April 14, 2011

Spider Baby (1968)

(AKA "The Maddest Story Ever Told")



"A caretaker devotes himself to three demented adults after their father's death."

Since my last post, a few people have asked me about Jack Hill's "Spider Baby" so I decided to do a quick review of it.

Starring several former big names such as Lon Chaney, Jr., Mantan Moreland and Carol Ohmart (best known as Vincent Price's wife in "House on Haunted Hill") plus a few that would be even more well known including Quinn K. Redeker (Oscar nominated as a writer for "The Deer Hunter") and, of course, Sid Haig, "Spider Baby" is a cult film featuring one of the first "adults behaving like little kids" scenarios.

Obviously, the real star of the show is the eponymous "Spider Baby" played by the late Jill Banner. No, she's not half-spider and half-baby or anything quite so ridiculous as that but her character, Virginia, certainly has a lot of other things wrong with her. Not only does she look amazingly like popstar Lily Allen but she has a fictitious disease called "Merrye Syndrome" which causes her to mentally regress backwards as she grows older. So at the age of 18 (which she was when "Spider Baby" was filmed in 1964), she acts like a very naughty and vicious 6 year old. She also likes to play at being a spider but I'll get to that later.

Basically, the whole Merrye family are afflicted with this syndrome due to inbreeding. Virginia, her sister Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), and her Brother Ralph (Sid Haig) are the ones we see most of but there are also aunts, uncles and cousins who have all suffered the same fate.

As is nearly always the case with a horror film like this, everything would be just fine if only other people would leave the family alone. But this is one of the blackest and sickest horror comedies of the time so you know that isn't going to happen.

I was fine with all of it, especially the curiously sexy Virginia playing "spider" by tying people up and stabbing them to death with a pair of kitchen knives, but Ralph killing a cat for dinner was a little bit unnecessary. You don't get to see anything of course because you never get to see anything nasty happen in films of this nature, and it adds even more disgustingness to the dinner that Lon Chaney serves, but I hate it when bad things happen to cats in horror movies.

Rather than tell you the whole story, suffice it to say that this film is weird. As an even more dysfunctional family than "The Munsters" or "The Addams Family", most of the comedic elements work, though, as it only took a week to make before spending four years tied up with financial problems before it was released, you have to view "Spider Baby" as a product of its time.

Don't get me wrong, "Spider Baby" isn't a bad film at all. Sid Haig is reminiscent of the pinhead from Tod Browning's "Freaks", all the girls are beautiful (especially Carol Ohmart later on in her black underwear!), and, even though this is pure B-movie fodder, the story is written well enough to keep you watching right until the end. Most of the time, you can almost forget that it's a comedy too. If you've ever seen the original "Little Shop of Horrors" then this has the same vibe. It's not too serious but it leaves realism out of the picture as much as possible.

I'm probably in danger of losing my good taste in horror movies by watching so many of these sillier ones because I have to admit that I really like "Spider Baby". I like it enough to add it to The Vault so, even though I intended to go from A to Z, you'll just have to forgive this little gem cropping up so early in my alphabetical rewatching of everything else.

"Spider Baby" may not be an uber scary or very serious horror film but it is certainly worth a watch on one of the streaming public domain websites. Yes, it's a public domain movie so it's free! You don't even have to buy the "Director's Cut" DVD to watch "Spider Baby" unless you want to watch it on your big TVs with a little bit of extra footage and a commentary by Jack Hill. If you really like horror films though, you'll already have put this in your collection anyway.

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