(1964) director Jack Hill
They’re creepier and they’re kookier, more mysterious and spookier; they’re all together ookier than The Addams Family.
An apropos epithet for the Merrye family, the center of director Jack Hill’s 1964 horror-comedy, Spider Baby. Actually, both The Addams Family and The Munsters debuted in 1964, the same year that Spider Baby was produced. Maybe it was just due time for a comedic take on black humor and a re-cast appreciation for the horror films of the 1930’s-1950’s. But that’s not to say that the Merryes are like the Addamses.
No, in fact, the film’s original title was Cannibal Orgy, which along with the theme song, a jiving semi-surf rock tune with star Lon Chaney, Jr. speaking the lines “this cannibal orgy is strange to behold in the maddest story ever told,” which also includes the film’s subtitle. And the film opens with this tune and some amusing cartoons in the title sequence. This isn’t your average, everyday cannibal orgy.
Lon Chaney, Jr. plays Bruno, the caretaker of the Merrye family who are cursed with a degenerative disease that erodes the mind and body starting around the age of 10. There are three Merrye children: Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), Virginia (Jill Banner), and Ralph (Sid Haig). Down in the basement are a couple of aunts and an uncle, testaments to the fact that the very strange and backward children have a lot further to slide down the pit of degradation.
The film opens with Virginia “playing spider” with a delivery man, which includes trapping him in her web and “stinging” him with two big knives. But what the delivery man was bringing, news of a visit by some distant relatives who want to take over the remote property for financial gain, is a bit of a death knell for the merry Merryes. The greedy aunt Emily (Carol Ohmart) just wants to have them all locked up.
Well, that’s not how things turn out.
I first saw this film over 10 years ago, on a whim as a rental from a Cult section of a video store and I was totally into it. Spider Baby had suffered some obscurity because just at the time it was completed, the company that had funded it went under and the film wasn’t properly released for several years. Hill didn’t maintain any control over it, and though it became an obscurist hit at some theaters, it wasn’t as well known until the boom of video and DVD rental.
It’s not just that it’s comedy. It’s really got weirdness and charm. Chaney’s caretaker mindfully reprimands but offers unconditional love to the twisted, very naughty murderous children. And their uncle Peter (Quinn K. Redeker) is also cheerfully accepting of their eccentricities and utterly non-judgmental. So, in a sense, the film has a great deal of heart. And while it’s a low-budget affair, it’s production values are not shabby at all and the performances are all quite enjoyable.
But the main joy is the full-on weirdness, black humor, and goofiness is Spider Baby. Little wonder it’s such a popular cult favorite.