Appellate Judge Tom Becker is writing this review from the womb.
"This has gone quite far enough, ladies, beyond the bounds of prudence
and good taste!"
Jack Hill is a low-budget cult auteur with a surprisingly small oeuvre. He is credited with directing a mere dozen features and co-directed a few more for Roger Corman. Arguably, his most notable achievement is showcasing blaxploitation goddess Pam Grier in four films, including her signature performance as Foxy Brown.
Unlike some of his contemporaries (Francis Ford Coppola, for instance), Hill never went on to "the big time." He made his last film in 1982, but he is far from forgotten. Quentin Tarantino has cited Hill as a major influence, brought back Hill's penultimate film, Switchblade Sisters, and gave Hill a "very special thanks" credit on Jackie Brown, which not coincidentally gave Grier her second act.
Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told was Hill's first full-length film as a director. Shot in 1964, the producers' financial problems kept it out of theaters until 1968.
Image Entertainment released Spider Baby on DVD in 1999, and now Dark Sky Films gives us a new Special Edition.
Facts of the Case
Merrye Syndrome is an affliction that hits at the end of childhood and causes its victim to regress mentally—eventually back to a pre-natal state where, of course, one becomes a savage and/or cannibal. The result of inbreeding, the good news is this misery only afflicts descendents of one branch of the Merrye family (Phew!), and there are only three descendents left (which explains the dearth of Merrye Syndrome telethons).
Since their father's death, the three little Merryes—Virginia (Jill Banner, The President's Analyst), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn, Pit Stop), and Ralph (Sid Haig, Coffy)—live in the big, old, creepy Merrye house with Bruno, the family chauffeur (Lon Chaney, The Wolf Man). Ralph has the brains of a zygote, and his teenage sisters seem to be in toddlerhood. Virginia likes spiders and sometimes plays a spider game, which involves sharp objects and unwitting human "bugs."
But trouble descends on this nontraditional family in the form of distant relatives Emily (Carol Ohmart, House on Haunted Hill) and Peter (Quinn Redeker, The Christine Jorgensen Story). With lawyer in tow, they've got their sights set on the Merrye fortune (which seems to consist of the creepy house and Bruno). This means the rapidly regressing adolescents will have to be relocated to a nice, quiet place.
But these budding neo-nates aren't going down without a fight.
Shot in black-and-white on an almost non-existent budget, Spider Baby looks a bit like an episode of The Munsters by way of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Hill gives us a story of cannibalism, incest, mental illness, deviant sex, murder—did I mention it's a comedy? Every abomination is presented as part of a punch line, and while the ideas might be over the top, the cast keeps it all grounded.
Lon Chaney is great as perhaps the sanest character in the film. He is all paternal protection with the children and good-and-faithful servant with the adults. Unfazed by the endless parade of atrocities, he is like Mike Brady on the island of lost souls. Chaney also sings—well, more like barks or croaks—the title song. Yes, there's a title song. Yes, it's sung by Lon Chaney. Make of that what you will.
Hulking Sid Haig, without a single intelligible word of dialogue, is a manic mess as already regressed brother Ralph, but the still-functional girls are the ones who cause shivers. Beverly Washburn is properly menacing as the marginally more mature Elizabeth, and Jill Banner is just astonishing as the bug-friendly Virginia, equal parts Baby Doll and Chucky Doll.
Spider Baby is not a shock-a-minute exploitation feature. It's strangely literate, and Hill takes his time setting up his story, creating a logical foundation, and letting everything unfold. With the decaying, gothic house and grounds, multiple madnesses, and prevailing perversions, all you'd need are a few Southern accents, and Spider Baby could be Tennessee Williams on a bender.
This is a cult film that earns its status.
I didn't see the Image Entertainment release, but I have read positive things about it. I do know that the transfer was non-anamorphic. This new release is anamorphic and sports a decent picture, a bit grainy and soft, but nothing too bad given the age and original budget. The audio, unfortunately, leaves a lot to be desired. It is very scratchy and, about midway through, we get an annoying crunchy humming sound. This is most likely a problem from the original track, but it's a shame there wasn't more clean-up done.
The extras are quite cool.
Old friends Hill and Haig have a great time sitting down for a commentary track. The result is one of the most entertaining tracks I've heard, filled with jokes, pokes, memories, and trivia. It's like eavesdropping on your two favorite colorful uncles catching up and swapping stories.
"The Hatching of Spider Baby" is a wonderful retrospective by Elijah Drenner that features Hill, cinematographer Al Taylor, and all the surviving original cast members, except Carol Ohmart, as well as filmmakers Joe Dante (The Howling) and Chris D. (I Pass for Human, in which Hill played a supporting role). That Hill—still incredibly youthful in his mid-70s—and so many from the cast are still here to reminisce reminds us how young they all were when they made Spider Baby.
In "The Merrye House Revisited," Hill and Drenner take a tour of the location, which still stands in Los Angeles's Highland Park. This is an absolutely charming featurette, and Hill is like a man revisiting his childhood home.
"Spider Stravinsky" tells the story of Ronald Stein, who composed the music for Spider Baby and literally dozens of other predominantly low-budget features. This is a nice tribute to someone whose work you might recognize but whose name you probably wouldn't know.
There is an "alternative" title sequence, which is pretty much the same as the existing sequence, only here the film is under its original title, "Cannibal Orgy." An extended scene actually helps the flow of the movie a bit. We also get a stills gallery.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The mix of comedy and horror doesn't always sit well, and, long before the end, the film becomes a bit tedious and repetitious. At times, it seems about to deliver a big laugh or scare, but then it peters out. Spider Baby is also pretty gore-free, a bit surprising in that it was made four years after Psycho, which it occasionally references.
Fantasy double feature, 1968 edition: Spider Baby and Night of the Living Dead.
Nearly 40 years later, it might not be so shocking, but at the time, it probably would have caused a riot.
Spider Baby is a lot of fun, and this disc does justice to the film and its creator.
Not guilty, Baby.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dark Sky Films
• Audio Commentary with Jack Hill and Sid Haig
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