It’s odd that I often forget how much I enjoy Jack Hill’s 1968 film, Spider Baby until I see it again. Years elapse and somehow I am able to disregard my own admiration for it. Well, maybe it’s not odd as much as an interesting phenomenon, really. Similarly there are those albums, only after returning to years and years later, that I am reminded how great they really are (The Wedding Present’s Bizzaro is one of those albums ( how on Earth could I forget how jaw-droppingly amazing that album is?)). I can only assume that the same thing is happening here.
Spider Baby is considered a “cult classic” (whatever the hell that means anymore), yet it’s rarely spoken about in the same company as the standard bearers of that classification of film. El Topo (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), Eraserhead (1977), these are the midnight movies that readily come to mind. Of course, all three of these have a certain amount of shock value to them, something that clamors for your attention, whereas Spider Baby is much more reserved. Many aspects are alluded to rather than explicitly spelled out. Had it been made in the 1970s, it very well might have been a different picture, perhaps a gorier one, and maybe not as funny, if at all. It is indeed a black comedy, and it is its humor that sets it apart from many other b-movies, low-rent pictures of its day. Rather than being funny in an off-handed way—because the script is terrible, the acting third-rate—the humor is actually intentional, which makes the ways in which the more disturbing aspects of the film are delivered, even more unsettling.
Take for instance the opening to Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told (as it’s also known by its longer title). It’s one of those scenes that make you laugh and cringe at the same time. It’s not that it’s awful or silly or stupid (I guess it may very well be all of those things to a degree) but it is unflinching and funny all at once. A hapless delivery man dressed like a Maytag repair man stumbles upon a rural mansion (driving a delivery truck that looks like a design for a contraption from a Hanna Barbera cartoon) that seems to be deserted. After approaching the house on the hill, the delivery man finds an open window which he, unfortunately, decides to poke his head through. The window slams shut and he is trapped. A young woman, Virginia (Jill Banner), appears in the living room carrying two knives, cackling about trapping “a big bug in her spider web”. There’s hardly any gore and no blood, but the scene is creepy nonetheless, mostly because of Virginia and her bizarre dance which precedes the kill. Cut into the scene is a shot from the exterior of the house—the delivery man’s legs wiggling about—which injects the events with a certain amount of slapstick.
This sort of juxtaposition occurs frequently throughout Spider Baby. There is a compulsion to laugh, but the events that unfold are so strange, so grim, laughing makes it all the more uncomfortable.
Lon Chaney, Jr. stars as Bruno who acts as the chauffeur and the guardian to the three Merrye children that live at the mansion: Virginia, Ralph (Sid Haig), and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), who all suffer from “Merrye Syndrome”, named after the Merrye family, a genetic disorder that causes its victims to regress mentally (this is all set up in the opening scene of the movie in which the entire movie unfolds as a flashback).
Bruno attempts to protect the children from the outside world as well as keeping the shocking history of the deranged family a secret. Of the three children that Bruno protects, Virginia and Ralph are the most peculiar. Virginia, nicknamed Spider Baby, has a fascination with spiders and relates any mundane task of daily existence with that of a spider; other people are simply giant bugs to catch in her giant web, especially outsiders. Ralph is a man-child with a sexual appetite that eventually grows to uncontrollable proportions toward the end of the film. Elizabeth seems to be the most “together” of the three, with less obvious quirks, if that can be said of a clan of lunatics.
Soon, two long-lost relatives Peter Howe (Quinn Redeker) and Emily Howe (Carol Ohmart) emerge from the past to take possession of the estate (which looks oddly similar to the set of the Munsters). They decide to stay at the mansion with their smarmy lawyer and his buxom secretary. This misguided decision unleashes a series of bizarre events, culminating in the apparent “dinner course” that is made out of the lawyer by several aunts and uncles that live in the basement of the mansion.
In the end, Bruno blows up the house with a stick of dynamite after deciding that events have spun out of control and that the Merrye clan must be destroyed for good. Peter and Emily are the only two to escape, and, as the film ends, to Peter finishing the whole sordid tale, we discover that he and Emily are now flush with money, thanks to the estate, and have a daughter. In the final scene of the film, we discover that the daughter has a peculiar fascination with spiders. Does this leave the door open for a Spider Baby 2? One can hope.
In some ways Spider Baby seems to foreshadow other movies about families of lunatics: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and House of 1000 Corpses (2003) (which, coincidently (or maybe not), also stars a much older Sid Heig as Captain Spaulding). However, that’s where the similarities end. The former are all clearly exploitation films, whereas Spider Baby is not. And even though The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes and House of 1000 Corpses all have some sort of blackly humorous thread, it is fairly inconsequential to the main plot of the movies.
But because of the time in which Spider Baby was made, and possibly because of Jack Hill’s sensibilities as a director, the film seems to dwell somewhere on the borderlands of horror. It is planted in the gene to be sure, but it also has a touch of the surreal—nothing like Buñuel or Cocteau— but in some ways it feels, for lack of a better term, Lynchian. Of course, this is a label that gets thrown around a good deal and is often not even applicable, but in this case it seems appropriate (true, Spider Baby predates David Lynch’s film work by almost a decade). There is the black humor, often emerging at the oddest times; the characters, sometimes cartoonish in their motivations and development; undertones of sex and eroticism which drives the plot as well as the characters; and the overall mood, the very tone of the film that is set by the music, the lighting, the placement of the camera. Spider Baby has all of these elements in spades; from its macabre version of a UPA cartoon opening credit sequence, to the two sisters–Virginia and Elizabeth–and their twisted sex appeal, Jack Hill creates something that really is Lynchian in its sensibilities.
Jack Hill made other horror films during his career, most of which were standard fare, nothing as intriguing as Spider Baby. Most notably, he directed the seminal blaxploitation films Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). He also directed the film Switchblade Sisters, which is often credited as the catalyst of the women in prison genre (even though this film is now seen as one of the highlights of his career, it was a box-office bomb at the time). These are the films which Jack Hill is known best for, but Spider Baby is his most likeable creation, if that’s even possible for a film about a family of cannibals.
Begun in the summer of 1963 and originally titled Cannibal Orgy, the film lost funding in post-production and the movie was shelved for four years. It was only until distributor David L. Hewitt acquired the rights to the film, that it was finally released under the title, Spider Baby. Over the years Spider Baby has been re-released in theaters, but it has lived in relative obscurity, with a small, devote following.
With Spider Baby there is the allure of the weird, the pull of the strange. It is always there, waiting for another few years to pass, its charms, however dark, to be revealed once again, retrieved from the grave of film history.
*For more reviews on Jack Hill’s Spider Baby, go to the Final Girl Film Club and check them all out…