“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
DIRECTED BY: Jack Hill
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.
- 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. Although each of these comparisons is somewhat appropriate, Spider Baby is one of those rare films that has a texture all its own, standing apart from anything before or after it. Less apt is the occasional tendency to label it “surrealist.” Spider Baby is pure exploitation, right down to its bullet point checklist of taboos (incest, cannibalism) and Carol Ohmart’s peek-a-boo undie tease. However, it is filtered through such original narrative and performances that the Merrye homestead becomes the quintessential Old Dark House of trash cinema. Such originality does not exclude references to other films (The Wolf Man, Psycho), Sid Haig channeling the pinhead Schlitzie from Freaks, and an inversion of Of Mice and Men with Chaney now in the George role, forced to kill his beloved family of Lennies. Elizabeth: “What’s it gonna do, Bruno?” Bruno (tearing up): “Well, it’s gonna make a big flash and go bang!” Virginia: “Oh, boy!”
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 regressed character) to the doctor, Virginia (Banner) plays “spider” with the mailman. Ralph crawls out of the limo like a serpentine chihuahua. Torment floods Bruno’s eyes upon seeing what is left of the unfortunate courier. Elizabeth (Washburn), 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.
Period critics took notice and rightly singled out stand out performances of Jill Banner and Lon Chaney. The casting of Chaney is, for once, near ideal. 1930s horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi each had an air of European mystery in their screen personae, 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. By 1964, Chaney’s alcoholism had decimated his career, but he loved the script so much that he promised to stay sober during production, much to the relief of debuting director Hill. Chaney kept his promise, delivering one of his best performances in a long, but ultimately disappointing career. Although the sodden decades have visibly taken their toll on the actor, his presence is treated augustly.
As Virginia, the girl who literally thinks she is a spider, Jill Banner gives a performance that is quirky, torrid, and utterly unpredictable: “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!” One never knows what her Virginia is going to do or say next. Elizabeth: “Spiders don’t eat other spiders.” Virginia: “Cannibal spiders do!”
Washburn, Haig, Ohmart, and Quinn Redeker (as the charmingly goofy protagonist) are among additional standouts in a uniformly excellent cast. Hill conceived Spider Baby as a labor of love, and his attitude infected the cast and crew. As bizarre as the script and direction is, an inspired ensemble 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 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.
Spider Baby proved to be a highly influential, outré cult of psycho pathos; a precursor to films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and House of 1000 Corpses (2003). Hill’s minuscule budget admirably proved no hindrance to a beautifully stylish film. For all its gruesome themes, bloodlust, and perversion, Spider Baby presents an amiable milieu, aided by Ronald Stein’s score. Perhaps the most endearing quality about Spider Baby is that Jack Hill, like Tod Browning and Charlie Chaplin, inspires his audience to identify with and root for the perennial outcast.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Any film that has Lon Chaney Jr. singing the title song has my vote for weirdest opening of any horror film, and the rest of this low-budget excursion into depravity doesn’t disappoint either.” Steven Puchalski, Shock Cinema (video)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
SPIDER BABY 1964: Free download & Streaming – Link to download Spider Baby from the Internet Archive
Spider Baby (1968) – Overview – Turner Classic Movies’ info page for Spider Baby includes rare posters and lobby cards and very extensive notes from Richard Harland Smith
Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told (1968) – Alfred Eaker’s original Spider Baby review for his “Fringe Cinema” column
DVD INFO: Home video catapulted Spider Baby from an obscure lost classic to bona fide cult hit. As a public domain film, it has been released on DVD many times, including editions by Sinister Cinema, Image Entertainment, and Dark Sky. The latter is by far the most impressive, a “Special Edition” (buy) with the valuable documentaries “The Hatching of Spider Baby,” “Spider Stravinsky” (covering the work of composer Ronald Stein), and “The Merrye House Revisited,” along with an extended scene and a stills gallery. Director Hill and co-star Haig provide a commentary track.
Spider Baby has only been released on Blu-ray in the U.K.