Tag Archives: Jack Hill

182. SPIDER BABY (1967)

“In pinning its narrative to a weird family’s desperation to keep its own shadow from touching the outside world, Spider Baby anticipated a score of disparate works… Regardless of what may have inspired it or what subsequent films it may have influenced, Spider Baby remains very much its own animal. Set as it is off to one side of the real world, there’s a timelessness to the film, whose freshness remained sealed in during its decades languishing in obscurity.”–Richard Harland Smith

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING, Jill Banner, Beverly Washburn, , Carol Ohmart, Quinn Redeker

PLOT: Merrye Sydrome is a “rare degenerative disorder,” the result of generational incest, which causes mental regression back to a primordial state and… cannibalism! The three Merrye children  are the last of the Merrye line, cared for by their genteel chauffeur Bruno (Lon Chaney). Together they live relatively peacefully in a dilapidated Gothic mansion, until distant relatives and a sleazy lawyer arrive.

Still from Spider Baby (1967)
BACKGROUND:

  • Although made in 1964, Spider Baby was not released until late 1967, financial difficulties being the primary delay. Director Jack Hill relates that in his first meeting with potential distributors, his entire audience bolted for the exit door within twenty minutes of the screening.
  • Originally, the film was titled Cannibal Orgy: Or, The maddest Story Ever Told, but when picked up for distribution, producer David L. Hewitt changed it to Spider Baby. To add more confusion, it was given yet another title for the drive-in circuit: The Liver Eaters.
  • Jill Banner was only 17 in this, her film debut. Following Spider Baby, Banner she was moderately active in television and, shortly before her death, she was romantically involved with Marlon Brando. Unfortunately, her life and career were cut short when she was killed by a drunk driver in 1982.
  • Hill was so proud of Spider Baby, he planned a sequel, Vampire Orgy. However, the film’s numerous post-production struggles effectively ended those plans.
  • In 2004 Spider Baby was adapted into a successful stage musical, which still plays in large cities.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Veteran character actor Mantan Moreland has a brief field day spoofing his old “spooked black man in haunted surroundings” character as he gets invited to play in Jill Banner’s chilling version of “itsy bitsy spider.” The sight of the dead postman hanging out the window, a victim caught in Virginia’s web, inspires a arched eyebrow from Lon Chaney Jr., and from us.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The weirdness of Spider Baby is guaranteed right from the opening credits, with a hoarse Chaney singing: “This cannibal orgy is strange to behold/In the Maddest Story Ever Told!” He is not exaggerating.


Jack Hill discusses Spider Baby for “Trailers from Hell”

COMMENTS:  Attempting to describe Spider Baby, critics often compare it to the Little Shop of Horrors, “The Addams Family,” and Eraserhead. Continue reading 182. SPIDER BABY (1967)

SPIDER BABY, OR THE MADDEST STORY EVER TOLD (1968)

Spider Baby has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies. Comments are closed on this post; please see the official Certified Weird entry.

When a film opens up with a raspy-voiced  ardently singing the title song, it almost comes with a guarantee of a weird trip ahead. Spider Baby (1964) does not disappoint.

Some commentators have likened Spider Baby to Eraserhead (1977), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974 ), or TV’s “the Addams Family,” while others have erroneously categorized it as “surreal.” If we have to give comparisons, we might find it to be the most idiosyncratic film in the “Old Dark House” genre (and yes, that includes Rocky Horror Picture Show). Still, even that is not adequate. Spider Baby is a maverick that defies all labels.

Writer/director ‘s credits include ‘s unfortunate Z-grade Mexican horror films House of Evil (1968), Fear Chamber (1968), Isle of the Snake People (1971), Alien Terror (1971); the women-in-prison jigglefests The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972); the Pam Grier blaxploitation vehicle Foxy Brown (1974); and Switchblade Sisters (1975-the title says it all). All of these are lucid examples of trash cinema; Spider Baby is a one-of-a-kind inbred sibling to the lot.

The casting of  Lon Chaney, Jr. is, for once, near ideal. 1930s horror icons Karloff and  each had an air of European mystery in their screen personas. 1940s horror second banana “sort of” horror icon Chaney, Jr was pure American white trash. When Universal tried to cast Chaney in the Karloff/Lugosi Euro mold, the results often ranged from laughable to cringe-inducing.

