Why no one has ever produced a cinematic biopic treatment of the Chaney boys (Lon Sr. and Lon Jr.) is baffling. Bela Lugosi was given quite a spotlight in Ed Wood (1994), and Boris Karloff was a supporting character in Gods and Monsters (1998). Off-screen, Karloff might have made for a nice neighbor, but being the workaholic he was, his biography is dull going. Of course, Lugosi had elements of drug addiction, pathos, and parody late in life working for him. While the Chaneys lacked the European mystery of Karloff and Lugosi, there’s an aptness in these American-bred father and son icons because, as the past year has revealed, Europe has doodly-squat on ‘Murica when it comes to the banality of authentic horror.
From the slivers of information that we have received over the years through peer recollections and various articles, the Chaneys would make for one helluva psycho drama, preferably directed by someone with the sensibilities of a David Cronenberg. No definitive biography has been written about either, and cinematically there’s only a ludicrously whitewashed biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) starring James Cagney as daddy Chaney. Part of the reason for lack of a substantial biography could be the almost obsessive protectiveness of the Chaney estate, who seem to have made things consistently difficult for potential biographers. However, it is also telling that the estate has, as far I know, never disputed the more colorful biographical tidbits that have been given about their silver screen patriarchs.
There must have been something of the masochist in the elder Chaney, who went though much self-inflicted suffering for his art, including looping wires around his eye sockets and wearing false teeth so tight that shots had to be completed quickly before he started bleeding. For Quasimodo, he wore a back prosthetic so heavy that (coupled with instructions to an extra to not spare the whip in the famous beating scene) it sent Lon Sr. to the hospital for an extended stay. Apparently, he was also quite a sadist, and would lock Creighton (Lon Jr.’s birth name) in a closet after razor strap beatings for punishment. (Senior was also psychologically abusive, as when he told Junior that mommy was dead, when in fact she was quite alive).
Such heredity and abuse certainly was instrumental in composing Lon Chaney Jr. as something of a real life lycanthrope with horrific daddy issues. In assessing Jr. as a pale copy of his father, the popular and critical consensus is spot on (for once). In addition to obsessively (and vainly) trying to outdo daddy, Jr. was also a raging alcoholic, had drug problems, and was prone to a violent temper; which, according Continue reading LON CHANEY, JR.→
The son of “Z” grade western director Victor Adamson, exploitation horror director Al Adamson came by his credentials honestly. Tragically, Adamson also unintentionally secured his own cult status, in a lurid example of life imitating art, when he was brutally murdered by a contractor. Several weeks later, the director’s body was discovered buried under freshly laid cement and bathroom tile. It could have been a scene culled from one of Adamson’s movies, and has the makings of a cult film in itself.
Like his father, Al Adamson was a hack, and never put on the pretense of being anything more than that. His formula for low-grade trash was female udders and genre actors well past their tether. Adamson’s wife Regina Carrol, his version of Chesty Morgan, usually supplied the udders. Similar to the partnerships between Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi or Jack Hill and Boris Karloff, Adamson had aged horror icon Lon Chaney Jr. for two films: The Female Bunch (1971, part of which was shot on Charles Manson’s Spahn Ranch) and Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971). Both films were actually a smorgasbord of faded “B” celebrities. In Dracula vs. Frankenstein, Adamson also cast J. Carrol Naish, who had once co-starred opposite Chaney in the Universal monster mash House Of Frankenstein (1944). Vs. turned out to be the last film for both actors, and neither were more frightening than they were here, albeit not intentionally. Chaney does yet another mute Lenny variation (he barely rasped his few lines in The Female Bunch as Adamson filmed the actor happily downing vodka). Bloated, splotchy, yellowed with jaundice, and dying of throat cancer (like his father), Chaney was too ill to speak by the time of Dracula vs. Frankenstein. In contrast, Naish is wheelchair-bound and frighteningly emaciated. Two-foot dwarf Angelo Rossito (from Freaks), Russ Tamblyn (from West Side Story) Jim Davis (best known for his later role as Jock Ewing in the ‘Dallas’ TV series) and “Famous Monsters Of Filmland” founder Forrest J. Ackerman makeup the remaining cast of debatably familiar faces.
