Never mind the holidays; dealing with family can be stressful any time of year. Birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, or just a mandatory visit to a forgotten aunt you haven’t seen in 15 years can all hold their share of tension and misery. But at least be thankful you’re not part of the Merrye clan, the family at the center of Jack Hill’s Spider Baby (1967), a quirky yet clever examination of the prototypical horror tribe that influenced the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977).
Filmed in 1964 but not given a limited release by American General Pictures until late ’67, it languished in general obscurity until a video restoration in the mid ‘90s shone a light on its peculiar charms. Filmed in 12 days on a budget of $55,000, Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told (full title) is like watching The Addams Family shake the family tree and having incest, cannibalism, and murder topple to the ground. Definitely more exciting than my Canada Day barbeques.
Our film opens with a man named Peter Howe (Quinn Redeker – The Candidate) looking through a book on abnormal diseases before addressing us, the audience. He tells the story of the Merrye family; a poor lot misbegotten with a degenerative disease so rare that it was named after them (insert Lou Gehrig joke here), and a peculiar branch on Peter’s tree. We then flashback ten years to the Merrye ranch, where the mailman meets his demise at the hands (or knives, rather) of Virginia Merrye (Jill Banner – Weekend of Fear), a teenaged girl who fancies herself a spider, fake webbing and all. Enter Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr. – The Wolf Man), the family chauffeur, the one left in charge of the three Merrye children – Virginia, her sister Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn – Old Yeller), and their mute brother Ralph (Sid Haig – The Devil’s Rejects) – and the one who has to clean up their messes, such as the previously mentioned letter carrier. And that particular letter informs Bruno and the kids that the Merrye’s cousin, Peter Howe (and his wife Emily played by Carol Ohmart) is on route to see the clan and discuss the family estate, along with his lawyer Mr. Schlocker (Karl Schanzer – Dementia 13) and his lady, Ann (Mary Mitchel – Panic in Year Zero!). What follows are a series of set pieces that demonstrate not only is blood thicker than water, it’s twice as crazy. (Yes, I’m saying liquids have emotions. My column, my rules.)
Jack Hill possesses the single most important quality in a B-movie writer/director: A sense of humor. Tongue lodged firmly in cheek, classic Blaxploitation films such as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), or Women in Prison flicks like The Big Doll House (1971) are one and all, energetic examples of films that rise above their particular station through sharp writing and outsized performances. The bottom line is entertainment; he is a socially conscious filmmaker, but he never lets the message get in the way of a good verbal or visual gag.
He makes his intentions clear with Spider Baby right off the bat; animated opening credits accompany a groovy, ghoulish tune warbled by Lon himself, a playful ditty that tells us we’re going on a bit of a carnival ride through the Tunnel of Lurid with Hill as the winking barker. Apprenticing with Roger Corman on The Terror (1963) taught Hill a few valuable lessons, like a quick turnaround and maximizing a meager budget, but most important seemed to be this: Come up with a great concept first, and figure out the minutia later, such as a script or sympathetic actors. It was always a bone roll, but one that usually paid off for the astute Corman – young, passionate filmmakers with big ideas and no money at the very least would produce something that would appeal to some faction of the Drive-In market.
Unless you’re a young, post-Corman Jack Hill, that is. The anachronistic tone of Spider Baby must have frightened off everyone; subversive is the only way to describe a film that touches on such taboo topics in an ultimately well-mannered way. Cannibalism has never seemed so darn wholesome; Hill insinuates everything and shows nothing that a G rating couldn’t take care of. But would you explain to your 6 year old the wonderful side effects of inbreeding? Probably not, and it’s this peculiar tone that set this movie far adrift from audiences back in the day.
The passage of time has certainly been kind to Spider Baby; in fact it has shaped a whole subsect of ‘family’ films, from Chain Saw to the Wrong Turn franchise all living off the template laid out by Jack Hill’s whimsical ghouly swirl. And these subsequent efforts all pick up on the theme of unity established here; not unity between the so called heroes of the piece, but rather our antagonists’ single minded belief in each other. Rob Zombie’s Firefly clan simply would not exist without the Merrye kids.
And those kids really sell Spider Baby; broad at times (and on purpose), they seem to be performing for some demented kiddie show; especially of note is Haig, whose entirely physical, lithe performance is a revelation to those used to his booming, hayseed baritone being his main presence. Redeker offers a cheery presence that is right in tune with Hill; Peter finds his cousins kind of delightful (and they, him), like we do – for a while, that is. He may be a cousin, but a Merrye he is not. But the film really acts as a proper curtain call for horror icon Lon Chaney, Jr. When given a good role, he could be quite effective; his Bruno is a man burdened by his responsibility to look after the children, and he offers a melancholic turn that offsets the more frantic behavior of the clan. He had a few more roles after this before his death in 1973, but this stands as one of his very best performances, right alongside Larry Talbot himself.
Spider Baby is a film that was born ahead of its time. Why did it take audiences so long to catch up to its macabre wit? Perhaps it has everything to do with our own perceptions of family, and a secret wish for the occasional Merrye touch. I mean, there’s only so many times you can pass your drunk uncle the potato salad.
Spider Baby is available in a 2-Disc Special Edition (Blu-ray + DVD) from Arrow Video.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974)