Classic Review: Spider Baby (1967)

Director: Jack Hill

Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Carol Ohmart, Quinn K. Redeker

Release Date: 24th December 1967 (US)

Time can be cruel to movies, fantasy movies most of all. Today’s effects-laden blockbuster is tomorrow’s trash, picked through by pop culture vultures looking for easy laughs. Sometimes however, a movie ignored on release acquires a cult, like some forgotten deity worshiped by acolytes who pass on their message through word of mouth alone. Thirty or forty years ago, some movies survived through this method, until the information age gave forgotten obscurities, such as Carnival of Souls (1962) the acclaim and audience they deserved. Personally, I think every film should spend a few decades sitting unseen in a vault to mature before their premiere, but I’m in the minority on that one.

I first read about Spider Baby in Plexus Book’s Incredibly Strange Movies (first published in 1986), a collection of essays and interviews re-titled and re-released to cash in on The Incredibly Strange Film Show, a late 1980s UK TV series presented by film buff Jonathan Ross examining cult directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis and Ted V Mikels. This book, which also introduced me to Daughter of Horror (1955) and late noir thriller Blast of Silence (1960), included Jim Morton’s review of Spider Baby which sounded like the coolest film ever made; I don’t even have to check my copy to remember his verdict that “Spider Baby is like an episode of a television sitcom directed by Luis Bunuel,” and if the sitcom he had in mind was The Munsters or The Addams Family, then Morton’s spot on with his description. As for the film itself, I would have to wait nearly 25 years to watch if with my own eyes (yes, I could have ordered the DVD, but who wants to be so old-fashioned in these days of financial hardship?)

In between, nothing. None of my normally trusty reference books had a word to say about Spider Baby, even Michael J Weldon’s Psychotronic Video Guide (revised edition, 1996), home to over 9000 films mostly unseen by anyone except Weldon himself, drew a blank. The British horror movie guides were of no use either, as Spider Baby went unreleased in the UK until 1997, making the three year delay in the film’s release in the US, caused by the production company filing for bankruptcy, seem a brief interlude by comparison.

The opening credits set the tone with the gutsy, gleeful vocals of the signature song provided by the film’s star, horror legend Lon Chaney, giving ‘The Monster Mash’ not so much a run for its money, more a stake through its heart and an exorcism to boot. The song plays over cartoon representations of the film’s main characters and leaves you quite unsure what to expect, apart from some grisly giggles (this opening song also refers to the film’s shooting title of Cannibal Orgy, changed perhaps when someone noticed a lack of orgies in the finished product).

Our film is bookended by the avuncular Peter Howe (Quinn Redeker, co-nominated for an Oscar in 1979 for the script of The Deer Hunter [1978]), who tells us the story of the Merrye family, to whom he is distantly related, and explains the family curse, a disease called Merrye Syndrome. This hereditary illness causes its victims to regress mentally back into childhood once their bodies enter adolescence. The older a child ages chronologically, the further back they regress in the mind, until the victim enters a prenatal stage of incoherent savagery.

We cut to the main action, and a messenger (Manton Moreland, best known as Birmingham Brown in the Charlie Chan films), driving some odd hybrid of a motorbike and pick-up truck, as he searches for the Merrye household. By luck, he finds the house, a rundown rural mansion, and by ‘luck,’ I mean luck of the getting-squished-by-a-falling-safe-in-the-street variety. Getting no answer at the door, the messenger sticks his head through an open window to see if anyone’s around. The window drops down, trapping the messenger, as a young girl who looks like a teenager, but acts and talks like a child, enters the room with a net made of string. This is Virginia Merrye (an electric performance from Jill Banner), and the net is her “spider’s web.” The messenger can only look on in horror as Virginia approaches wielding two knives: “the spider gets to give the bug a big sting!” ‘Sting’ is rather an understatement, as Virginia slashes at the messenger’s head over and over, as he struggles helplessly in the jammed window. I won’t say exactly what happens to the messenger before he dies, but let’s just say Quentin Tarantino may have had this scene in mind for a famous sequence in Reservoir Dogs (1992).

