Spider Baby

V I D E O   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

In RE/Search's Incredibly Strange Films (an essential book for lovers of strange cinema), Jim Morton describes Spider Baby as "a television sitcom directed by Luis Buñuel." That's an apt description, for Spider Baby does indeed have the same efficient, functional lighting and camerawork as classic sitcoms from the 1960s. This visual style has been fused to a twisted sensibility, giving us central characters who suffer a degenerative condition that causes them to regress mentally. As we watch these characters--at once, they're both na´ve and murderous--the movie's visual style stands in stark contrast to the subject matter. However, the complacency of the visuals works in the movie's favor, for it suggests a darker side to the blissfully secure visions offered by television comedies.

Spider Baby tells the story of the Merrye family. Following Titus Merrye's deathbed request, the family chauffeur, named Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr.), takes care of the children. But these children are no normal brood. They all suffer from an extremely rare condition called the Merrye Syndrome that causes their brains to deteriorate as they grow older. As we learn in the movie's introduction, victims of the Merrye Syndrome suffer from "progressive age regression" that may "progress beyond the pre-natal level--reverting to a pre-human condition of savagery and cannibalism."

Older brother Ralph (Sid Haig) is the farthest gone. He's a drooling, leering imbecile who dresses in Buster Brown outfits and enjoys window peeping. He likes to hide in the house's dumb waiter. Virginia (Jill Banner) loves spiders. Her character is responsible for the movie's title, although the movie isn't solely hers. She eats small bugs and occasionally casts her net over larger prey--before descending with carving knives. Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) mostly spends her time admonishing Virginia--in a highly theatrical voice. Uncle Ned and Aunt Martha live in the basement. But the less said about them the better. The chauffeur (Chaney) watches over this brood and makes sure they don't get into too much trouble. But in the movie's opening scene, a letter from family relatives is delivered. (Mantan "Feets do your stuff!" Moreland plays the delivery man!) The letter questions the ownership of the Merrye property and announces that the relatives (Carol Ohmart and Quinn Redeker) will soon be visiting--along with their lawyer (Karl Schanzer).

stills from
Spider Baby
[click photos for larger versions]

One of the main reasons this bizarre story works so well is the casting. At this early point in his career, director Jack Hill didn't know much about acting, so he left the actors to do what they liked. As a result, the movie contains a strange mixture of performances. Jill Banner is wonderfully natural as she underplays her role as Virginia. While Beverly Washburn, an experienced stage actress and a former child star (she starred in Old Yeller), rolls her eyes and overemphasizes her every line. Instead of working against the movie, these contrasting performances serve to underscore the degenerative mental states of the Merrye children. In addition, Carol Ohmart and Quinn Redeker as the party-crashing relatives are equally effective. Jim Morton described Ohmart (a '50s starlet who never caught on with audiences) as seething "like a frustrated dominatrix." She storms onto the Merrye property, ready and willing to wrestle the property away from the children. After the children prepare dinner for the visitors--which includes a roasted "rabbit" that might actually be a cat--Ohmart refuses to touch anything on the table. Meanwhile, Redeker tries to charm everyone. He tries a little slice of "rabbit" and smiles, doing his best Cary Grant impersonation. (Redeker would later star on a daytime television soap opera, The Young and the Restless.) The only weak performance comes from Karl Schanzer as Schlocker the lawyer. He acts as if he's performing in a stage comedy, so he overdoes everything. (Unlike Elizabeth, however, he has no excuse for overacting.) Meanwhile, Lon Chaney, Jr. gives the movie a strong central core. He even sings the movie's opening theme song: "This cannibal orgy is strange to behold and the maddest story ever told!" he sings.

sound clip from
Spider Baby


Hear Lon Chaney, Jr. sing the title song.


Spider Baby was filmed in 1964 but it wasn't actually released until 1968 because the film was bankrolled by financiers who filed for bankruptcy. With the movie frozen in legal limbo, director Jack Hill watched helplessly as theaters increasingly demanded color movies--and Spider Baby was filmed in black and white. When Spider Baby was finally released, it was shoved to the bottom half of a drive-in double feature. Its obscurity was secured for the next two decades.

Thankfully, however, Spider Baby never completely disappeared from view. A small but loyal group of fans spread word about the movie and circulated video copies--often fourth- and fifth-generation copies so fuzzy that the actors were barely recognizable. One of the those fans was cult movie aficionado Johnny Legend. He unearthed the movie's original negative and paved the way for its release on VHS by Anchor Bay Entertainment in 1996. But the story doesn't stop there. Now, Image Entertainment has compiled the definitive edition of Spider Baby for release on DVD. This edition contains some of the same features as Anchor Bay's VHS release, such as footage from the cast and crew reunion at a Spider Baby screening in Los Angeles in 1994. And it contains some of the same features found on Image Entertainment's 1998 laserdisc release of Spider Baby, such as the audio commentary by Jack Hill. But this new release also features a major added extra--additional film footage not previously available. Director Jack Hill discovered this footage, long thought lost, while examining several release prints of Spider Baby with hopes of salvaging a few good copies for future screenings. One of those prints, however, turned out to be the original "answer print" from the film lab. This print was created before the distributor made the final cuts for the movie's theatrical release.

This extra footage is somewhat disappointing. Much of the footage consists of a conversation between Bruno and Schlocker that goes absolutely nowhere. But it's fun to compare the additional footage (which is included as an addendum) with the rest of the movie.

Filmed for a mere $65,000 (Chaney signed for only $2,500 because he was afraid the producers might offer the role to John Carradine instead), Spider Baby is one of the great low-budget horror/comedies.

Spider Baby is now available on DVD from Image Entertainment. Suggested retail price: $24.95. For additional information, check out the Image Entertainment Web site.