Lon Chaney Jr

Wicked Wednesday: Spider Baby (1968)

spiderbaby

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.

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Wicked Wednesday: Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967)

hillbillys

For this week’s movie, I wanted to watch something a little bit different than what I usually write about. I had been doing a lot of reading about Lon Chaney Jr a few weeks back and thought that I should watch one of his later films. You know, how fun does that sound? Well, I have no idea why but I thought Hillbillys in a Haunted House had a fantastic title. Like Texas Chainsaw Massacre but with everyone’s favourite werewolf!

Well, Hillbillys in a Haunted House is absolutely crap. Reading the Wikipedia summary before watching the film (I don’t like to look at IMDB and the like for give-away reasons), I thought to myself, “Hey, this sounds pretty quirky! And it’s a horror comedy. The 60s were great at that!” No. Apparently they weren’t. I think using the term “horror comedy” is a bit too loose. Plus I missed key give-aways like “the sequel to The Las Vegas Hillbillys” and “starring Ferlin Husky.” which most definitely point to danger.

But when I read that some of the world’s finest actors were in this, I was convinced. Ferlin Husky (in one of his last roles), Lon Chaney Jr and John Carradine were three names that I couldn’t pass up. Turns out Hollywood really, really can make you hate something you love so much.

Hillbillys in a Haunted House mostly focuses on the three main characters from the first film: country musicians Boots Malone and Woody Weatherby and Jeepers, the manager. Immediately there were warning signs that this was not the film for me as soon as the three of them opened their mouths and start singing some country song about going to Nashville or something. On their way, the gang drive through a shoot-out (completely unphased, mind you). When they inquire what’s going on, they’re informed that the police are targeting spies.

Shrugging off that incident, the trio get car trouble and head to a service station where the local Harbinger of Doom directs them to a place where they can stay the night – an abandoned mansion. As they drive off, the attendant shouts, “I forgot to tell ’em it’s haunted.” HA HA HA. Great stuff.

Anyway, the three arrive at the house and bring playing music (thank goodness because it’s only been about five minutes of plot since the last song). When Woody stops playing, a group of random men enter the house and they play a song. But for some reason, every song now sounds like it’s played in either a tin can or underwater.

See? I’ll share a clip that contains studio-quality audio that isn’t from the movie!

Gee! Wasn’t that a fun song?

Anyway, I’m sure there’s a point to this movie other than being painfully stupid. But it’s certainly taking it’s time. Eventually that tune-of-the-century “Cat Came Back” ends and everyone sees a fake skeleton doing a little jig over the fireplace mantel. This apparently is frightening, and the group of men all take off.

Meanwhile, there is a group of spies (Chaney, Carradine, Husky and actress Linda Ho) somewhere in the house. There’s a man in a gorilla suit that Lon has taken a liking too. Maybe the gorilla is explained at some point, but I missed it so I really don’t care about this stupid sub-plot. The spy’s goal is to steal a formula to sell to a group of Chinese… spies? Or something. Details don’t  really matter here.

But enough of that, back to the good ol’ country gang. They discover that the house is in fact not abandoned as Boots discovers a room that is completely done up. In the room she finds a closet full of dress. Which can only mean one thing: another fucking song. Only this one is about dresses! Get it? BECAUSE SHE’S A GIRL!

This group are caught by Madame Wong and Lon (ha ha ha), but are told that they can stay the night. Why they don’t even question this is beyond me. But since they’re so stupid, they mostly just revel in the fact that the madame is kind enough to let them sleep on her dusty-ass couches. But since Jeepers is completely wound tight, he decides to stay up and watch the country music hour on TV (yay).

At this point, there’s a serious problem with people giving strange reactions in this film. It’s like they’re not watching or listening to whatever is going on in scene. When Boots is listening to anyone sing, she looks either extremely bored or like she has to pass gas. This scene with Jeepers watching TV literally makes so sense. The director probably told him that the spies are popping up on the TV, but considering most of the footage is of country singers, it’s completely weird.

Oh yeah. The spies randomly pop up on the TV screen Jeeper’s is watching. I don’t know why.

The spies in the basement think that the performers are also spies. So they get a move on with their project and send Madame Wong and Lon to steal “the formula” from a “top secret” room. I think the over-the-top-ness of everything is supposed to be funny. And I really do like a lot of retro humour, but how could anyone in any time get even a chuckle out of this shite? While the spies are all distracted, Boots is taken by the gorilla.

Eventually a police detective or whatever meets up with the boys. They show the man the “weird-wolf” costume they found in the closet earlier. Once again, there’s might have been a point about why said “weird-wolf” costume was in the closet but I honestly don’t give a fuck. It’s still a lame joke/reference.

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Eventually the policeman saves Boots from the iron maiden that she was trapped in, but not before everyone starts seeing a Civil War-era ghost! See? It really is a horror movie! After the spies have their plan foiled, they decide to move on. But due to a… bright light (?) they are suddenly all handcuffed together.

THE END.

Just kidding.

The group seemingly having won the day depart from the house and continue on their way to the Nashville jamboree. To which I think “Finally! Really. About damn time the plot stopped all together! Who wants resolution?” The gang arrive and then there is nearly fifteen minutes of country music guests. Yep. Fifteen minutes. Because who needs an actual ending to a movie when you can just cram some ladies in sequins on screen?

But at least I could fast-forward this part and arrive at the ending. And really, it has been a while since I’ve been so relieved to reach the end of a film.

Hillbillys in a Haunted House is an excellent example if you want to see how a movie can completely waste the talent it hired! This was Jean Yarbrough’s last feature-length movie (not counting the made-for-TV The Over-the-Hill Gang, which sounds equally painful). It’s a shame that this was the last mark on a career that began with the Bela Lugosi film The Devil Bat.

Perhaps this film was going for a Scooby-Doo, Where are You? type of humour (though Scooby-Doo wasn’t around until 1969, two years after this was released). But there’s just something so disjointed in this movie. Maybe has a thirty-minute television slot, this could have been a bit funnier. But Hillbillys in a Haunted House has definitely put me off watching The Las Vegas Hillbillys and gee, I had been really, really tempted.

 

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American of London’s (happy) second birthday!

Shame I wasn't an artist, eh?

Shame I wasn’t an artist, eh?

I received one of those funky emails from WordPress a few days ago telling me that this here little blog turned two. Blog birthday! But I count the day this baby started as the day I first posted on American of London on 27 of September, 2013. I wrote a particularly whiny post about being American in a strange place that was filled with plenty of people who had some fantastic prejudices against my home country.

Well, two years later and I still haven’t stopped moaning (never will, either). To celebrate this happy day, American of London is no longer americanoflondon.wordpress.com but officially americanoflondon.com – I’ve bought my domain name!

Thank you to all of you grand fellows and ladies who stick around and read… or those of you who just like the post to get more visitors. I appreciate you too. But a special thanks to those who have been reading since this was strictly a music blog for my masters program. Those were some dark days while I explored my style of writing and attempted to hone in ideas for posts. I’ve had many different blogs throughout the years to varying degrees of success, but none have been as fun as this baby has. I never would have thought I would be writing about comics and horror movies as well. Two things I would have never dreamed of doing when this project first started.

But two years later and still I’m walking with Lon Chaney Jr and the Queen. Thank you much to my readers, and happy birthday, American of London!