When I was child, I had extremely limited access to movies in general, due to my parents’ hippyish media paranoia. This had the desired effect of making me read more, although most of what I read either resembled the reviled horror movies that obsessed me, or was actually about said movies. A couple of dogeared books of shlock criticism and history kept me company throughout these years, and with their aid, I read about Jack Hill’s incomparable SPIDER BABY over and over again. I simply could not conceive of it. It had the trappings of an innocent Addams Family style affair: it was in black and white, it was apparently comedic, and it even boasted a goofy theme song with word salad-y lyrics that might has well have advertised for Count Chocula and Frankenberry. However, its plot was rife with incest, rape, murder, and generalized perversion of a sort rarely attempted in more obviously adult exploitation films. What could this movie possibly be like?
It would be quite a long time before I found out, and what I would find was that the literature I’d pored over was surprisingly accurate. Lon Chaney, Jr. plays Bruno, the defacto patriarch of an orphaned trio of siblings who suffer from a rare degenerative brain disease that reduces them to a progressively childlike mental state. The stunted teenagers are living happily in the remote familial Merrye manse, sustaining themselves with a diet of bugs and varmints and cohabitating corpses and cannibals, until a juicy-looking civil servant happens by with an ominous message about some distant relatives slated to arrive at any moment. These interloping normies are here to claim the substantial Merrye estate as their own. Bruno attempts to hide his wards’ peculiarities–Ralph’s mismatching infantile behavior and adult sexuality, Virginia’s role playing as a deadly spider, Elizabeth’s passionate obsession with HATE–but wouldn’t you know it, the greedy cousins’ presumptuous behavior prompts these eccentricities to escalate, leading to a sticky end for most of the cast.
While SPIDER BABY (OR, THE MADDEST STORY EVER TOLD as per the credits) inevitably suffers from the usual hallmarks of a B-grade horror film, with pacing problems, impoverished production values, and loopy dialog, it is also utterly magical. Living dolls Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn play their dueling bad seed characters with a demented vivaciousness that makes a mockery of the mature sensuality wielded by their obnoxious cousin Emily, who gets what she deserves after performing a ludicrous masturbatory dance number in front of her bedroom window. The great Sid Haig has no lines, but speaks volumes with his incredible body, which explodes out of a Little Lord Fauntleroy-like getup. (Haig took dance lessons in his youth to preserve his motor skills against the ill effects of his abnormally accelerated growth, and it shows) As these three prowl about the heavily stylized Merrye house, closing in on their pompous prey, the viewer is apt to relate more heavily to these antiheroes than any other slashers in the genre.
Slasher movies, as we know, are often accused of giving vicarious vent to puritanical feelings about societal hygiene. Jason Voorhees purges premarital sex, drug abuse, and other expressions of teen anarchy from Camp Crystal lake, just as misogynistic and jealous viewers might like to do to peers who they perceive as having more fun at the expense of the law. The Merrye children, on the other hand, target the adult arbiters of rectitude as their victims. The girls gleefully drag the cigar-chomping lawyer Schlocker to his death as he ludicrously harangues them about morality, taste and bureaucracy–something I’m sure director Jack Hill would love to do to uptight critics who might fail to recognize the greatness of his many “exploitative” girl gang and women’s prison movies. Sure, the Merrye children are a bunch of violent perverts whose very existence goes against the dictates of nature, but they are also individuals fighting for their right to live life their own way. The ostensible hero, smarmy cousin Peter, thinks he can worm his way into their hearts with his Ken doll physique and condescending bullshit, but he’ll find that the affection of these three terrors is still a very Merrye affection. It’s their world, we’re just dying in it.
I’m very much open to submissions from the audience, but I have a very hard time thinking of any movie with quite this story, told so strongly. You could draw a line from BONNIE & CLYDE to THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE to NIGHTBREED through all the movies you can think of about outsider societies, but you’ll still find some characters too controlled and predictable, some too traditionally sympathetic, some too entirely evil. Jack Hill skillfully imbues his characters with a unique blend of anarchic sadism and personal integrity that’s hard to match. The only movies I can immediately think of that even come close are every single Rob Zombie movie that isn’t a literal remake of something, and the less said about those the better–especially since the presence of Sid Haig isn’t the only signal that Mr. Zombie seems to have based his entire career directly on SPIDER BABY alone.
I hadn’t seen SPIDER BABY in a long time when I selected it for Saturday night’s review, and I found that I related to it even more as an adult suffering the ravages of our Kafkaesque society than I did as a young precociously pervy gorehound. If the dark heroics of the Merrye clan don’t make you sit up and applaud, you need to get your spine checked.
I’m going to add, because I never know how to close these things out, that the appearance of noir staple Carol Omhart as vain cousin Emily triggered a surreal argument between my fiancé and I about whether SPIDER BABY actually stars Meryl Streep–which is certainly the maddest conversation I have ever had. There is, of course, no reason to anticipate such a shock in this movie, but I did discover a fact about Ms. Omhart that I hadn’t heard before. Here she is sporting a rather different look, with comics master Milton Caniff, posing for the character Cooper Calhoon in his epic adventure strip Steve Canyon. Whooda thunkit.