Chaney, Jr was, of course, unfavorably compared to his father and has received a lot of bad raps from critics past and present. Most of those raps are well deserved, but it was not his legendary father who proved to be the ultimate detriment to his career. It was Chaney Jr.’s role as Lennie in Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men (1939) that rendered an insurmountable yardstick performance. Chaney could never equal his Lennie, much in the same way that Lugosi could never live up to Dracula (1931).

Unfortunately, off-screen Chaney proved to be considerably more brutish than Steinbeck’s gentle giant, which helped seal his inevitable career failure. Other factors in his decline included alcoholism, drug abuse, typecasting, trying to live up to his father’s image, and (reportedly) self-loathing regarding his latent homosexuality.

Executives at Universal didn’t help. After the success of Man Made Monster (1941) and The Wolf Man (1941) Universal cast Chaney Jr. as their new horror star. Somehow the studio was oblivious to Chaney’s strengths and weaknesses. Astonishingly they cast the hulking, phlegmatic actor as a grand guignol romantic lead with a Clark Gable-like mustache in the Inner Sanctum films. Son of Dracula (1943) was an even worse case of miscasting with Chaney as the Transylvanian count who must have been living off an excessively high-calorie blood intake.

Few of Chaney’s 200 plus films are of merit, but he did have a handful of good character parts in films which knew how to use him. Spider Baby is among those, featuring his last performance of note. Chaney liked the script so much that he made an extra effort to lay off the sauce, much to Hill’s relief.

There is a touch of pathos in Chaney’s performance as the caretaker. He is close to  territory here, seeing this misfit ensemble not as inbred cannibal freaks, but as family. Spider Baby is a far better way to remember Chaney than his actual last performances: Al Adamson’s equally trashy but dreadful 1971 duo Female Bunch and Dracula vs. Frankenstein (both of which try hard to make Ed Wood look sophisticated).

Chaney is helped tremendously by his co-stars, which include  as a bald, deformed version of Carroll Bakker’s thumb-sucking Baby Doll (1956), Carol Ohmart as a well-worn, Z-grade Marilyn Monroe bitch of an aunt, and Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn as psychotic sisters.

Still from Spider Baby (1968)The Merrye family is dying out, due to inbreeding and a “rotting of the brain.” Bruno (Chaney) is the family chauffeur who acts as their guardian. While Bruno is taking Ralph (Haig, perfectly embodying his character) to the doctor, Elizabeth (Washburn) plays “itsy-bitsy spider” with the mailman (veteran African American character actor Mantan Moreland). Ralph crawls out of the limo like a serpentine chihuahua. Torment floods Bruno’s eyes upon seeing what is left of the unfortunate courier. Virginia (Banner), doing her best Baby Jane Hudson imitation, cannot wait “to tell.” “It’s not nice to hate,” Bruno reminds the family, but it turns out this was simply a case of killing the bad news messenger; the message being news that heir aunt Aunt Emily (Ohmart) will be arriving this very day to throw out the lot of them. Emily brings with her the goofy but amiable protagonist Peter (Quinn Redeker). There is even a slimy caricature of a lawyer who might pass for a cross between Adolf Hitler and ‘ father.

The Merrye house has a personality all its own, complete with rickety, ominous elevator shafts and a basement of dreaded family secrets. Alfred Taylor’s cinematography is an enormous asset, nearly masking the film’s meager budget. A perverted veggie “Last Supper” and a “don’t you dare do go there” consummation (which is, thankfully, subdued) are scenes that burn themselves into the memory.

Hill, for once not working on commission, conceived  his child as a labor of love, and his attitude infected cast and crew. As bizarre as the script and direction is, it is an inspired cast that sells it. Dismemberment, incest, cannibalism and the budding sexuality of serial killers are all carried out with inexplicable charm. Still, even with fine work by all, it is Chaney who is the twinkle in the eye of the film’s hurricane.

Definitely a contender for the List.

ALIEN TERROR (1971)

*This is the sixth and final installment of the series “Karloff’s Bizarre and Final Six Pack,” which also featured Fear Chamber, House of Evil, Curse of the Crimson Altar, Cauldron of Blood, and Isle of the Snake People.

Alien Terror (1971) (AKA) Sinister Invasion is one of the oddest of ‘s final six movies, but it’s hardly the most exciting. It begins with typical Sixties screen credit font and pseudo jazz that sounds like it was composed for period porn.

