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This cannibal orgy is strange to behold
Spider Baby (DVD)
Member Name: hogsflesh
Spider Baby (DVD)
Date: 08/01/08, updated on 14/01/08 (112 review reads)
Advantages: Great, funny low budget horror
Disadvantages: Not as readily available as it should be
This is a great American horror comedy from 1964 (although not released until 68). It's one of those low-budget, quirky American horrors of the early 60s, which show considerable flair and imagination (see also Carnival of Souls). The director, Jack Hill, went on to a reasonably prolific career in 70s exploitation (he directed the excellent girl-gang movie Switchblade Sisters).
There's a family, the Merryes, living somewhere rural. As is explained in an almost straight-faced prologue, members of the family suffer from a rare genetic disorder whereby the older they get, the weirder they get, until eventually they become incoherent cannibals. The family now consists of three youths: bald, retarded Ralph and his sexy sisters Elizabeth and Virginia. Their older relatives are kept in the cellar. They're looked after by their faithful retainer, the ageing Bruno. Unfortunately, greedy distant cousins and a lawyer want them out of their house, and pay an ill-advised surprise visit.
The plot was a fairly well-worn horror cliché by the early 60s. Relatives going to strange houses in search of money were a staple since at least The Cat and The Canary (1927), and outsiders intruding on deeply weird households had first been seen in The Old Dark House (1932). Plotwise, Spider Baby is *very* close to Dementia 13, an entertaining horror from a couple of years previously, on which Hill had worked. What distinguishes it is the odd sense of humour on display. This isn't an out and out horror comedy in the style of A Bucket of Blood, nor does it have the slightly camp grotesquery of James Whale's films (The Old Dark House, Bride of Frankenstein). This is one of the first films that manages to combine genuine thrills with warped humour, and as such is as a forerunner of the likes of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the work of David Lynch.
The star of the film (although 'star' might be overstating things somewhat) is Lon Chaney Jr, who plays Bruno - it was quite common to get ageing horror icons to appear in low-budget horror films of the era. He'd been the most important of the second generation horror stars for Universal, having played the Wolfman (and, eventually, most of their other monsters). He was never particularly good, lacking the versatility of Karloff or the weird charisma of Lugosi, his main selling point apparently being that he was the son of a famous silent movie star. By the time of Spider Baby he was alcoholic, and he's puffy-faced and unwell looking. But it's probably his most likeable ever performance (apparently he stayed off the booze for the duration). He's continually harried by the weird kids he's looking after, and his increasingly despairing reactions to each new surprise are nicely done (and stop the comedy overbalancing the rest of the film). He has one genuinely affecting moment, where he realises that the world he's created is unravelling beyond repair.
The rest of the cast are just as good. The interlopers are either appropriately unlikeable or sympathetic enough to make us worry about them. The two girls are great, a disturbing combination of childish and profoundly sexy (Virginia, especially, is a little hottie, although she's absolutely bonkers and thinks she's a spider). Ralph is played by Sid Haig (one of the few recognisable actors here), later an exploitation staple, seen recently in various Rob Zombie films. He plays Ralph in what looks like a conscious imitation of one of the pinheads from Tod Browning's freaks. The only other recognisable cast member is Mantan Moreland, a black actor who played lots of offensively stereotyped black servants (always lazy and cowardly) in 30s and 40s films. By this point in his career he had been pretty much ostracised because of his earlier work, which seems a little unfair, since it was probably the only way the poor guy could *get* work. He's not in Spider Baby for very long, though.
Although it's (broadly speaking) a comedy, it isn't full of jokes. It relies for the humour on the deranged behaviour of the characters (and Bruno's deadpan reaction to them), and from the way that old gothic clichés are played out in a very modern America of new roads and lawsuits. There are suspenseful bits, and the freaky kids are occasionally uncomfortably freaky (Ralph especially, and although the film is careful to identify his mental illness as the fictional 'Merrye Syndrome' his performance is certainly close to the knuckle). There's no explicit violence to speak of, and although some very sexy actresses get to swan around in alluring night attire and saucy lingerie, no one actually takes their clothes off.
It makes plenty of references to other horror films, but without the modern nudge-nudge attitude of films like Cabin Fever or The Devil's Rejects. The creepy and gross meal scene (which is great) is from The Old Dark House, but goes much further. There's a funny conversation where two characters discuss old horror movies, every monster they mention having been played by Lon Chaney, who's sitting right next to them. There are plenty of taxidermied birds, a nod to Psycho, and the conventions of the gothic horror are played up to the max (things in the cellar, sophisticated city folk falling foul of weird country cousins, plenty of spiders).
My favourite thing about this is probably the opening theme, a weird, vaguely nonsensical song about cannibalism and horror in general, sung by Lon Chaney. He wasn't much of a singer, clearly, but his tunelessness and appalling timing just make it all the more loveable. The whole thing is shot in black and white and looks good, if inevitably a little old-fashioned. There's enough weird imagery in Spider Baby to make up for any other shortcomings it might have.
This is a great little film that deserves to be much more widely known than it is. I suspect it would only rate a 12A at most if released in the UK. It looks like someone's trying to remake this, probably because of the success of recent films that borrowed something of its spirit (House of 1000 Corpses, for instance). I daresay they'll up the gore, nudity and gross out levels to little real effect, but it might at least meant that the original gets a DVD releases in this country. Check out Spider Baby if you get the chance. It's great.
Summary: A unique and inventive 60s classic