However, it is newcomer Zandor Vorkov as a Dracula-with-an-afro that one remembers the most. He has been called the “worst Dracula in cinema,” and considering the competition, that is quite an accomplishment. Unfortunately, Vorkov only made one other film, also in 1971, also for Adamson: Brain Of Blood, another “all-star extravaganza” that cast the actor as “Mohammed,” opposite Rossito and The Incredible Shrinking Man‘s Grant Williams. Although Vorkov is still living, he reportedly went into seclusion, founded a religious Continue reading AL ADAMSON’S DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971)→
“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
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.
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.
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”
Check out driveintheater.com for the history of the drive-in and a list of theaters operating near you.
Those of us old enough to remember the drive-in theater experience have some sense of nostalgia for the experience. Those who were deprived of cinema under the stars may never “get it.”
As a personal example, take my ex. Although about my age, she had either never gone to the drive-in during her youth, or if she had gone, it never sank in. Upon agreeing to my suggestion of going to see a double feature at Tibbs Drive-in, she started loading up the back of the car with chips, drinks, and snacks—much to my abject horror, because as kids, as much as we loved the movies, we could not wait to hear the announcement: “It’s intermission time, folks!” Going to the concession stand and buying kicking nachos, fresh hot popcorn, pizza with your favorite toppings, tasty cheeseburgers, crispy hot french fries, buckets of fried chicken, delicious hotdogs, mouth watering barbecue sandwiches, your favorite candy and popsicles, ice cold soft drinks, and the greasy-smelling restrooms around the corner for your convenience was all part of the experience. I tended to stick with nachos (extra jalapeños) and cheese pizza (extra, extra jalapeños). Needless to say, I politely insisted everything be put back in the pantry, because we were obligated, in spirit, to whip out the debit card, stand in long lines, and pay far more than we should for bad tasting drive-in junk food. Anything else would have spoiled the atmosphere.
We now think of cheesy horror and sci-fi films as ruling the drive-in roost. However, I recall seeing the mediocre John Wayne western, Cahill: U.S. Marshall (1973) on a double bill with the much more fun Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) at Westlake Drive-In Theater. We stayed through both features and even got to see the closing fireworks. The oddest memories I have of that night begin with mother’s very vocal fretting over how much of Caroline Munro’s cleavage my siblings and I were taking in. If Mom hadn’t made such an ado about it, I might not have even noticed. Curiously, she wasn’t at all worried about the western bloodshed, but Ms. Munro’s breasts sent her into an evangelical panic. (To be fair, however, I just lied when I speculated that I probably would not have noticed the cult star’s ample chest. I would have).
The other, perhaps even stranger memory is the sight of a fox, a few yards away, rummaging through the trash cans by the swing-set under the screen. Of course, one could never witness such magical nature at work, or a parental outburst, in the polite comfort of an air conditioned indoor theater.
Olive Film’s 60th anniversary Blu-ray edition of High Noon (1952) presents this critically lauded, still controversial western masterpiece in a Hi-Def transfer that renders all other home video versions obsolete.
The Stanley Kramer production, tightly directed by Fred Zinnemann and written by the blacklisted Carl Foreman, earned the hatred of 1950s McCarthyists, including John Wayne and Howard Hawks, who were so outraged they made Rio Bravo (1959) as a right-wing response. Wayne went further than that, teaming up with Hollywood Gossip mogul Hedda Hopper and the House Un-American Activities Committee to run Foreman out of the country. Foreman moved to England and never returned. Wayne forever boasted of forcing the writer into exile. Kramer, responding to accusations that High Noon was anti-American, tried to get Foreman’s name taken off the credits. Gary Cooper intervened on Foreman’s behalf, making Kramer’s effort unsuccessful, but Kramer had better luck forcing Foreman to sell his part of their company. So much for loyalty under pressure: ironic, given the film’s theme of civic morality.