Boris is Professor Mayer, and he and his scarred (Ygor-like) assistant Isabel (Maura Monti) are playing around with some power ray thingamajig. It shoots through the roof and hits a spaceship which just happens to be flying by and looks like one of those rocket invader ships from the old Atari arcade games. You half expect this to be some kind of lost Adventures of Superman episode and sense that at any moment some green Martian is going to show up.  Alas, all that shows up is Laura (Christa Linder), the professor’s niece; she is having a fit because her uncle has just blown another hole in the roof.

The guys in the fly by UFO are not so forgiving. They realize that those Earthers possess a mighty power that could annihilate the universe. So, of course they must do something in order to stop us. Their solution is something akin to a Plan 8 from Outer Space, which makes about as much sense as Plan 9 did. One of the E.T.s, a foppy Buck Rogers type (Sergio Kleiner), steps out of  a really cool, psychedelic spaceship (complete with lava lamp things inside) and possesses serial sex murderer Thomas ( ). Why would he do that, you may ask? Well, obviously it’s the only way for an alien to stop Earthers from using their molecular power ray thingamajig (!)

Still from Alien Terror (1971)The only problem is that Thomas still has half of his own mind and he kills a few too many girls, arousing the anger of the villagers (one of the villager is even named Frankenstein. Get it?) There are some odd touches amidst an entirely nonsensical film. One of Thomas’ victims actually loves her serial killer hero, fully knowing of his psychopathic tendencies. The alien, when it’s not looking like Barry Manilow in aluminum foil, takes on the shape of a floating transparent tribble that possesses both the professor and his niece.

Karloff  has a bit of screen time in this, his last released film (he died two years before). He looks slightly better here and he is the only decent actor in the entire cast, although Beirute is an amusingly quirky non-actor. He is known–if you call it that—for this and for his briefer role inFace of the Screaming Werewolf (1966) where he was victim to ‘s rotund lycanthrope.

After it ends badly for half the cast, the professor destroys this power machine, which we on earth are to too stupid to harness (you can just hear Ed Wood yelling: “stupid! stupid! stupid!”) Alien Terror is no Invisible Ray (which wasn’t that good to begin with) but there is a certain amount of dumb fun to be found here. Just don’t ask me to tell you where exactly—the “magic” is in its overall peculiar flavor. It lacks the blatant drive-in antics of Fear Chamber (1968) and it could have used Ed Wood’s stamp of branded lunacy (!?!).

Still, there is a certain iconic aptness in Boris, like Bela Lugosi, ending his career with some of the weirdest bad move extravaganzas imaginable (or unimaginable). I think Poelzig and Werdegast would have appreciated the perverse irony.

ISLE OF THE SNAKE PEOPLE (1971)

* This is the fifth installment in the series “Karloff’s Bizarre and Final Six Pack.”

Snake People (AKA Isle Of The Snake People) feels like pure ; that is, Jack Hill the exploitation guru to whom Quentin Tarantino has built an altar. The opening narration is a duller variant of Criswell’s repetitive but puerile Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) monologue: “During Many centuries in Various parts of the world, Various diabolical rites and ceremonies have been practiced in homage to Various sinister gods who are believed to have Many supernatural powers. These rites are generally known as voodoo!”

Cue nightly voodoo ceremony. , dressed as the priest Damballah (dark goggles, black mask, top hat and cee-gar) carries a skull walking stick. Since voodoo god “Baron Samedi” shares a name with a minor Bond villain, you almost expect Live and Let Die‘s Geoffrey Holder to make an appearance. Captain Labesch (Rafael Bertrand), who does appear, is no Roger Moore. He’s what the narrator describes as an “unscrupulous adventurer taking advantage of the superstition to put a docile native girl under his power, transforming her into a zombie so she will submit to her primitive instinct.” Well, maybe he is Roger Moore in his uncanny ability to make his amorous traits look sluggish. Mexican dwarf character actor  carries a squirming rooster. He laughs maniacally. He inexplicably cries. PETA runs for cover as he decapitates the fowl. He squirts the chick’s blood over a grave site. Rise of the dead docile native girl! Captain Labesch hops into her coffin and, well, all you need to know is that he’s a necrophiliac. Now comes the 70ish pop credits with stylish jazzy font, voodoo drum music, Karloff as a demonic Col. Sanders, and the revelation that this film guest stars Tongolele (i.e., Mexican exotic dancer Yolanda Montes)!

