are very few and far between. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Carry On Screaming, Young Frankenstein, An American Werewolf in London, Return of the Living Dead – these all get it spot on, by being incredibly funny, but also totally respecting the horror of their stories and their grave situations, and playing such scenes with conviction. Spider Baby is something rather more unique in that it never loses sight of its creepiness even during the more slapstick moments. Only one sequence, the first scene after Uncle Peter’s introduction, reveals some more conventional comedy shtick in the form of the every-jittery Mantan Moreland (King of the Zombies) as the postal messenger coming to the house with the very delivery that spells doom for the family.
He should have known better, having already tangled with arachnid-obsessed ladies in the 1945 potboiler The Spider. But even here, in what turns out to be possibly the nastiest, eeriest moment in the film, Hill totally subverts all the comedy by staging his violent murder at the web and blades of a tiptoeing Virginia. However, the really neat aspect of the film, and something that really hadn’t been done beyond the more cartoonic attitudes of the TV shows (Batman/Munsters/Addams Family) is that it is always tongue-in-cheek, even during the darker aspects that ensue – those of degenerative disease, incest, rape and cannibalism. It is not a satire and it is not the domain of Three Stooges-style slapstick – despite the nominal hero’s clumsy rescue of a damsel-in-distress. It is literally a comedy of terrors.
And Hill has a couple of brilliantly suspenseful set-pieces up his sleeve. Since we know what lurks within a certain dark drawer in a bureau, a character’s unwitting search of its interior is sure to have you on the edge of your seat. And the shuddery approach of spiders both human and arachnid towards a trapped individual is undoubtedly a shuddersome prospect.
The film is also very sexy.
The two girls, Virginia and Elizabeth, flit about with enigmatic sensuality. Their charade at normal etiquette peppered with innuendo, their deadly games bordering on domination and even lesbianism. Jill Banner is a rare beauty, with a well-documented aura of dangerous sexual allure, but I find that Beverley Washburn goes even further. Her mannequin smile and the birdlike twitching of her head hint at some deeply troubling mischief. Look at her teasing the captured Ann, gripped in Ralphie’s arms, her taunting phrase of “Pretty lady!” suggestive that she won’t remain pretty for long.
Sadly Jill Banner, who became the great love of Marlon Brando, died in a terrible car crash in 1982, and although it may seem strange to say so, her performance here is a beautiful legacy to her free-spirited attitude. She lied about her age to get the part, and this adds a squirming new angle to her spidery seduction of the trapped Uncle Peter. Watch how Quinn Redeker really seems to struggle with unpleasant urges as she drapes herself over his bound form and caresses him with spidery fingers. “I like spiders,” he tries to assure her with cold, clammy restraint.
“How many times do I have to tell you? Just because something isn’t good … doesn’t mean it’s bad!”
But, for many of us, the film’s more, ahem, interesting moments come courtesy of the delectably curvaceous Carol Ohmart, whose celebrated scene sees her stalked by the sisters and then attacked and ravished by Ralphie whilst scampering about the house and the woods in her stockings, bra and see-thru negligee. That she was so game for such a protracted sequence speaks volumes about how she understood not only what the genre was about, but precisely where it was going. Hill remarks that during the shoot she was so enamoured with the story that she even enquired whether he thought it would gain Academy recognition! He maintains that she wasn’t just be “funny” either.
I love the way that you know almost immediately that you claps eyes on her that this straitlaced, snobbish city girl is going to get down to her lingerie at some point and run around screaming. American horror films really are great levelers in many respects. Hammer had their glamour-gals, of course, but the puritanical, conservative ladies would usually remained shrewish and covered-up, and they would probably retain their lives as stuck-up busybodies. American horrors would regularly expose the weak and terrified nature at their core and reduce them to knife-fodder. This would, of course, eventually give rise to the cliché of the virginal heroine. Hill wasn’t like that though. His pictures would often be left-field and strike out against conformity and convention with a liberated air. You only have to look at Foxy Brown and the genre-bending female prison exploitationers of The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage to see that.
The film’s chequered past only adds to its enigmatic aura. Although made and nominally released in 1964, the financial collapse of its backers led to it languishing on the shelf until 1968, covered, fittingly enough, in dust and cobwebs. Even then it only received a spotty distribution. But with the tenacity of most cult items, its notoriety gained vigour underground and, eventually, despite some dismal bootlegs and warped-out screenings, it was presented to a proper, official home video release. Midnight showings and a 30th Anniversary gig helped cement its credentials, although the Spider Baby cognoscenti had never left their spooky lovechild alone. New audiences may not fully appreciate its rare candor, perhaps finding it surprisingly camp for a film with such a reputation. Indeed, it continually defies being pigeonholed. Its soapish elements drift into a sideways glance at the theme of the family curse, shot through with the dry mystery of the City of Angels. Its more freakish episodes puzzle with their sheer entertainment value. When things turn nasty, it is genuinely difficult to know whether we should be giggling or shuddering. The concept of ghastly monsters is turned upon its head because we side with them. Let’s face it, the Merryes are far more personable and interesting than the interlopers.
Spider Baby is eminently rewarding, through and through. It titivates the old Universal Horror vogue and injects some spice, a heady dose of leering surrealism and the sort of taboo-prodding that only independent Drive-In quickies really had a hope of getting away with. The performances are actually very good, despite what some critics have falsely stated, and the prevailing mood is one of wild weirdness and eerie eccentricity. With an utterly superb score from Ronald Stein and many memorable moments of lurid insanity, it would be hard not to fall for its charms like that proverbial fly enticed into the parlour of the spider.
A true embodiment of the cult classic. Rare ... and undeniably infectious.
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