The biggest offense of the film, for Wayne and his fellow extremist kooks, was the final shot of Will Kane supposedly dropping his marshal’s badge in the dust and stomping on it. Wayne saw symbolism aplenty, but his faulty vision was filtered through a lens of Cold War paranoia and exaggeration. Will Kane merely dropped the badge. He never stepped on it. The other offense was the portrayal of the townspeople as a greedy, self-cannibalizing lot, a hypocritical church community who argue their way out of communal (and personal) loyalty. Wayne and Hawks’ Rio Bravo depicted, in sharp contrast, a town full of old-fashioned buddy-buddy camaraderie. If Wayne and Hawks were alive today they might have rethought their depiction, because High Noon could served as an apt snapshot of contemporary division. It’s a good thing that actor/director team didn’t live to see the 21st century, though, because despite the intent behind Rio Bravo, and despite its occasional tendency towards sentimental phoniness, it remains, along with High Noon, one of the standout westerns in the genre’s greatest decade.
One cannot approach High Noon without addressing its political themes, both within the film’s text and those raised in its aftermath. Along with writer Formean, co-star Lloyd Bridges and cinematographer Floyd Crosby were also awarded with temporary blacklists until the FBI cleared them of Communist affiliations. The fifty-one year old Gary Cooper was engaged in an affair with his twenty-three year old co-star Grace Kelly (putting an end to Coop’s affair with Patricia Neal.) Kelly’s fling with the long established Republican protected her from McCarthyism’s scrutiny. Cooper was friendly with the HUAC, and testified before them (without ever naming names), but he only did what was expected of him, then returned to his top priority of resuming his romance with a future princess.
Cooper was in Europe by the time the Academy Awards Ceremony rolled around and asked Wayne to accept the award of Best Actor on his behalf, should he happen to win. Of course, he did, and the Duke did a prompt, public about-face in his acceptance speech: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m glad to see they’re giving this to a man who is not only most deserving, but has conducted himself throughout the years in our business in a manner that we can all be proud of. Coop and I have been friends hunting and fishing for more years than I like to remember. He’s one of the nicest fellows I know. And our kinship goes further than that friendship because we both fell off horses in pictures together. Now that I’m through being such a good sport about all this sportsmanship, I’m going back and find my business manager, agent, producer, and three-name writers and find out Continue reading HIGH NOON (1952)→
Due to John Wayne’s interpretation of this scene, he and fellow right wing extremist Ward Bond bullied Gary Cooper into backing out of a planned independent production company with Forman and producer Robert Lippert. [↩]
The American Film Institute lists High Noon second in its list of top ten westerns. First is John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) with Wayne. Two other films starring Wayne made the list: Red River at number five and Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) at number nine. [↩]
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 Lon Chaney, Jr. 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 Jack Hill‘s credits include Boris Karloff‘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 Bela Lugosi 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 Tod Browning 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 Sid Haig 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.
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 John Waters‘ 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.
The posthumous classification of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello erroneously places them on a level with Laurel & Hardy or The Marx Brothers. However, few, if any, of the Abbott and Costello films withstand the test of time. Their initial rendezvous with a trio of Universal monsters retains some dated charm, but little of it comes from the comedy team. Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) is essentially a vehicle for Bela Lugosi‘s Dracula parody and Lenore Aubert’s vamp. The Monster (Glenn Strange) has little to do, and Lon Chaney Jr. seems mightily uncomfortable with the surrounding juvenile antics. Even worse is Bud Westmore’s unimaginative assembly line makeup, which reduces Lugosi’s Count to baby powder and black lipstick and Lon Chaney Jr’s Larry Talbot to a rubbery lycanthrope.
