FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE...beware yon spoilers!

Apr 13, 2010

Film Club: Spider Baby

You know what people love? People love Jack Hill's Spider Baby. It's got a certain something something that appeals to the monster kid in all of us (yes, I'm speaking for all of us). It's not just a movie one admires, hates, or feels decidedly "meh" about; no, Spider Baby (1968) is a movie you want to hug. What can I say? I do so love a family of homicidal cuckoo nutsos.

The cuckoo nutsos are the Merrye clan, consisting of siblings Ralph (Sid Haig), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), and Virginia (Jill Banner). The Merrye "kids" suffer from a genetic disorder that causes mental deterioration over the course of a lifetime. They're adults but they act like children; well, children who are into rape and murder and stuff. Their exaggerated innocence belies their violent tendencies- they'll smile sweetly one moment and stab you viciously the next. Those Merryes, they're so unpredictable!

Their chauffeur and guardian Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is well aware of their condition, how it's eventually going to render the siblings feral. He keeps them tucked away from society, up in the Merrye mansion on the hill. It's not unlike the Bates residence in Psycho; it would be a nice enough home in most circumstances, but here- untended and isolated- it simply looms menacingly over everything below. It's the kind of place that haunts neighborhood kids, the kind that makes them dare one another to go knock on the door. Adults know to stay away.

Unfortunately, deliverymen must do their jobs. When one (Mantan Moreland) comes a-knockin' and "Uncle Bruno" isn't home, the Merryes are left to their own devious devices. Virginia plays her "spider game" (it involves a lot of poking with knives) and ends up with one of the delivery man's ears to keep and call her own.

Distant relatives Peter (Quinn Redeker) and Emily (Carol Ohmart) show up at the Merrye manse with a lawyer in tow, hoping to prove the children mentally unstable and seize the family residence and money. It would certainly not be a difficult task for Peter and Emily to prove their case, but unfortunately Bruno loses control of the children. Overnight, events quickly spiral out of control and the Merryes' visitors end up traumatized and/or dead. Realizing that their isolated life on the hill is no longer a possibility, Bruno does what anyone would do: he blows 'em all up, ending the Merrye Syndrome once and for all. But is it really over? Mua ha ha.

So just what is it about Spider Baby that everyone loves so much? Perhaps it's that Spider Baby is a film that's truly the sum of its parts. It works as a gothic nightmare movie- from the cobwebs in the basement to the dead daddy kept upstairs to the feral relatives living below the basement to the idiot man-child lurking in the dumb waiter, Spider Baby is downright creepy at times. There's no denying its obvious influence on films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, House of 1000 Corpses, and even Hell Night. The loving family of killers who mind their own business until you intrude on their turf have become a horror movie staple (too much so, in fact: if I never see another modern "crazed cannibal family" movie again, I'll be happy), but in the late-60s they were still a frightening novelty.

Then there's the undercurrent of eroticism running through the film. As Emily, Carol Ohmart turns in a performance that screams "broad"- and believe me, I mean that in the best possible way. Maybe it's her hair, peroxided within an inch of its life, or maybe it's her random dance in black lingerie...whatever it is, Emily is all no-nonsense, worldly-wise sex appeal.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is young Virginia, the girl who emulates and consumes bugs, captivating her victims with both a sexuality that's more deliberate than she'd have you believe, and some good old-fashioned rope. Everybody who watches Spider Baby comes away from it in love with Virginia. Yes, I'm once again speaking for everybody.

Of course, you can't talk about this film without talking about the humor. Well, you can, but you'd be neglecting a large part of its charm. The opening credits, featuring a "Monster Mash"-style theme song sung by Chaney himself, clue us in that we're going to have fun with these kooky cannibals. And we do: they crack jokes and even bizarrely mug at the camera. It all works so well thanks to the performances. Everyone dives into his or her role with complete abandon and glee; the Merryes are hilariously over-the-top, while Chaney turns in a surprisingly heartfelt performance as their kindly, long-suffering caretaker. There's an Addams Family vibe to the entire affair, and in the end we're left to wonder who's more horrifying: the sadistic, murderous family on the hill, or their greedy, square, city-dwelling relatives.

This film lingered in limbo from 1964 (its production year) 'til it was finally released in 1968. By that time, black and white films were becoming a thing of the past, as if from an era that was quickly being left behind. Spider Baby withered on the vine (or web, or what have you), a flop during its initial run. As often happens, though, it was resurrected decades later and is now one of those "cult" movies the kids go on and on about these days. I'm going to speak for everybody one last time: Spider Baby is all sorts of awesome.
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15 comments:

Liam said...

Excellent summary! You're right, it's impossible to come away from this film without some sort of affection for Virginia. She's truly amazing. Brilliant movie

Heff said...

I'll be looking for it on Dish on the "Old As Dirt" channel.

B.E. Earl said...

Did you know that Beverly Washburn (who played Elizabeth) was in an episode of The Scarecrow and Mrs. King...season 1? The subject of your latest temptation and tweet?

Yeah...I bet you did!

Stacie Ponder said...

I did not know! That's some serious kismet right there.

The Dreaded Rhubarb said...

I forgot to mention it in my review but the official site for the film is really worth looking at, if only for the art direction.

http://www.spiderbabyonline.com/

The Mike said...

Hooray for Spider-Baby! Nice write up Stacie, and good work to all!

thomwade said...

DAMMIT. I forgot to participate... I forgot that was due yesterday...next month...next month.

AE said...

I still just cherish the idea that regressing to a childlike state involves cannibalism and homicide and rape. It's such a delightfully misanthropic premise...

The Groundskeeper said...

Whoops, I thought the due date for this was the 14th, for some reason. In retrospect the 13th does make more sense, being the more triskaidekaphiliac of the two.

Oh well. I suppose I'll write about it anyway.

Stacie Ponder said...

Send me a link when you do! I posted mine a day late, so anything goes this month. WOOO!

Chris Cooke said...

Great reviews of my favourite film all round... what's next?

Mark Albright said...

Classic... I like your style

shatrajit said...

Thanks again for your kind comments. Anyone interested in obtaining a DVD of Spider Baby might like to know that the newest transfer of the director's cut is available at:
http://www.spiderbabyonline.com/
You can also purchase an autographed copy, if you like.
Cheers,
==Jack Hill

Creature said...

I missed the boat on this one because I'm living an exotic life of adventure and derring-do (i.e. eating chili out of a can in New York) but I finally had a chance to watch it. I LOVE this movie. Good pick, SP.

Anonymous said...

There is a musical version now playing at the Lyric Hyperion Theatre & Cafe in Silverlake/Los Angeles, CA until December 5, 2010.

Anyone interested should go visit www.spiderbabythemusical.com