Still from Isle of the Snake People (1971)The ubiquitous , as Anabella, is on hand as niece to Uncle Boris. She’s a bit of a missionary, wanting to rid the world of the evils of alcohol. Lt. Wilhelm (Carlos East) wants to rid the island of voodoo. Such high faultin’ proselytizing is, naturally, due for comeuppance. Tongolele is just the one to give it, too. As a buxom Elsa Lanchester, she belly dances with big snakes, spikes banana milk with venom, and intones “offer your dreams to Damballah!” as she puts the voodoo hex on Anabella. In a freakish dream sequence Anabella sucks on a snake’s head, but Lt. Wilhelm has it worse. He’s hounded by visions of serpents and his men are cannibalized by island babes.

Tongolele takes her voodoo seriously enough to cut off Captain Labesch’s supply of zombie tail, and he foolishly retaliates by playing informant. More cannibalism, more human sacrifices, and Annabella kidnapped by the voodoo snake cult!

Snake People is pure trash cinema that is helped little by Karloff’s presence. Unfortunately, his considerable health issues took even a deeper dive in this film. According to his biographers, the actor spent most of his set time reaching for the oxygen. His performance is rendered numb and he is clearly lost as he struggles to react to his co-stars. His voice is horribly dubbed in the final voodoo rite ceremony, and the film limps towards a non-finale.

Many reviewers have commented that the film is dull and incoherent. With this disparate mix of wacky plot ingredients, it would be difficult to produce an entirely dull affair, but the producers come very close to doing just that. It is minimally aided by its plot’s capricious writhing, Tongolele’s garish, cartoonish personification, and by the morbid fascination of witnessing a horror icon lethargically breathing his last. But these are mere random images, and the opening credits do a better job of conveying that.

HOUSE OF EVIL (1968)

* This is the second installment in the series “Karloff’s Bizarre and Final Six Pack.”

‘s series of Mexican films is anything but routine.  Of the entire ill-reputed group, House of Evil (1968) has something that most resembles a traditional plot.  It is orthodox only in that it is a retread of the old dark house scenario.  However, that genre is filtered through such bizarre ineptness that it would be an incredulous stretch to claim House of Evil is a film bordering on coherency.  The movie is available via that valuable distributor, Sinister Cinema.  Their brief assessment of House of Evil is telling: they describe it as simply “not bad.”

As with Fear Chamber, House was co-directed by and  and co-stars south of the border sexpot . A murdered girl has been found by local villagers and, just like another recent victim, her eyes have been torn out.  Upon hearing the news, Matthias Morteval (Karloff) is mightily upset.  His friend and doctor, Emery (Angel Espinoza), tries to simultaneously caution and calm Matthias.  Dr. Emery reminds Matthias of similar murders in Vienna, involving Matthias’ brother Hugo.  Before a painting of his late father, Matthias pulls himself together and vows to rid their garden of the evil weed that has sprung up.  As the camera pans, we see that the eyes have been cut out of the fatherly figure in the painting.

Still from House of Evil (1968)With the aid of Dr. Emery, Matthias calls all of his relatives to spend the weekend at Morhenge Mansion.  Most of the greedy relatives believe the aged Matthias is going to include them in his will.  Lucy Durant (Julissa) is Matthias’ niece and, although she is not given to avarice, she  too arrives for the weekend with her fiancee, the bland Charles (Andres Garcia), who also happens to be an inspector investigating the recent murders of young girls.

Given Karloff’s health, his portrayal of Matthias is surprisingly sprightly, and he imbues the Continue reading HOUSE OF EVIL (1968)

FEAR CHAMBER (1968)

*This is the first part of “Karloff’s Bizarre and Final Six Pack,” a series examining Karloff’s final films.

A lot of people have expressed the wish that horror icon  could have ended his career with Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968).  But Karloff, on his last leg, pushed himself through six more movies, four of which were the Mexican films for producer  and director Juan Ibinez.  This last six pack of films is, by consensus, godawful.  Why did Karloff do it?  According to his biographers, the actor said that he wanted to “die with his boots on.”  And he nearly did just that.

This series is not going to be a revisionist look at those six films.  They are awful within the accepted meaning of the word.  Several of them, however, are downright bizarre products of their time, which now might be looked at as examples of .  The films are: House of Evil (1968), Fear Chamber (1968), Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), Cauldron of Blood (1970), Isle of the Snake People (1971), and Alien Terror (1971).

