Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Movie Review: Spider Baby (1968)

A cult classic that boasts the subtitle "The Maddest Story Ever Told," Spider Baby is a fantastic dark comedy that must have freaked out audiences in the 60s.

Get caught in the web: Cared for by the family chauffeur Bruno, the three Merrye children - Virginia, Elizabeth, and Ralph - live an isolated existence in their home because they suffer from a degenerative age-regression brain disease. When other members of the family come by one day with their greedy lawyer and his assistant to sue them for the family fortune, they are caught up in the Merrye's twisted web of madness.

This film is incredibly charming and lovable despite the mostly macabre subject matter. The reason for this is that the craziness is dealt with in a delightfully humorous way and it will have you chuckling to yourself in the moments were you would normally be creeped out. Spider Baby was apparently a labor of love for filmmaker Jack Hill and thank goodness he was determined to get it out there (it was made in '64, I believe, but lived in limbo before being released in '68) because I think this just became a new favorite of mine.

There are two wonderful known actors here with some incredible unknowns in the leads. Lon Chaney Jr. is the kind-hearted Bruno who vows to protect the Merrye children as much as he can despite their murderous tendencies. Sid Haig plays a mostly silent role as Ralph, who is probably the oldest of the children and therefore the most afflicted by the disease that plagues them. Jill Banner portrays Virginia in her film debut, and was my favorite character in the whole thing, especially when she's "playing spider" with people. Beverly Washburn as Elizabeth is actually not as enjoyable, as she just stands there with wide eyes and says her creepy lines in a high voice.

There is also Carol Ohmart, recognizable as Vincent Price's wife from the original House on Haunted Hill. She has a few lovely moments in the film, and not just when she is running around in sexy black lingerie (with straps!). As the greedy cousin Emily, she seems determined to believe that they are only acting crazy to scare them away. The dinner scene is amazing and hilarious. Virginia and Elizabeth serve everybody a nutritious meal of mushrooms (and she made sure to only pick the non-poisonous ones, thank goodness), spiders, bugs, and what looks like dried grass or straw for salad. Ohmart's character tries to remain unfazed, while the other cousin, Peter, hilariously compliments them on their dishes and seems way too nice and cooperative to be real. He keeps trying to win over both groups of people, and even Elizabeth and Virginia take a liking to him, although apparently not enough to make them spare him so he won't "tell anybody." It's okay, though, he survives.

The violence in the film is real, and these nutjobs really do kill people in it but it is subdued and not at all gory or bloody. Virginia seems the most likely to murder, as we see in the beginning how she likes to play like a spider (and in a few instances, she likes to eat real ones as well - naaaaaasty) by catching and tying people up and "biting" them with two long butcher knives.

The score for the film is quite trippy and bubbly at times and fits the tone of the film so well; a tone that is introduced during the opening credit sequence. Lon Chaney reads some kind of weird poem about the movie, often doing a hearty laugh to pinpoint the craziness he is talking about.

The film is bookended with an older Peter at first reading from a book of Rare and Peculiar Diseases, highlighting the Merrye Syndrome and saying that it was extinguished forever 10 years ago, when the film takes place. However, since then, Peter has married the lawyer's assistant and had a daughter who is about 10 years old... which we learned in the beginning is when the Merrye Syndrome first afflicts the victim. Then the film ends with Peter's daughter playing outside and being fascinated by a spider. Ha, get it? She's got the disease! And then to really put a dollop of delicious icing on this cupcake of a movie, we get an end title card that says "The End," which then changes to "The End ? ". Love it. Love it to pieces.

As an obvious inspiration for so many other "crazy killer family" movies out there (it's so obvious I don't think I need to mention them), Spider Baby is a you-totally-have-to-watch-this-movie movie for any fan of horror. It is an unexpected joy that is so much fun to watch.


  1. This movie sounds weird. I MUST WATCH IT!! I haven't heard of this movie before, thanks for posting it.

  2. wtf? never heard of this one. looks decent!

  3. It's an under-appreciated classic if there ever was one. I love it for the way it seems to capture both the mood of an early 1960s horror film and the B-movie classics of the 1940s.

  4. I actually liked this movie. Just dropped by for the first time, pretty awesome to see other chicks with the same taste. I like your little slogan too, "the genre isn't just for men anymore". That's pretty bitchin. good sight!

  5. A cult classic- part Addams Family, part Deliverance. Just as a bit of FYI trivia, Chaney Jr. actually sings that weird opening song.

  6. I really like this movie. It's such a fun romp, with unforgettable images and quotable dialogue.

    "He looks like a big old bug!"

    "It's not nice to hate, Virginia."

    And the theme song stays in my head, anytime I hear it. I can hear it playing right now!

  7. Absolutely LOVE this film! My new favorite! The dinner scene is absolutely hilarious as are so many other scenes in this movie. Manages to be outright creepy and heartwarming at the same time if that is possible this movie does it!

  8. Love this movie! Just watched it again recently and kept thinking the brother looked familiar... Slap some clown makeup on him and throw him in a Rob Zombie movie. Sid Haig has been creepy for a looooooooooooong time!
    Been perusing your blog and love it. Will probably comment on a few more posts before I'm through. ;) KiKi

  9. The film snuck up on me one night while I wanted something to watch while on the internet and it became a fave (kinda like 'Bedroom Eyes' did many years ago). So glad TCM showed it again. Makes a nice double feature with 'Castle of the Living Dead'.