Thursday, June 19, 2014

Blogorium Review: Spider Baby

 Jack Hill's Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told is one of the more unusual films I think I've ever seen. That has to say something, as the Blogorium has seen its share of the strange and "off the beaten path" cinema. It's more coherent than Death Bead: The Bed That Eats, and less hyperbolic than Blood Car, to be sure, but there's something about the tone of Spider Baby that resonates well after the film ends. Lurid? Yes. Graphically violent? At times. It meets most of the check-marks for "low budget shocker" from the 1960s, but Spider Baby is nothing like the two most famous titles from that era: Night of the Living Dead and Carnival of Souls. It's so weird that the film often makes Freaks look tame by comparison, if only in how nonchalant everyone seems to be about the Merrye family.

 Somewhere in the hills of California (?) is what remains of the Merrye Mansion, a place nobody wants to go anymore. Its only inhabitants are Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), her younger sister Virginia (Jill Banner), and their older brother Ralphie (Sid Haig), under the care of the family chauffeur, Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.). Well, there might be a few odd uncles and aunts in the basement, but that's Bruno's business. The Merrye's have a unique affliction: a genetic disorder that causes them to "regress" as they grow older, mentally at first but eventually physically as well. Virginia believes that she's a spider, and eats bugs, along with anything (or anyone) she catches in her "web." Elizabeth dresses and behaves like a child and wants nothing more than for Bruno to hate her sister, to the point that she allows Virginia to kill the mailman (Mantan Moreland) early in the film. Ralphie? Well, it might be better to think of him less as a person and more like a dog - he's in the late stages of "Merrye Syndrome" and is basically feral.

 To Bruno's great dismay, the mailman (who was dead when he got home, to be fair) is delivering notice from the niece and nephew of "The Master" of the Merrye Estate, Emily (Carol Ohmart) and Peter (Quinn Redeker) Howe, who have come to take control of the manor and assume custody of the children. Emily brings along her lawyer, Mr. Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) and his assistant, Ann Morris (Merry Mitchell), with hopes of cashing in on the estate, but what they find is a very different matter indeed. The children trust Bruno and they do their best to appear "normal" for their extended family, but it's only so long before their natural tendencies surface...

 Originally titled Cannibal Orgy, the film begins with a kooky animated credits sequence, accompanied by a song about the story to come, sung by Chaney. If you didn't know what you were getting into, this sets the tone right away, and Mantan Moreland's jittery mailman give a clear sense that Spider Baby teeters on the brink of "camp" territory. Not intentionally, mind you, but the bizarre display of "Merrye Syndrome," and Elizabeth and Virginia in particular are a template for the sorts of characters who populated John Waters films in the 1970s. They just don't know any better - it's how they've always lived, with Bruno keeping a close eye on them and the rest of the world shut out.

 For the Merrye family, it's perfectly normal that Ralphie uses a dumbwaiter between floors of the house, and while Emily is appalled at their lack of "manners," Peter takes it all in stride. He accepts them as they are, a choice that makes Spider Baby all the more unusual; the film doesn't revel in how bizarre the Merrye's are (and they certainly are), but takes them at face value and presents the intruders as the "strange" ones. At no point in the film is the audience ever sympathetic towards Schlocker or Emily, and the emerging romance between Peter and Ann seems to exist so that Virginia's affections toward him go unrequited. That they're family only seems to go noticed by Peter, but he's so accommodating of the girls that in more lurid hands, who knows where the story may have headed...

 I'm almost positive that Spider Baby is a direct influence on Rob Zombies' House of 1000 Corpses, particularly on how the presentation of the Merrye's mirrors the behavior of the Firefly clan. It's not just that Sid Haig is in both films, although that certainly doesn't hurt the case that Zombie has seen Spider Baby and borrows from it (in particular, watch the dinner scene and compare Baby on the couch in Corpses with Virginia and Peter in the "web" scene). The difference that makes a difference between Spider Baby and House of 1000 Corpses is that the former was intentionally designed to be a comedy and the latter resembles a grab-bag of "grindhouse" tropes in the guise of a horror movie. (In the interest of full disclosure, the Cap'n is not a fan of House of 1000 Corpses).

