“This cannibal orgy is strange to behold
In the maddest story ever told.”
So croons original Wolf Man Lon Chaney Jr in the monochrome, Sixties sitcom style opening credits.
Nothing effortless sums up the sheer, cosy strangeness of Jack Hill (Foxy Brown, Coffy)’s 1968 exploitation gem Spider Baby, originally released as Spider Baby Or, The Maddest Story Ever Told without a hint of self-aggrandisement, quite like that.
Like an episode of The Munsters seguing neatly into American Horror Story, grasping snob Emily Howe (The House On The Haunted Hill’s Carol Ohmart), her affable Dick van Dyke-alike brother Peter (Quinn Redeker) cigar-chewing jerk lawyer Schloker (Dementia 13‘s Karl Schanzer) and his flirty assistant Ann Morris (Dementia 13‘s Mary Mitchell) rolling up to the Merrye family’s ancestral home, to claim it on behalf of the Howes (mainly Emily, as Peter doesn’t seem too fussed).
The Merrye children, meanwhile, all regressive products of inbreeding, are being cared for by avuncular chauffeur Bruno (Chaney), who keeps them away from people and when need be, covers up their murders.
Ralph (House Of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects‘ Sid Haig) is a leering pinhead, straight from Tod Browning’s Freaks who hunts cats for dinner, moves up and down the house by dumb-waiter. Blonde Elizabeth (former child star Beverly Washburn) is sweet, childlike and manipulative, while dark haired Virginia (Jill Banner) is the titular Spider Baby, hypnotic and fond on ‘playing spider’, stinging her victims with a kitchen knife in each hand.
In the cellar, meanwhile, is an uncle and a couple of aunts who have gone completely feral, feasting on the dead that their nieces and nephew leave behind. One has a completely furry face, in a nod to Chaney’s best known role – the first of many, followed by Ann and Peter’s recurring conversation about the Universal monster movies.
As the two distant cousins and their legal aides make themselves known and invite themselves in for dinner and a night’s rest, Bruno’s shaky hold on the chaos deteriorates, starting with a terrifically odd family dinner in which the guests are served up cat, potentially poisonous mushrooms, grass, and inky black goo full of bugs.
There’s a nice aside about their vegetarianism to remind you it’s the Sixties (“Good God, man! Why?”). Ann and Peter make their excuses and head for a local inn, while the girls off the pushy lawyer when they catch him snooping around, and from that point there’s no putting the family skeletons back in the closet.
A true lost classic, denied a UK release and only now making its worldwide HD debut, Spider Baby‘s reputation for weirdness alone ensured the film a cult following – horror fans want nothing more than the films they cannot have, the era of the Video Nasty and the Chucky moral panic taught us that.
Spider Baby was completed in 1963, but only released in 1968 due to a tangled web of bankruptcy. Marketed poorly on release, it performed poorly too, and hasn’t been treated all that much better since – until the 2007 Region 1 Directors Cut, and now this Arrow release with an all new conversion straight from the 35mm check print, and overseen by the original director.
Spider Baby is like a lot of films, but no one film is entirely like Spider Baby. There’s shades of Psycho in the ghoulish reveals, the gothic house on the hill and the plunging daggers, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? in the vicious torment and arch melodrama, a spot of Night Of The Living Dead in the Peter/Emily goading (when they first approach the Merrye house, it’s all a bit “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”), and of course Herschell Gordon Lewis’ gruesome and sadistic Blood Feast in terms of pre-empting the cannibal holocaust that would reach its buzzing, screeching crescendo with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
The cast are magnificent, especially Chaney and Banner. The grand old man of US horror puts in an incredibly bittersweet performance as a man under the strain of his impossible promise to keep the three children from murder and cannibalism – as one of his final roles, its a fitting send off to the father of monster movies to watch the surrogate father of these particular monsters says his goodbyes.
Banner meanwhile is captivating, both sexual and threatening, she dominates the screen with a malevolent, murderous force that’s impossible to tear your eyes away from – confusing your feelings as much as she confuses the bound Uncle Peter, plonking herself on his lap and stroking his face: “Do you like the pretty lady? Do you like me?”
For a comedy, it’s far more genuinely disturbing and morally ambiguous than it has any right to be – with implied rape and necrophilia at odds with the cheery picket fence framing narration from Quinn Redeker’s Peter and the opening Monster Mash homage from Chaney Jr. But it works perfectly, simply because it doesn’t work.
Spider Baby builds its own ghoulish internal logic and rules at odds with expectations and then pulls you into its macabre world just as effectively as one of the Merrye’s hapless victims.