Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Spider Baby (1968)

Who wants a drumstick?

I only ever knew Jack Hill from his Pam Grier blaxploitation films like Coffy or Foxy Brown, but a lot of horror buffs are big fans of this one; Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told. It was filmed in 1964 under the name Cannibal Orgy, but due to financial issues it sat on a shelf for several years until it was rushed out the door as the B-film in a double feature. It wasn't successful, but later found a cult following and now it's influence can be seen in any number of horror films, like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Devil's Rejects or pretty much any film featuring crazy backwoods cannibals.

The film begins with Mantan Moreland, playing the same unfortunate racist caricature he always does, delivering a letter to the Merrye household. He stops to ask directions from some children, only for their mother to rush out and pull the kids away from him, saying "If there is a Merrye house we don't know anything about it!". Although she starts to do that before he even says anything, so maybe she's just a huge racist. Eventually he finds the house, seemingly abandoned, and as he's poking around he gets his head caught in a window frame. Elizabeth, a teenage girl brandishing a couple of butcher's knives, whispers "I caught a big fat bug in my spider web" and stings him to death, by which I mean she cuts his face up and then puts his severed ear in a box to feed to her pet tarantulas.

Elizabeth is a sufferer of Merrye Syndrome, an extremely rare genetic disorder that causes people to regress mentally until they become children and eventually cannibalistic savages. Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.), the Merrye family's chauffeur, made a promise to the dying patriarch of the family that he would become the caretaker of his sole surviving heirs, Elizabeth, Virginia and Ralph. Elizabeth (Jill Banner) eats bugs and thinks she is a spider. Virginia (Beverly Washburn) is a squealing brat who is obsessed with punishing people who are "bad". Ralph (Sid Haig) is the most far gone of them all, a drooling simpleton who likes to hide in the dumbwaiter and kill cats for dinner. That's not even mentioning the older relatives they keep locked up in the basement. All they want is for people to leave them alone so they can live out their final days in peace.

That might make for a fascinating study of degenerative mental illness, but it wouldn't be a very entertaining movie, so sure enough some greedy cousins show up for their cut of the supposed Merrye fortune. These include the greedy, manipulative Emily (Carol Ohmart, from House on Haunted Hill), the Hilter-moustachioed, cigar-chomping lawyer Shlocker (Karl Schanzer), his assistant Ann (Mary Mitchel) and the aw-shucks nice-guy Peter (Quinn Redecker). After some cajoling Lon Chaney Jr. agrees to let them stay the night, and there's a great dinner scene with Sid Haig in a hilarious Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit as they dine on freshly roasted "rabbit", dubious-looking mushrooms, and weeds plucked from the gardens.

After Peter and Ann bond over horror films (including a groan-inducing wink to Chaney's role in The Wolf Man) they decide to get a drink in town, the rest turning in for the night. Emily does what anyone would do when staying the night in a spooky old house, stripping to her lacy underwear and doing a sexy dance in front of the mirror. Ralph, peeping on her from outside the window, chases her down and rapes her, but luckily she starts to like it after a while so it doesn't count. Meanwhile Shlocker snoops around the house, and when he discovers the cannibals living in a pit in the basement, Virginia decides that he is "bad" and must be punished. When Bruno realises what his children are up to he decides to steal some dynamite from the local construction site and make sure the Merrye bloodline goes out with a bang and not a whimper.

Spider Baby is difficult film to describe. It lovingly sides with outcasts and monsters, kind of like 1932's Freaks, but it doesn't try to soften them in the process. It's fun and it works as a goofy comedy (it's clear from quirky opening theme song, sung by Lon Chaney Jr. himself, that we're not meant to take it too seriously), but it's sinister and creepy throughout. The Merrye's childlike innocence and casual attitude towards rape and murder is the main source of dark humour, horror and even some pathos. They are essentially children in adults bodies, which makes it extra creepy when Virginia ties "Uncle Peter" up in her spider web and tries to seduce him.

Although Beverly Washburn almost steals the show as Virginia, the bizarre mixture of performances is really what holds the film together. The acting styles of the two sisters couldn't be more different; Banner hissing her lines in a sinister whisper and Washburn hamming it up with a childlike squeal; but somehow they work really well together. Sid Haig gives an intensely physical performance as Ralph, drooling and grunting and generally giving it his all. It's fair to say that Lon Chaney Jr. didn't have too many memorable roles in the 60s, but here he is surprisingly touching and gives maybe one of the best performances in his career. Dude was probably drunk off his ass the entire time. Schanzer is the only weak link as the slimy Schlocker, projecting a high camp that seems a bit out of place.

Technically the film looks better than it's $65K budget would suggest, and it features some stellar black-and-white photography, but there are script problems. Some segments, such as Schlocker sneaking around the house, go on for far too long and the wrap-around segments where Redecker directly addresses the audience are clumsily handled. Still, there are so many neat touches to the characters (I like the way Virginia completes a puzzle by stabbing the pieces with a knife) that it's easy to see the love and care that went into the film. The cast interviews on the DVD suggest they are surprised and baffled by the film's cult following, but for me it's pretty easy to see why it has so many fans.

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