Time hasn’t been kind to this loveable 1964 oddity, but it remains a memorable film with unforgettable performances. SPIDER BABY was the debut film of exploitation legend Jack Hill, and remains his most bizarre film. For that matter, it’s one of the strangest horror indies to emerge from the mid sixties (the film was caught up in three years’ worth of legal hassles, and so wasn’t actually released until 1967), a period that saw more than its share of strange films. If it resembles anything it’s THE MUNSTERS and THE ADDAMS’ FAMILY, both of which (in their original episodic TV incarnations) premiered around the time SPIDER BABY was being made, but of course it’s much darker and more artful than either.
We’re introduced to the bizarre Merrye family, apparently the only known sufferers of the so-called “Merrye Syndrome,” a disease brought about by inbreeding that causes mental retardation and cannibalism. The Merryes live in a secluded mansion, where one day a mailman makes the mistake of poking his head through an open window. He’s promptly sliced up by the teenaged Virginia, a deranged teen who likes to pretend she’s a spider luring men into her web. Her sister Elizabeth is supposed to be looking after Virginia and seeing that she stays out of trouble, but in fact Elizabeth is just as loony as in her own way as her psychotic sis.
Also living in the house is Bruno, a kindly chauffeur who looks after the family, as well as the girl’s halfwit brother Ralph and deranged Uncle Ned and Aunt Martha, who reside in the basement. And let’s not forget about the late family patriarch, whose skeleton resides in an upper room of the house.
Into this madhouse comes the smarmy Uncle Peter and Aunt Emily, who lead a procession of unassuming normals looking to foreclose on the Merryes’ home. Bruno is understandably nonplussed when these interlopers announce they’re going to spend the night.
Bruno and the kids reluctantly fix dinner for the normals, with a meal that includes “rabbit” (actually a fried cat) and “garden greens” (actually grass). Aunt Emily believes the Merryes are faking their oddness, and during the night she and one of her male companions attempt to explore the house. The guy winds up stabbed to death in the basement by Virginia and Elizabeth.
From there all you-know-what breaks loose. Uncle Peter is tied up by Virginia and Emily thrown into the basement lair of Uncle Ned and Aunt Martha. Around this point Bruno decides it’s time to stop taking care of the Merryes, precipitating a none-too-cuddly climax.
If I’m not quite as enthusiastic about this film as so many other cult movie buffs are it’s due to the many distracting elements endemic to low budget movies of the sixties, in particular an excess of obvious padding (in protracted scenes of people walking, ascending stairs, etc) and a too-uneventful narrative. Much more could have been done with this material, which is more an extended appetizer than a full course meal.
Nonetheless, Hill’s mastery of tone is impressive. This is evident in the loony dinner table sequence, in which humor and grossness are inextricably mixed in a way that remains unique, and Virginia’s climactic seduction of the tied-up Uncle Peter, which in its elegant perversity rivals anything in LOLITA.
Also, despite Hill’s claims that he “didn’t know anything about actors” when he made this film, the performances are quite strong. The standouts are Lon Chaney Jr, who imbues Bruno with a real and unexpected pathos, and also the late Jill Banner as the spider-obsessed nymphet Virginia. Former 50s starlet Carol Ohmart also makes a sizeable impression as Aunt Emily, both in the early scenes in which she displays annoyance at the Merryes’ antics and the later ones where she runs around in her underwear (for which I’m certainly not complaining).
I will say this for SPIDER BABY: it may be dated in many respects, but it’s far more accomplished in most every respect than the early films of Jack Hill’s better known contemporaries Francis Ford Coppola (DEMENTIA 13), Peter Bogdonovich (VOYAGE TO THE PLANET OF PREHISTORIC WOMEN) and William Friedkin (GOOD TIMES).
SPIDER BABY; OR, THE MADDEST STORY EVER TOLD
Director: Jack Hill
Producers: Paul Moinka, Gil Lasky
Screenplay: Jack Hill
Cinematography: Alfred Taylor
Editing: Jack Hill
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Carol Ohmart, Jill Banner, Beverly Washburn, Sid Haig, Quinn Redeker, Mary Mitchel, Mantan Moreland, Karl Schanzer