Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Film Appreciation - You're All Set for a Cannibal Feast

Cody Hamman spins a web of Film Appreciation for 1967's Spider Baby.

Twenty years down the line from playing the roles of The Wolf Man, The Mummy, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Son of Dracula in the classic Universal Monsters movies, Lon Chaney Jr. was cast in one of my favorite films, director Jack Hill's Spider Baby, which also has an alternative title suggested during the main title sequence - The Maddest Story Ever Told. And what a main title sequence that is, with fun illustrations appearing alongside the credits while Chaney performs the awesome theme song that's packed with references to monsters and cannibalism.

Chaney's character in the film is Bruno, a man who is tasked with taking care of the members of the Merrye family, particularly young siblings Virginia (Jill Banner), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), and Ralph (Sid Haig). Taking care of them is much like caring for a trio of toddlers, as the members of the Merrye family suffer from a syndrome that causes progressive age regression. Once they reach the age of ten, their bodies continue to grow but their minds begin to regress. They say that this regression will eventually even carry them beyond the prenatal level, to a prehuman condition of savagery and cannibalism. Virginia, Elizabeth, and Ralph aren't that far gone yet, but they have already begun killing people. Especially Virginia, who likes to pretend she's a spider and is introduced while capturing a messenger (veteran actor Mantan Moreland) in her "web" (she throws a net over him) and giving him a big "sting" (she stabs him to death with a pair of knives.

There are more Merryes who are kept in the cellar, and they have regressed to that prenatal state of being.

Bruno takes care of killers and disposes of bodies, but he's actually a very sympathetic character. He's fulfilling a promise he made to members of the previous generation to keep the kids safe and away from public scrutiny. It's clear that he cares deeply for the Merryes, and he does his best to try to keep them from becoming violent. He forbids Virginia from playing spider (she just doesn't listen), and he tries to teach them lessons like "It's not nice to hate" and "Just because something isn't good, that doesn't mean it's bad". According to Hill, Chaney was apparently sucking on oranges imbued with vodka all through production, but any covert alcohol consumption doesn't take away from the fact that this is up there with Chaney's best performances, and may in fact be his best.

The situation at the crumbling Merrye mansion is put into jeopardy when a cold, materialistic cousin named Emily (House on Haunted Hill's Carol Ohmart) shows up, lawyer Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) in tow, with the intention of taking control of the Merrye estate and having the kids put in a mental hospital. Having strangers in his home is a scary concept for Bruno, for multiple reasons. They could have the kids sent away, or the kids could end up killing them. He warns his guests that the kids aren't used to strangers and "might act wild if encouraged".

Emily and Schlocker are unscrupulous, uncaring people, and you'll be rooting for whatever comeuppance they may get. There are some good people involved here; Emily's friendly brother Peter (Quinn Redeker), who is quite pleasant to all of the Merryes and open to their way of life, and Schlocker's secretary Ann Morris (Mary Mitchel), who becomes Peter's love interest after they bond over a shared love of horror films. Ann and Peter take a drive into town together, so they're not around for a while. They're gone long enough for Emily and Schlocker to have very odd experiences in the mansion on their own.

As strange as the first half of the film is, things get even stranger in the second half, when Emily and Schlocker are left at the mansion. We're introduced to the kids' father, as well as the family members who are kept hidden away. There's murder and cannibalism, and a very weird plotline involving Emily and that non-verbal horndog Ralph.

Almost as discomforting as what goes on with Emily is a scene in which Virginia starts playing spider with a bound Peter, but it appears that sexual urges begin to overpower the spider mindset.

Chaney isn't the only cast member who does great work in this film. Everyone does quite well in their roles, with Peter standing out as a fun, likeable character, and the Merrye children each being memorable in their own way. Elizabeth is quite amusing because she acts like a little kid and likes to bicker with and tease her sister. She also likes to use the word "hate", despite Bruno's distaste for it.

Spider Baby has some risque elements and some shocking, troubling ones, but it tends to present them in the most innocent way possible. Some things in here might not have passed the Hays Code, but this is closer to the days of the Universal Monsters than it is to the next year's Night of the Living Dead.

This is a film I've been a fan of ever since picking up a newly released collectors edition VHS in late 1997, I think at the urging of Fangoria magazine. I instantly fell in love with it, and have been giving it frequent viewings over the last twenty-one years while also trying to spread the word about it to other horror fans.

Eventually I upgraded to a DVD copy, and a few years back I got to meet Hill, Haig, and Washburn, and had them sign the cover of my DVD. Sadly, another cast member I would have loved to have gotten the chance to meet passed away before I was even born. The spider baby herself, Jill Banner, was killed in a car accident in 1982. That brings a melancholy edge to watching her in the film, but she left behind a terrific performance for us to continue to enjoy more than fifty years after the movie's initial release.

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