Spider Baby Review
“The Merrye syndrome, so-called because its only known occurrence is among the descendants of one Ebenezer Merrye. A progressive age regression beginning about the tenth year and continuing steadily throughout the victim’s lifetime, it is believed that eventually the victim of the Merrye Syndrome may even regress beyond the prenatal level reverting to a pre-human condition of savagery and cannibalism.”
Writing the above quotation down doesn’t really do justice to the straightfaced rendering by actor Quinn K. Redeker but it does conveniently sum up the basic plot of Spider Baby, a movie which takes the simple premise and runs with it. The result is one of the oddest films ever made and something of an anomaly in the career of director Jack Hill whose characteristic works are tough exploiters like The Big Doll House, Coffy and Foxy Brown. That it should work at all is unlikely, that is should work so well is surprising. Admittedly, it only runs 84 minutes and one wouldn’t necessarily want too much more but the overall effect is a combination of the weirdly charming and the genuinely unnerving.
The Merrye House is the destination of Emily and Peter Howe, cousins of the family who arrive with their lawyer Mr Schlocker, intent on laying claim to the mansion and the family estate. They encounter Bruno (Chaney), the caretaker who looks after the remaining Merrye siblings – Virginia, Elizabeth and Ralph. All three are suffering from the family sickness; Elizabeth is relatively normal but Ralph has a most peculiar diet and Virginia, the most obviously deranged, sees herself as a spider and kills unfortunates who get caught in her “web”. First amongst her victims in the film is veteran black comedian Mantan Moreland playing a messenger who is dispatched in a scene which effectively combines absurdist comedy and horror.
Indeed, absurdist comedy is a good way to approach the film. It has something in common with those plays of Harold Pinter where an outsider comes into a bizarre family circle and soon starts to regret it. The outsize performances tend to embed this impression since they are often a little stagey and even pantomimish – Sid Haig as Ralph is particularly outlandish and Karl Schanzer’s supposedly normal Schlocker isn’t far behind. Indeed, the best scene is a dinner party which is a splendid example of the comedy of embarrassment. But the film is also grounded in some kind of reality by Lon Chaney’s gentle and naturalistic performance which makes Bruno by far the most sympathetic character. Chaney had been working regularly in TV in the years preceding this film and was far from being on the bread line but this is clearly the best role he had in the latter part of his career and he makes the most of it.
In some respects, the film is obviously an early work by a director who is still developing his craft and doesn’t quite have full control over the actors who sometimes go a little too far over the top. But it looks incredibly good for something shot for so little money. DP Alfred Taylor works miracles with virtually no resources and the art direction by Ray Storey is wonderfully eerie. It’s also quite creepy in places which is quite an achievement for any comedy-horror film; usually, the entries in this subgenre manage to be funny without being scary, or nasty without being comic. Jill Banner’s very strange performance as spider-girl Virginia is particularly successful in this regard; she really does seem completely unhinged and disturbingly unpredictable, especially in the scene where she has Peter at her mercy.
It’s fascinating to see Spider Baby now when it has been rediscovered as something of a 1960s cult classic. On its original release, four years after it was made, it was dumped into the bottom half of drive-in double bills and remained unseen for the best part of two decades. Now it has been reappraised as a thoroughly deranged minor classic of the comedy-horror genre and it seems to me to be a worthy companion piece to James Whale’s The Old Dark House, another film about an encounter between a bizarre family group and a collection of unprepared outsiders. Jack Hill isn't in the Whale class admittedly but his pace never flags, he keeps the laughs coming and ensures that the final moments will bring a smile to your face even if they are not exactly unexpected.
The transfer of Spider Baby on Blu-Ray is, quite simply, absolutely stunning. The scan was done from the original 35mm negative and the result is a monochrome transfer that stands up there with the very best of work by the BFI and Criterion. There is plenty of depth and perfect contrast, the quality of which can be seen from a comparison with scenes from the film in the accompanying featurette. Detail is exquisite throughout and there’s a pleasing sharpness which is never over-enhanced. There’s a light patina of film grain but no intrusive digital noise. I wasn’t given a copy of the DVD version but David Mackenzie who oversaw the transfer tells me that it is a full-resolution, progressive transfer. I was also very pleased with the carefully restored audio track which renders the dialogue clearly and makes the most of the quirky music score.
The disc contains numerous extra features, all of which are welcome to anyone trying to find out more about this decidedly unusual film.
Jack Hill and Sid Haig contribute an audio commentary, taken from the 2007 Dark Sky DVD release. The two men are old friends who worked together on numerous occasions from Hill’s debut The Host, about which more later, to Foxy Brown and their easy rapport makes for a very enjoyable listen. The chat takes in all manner of things associated with the film from the career of Mantan Moreland to Hill’s inexperience – “I didn’t do any directing at all,” he admits - and the use of the settings and Alfred Taylor’s cinematography. Delicious anecdotes abound and the result is sheer delight.
The Hatching of Spider Baby runs 32 minutes and tells the story of how the film was made by two contractors who hired actor Karl Schanzer for a private detective job and, when he completed it, asked him if he had a film they could produce. A number of contributors to the film are interviewed including Schanzer himself, Jack Hill, Sid Haig, Alfred Taylor, Quinn Redeker and Mary Mitchel, along with fans such as Joe Dante. There’s a lot of affection for the film here, especially towards Lon Chaney.
Spider Stravinsky looks at the fascinating input of composer Ronald Stein. The reliable film historian Ted Newsom acts as a kind of host and Stein’s wife Harlene adds some touching personal observations. Stein, having been rebuffed by mainstream Hollywood, began to work for Roger Corman in the mid-1950s producing more than thirty scores for films such as The She-Creature and The Haunted Palace. In the early 1960s he did the music for Dementia 13 and The Terror before encountering Jack Hill and working on Spider Baby for the ridiculously tiny sum of $2500 for the whole score.
As for the rest, The Merrye House Revisited features Jack Hill and Elijah Drenner take a nostalgic trip back to Highland Park in LA where the film was shot. An alternate opening title sequence features the alternative title Cannibal Orgy and an extended version of the early scene where the family are first encountered by the cousins. There’s also a lengthy cast and crew panel discussion from an AMPAS screening of the film which features Hill, Quinn Redeker and Beverly Washburn. This covers much of the ground already travelled in the commentary and the featurette but it’s an engaging watch. We also get a trailer and a gallery of behind-the-scenes stills.
Finally, we get a rare chance to see Jack Hill’s student film The Host, which features Sid Haig. It’s a very odd thirty minutes which benefits from superb monochrome cinematography from Stephen H. Burum, who later worked with Brian De Palma and Francis Coppola. The text introduction to the film on Arrow’s disc points up the parallels between The Host and the final act of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and they are not remotely difficult to see. But what makes the film interesting is the moody atmosphere combined with some really interesting shot choices by Hill who clearly has a very original sensibility. The film looks in pretty poor shape but is certainly watchable. The dialogue is a bit muted and not always easy to make out.
The package also includes the usual booklet but this was not included with the review copy.
I very much enjoyed Spider Baby. It’s one of those films which shouldn’t really work but somehow does. Arrow’s Blu-Ray does the movie proud and is an essential purchase for movie fans with a taste for the eccentric.