 We're meant to laugh at the arch behavior and the unexpected resolution to the Ralphie / Emily "romance" - if you want to call it that - in the same way that Bruno's admission the family is "vegetarian" at the dinner table. The concession to this rule is that Virginia eats bugs and Ralphie is allowed to eat whatever he "catches," which includes the cooked cat on the table. Only Peter seems interested in partaking, mostly because he assumes it's a fox or something of that nature.

 The distinction that Spider Baby is a comedy - a very, very black comedy at that - is often missed by people who discover the film. Hill, who made his feature debut with Spider Baby, lost the film in a series of tangled rights issues following the producers going bankrupt, delaying its release for the better part of the 1960s. When Cannibal Orgy finally made its way to theaters, it was unusually paired with biker films (Hells Chosen Few) or horror anthologies (Dr. Terror's House of Horrors). Given that sort of pairing, it's understandable that Spider Baby remains largely unknown to this day. I had heard of it, but had never seen a copy of the U.S. DVD, and ultimately came to the film through the Arrow Video Blu-Ray release, which does look fantastic for a 50 year old film that only made it to drive-ins. It existed on the margins of cult cinema for so long that even Jack Hill is surprised by the affinity its fans have for the film. He seems puzzled to be remembered for this over Switchblade Sisters or Foxy Brown, but for a young filmmaker working on a low budget, it's a very assured debut.

 Part of the appeal was seeing a younger Sid Haig, and also Ohlmart (memorable as Vincent Price's venomous wife in House on Haunted Hill), but chiefly I wanted to see Lon Chaney, Jr. in one of his better later roles. Unlike Alligator People or Hillbillys in a Haunted House, Chaney wasn't consigned to the "drunken caretaker" role, and is instead the surrogate parent for the Merrye children. He has quite a few tender moments with the girls, particularly when Virginia does something unforgivable and Elizabeth desperately wants him to shun her for it. He tells them that he could never hate them, and does his best to manage an untenable situation when Emily and Peter arrive. His sense of resignation about the real world colliding with the fantasy world of the Merrye "children" keeps Spider Baby from simply being a freak show. Tonally speaking, Chaney is what makes Spider Baby such a strange film, in that he simply refuses (as a character and, presumably, as an actor) to treat this madness as anything other than "par the course."

 The big surprise, at least for me, was Jill Banner as Virginia. I knew almost nothing about her going into the film, and only found out after the fact that she had been developing scripts with Marlon Brando prior to her untimely death (car accident). While Beverly Washburn has the more "camp" performance, Banner is mesmerizing as the titular character, who seems totally disconnected to reality in any form. Her fascination with "Uncle Peter" is both creepy and sweet, although her intentions always lead back to playing "spider" with a pair of kitchen knives for fangs. It's a shame there isn't more of Banner to see on-screen, but as first impressions go, she makes the most of hers.

 (SPOILERS AHEAD) I do have one minor point of contention for the film - the original title, Cannibal Orgy, doesn't actually make much sense until the very end of the movie, when the completely devolved "relatives" in the basement are revealed. To that point, we're only aware that Bruno and the girls put the bodies of the mailman and Schlocker in the dumbwaiter and send them to the basement, but it's not clear that the "uncles" and "aunts" are eating them. Furthermore, it's hard to tell exactly what Elizabeth eats other than moss and mushrooms, and Virginia only eats bugs and cuts up people - she keeps the mailman's ear in a box, but never makes any overtures that she'd eat it. Ralphie eats other animals, and Bruno doesn't appear to have any cannibalistic tendencies. I understand that the title is lurid and grabs your attention, but in this instance Spider Baby may, in fact, be the better choice, even if the opening song specifically references cannibalism.

 It's a minor quibble, I admit: Spider Baby is a film that deserves to be better known than it is, but if you like hunting out on the edges of cult classics, I think you'll find it is every bit as deserving of your attention as Carnival of Souls or Night of the Living Dead. Possibly as influential, albeit to a different group of filmmakers. And don't worry too much about the goofy prologue with Peter that sets up "Merrye Syndrome" - the closing bookend wraps it up well (or does it???).  Spider Baby is the sort of low budget exploitation that sneaks up on you, and continually surprises, confuses, and amuses you. I wish I'd have seen it sooner, but even a Cap'n can be late to the party some times. Come over some time and I'll be happy to show it to you, but do watch out for my web. I get to eat what I catch, you see...

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