By the end of this murderous act, Virginia is sweating and out of breath, adding an unmistakable sexual note to her deed. Another young woman, also acting less her age and more her shoe size, enters the room; this is Elizabeth Merrye, Virginia’s sister. “You’ve been a bad girl,” she tells Virginia. “Bruno will hate you.”

Bruno (Lon Chaney), once the Merrye family chauffeur, now looks after the three surviving children. Arriving in a Duesenberg looking like something the Anthill Mob might drive, Bruno despairs at finding the dead body sticking out of the window and scolds the girls for their bad behavior. “Virginia did it,” Elizabeth tells him, “you ought to hate her.” “How many times have I told you, not to hate?” replies Bruno, who tells Virginia never to play ‘spider’ again.

Now we meet the eldest Merrye child, Ralph, who has regressed to early infancy. Bald and incapable of speech, Ralph is played by cult actor Sid Haig, whose head looks like it fought the entire Vietnam war and is happy for you to have the flashbacks. Bruno has taken Ralph into the city for one of his occasional appointments with a doctor, who presumably since tore up his hippocratic oath and recanted the practice of medicine. We first see Ralph curled up in the fetal position in the back of the car, sucking his thumb, and it doesn’t get much better from then on.

While Ralph entertains himself with the messenger’s body, Bruno tells the two girls they cannot risk attracting the attention of strangers, who might wish the family ill. As Spider Baby progresses, it becomes clear that Bruno has no family of his own and has come to regard the three Merrye children as a surrogate family, and loves them, despite their condition. Ralph finds the letter the messenger had hoped to deliver (and, one can argue, did so successfully) and Bruno discovers it’s from a lawyer; relatives of the Merrye family are to visit with the intention of claiming legal guardianship of the three children. Asked if this is bad, Bruno tells the girls “it’s not good…but it isn’t bad. Nothing is very bad.” The visitors are due on the 14th – this very day. “Children,” says Bruno, “we’ve got to keep a few secrets today.”

As Virginia and Elizabeth mop up the mess-enger, Bruno disposes of his body using a dumb waiter. “I’m coming, Uncle Ned,” Bruno calls down, accessing a set of stairs behind a secret panel. Descending into a stone room filled with cobwebs and strange noises, Bruno calls for “Aunt Martha,” and “Aunt Sarah.” We get the impression that said aunts and uncles are having the messenger for lunch, so to speak.

Said visiting relatives are Peter Howe and sister Emily (Carol Ohmart who, according to Morton, “seethes like a frustrated dominatrix”). As Emily drives the pair along a highway, with the car occupying any available space away where it’s supposed to be, Peter asks about the Merryes. “They’re our cousins,” Emily tells him, “it behooves us to met them.” Never trust anyone who uses the word “behooves,” especially Emily, who’s more interested in the family estate than its occupants. The Howes arrive at the mansion before their lawyer, but this doesn’t stop Emily making her presence felt. Peter objects: “you can’t just barge in one someone we’re about to sue,” but Emily almost sticks her nose in where it’s very much wanted, narrowly avoiding adding to Virginia’s collection of body parts.

Bruno drives the Howe’s lawyer, Mr Schlocker (Karl Schanzer), and his secretary, Miss Morris (Mary Mitchel) from the station to the Merrye mansion. Along the way, they stop at roadworks, where Schlocker discusses the legal case around the estate, which the Howes, or at least Emily, plan to take over. The children would be placed in an institution, with Bruno receiving some sort of reward for his years of loyal service, none of which is good news to Bruno. Shocked to learn the children have received no schooling, the lawyer informs Bruno “there are judicial remedies for such abuses.” “I don’t think the master would like this,” comments Bruno, although Titus Merrye, the children’s father, can offer no such opinion being really quite dead. Indeed, it was on his deathbed that Titus implored Bruno to look after the children, a vow Bruno takes very seriously indeed.