Still from Fear Chamber (1968)Fear Chamber ranks as one of the weirdest of the lot, and that is saying much.  It begins with pseudo-torture of scantily clad women.  The scene is soaked in garish sixties colors and a “bleepy” soundtrack.  The various female victims are tormented by a goateed chap, wearing turban, sunglasses (in an underground cavern), white gloves, and black turtleneck.  With “all the macabre horror of  Edgar Allan Poe” these poor sixties chicks are subjected to hot coals and boiling cauldrons.

The scene shifts to the crevice of a volcano where two scientists are “worried about strange Continue reading FEAR CHAMBER (1968)

CAPSULE: MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED! (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Mark Hartley

FEATURING: Roger Corman, Eddie Romero, , Pete Tombs, , , ,  Marlene Clark, Judy Brown, R. Lee Ermey, Danny Peary,

PLOT: Documentary covering exploitation films made in the Philippines in the 1970s and 1980s, both by Filipinos and by American companies looking for cheap labor and exotic locations.

Still from Machete Maidens Unleashed!

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A few of the films mentioned (For Y’ur Height Only?) might be worthy of consideration for the List, but this documentary survey is a curiosity piece—and possibly a place to get ideas for your Netflix queue.

COMMENTS: There are two strands to Machete Maidens. One is the history of an enterprising but anarchic third-word film industry and the American carpetbaggers who flocked there to make cheap pictures, packed with war stories from those who were there. Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos (who loaned army helicopters to American filmmakers in the evenings after they’d spent the mornings strafing Islamic rebels) and notorious first lady Imelda (who allegedly ordered dead workers’ bodies to be left in the cement of the Manila Film Center so the project could be completed in time to host a film festival) remain in the background as villains throughout the entire epic. On the front lines, American filmmakers and actors relate stories of pistol-packing makeup men and cockroach-infested living conditions (at one point Sid Haig describes his accommodations by saying “I saw a rat carrying a kitten out the window”).

But as interesting as this backdrop might be, the main attraction is not the island’s political scenery, but the movies made there for export. These reflected the evolving shock aesthetic of the American drive-ins, not tropical politics. The scandalous profit margins of native filmmaker Eddie Romero’s “Blood Island” horror movies, with their cheap rubber-masked monsters menacing topless Filipino babes, were the proof-of-concept legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman needed to ship contract director Jack Hill off to the islands to produce his smash hit The Big Doll House.  This revolutionary sleaze introduced the world to the concept of women’s prisons as topless entertainment centers, and also to the enormous talents of burgeoning bust icon  Continue reading CAPSULE: MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED! (2010)

DOCUMENTARY DOUBLE FEATURE: NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE AND BLUE (2009)/AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE (2010)

This post was written in contemplation of the Juxtaposition Blogathon at Pussy Goes Grrr.

In 2008 documentarian Mark Hartley scored an unanticipated film festival hit with Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!, an examination of obscure Australian exploitation movies of the 70s and 80s.  (Striking while the iron was hot, Hartley rolled out a spiritual sequel of sorts with Machete Maidens Unleashed!, which braved the even more bizarre jungle of Filipino exploitation cinema).  2009 saw another surprise critical success in Best Worst Movie, the story of the disastrous making, and triumphant cult legacy, of the ultra-ridiculous vegetarian-goblin horror movie Troll II, which managed to score an astonishing 95% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer.  Whatever the reason (maybe its the flowering of seeds planted by Quentin Tarantino), at this moment in time mainstream critics seem eager to recognize, examine, and even embrace the pleasures of schlock.  Since the last horror/exploitation doc cycle—the duo of The American Nightmare (2000) and Mau Mau Sex Sex (2001)—came about a decade ago, it appears the time is ripe for another down-home survey of the dark and shady sides of American cinema.

Still from Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film (2009)The thesis of Nightmares in Red, White and Blue, the 2009 examination of the American horror film, is that particular social conditions and historical anxieties shape the nature of the shock genre from decade to decade.  Brian Yuzna asserts that the variety of disfigured, limbless freaks specialized in playing in the twenties were inspired by the horrors of World War I and the sights of returning veterans maimed by modern munitions.  The viewpoint that American horror is strictly linked to American angst breaks down fairly early Continue reading DOCUMENTARY DOUBLE FEATURE: NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE AND BLUE (2009)/AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE (2010)