Friday, 15 May 2009

Spider Baby

1968
Dir. Jack Hill

AKA The Maddest Story Ever Told
Cannibal Orgy

After the death of their father, the three Merrye siblings Virginia (Jill Banner), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and Ralph (Sid Haig) find themselves in the care of their ailing butler Bruno (Lon Chaney Jnr.).

Suffering from a hereditary mental illness as a direct result of an overabundance of inbreeding, dubbed the Merrye Syndrome - due to its exclusivity to their family line - the three siblings are undergoing a startling mental regression, and all have the minds of children. They spend their days playing macabre games around their crumbling mansion as Bruno tries, to varying degrees of success, to keep their existence hidden from the outside world. Those unfortunate enough to stumble onto the grounds of the secluded house meet with gruesome deaths at the hands of the children, who just want to ‘play.’

Their solitary lives are impinged upon when distant relatives Emily (Carol Ohmart) and Peter (Quinn Redeker) come to visit with their lawyer (Karl Schanzer) and his secretary Ann (Mary Mitchel) in tow. Emily has her sights firmly set on inheriting the family property and evicting the unconventional Merrye clan. As I’m sure you can guess, things do not go according to plan and soon all hell breaks loose as the increasingly twisted story lunges towards its suitably nasty conclusion.

Initially titled Cannibal Orgy, Spider Baby was filmed by Jack Hill (apprentice of Roger Corman and director of various cult classics such as Coffy and Foxy Brown, and major influence on Quentin Tarantino to boot!) in 1964 but not released until 1968 due to financial problems. The film was funded with real estate profits and when Californian housing sales plummeted, distribution was put on hold. Over the years the film has built up a cult status, in part due to its lack of distribution and also due to its highly scandalous subject matter…



Shot a couple of years after Psycho, the film makes many references to Hitchcock’s classic and seems to have deeply inspired Tobe Hooper, too. Predating The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hooper’s film shares a number of similarities with Hill’s, in its depiction of an ostracised and utterly unhinged family unit existing on the periphery of society: monsters as much as victims. While nowhere near as devastatingly brutal or distressing as Chainsaw, Spider Baby still packs quite a punch of its own and has a few nasty surprises up its schlocky sleeve.

The highly kitsch and grotesque opening animated credits, accompanied by a theme sung performed by Lon Chaney Jnr., set the tone immediately and resemble something akin to The Munsters or The Addams Family – indeed Spider Baby at times plays out like a darker and more warped version of these oddball TV shows. Infantile, but degradedly so.

The opening scene features an unfortunate mailman (Mantan Moreland) who meets his bloody end when Virginia traps him in a window and insists he play ‘spider’ with her. As ludicrous as this plays out (the sight of the mailman’s legs kicking wildly from the window recall something you’d expect from a slapstick comedy), it is still quite unnerving in its, pardon the pun, execution. The ‘adults as children’ element echoes Dennis Potter’s quietly disturbing Blue Remembered Hills, and the absurdly comical sight of Virginia’s victim’s legs hanging from the window contrast nicely with her violent and unexpected assault.



There is much made about a highway being built quite close to the house and it will either bring them more unwanted visitors, or serve to further cut them off from civilisation and ‘normality.’ This idea carefully highlights how they have been left behind in the dust of the outside world as it progresses without them, and also provides the means for the explosive finale.

Obviously shot on a minimal budget, and despite the fact that various crew members can be glimpsed in reflections or ducking out of shot, the film still looks remarkably provocative. The version I watched was the Dark Sky Special Edition and this version really highlights the stunning cinematography courtesy of Alfred Taylor. Taylor utilised a complex series of mirrors and sunlight to obtain the film’s moody look. There is an overwhelming sense of depth to many of the shots and the soft focus used in certain senses adds to the overall nightmarish feel. There is a lot of day for night photography, but the scenes shot in the genuine lack of sunlight are overflowing with startling shadows and eerie lighting.