The Howes, Schlocker and Miss Morris meet the Merrye children at the mansion. Emily takes a (understandable) dislike to them at once, while Peter, comfortable with anyone’s presence, is friendly to the children, including Ralph, who is found hiding inside the dumb waiter. Bruno explains the Merrye family illness means these three children are the last generation of the family. Titus’ siblings live in a “private institution,” according to Bruno, leaving him in sole charge of the estate. The four newcomers invite themselves to dinner, even though Bruno warns them of their “austere diet,” but thinks they “can find something,” to eat, words, when spoken in a horror film, mean something deeply unpleasant.

Schlocker and Emily discuss the Merrye’s finances as they sit to dinner, an event for which the children wear their best clothes, and for Ralph this means a top hat and a Little Lord Fauntleroy get-up, making him more frightening than ever. “Voila!” announces Bruno, presenting a cooked rabbit. In the spirit of buffalo wings and Bombay duck, this rabbit is actually a roasted cat, caught and killed by Ralph. Contrary to what we might expect, Spider Baby has the ‘good’ characters chow down on the horror food, while the ‘bad’ Schlocker and Emily balk at the offerings, which also include fungus souffle (“Virginia has the knack of only picking the non-poisonous kind”), “fresh garden greens” (grass) and an unidentifiable black mess filled with bugs (“Oh no sir, you wouldn’t want any of that.”) Bruno passes on the meat option, explaining the family are vegetarians, as meat worsens their medical condition. “We don’t eat dead things,” confirms Elizabeth. If so, why is Ralph eating the ‘rabbit’ (forgoing the cutlery as he does so)? “Ralph is allowed to eat anything he catches,” explains Bruno.

The dinner scene makes taking tiffin with Hannibal Lecter seem like a teddy bear’s picnic, and may have influenced Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), joining Spider Baby and Daughter of Horror, as films to make you give up food for life. Spider Baby however, not content with subverting the American family, does the same job to the American horror film, as Peter and Miss Morris discuss their love of vintage horrors, such as Dracula (1931) and The Mummy (1932), but it’s obvious they enjoy them as much for laughs as for chills. Spider Baby, on the other hand, is something very different, and like the signature song, thumbs its nose to the horrors of the past. As if in recognition of this, Bruno ends the scene with “there is a full moon tonight,” an event without bearing on the proceedings, and a comment pointing out is own redundancy. Also, it’s the sort of line you imagine Lon Chaney just loved to deliver.

With little in the way of ready rooms, it’s agreed Peter should drive Miss Morris to the nearest motel for the night. While Virginia and Elizabeth help change the beds, Schlocker squashes a spider. Emily hates spiders; “we have lots of spiders,” Virginia tells her, in a way that doesn’t sound good for anyone. Once alone, the two girls tell each other they hate the guests, although “we’re not supposed to hate.” Virginia wants to play ‘spider’ with Emily and Schlocker, but for the moment is content to tuck in her father and kiss him goodnight…

“This is the phoniest set-up I’ve ever seen,” claims Emily, convinced the Merryes are trying to scare her off. Schlocker, who may have a bit of a thing going on for Emily, determines to find out the truth. Down in the lower levels of the house, among the stuffed animals, dolls nailed to the wall, and some very worrying stains on the brickwork, Schlocker finds the messenger left part of himself behind, and also sees Bruno operating the dumb waiter. Emily meanwhile, admires herself in the mirror while wearing some artistically justified lingerie (bearing out what Morton had suggested, that Emily acts as she does out of sexual frustration, or perceiving those around her as inadequate to meet her needs).

Schlocker finds the secret panel and investigates the cellar, but to his horror, hands grab at him from beneath the floor. Worse still, Virginia and Elizabeth are blocking the escape, in a lovely shot full of depth, their bodies shrouded by shadow, light fringing their outlines. “This has gone beyond all boundaries of prudence and good taste,” says Schlocker, appealing the girls’ sense of decency. The girls agree, put down their weapons and decide to raise begonias.

