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