Spider Baby displays a knack for in-jokes and a playful self-referential nature. Peter and Ann discuss their love of horror movies, particularly The Wolf Man (which starred Lon Chaney Jnr.) and The Mummy. Before he is murdered by Virginia and Elizabeth, the lawyer is cornered in the cellar and exclaims ‘Now look here! This has gone far beyond the bounds of prudence and good taste.’ This remark seems irresistibly aimed at the viewer and the character appears to be appealing to our craving for freakish cinematic exploits.
Well, Amen, to that! What did you think a film boasting incest, cannibalism, rape, mental retardation and murder would do?!

One scene in particular is charged with a veritable and disturbing sexual undercurrent. Eventually relenting and agreeing to play ‘spider’ with Virginia, her slightly inebriated Uncle Peter is trussed up in a net and fastened to a chair. Soon sobering up, he writhes uncomfortably under her coquettish and down-right inappropriate advances as she veers from sultry seductress to ‘sweet little girl’ with alarming ease. Jill Banner’s performance in this scene is disarmingly raw and unflinching, and chances are you might be as gobsmacked and uncomfortable as Peter is. As Virginia, Banner is alluring, mysterious, enigmatic and completely compelling.



As monstrous as this brood are, they are strangely humanised and even allowed quieter moments in which they reflect, as much as ‘children’ can reflect, on their dire situation. They are portrayed as victims as much as monsters. Quite a touching scene features Bruno comforting the two girls after they have killed the lawyer. Chaney manages to imbue Bruno with such sadness and melancholy. This may be due in part to the fact that the tragic actor was drinking heavily at the time and was extremely ill. He appears blurry eyed and constantly on the verge of tears: his watery orbs tell a thousand untold and devastatingly sad stories.

All the actors display an undeniably chemistry. As the severely infantile Ralph, Sid Haig is both disturbing and comical. The stiff-upper-lipped ‘outsiders’ more than hold their own too. Carol Ohmart plays a similarly devious character as the one she portrayed in House on Haunted Hill. While one chase scene featuring her flouncing around in her underwear is thoroughly ridiculous, Ohmart’s deranged performance remains grounded. Well, as grounded as you’d expect in such an over the top exploitation flick.

As mentioned, there are nods to Psycho aplenty – the various stuffed animals that pepper the ominous house, the dead parental figure still tucked up in bed and referred to as though he were just sleeping, and of course, the ‘weird house on the hill’ and faded grandeur of the appearance of their home. The unhinged ‘Californian’ Gothic of Psycho is ever present in Spider Baby. A weird atmosphere presides over proceedings and remains stifling and provocative throughout. The bizarre and downright quirky sense of humour is deliberately over the top, too. While the film may same tame compared to today’s standards, it still manages to worm its way under your skin and squirm there for some time.



An unforgettable, devilishly irreverent and morbidly humorous film about the ultimate dysfunctional family, cannibalism, incest, mental regression and unconditional love! Check it out, baby.

3 comments:

Matt-suzaka said...

I'm a big Jack Hill fan and love pretty much all of his films.

I saw Spider Baby not too long ago and loved it for a lot of the same reasons you mentioned here. I knew I was in for something entertaining right from the opening credits and even with the dark humor, the film has a strange creeped out feeling throughout it.

I actually watched it on instant watch and it looked great...I do however plan on picking up a copy of Spider Baby on DVD eventually since I enjoyed it so much.

Wings said...

The first time I saw this movie, I was expecting... I don't know what I was expecting, but this threw me.

I had to re-watch it when it aired again, and I fell in love with it that second time.

It is a great little movie, showing that true heart (and some talent) doesn't need a big budget.

Love your blog, gonna 'follow' you.

James Gracey said...

Matt - I really didn't know what to expect with this... I was pleasantly surprised though. its all so chaotic and warped. I've not seen many of Jack Hill's other films, aside from Coffy and Foxy Brown (it kind of goes without saying that i love them), but will try to check out some more of his stuff.

Wings - i too was thrown! i nonetheless found myself completely entranced by Spider Baby's manic and quirky charm. thanks for stopping by and for your kind words!

James