Ha ha, only kidding. “Kill him!” cries Virginia, and Schlocker dies in a flurry of stabbings. This done, the girls worry how Bruno will react, even though Schlocker “was going to tell on us.” Bruno, having seen Schlocker’s corpse travelling the dumb waiter, joins the girls and agrees that yes, the lawyer was going to tell on them. With tears in his eyes, Bruno relates of how he’d promised the girls’ father to care for them and Ralph forever, but now, even with Schlocker dead, it appears the family will be split up, and the house lost. If nothing else, Ralph’s worsening condition means he will soon join his uncle and aunts in the cellar, as one day, will Virginia and Elizabeth. All three of the Merrye children are doomed, and Bruno will face life alone and without purpose. Lon Chaney often gets a bad rap for his acting abilities, but Spider Baby is a great showcase for his talents, and in this scene, Chaney is superb.

Just as all seems lost, Bruno brightens and remembers he has a new toy for the children, but he must leave them alone for a few minutes, despite their protests.

Emily takes her eyes off herself for a moment and notices Ralph watching her while upside-down and hanging from the roof. Running out of the room, Emily sees the two girls with Schlocker’s corpse, causing her to flee the house in fear and yes, she’s very much still in her underwear at this point. Emily evades the knife-wielding girls only to run in something worse – Ralph who, in the mood for love, pulls Emily to the ground.

In a telling juxtaposition, Paul and Miss Howe, driving to a motel, both worse for wear after a liquid dinner, are still talking about traditional horror films. “Are you really a fan of the Wolf Man, Anne?” asks Paul. “Oh yes,” she replies, “that’s how every man should be, like a wild beast!” (The Wolf Man was of course Lon Chaney’s most famous role). Any hopes Paul had of showing Miss Morris his inner beast, or even his own little beast, are spoiled when the motel has no vacancies, so it’s back to the Merrye mansion, where Virginia is eating a bug and Elizabeth busies herself by destroying a jigsaw, an occupation marginally more fun than putting the thing together. In a quietly shocking moment, Virginia sees Ralph has split his pants along his backside, and picks up her knife and readies herself to strike, but stops on hearing a car pull up outside.

To their disappointment, it isn’t Bruno but “Uncle Peter and the pretty lady.” As much as Virginia and Elizabeth like their uncle, both know “they will tell.” Elizabeth’s face glows with menace as she announces she has a plan for the pair.

The girls greet Paul and Miss Morris with a curtsey, and while Elizabeth shows the secretary to her room, Virginia persuades Paul to join her in a game of ‘spider.’ Soon, Virginia has Paul tied to a chair and covered in her string web. Things aren’t much better for Miss Morris, who seems to have lost some items of clothing as Elizabeth forces her into the by now seriously overworked dumb waiter.

The game of spider reaches an interesting juncture when Virginia asks Paul if he likes “the pretty lady,” and he admits he does. Virginia responds with a teasing dance, performed by the spider to the bug (Paul) “so that his juice tastes better.” Paul, played by Quinn Redeker as an affable, cheesy character who’s wandered in from a guest spot on Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie, sweats with discomfort at the thought of a young woman enjoying his juice: “I think we’d better play a different game now.” But this is the Spider Baby’s game, and Virginia is a young black widow. Virginia sits on Paul’s lap and raises her skirt above her knees, a sexualized child who is actually a girl in late adolescence (Jill Banner was only 17 at the time Spider Baby was shot), seducing an adult male, something only the bravest (or most independent) of film-makers would attempt nowadays. Paul manfully resists Virginia’s seduction, leaving the girl resigned to note “spiders like bugs, but bugs don’t like spiders.” There’s nothing for the spider to do but “sting the bug.”

Luckily for Paul, Elizabeth arrives; Ralph has Miss Morris “but won’t let go.” Leaving Paul tied up, Virginia and Elizabeth confront Ralph in the cellar, where he has hold of Miss Morris. Once more, Virginia decides arachnids have the answer; observing how Miss Morris squiggles “like a bug in a web,” Virginia will do as the “clever spider” would and drain Miss Morris of her juices.

