On occasion, I finally get myself around to watching a film that has long lingered on my “to-watch” list. I’ve been meaning to watch Spider Baby for ages. It has everything I could want: it’s stylish, a bit humorous and it stars Lon Chaney Jr.
And thank god I finally got around to seeing this.
Spider Baby also often includes the subtitle The Maddest Story Ever Told. It’s probably not, but it is pretty wicked and fun.
The three Merrye children suffer from a disease called Merrye Syndrome, an illness that affects many members of the family. It causes anyone who has it to regress in age once they hit a certain age in childhood. Peter, the man who introduces us to the disease, tells us that anyone with Merrye Syndrome will continue to regress past a “pre-natal level” and resort to savagery and cannibalism. But it’s a disease that Peter insists is now extinct.
The last three children to have it are the spider baby Virginia (Jill Banner), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and Ralph (Sid Haig, who is about as ridiculous and over-the-top as you’d expect from him). The children are looked after by their chauffeur Bruno (Lon Chaney).
One morning, an unsuspecting postal worker goes to Merrye House to deliver a letter. He’s obviously been told it’s of some importance because the poor man has to go through the gates and up to the house to try and deliver it.
But when he sticks his head through an open window, he’s caught in Virginia’s spiderweb and cut up by the two massive knives she uses as a sort of pincer. Her sister Elizabeth sees her with the dead body and chides her. And when Bruno arrives back home with Ralph from Ralph’s hospital visit, Bruno lectures her as well. Though, as a theme throughout the movie, Virginia asks if he hates her, to which Bruno reminds her that she shouldn’t hate.
But Bruno finds the letter, which announces that the heirs to the home will be arrive that very day with their lawyer, and that they will be the legal guardians of the three children. To which Bruno says to the children, “We’ve got to keep some secrets today.”
Emily (Carol Ohmart, House on Haunted Hill) and Peter (Quinn Redeker) arrive at the house to take possession of the home, and the siblings find the children trying to act on their best behaviour. Though Ralph and big-child-like personality immediately creeps Emily out. Meanwhile, their lawyer Schlocker and his assistant Ann are in the car with Bruno. The chauffeur stops on the road while he waits “the blasting” to be done for the new highway that is to be built.
The group are finally all together at the Merrye House, and Bruno has no other choice other than to explain the children’s syndrome to them. He tells the cousins that the children are ill due to the inbreeding in the family, but Peter and Emily are reassured that it hasn’t affected them because they are too distantly related. Since the children are unlikely to have children of their own, the disease will die out with the last three. Though, it’s worth mentioning here that Bruno has left out the fact that the Merrye children’s uncle and aunt are living in the basement in an awfully-regressed (yet unseen) phase.
Deciding to settle in for the night, the children go out to forage for the food use in one of the strangest dinner scenes I’ve ever seen right behind Derranged. Virginia picks some wonderful non-poisonous mushrooms while Ralph hunts down a poor kitty. Peter, bless him, is such a likable character. He munches through dinner, cheerfully eating the cat. Granted he doesn’t know it’s cat, but you know, good for him for trying.
Virginia and Elizabeth are perfectly creepy. While both actresses were in their late teens/early twenties (this was filmed in 1964), they both capture a sinister… innocence? It’s a tricky balance, but the smiles are so sweet and creepy. Though the children are all a bit too much for Emily and Schlocker. They think it’s all a set-up to creep them out and leave. Granted, it’s not an intentional bit, but this family is pretty frightening.
Since Schlocker is really stupid, he decides to snoop around the house. He finds a moving bookcase that leads to the basement. There he finds the hungry relatives who grab him. But the girls get to him first and kill him.
Bruno finds the girls with the corpse and understands that this the end for the children. Chaney gives an excellent speech here, just in case you forget how incredible he is. He promises the girls that he will go out and get them a “toy” to help sort out their problem.
It’s also worth noting that the theme is fantastic. Not that having a great theme really makes a film, but Chaney does this, so it really does help lift the movie. Actually, Chaney lifts this entire film to a really great level.
Meanwhile, Emily is trying on several saucy robes. Unbeknownst to her, Ralph is watching from the window. When she finally sees him, she runs away. Then finding the corpse, she runs away again into the night. The Merrye kids race after her, but Ralph gets to her first, doing…er something to her off screen.
Peter and Ann? Well, they’ve spent most of their time trying to find a place to spend the night (there’s no room in the inn) and getting wasted on classy cocktails. They arrive back at the house unable to find lodgings, and see that things really aren’t quite right.
Virginia and Elizabeth lead Ann to “Daddy’s room” – Daddy being dead for years and his corpse occupying the bed. Ann understandably gets panicked seeing a corpse in her bed, but Ralph grabs her before she can scream.
Virginia goes off to tend to Peter, who she’s taken a special shine to. She wants to play spider with him and she catches him in her web. But a issue with Ralph and Ann distracts the girl, and she leaves Peter alone. Though Peter isn’t too alone as Virginia’s tarantulas are there to keep him company.
But while the madness ensues, devil Emily shows up looking a little crazy. She immediately jumps on Ralph, but ends up in the clutches of the aunt and uncle. Bruno finally arrives with his surprise, leaving Ann and Peter only minutes to escape from the Merrye house.
The film goes full circle to the focus on Peter and his life years after his adventure at the Merrye house. He seems happy and content, but horror only lurks around the corner, right?
Jack Hill (who also directed personal favourite Jackie Brown and other exploitation films) creates a really fantastic show. It’s black-and-white, but it’s so stylish you’d dream it in colour. It’s so clear as to how this is a cult film. It’s quotable, and the cast look so attractive together. But really, it’s Chaney Jr who steals the show, which is saying something considering how fun it is to watch Banner, Washburn and Haig together as the Merrye children.
It may have taken ages for me to get around to watch Spider Baby, but it has already joined the ranks of my favourite horror films from the 60’s. I look forward to many rewatchings in the future.