Movie Review: Spider Baby

(1968)
Directed by Jack Hill
Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Carol Ohmart, Quinn K. Redeker, Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner, Sid Haig, Mary Mitchel, Karl Schanzer, Mantan Moreland

The first time I saw this film was on a shitty VHS bootleg that was barely watchable. This was still years away before it would released on laserdisc and VHS, and eventually DVD and Blu-ray. But even watching the grainy print on video, you could see something special in this strange movie. Thankfully we don’t need to worry about bootlegs anymore since there have been a couple of different special edition Blu-ray releases by now. How great to be a movie fan these days.

After the hilarious opening song, sung by Lon Chaney Jr. himself, who just seemed to having a ball with it, we start with a little history lesson on the rare “Merrye Syndrome”, a malady that seemed only to have affected one family, the Merrye family, and supposedly died out a decade ago. This syndrome causes those inflicted with it to start to regress both mentally and then even physically starting around the age of 10. We then flashback to a delivery man, played wonderfully by Mantan Moreland, trying to deliver a special letter to this strange and seemingly deserted house. But as he sticks his head into an open window while trying to find somebody home, he quickly realizes his mistake when he meets up with Virginia, one of the “children” who plays a game of spider with this innocent intruder.

Lon Chaney Jr. plays Bruno the chauffer, the caretaker of the house and those that live inside, the last remaining members of the Merrye family. Chaney, who was a severe alcoholic at the time, agreed to stay on the wagon during shooting. He allowed himself one beer, although there were tales of him bringing his own oranges that were infused with vodka that he ate throughout the day!  But all of that aside, it is probably one of Chaney Jr. best performances. He still showed he could still bring the pathos to a character, especially during his famous speech at the end of the film, which according to the cast brought everyone to tears. The last of the children, Virginia (Jill Banner), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), and Ralph (Sid Haig), are a handful and need constant attention. But when news of some distant relatives are coming to take control of the estate, Bruno is worried they won’t understand their way of life there.

When the relatives arrive, with their lawyer in tow, Carol Ohmart plays the bitchy one that doesn’t care about the family in the slightest. She had appeared years ago as Vincent Price’s wife in The House on Haunted Hill (1959) and is even more stunning here. Granted, it might have something to do with the outfit she wears later on in the film! The more kinder Uncle Peter (Quinn Redeker) see the children as normal, even though they have their own peculiarities. He starts to bond with Mary Mitchell’s character, the lawyer’s secretary. Karl Schanzer plays the lawyer, appropriately named Schlocker!

This is a strange, dark comedy, but with more than a few scenes of true horror thrown in, such as the opening with Moreland. The three adult children are really brought to life by Banner, Washburn, and Haig, each giving their own personality. They really seemed like children, with their mannerisms and the way they talk, helping their characterizations. On one hand you feel sorry for them, but then you quickly realize how dangerous they can be, especially when they want to play a game with you. But even at that point, it is still coming from innocence rather than evil.

Originally filmed in 1964, under the title Cannibal Orgy, or The Maddest Story Ever Told (a exploitative nod to the bigger film, The Greatest Story Ever Told, released two years earlier), it never got released until 1967 because the producers went bankrupt and the rights were tied up in legal mumbo jumbo for several years. When it finally was released, it was re-titled as Spider Baby, and later changed again to The Liver Eaters! This was the full directorial debut of Jack Hill, who had directed a short film as well as stepping in (uncredited) on The Terror (1963) to help add some sequences for Roger Corman.

I still think that Tobe Hooper must have seen this film at some point before he made Texas Chain Saw because there are more than a few similarities, including a dinner sequence, but that is just my opinion. I do think that Hill and company gives us a strange tale here, part dark comedy with some strong elements of horror, that is highly memorable and is one of the reasons this film has remained a cult classic throughout the years. If you are one of the few that still hasn’t seen this one, it really is a must see. It’s a good start to learn that Sid Haig was doing some amazing stuff decades before Captain Spaulding.

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