La casa del terror (1960) is a south of the border imitation of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, along with about a half dozen other films, including King Kong (1933). German Valdes (aka Tin Tan) is Casimiro and, just like in A & C Meet Frankie, he is doing some work in a house of wax horrors, which currently has a real mummy display. Below the exhibit, the Professor (Yerye Beirut) is deep in mad scientist experiments (just like Boris Karloff in his Columbia movies or Lugosi at Monogram). None too surprising, the Professor has an assistant who helps his boss steal bodies and blood. When bodies are not to be found, the two extract fluids from Casimiro, which renders our hero lethargic (at least Lou Costello kept his energy level up). Narratively, having your protagonist sleep through half of the film does not seem like a sound idea. Casimiro’s gal Paquita (Yolanda Varela) doesn’t think so either. After all, she is working a full time job and beau here is one lazy sot! Perhaps the all too repeated shots of Casimiro counting sheep are not necessarily a bad device after all because when he does wake up, he breaks into comedic patter which actually makes Lou Costello look funny again. Valdes elicits more groans than laughs and he even engages in a song and dance number with Valera. YES, IT’S A MUSICAL TOO! Valera does not have to work hard at making Valdes’ musical talents look pedestrian.
Director Gilberto Martinez Solares cast Lon Chaney Jr, clearly past his prime, as a dual mummy/wolfman which, of course, were the two characters that Chaney played most often in the 40’s Universal horror cycle. Chaney is only briefly glimpsed as a mummy, and a rather well fed one at that. The make-up job is something akin to a glob of silly putty. The Professor, tired of Casimiro’s rotten blood, decides to steal the mummy for experimentation. The Doc and his assistant put the ancient Egyptian into a big Son Of Frankenstein (1939) contraption. Briefly, a Continue reading LA CASA DEL TERROR (1960) AND FACE OF THE SCREAMING WEREWOLF (1964)→
“Even a Man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolf-bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright”.
The best thing about the 1941 film is the tone-setting poem above, which was repeated at least one too many times in the original, yet it is absent from the 2010 remake except in the title. The Wolf Man seemed ripe for a remake since, of the original “horror classics,” it really wasn’t that good to begin with (the same goes for Creature from the Black Lagoon).
The 1941 film has several strikes against it, the first and foremost of which is writer Curt Siodmak, who, frankly, was a hack. The second is director George Waggner, who wasn’t really a hack but merely a competent, unimaginative commission director with no personal vision. Finally, there is “star” Lon Chaney, Jr. The younger Chaney gets picked on a lot these days and always has. He deserves it. He was an idiotic, drunken bully who had an obsessive hang-up about outdoing his father. Since Lon Sr. probably ranks with Chaplin in the silent acting department, Lon Jr., the pale, watered-down copy, did not have a chance. It’s amazing that Jr. even thought he would be able to compete. That said, Lon Jr. did have a few good character roles in his career. Damn few out of literally hundreds of films. He was quite good as the arthritic sheriff in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, as Big Sam in Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, as Spurge in Raoul Walsh’s Lion is in the Streets and Bruno in Jack Hill’s cult classic Spider Baby. Like Bela Lugosi, he was only good when he was actually being “directed.” Unlike Lugosi, however, Jr.’s signature horror role is not one of his best. That honor goes to his immortal Lenny in Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men.
Even considering his success with Lenny, Larry Talbot is out of Lon’s range. Never once does Talbot’s amorous nature register. Evelyn Anker’s repeated flirtations with the hulking, rubbery Chaney only evoke numbing disbelief. If Jr. the romantic lead is ludicrous (that side seen at its mustached worst in the execrable Inner Sanctum series), then seeing Lon’s Talbot crying on the bed inspires cringe-inducing embarrassment. Chaney’s performance as Talbot was marginally Continue reading THE WOLF MAN (1941) & THE WOLFMAN (2010)→
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