Spider Baby was exploitation director Jack Hill’s first solo feature (Blood Bath was a collaboration) but didn’t get released until after what’s often listed as his first film, but isn’t, 1966’s Mondo Keyhole.
Ah, Mondo – does that make Hill one of those directors who knock out trashy, sex-drenched, shock-filed schlock for the drive-in crowd? Yes and no, but much more specifically no in the case of Spider Baby, whose alternative titles – The Liver Eaters, Attack of the Liver Eaters and Cannibal Orgy – might suggest otherwise.
This is a good-looking, sharply shot, well acted movie with good production values and a keen sense of craft – the continuity works! Rather than a Mondo movie, Spider Baby looks like something designed as a quality B movie, for general consumption (depending on your definition of general).
On the other hand the story – a family afflicted with a syndrome that has made them mentally regress to the point where they can’t tell good from bad – is pure Mondo.
The childlike Virginia (Jill Banner) and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), and their knuckledragging semi-simian brother Ralph (Sid Haig) have been looked after by their loyal chauffeur Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr) since the death of their father. They are murderously dangerous “children” (the actors are 18, 20 and 25 respectively) but also heirs to the vast Merrye fortune, which soon brings their only living relatives, straitlaced and astringent Emily (Carol Ohmart) and her genial easygoing brother Peter (Quinn K Redeker) sniffing about, accompanied by a lawyer called Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) and his pretty assistant, Ann (Mary Mitchel).
Since the kids are likely to kill anything they don’t understand – the mailman was despatched by Virginia, who believes she is a spider, as an introduction – it can only be a matter of time before Emily and Peter, Schlocker and Ann are in a tight corner and blood is spilled.
1964, when this was made, was the year of both The Addams Family and The Munsters and the same basic idea drives this film – the weirdly offbeat meets the conventional – though no one ever ate anyone’s liver in The Munsters. The house the Merrye clan inhabit is shot like a cross between the Munster house and the house where Norman’s mother lives in Psycho.
There are no aged women in this movie, though there is a decomposed male relative somewhere in one of the bedrooms. Instead the ladies are all notably hot and Hill does his best to get most of them into skimpy clothing when not at all necessary – Emily’s change of costume into burlesque gear (as good as) is one of the film’s more amusing moments.
Chaney Jr might seem like an outlier in terms of casting. After all he is well known. But he is part of that trend of superannuated horror actors turning up to decorate 1960s no-budget productions – Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 from Outer Space, Boris Karloff in Targets. He’s actually rather good, against expectation, because Chaney Jr (as opposed to Sr) was never much of an actor, but gets the tone of Spider Baby exactly right with a florid and affable performance capturing the jaunty (if never exactly comic) tone of the film.
As said, Hill is not just knocking it out. The camerawork is very good, and the lighting by Alfred Taylor – especially in the central, extended, “poking around the big old house” section – reveals a cinematographer with a youth misspent watching 1930s horror movies. Ronald Stein’s score also catches that pastiche-y vibe and is melodramatic and yet also spooky – all those low woodwinds and scratchy violins.
The film’s subtitle, The Maddest Story Ever Told, is a bit of a bold claim, but after much teasing on the part of Hill, and in particular Banner and Washburn, who are both excellent as young women who might kill you or climb into bed with you (the better to kill you), Spider Baby does finally do what it set out to do, with a finale that’s macabre and fairly unpleasant. Well done, everybody.
Incidentally, Jack Hill’s father, Roland, was the guy who designed the iconic Sleeping Beauty castle for Disney. Make of that what you will.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022