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Film Review: Spider Baby (1968)

Spider Baby“The blackest of horror comedies!”

A weird, quirky, curious and just plain odd little item from 1968 – if there is one film, UK cult DVD and blu-ray company, Arrow was created to release, it is Jack Hill’s Spider Baby. Never before afforded a release in the UK, it’s only fitting that the wait has been worth it, with a decent transfer to blu-ray in a set that also includes a version on DVD as well as a bundle of extras.

In a crumbling old manor house situated in the California Gothic Nowhere of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Lon Chaney Jr plays Bruno, who acts as guardian to the sole surviving members of the Merrye family. They all suffer from the syndrome of the same name. Merrye’s Syndrome is characterised by ‘mental regression’ from late childhood, resulting in adults who have gone so far back down the evolutionary scale that they become cannibals. Ralph (Sid Haig) is the most regressed of the three, now barely able to wear his Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, while teenaged Virginia (Jill Banner) believes herself to be a spider and spends her days trying to catch human prey in her makeshift webs. When Bruno has to go into town Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) is left in charge, only for Virginia to murder the mailman (Mantan Moreland) who has brought documents announcing the imminent arrival of greedy distant relative Emily (Carol Ohmart) who intends to take possession of the property. She’s accompanied by her brother Peter (Quinn Redeker), lawyer Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) and his secretary Ann (Mary Mitchel).

What follows is a horror comedy of the blackest kind. Despite this, and despite the film being firmly on the side of the monsters, to draw comparisons between Spider Baby and other similar horror-family-themed black and white productions like The Addams Family or The Munsters would be wrong. Far from ultimately being good-hearted family entertainment, Jack Hill’s peculiar and endearing little film is far weirder and crazier than that, even if it is essentially good natured. A one-of-a-kind project that has to be experienced for one to fully appreciate its unique atmosphere, Spider Baby benefits from superb, natural performances from all concerned, as well as the kind of cheerful, anarchic sense of anything goes that would subsequently inform Freddie Francis’ superb Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly. The two movies also share a sneaking, insidious almost mischievous sexiness that makes it anything but family entertainment. Hill directs well within the confines of an almost cripplingly low budget and manages some nice scary and disturbing visuals, especially when it turns out that older members of the family aren’t dead, but are buried down in the cellar anyway.

Spider Baby screenshotAs mentioned above, if there was one film Arrow should have on their catalogue of cult releases it’s this, and their double disc blu-ray and DVD set doesn’t disappoint. There is a wealth of extra material, most of which has been ported over from the Region 0 Dark Sky DVD release of 2007 which itself was an improvement over the Region 1 Image Entertainment disc from 1999. The extras include: an audio commentary by Jack Hill and Sid Haig which is constantly informative and amusing; a thirty minute documentary entitled ‘The Hatching of Spider Baby’ where an astonishing number of the cast and crew turn out to be both still alive and intelligible enough to interview; a lovely little nine minute short about the film music career of Ronald Stein (‘Spider Stravinsky’) that could and should have been longer; ‘The Merrye House Revisited’ in which Jack Hill goes back to the location of his movie; an alternate opening title sequence bearing the movie’s original title card of Cannibal Orgy, and an extended scene. New to the Arrow release are a panel discussion recorded last year between Jack Hill and stars Quinn Redeker and Beverly Washburn; The Host (1960) – a student film made by Jack Hill and starring Sid Haig; and the usual lovely Graham Humphreys artwork gracing a reversible sleeve. Extras from the Image disc that have not been carried over include an older commentary track solely by Jack Hill, footage from a cast and crew reunion in the late 1990s at the Nuart Theatre in LA, and Joe Dante’s notes about the movie, but if you’re a Spider Baby obsessive you’ll probably have that disc and be hanging onto it anyway. If you’re not a Spider Baby obsessive well, that’s just because you haven’t seen the film yet, and Arrow’s lovely set is the perfect way to remedy that.

JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT

Extra Info

Director: Jack Hill
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Sid Haig, Carol Ohmart, Jill Banner
Certificate: 15
Running time: 81 minutes
Release date: 17 June 2013

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3 comments

  1. Andrea Marie Norwood

    I am a spider obsessed author of a children’s beloved book and I am now writing about people spider who live underneath the ground of dublin ireland. I study these liitle rascals and build up my work and so I don’t feel that spiders are evil to a point, it’s that the author(s) way of making them look to the people. I see the spider as a cursed creature and or the spiders I am creating is in the same manner but are more human because they have been created in the image and likeness of the humans and so therefore they can blend in with society but at the same time can never reveal who they really are, because this would cause a riot among the irish and who loves a spider or anything and anyone linked to a spider. This is where the sad part comes in for me dealing with these type of character I am creating, but the sypnosis of the story is exciting and they are so real to me! I use to fear lolth, she was creepy with those eight black widow spider legs. Her head was a bit big but she was beautiful. Others would tell me that she is the devil and I suppose seeing something like that would make anyone think so. But, I see it as that creature or being having angered their creator in some type of way and then I look at it as the artist folley or the artist proving something. I think that the description of lolth can be solved easily: A half woman/ half spider of any sort is a wild and worldly woman and the legs are something of wickedness or an occult. But, to me I see it as a woman cursed because of some wrong done or an offense on the creators part and this I feel can be removed if whatever the problem between the artist and the creator are solved. The woman spider seems to have been at one point in her life a very beautiful woman and wealthy and completely human and for that to return she has to be forgiven and or obey the creator. She looks as if she was a wife- married to a high supreme being, possibly a king or prince or even a pharoah. Spiders for me are strange and hideous creatures and can be transformed to the most beautiful and smartest being in the mind of the artist who creates the character.

  2. Chris Cooke

    That’s a great message above. I won’t try to compete.

    1. Andrea Marie Norwood

      Yes, I agree! Spiders Rule 2013-14!

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