In the gardens, Emily comes round a changed woman for her ‘experience,’ and calls out dreamily for Ralph. Entering the house, Emily finds the Merrye children attempting to saw off one of Miss Morris’ legs “so Ralph can play with her better.” Enraged by seeing Ralph with another woman, Emily attacks the man-child, causing him severe injuries. Emily’s victory is short-lived, as she falls through the open trap-door to Uncle Ned and company, and forms the main course of a family banquet.

Paul shuffles the chair closer to a knife Virginia has left behind, but as he reaches for the blade, Virginia’s pet tarantulas, Winifred and Barney, emerge from the woodwork and creep towards the horrified Paul. Somehow, Paul manages to crash down the stairs, where Bruno has joined the two girls, with the promised toy – dynamite, stolen from a workmen’s hut at the roadworks. Knowing there’s no hope for his adopted family, and therefore no hope for himself, Bruno is to end it all before matters become unbearable. Taking Bruno’s sage advice to leave, Paul recovers Miss Morris and runs out of the mansion. Virginia and Elizabeth look forward to the explosion as, to their amazement, Uncle Ned and Aunts Martha and Sarah crawl from the cellar. Bruno looks at them, smiles, and shrugs.

We return to Paul, who concludes the story. “Yes, it was quite an amazing experience,” Paul admits, who is either the master of understatement, or has watched a different film to the rest of us. Miss Morris is now Mrs Howe, and the couple have one daughter, Jessica. As the sole surviving relative, Paul and his new family inherited the vast Merrye estate and all is well, with Merrye Syndrome confined to history. Jessica, a child who looks as if she’s haunted by her own ghost, asks her mother, busy making the first cocktail of the day, if she can play outside. Once in the garden, we see Paul’s optimism may be unfounded…

A film that defies easy categorization, Spider Baby is part horror, part comedy, yet too far ‘out there’ to be described as a horror-comedy. Directed and written by Roger Corman protege Jack Hill, Spider Baby has a verve and humor that’s almost unique, helped no end by Alfred Taylor’s photography, ensuring this black-and-white movie gleams with a crispness which reminded me of another forgotten horror gem from around the same time, The Flesh Eaters (1964). Spider Baby however, with its creepy, claustrophobic setting, allows a more productive interplay between direction and the photography, which along with Hill’s morbidly funny script, makes for a memorable viewing experience. Quite how Spider Baby made it to no. 15 in Brandon Christopher’s 50 Worst Films of All Time (2004) documentary is a mystery, showing a complete absence of bad taste on behalf of the compiler, who actually has nothing bad to say about a movie he has selected for mockery.

As mentioned before, Lon Chaney shines in his role as Bruno the chauffeur and as Morton puts it, gives “the character just the right qualities of compassion and desperation.” Sadly, Chaney was in physical decline by this stage in his career due to alcoholism and smoking, yet this adds to the performance. The careworn Bruno, deep down, acknowledges the awfulness of the situation, and with his baggy eyes and heavily creased face, the poor chauffeur resembles a St Bernard’s rescue dog, with a lifetime of only digging up dead bodies to look back upon. Karl Schanzer never really ‘fits’ the role of Schlocker, almost appearing to get under the feet of the other players, and Beverly Washburn doesn’t quite escape the shadow of the startling performance by Jill Banner. Banner mostly worked in television for the rest of her career, but died at the tragically young age of 35, when her car was hit by a drunk driver. Rather like Virginia, Banner would never grow old, and thanks to Spider Baby, she is remembered. I’ll leave the final words to Jim Morton, who surmises Spider Baby‘s appeal perfectly: “it is macabre and grotesque, but in an offbeat, fun-loving way. In offering bizarre situations and weird ethical dilemmas, the films rebuffs the simplistic response. Contradictory emotions abound.”