Sunday, September 6, 2015

DVD / Blu-Ray Review: Spider Baby

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2015
Images from the Internet

Spider Baby (or The Maddest Story Ever Told)
Directed by Jack Hill
Arrow Films
MVD Visual
85 minutes, (filmed in 1964) released in 1967 / this version released in 2015

I pride myself in my knowledge of classic horror films, as I grew up watching them either in theaters or on television. In that way, I’ve seen most of the classics, but due to lack of distribution, Spider Baby, which was shot in 1964 and finally released in 1967, is one I have missed; for years I have wanted to get a gander. Luckily, the opportunity has arisen, in a bee-utiful restored deluxe edition.

A very, very, very dark comedy, Spider Baby belongs more in the subgenre among the likes of the less than humorous Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), Strait-Jacket (1964), and the similarly black absurdity of Hershall Gordon Lewis’s Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), where the maniacs that should be hanging out with Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) at best, or Arkham Asylum at worst, are out running around, with knives in hand.

Through a fourth-wall breaking expository introduction and conclusion, we are informed about the Merrye (get it?) family, who as they approach puberty, the older they get the more they mentally regress to the point of violence and cannibalism (it’s not for nothing that this film was also named at different points as Attack of the Liver Eaters and Cannibal Orgy). Also, I’m sure the secondary title is a play on the 1965 film about Jebbus, The Greatest Story Ever Told, which was possibly still playing around in some theaters around that time, especially in Dix-say. (Note: this is confirmed in one of the included extras, which I saw after I wrote this part.)

We are initially introduced to the Merrye clan through the eyes of a messenger, played by Mantan Moreland (he infamously had a recurring role in the Charlie Chan films as the always loyal-yet-scared helper who, along with Stepin Fetchit, famously said, “Feet, don’t fail me now!”). Of course, it doesn’t end well for him, but his cameo is sympathetic to both his career and the man as an actor.

The Merrye Children: Sid Haig, Jill Banner, Beverly Washburn
The isolated Merrye estate (on a busy street in real life) is in sharp disrepair. They never explain where the money came from, but it is certainly near the end of the dynasty. Poppa has died a number of years ago, leaving the caretaker in charge of the remaining family, since they are not up to it themselves. The oldest is Ralph, a rapacious lad played by a young Sid Haig (!) who dresses like a little boy in rags, drools, leers and snarls, but has already regressed to the point past speech, in some sense on the level of the family dog. Haig, who always seems to be in the moment, has had a long career, but to modern audiences is mostly known for his role of the head of another killer clan in Rob Zombie’s House of a Thousand Corpses (2003) and The Devil’s Rejects (2005). The middle child is Elizabeth, who is obsessed with the idea of hating and anger (“He’s gonna hate you for that!” she spits out joyfully). She’s played by previous child star Beverly Washburn, who Trekkers will know more from “The Deadly Years” episode. The youngest sibling is Virginia, played by the very cute Jill Banner (d. 1982 in a car accident); rumor was that the Beatles had a thing for her around this time. She is the title character, named so because of her love of spiders – be it as pets, or as food. From her first introduction onscreen it’s pretty easy to see you don’t want to be stuck in her “web.” Even Peter Parker should be afraid. Oh, and in the basement are their two aunts and an uncle who have regressed so far they are the cannibals discussed earlier.

Watching over them all is said caretaker / chauffeur named Bruno, and star of the film, Creighton Cha…I mean Larry Talbo…I mean Lon Chaney (sans the Jr.). He arguably gives one of the most heartfelt readings of the films of his later career. You can see his slow boil desperation grow to a breaking point as it becomes harder and harder to control the feral nature of these three young adults, that he called “The Children,” and the current state of affairs.
Part of the problem is that some distant relatives have come to claim their property, as technically they are the next in line to inherit the Merrye fortune (from where?!), and they want to take position with the help of their shyster lawyer and his secretary. The plan is to put the children into a mental facility and then sell the property for development. Sounds a bit like an adult version of The Little Rascals, doesn’t it (“We gotta save grandma from getting evicted, Stymie!” “Mmm-Hmm!”)?

The relatives are a brother and sister, who arrive together. She is the voracious and greedy Emily, played by Carol Ohmart, possibly typecast as a similar character from when she was Vincent Price’s wife who takes the acid bath in The House on Haunted Hill (1959). At one point, she even wears similar sheer night clothes with a black bra showing ample cleavage for its day, stockings and garter belt that would make Bettie Page proud. It’s dismaying to know that she’s a Tea Party Conservative in real life now (then again, Bettie Page was a Born Again Christian for a large number of years, though she embraced her past before she passed on in 2008). Then, even in her 40s, she was pretty hot.

The brother, played with laisse faire finesse in a suit and tie is Peter, ambley brought to life by 1950s-sit-com-handsome Quinn Redeker. Peter is fine with either eating cat (he guesses rabbit), or the children’s antics. He’s likeable and it’s no surprise that Ann, the assistant to Emily’s lawyer, played by the lovely Mary Mitchel (yes, with one “l”, who was married to the Assistant Director here, and would later do a lot of behind the camera work for Coppola), goes a bit gaga for him; the attraction is mutual. The last of the characters is the shady and, yes, greedy lawyer, who is aptly named Mr. Schlocker. He is humorously embodied by the diminutive Karl Schanzer (d. 2014), who helped director Jack Hill find the moneymen and some of the cast; in real life he was a real-life PI!

The trouble truly begins as they all spend the night in the old dark house, with people traipsing around looking for clues, searching for things of value, and avoiding murderous intent. There are a couple of gruesome scenes, but it certainly is a case of eat or be eaten, both figuratively and, well…

Mary Mitchel wolfing up Quinn  Redeker
Did I mention this was a comedy? My favorite moment is at a dinner table where Peter and Ann are discussing their enjoyment of the Universal classic horror films, and at one point they mention the mummy, and it’s clear from the body language that they are not talking about the Imhotep (Karloff, 1932) version but rather the 1940s Kharis (Chaney) ones. Of course, they mention Frankenstein, meaning the monster, which Chaney played in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Dracula which he played in Son of Dracula (1943), and of course his most known character, The Wolfman [yes, Chaney is the only one to play all four of the classic monsters onscreen]. What makes it even funnier is Ann stops before actually saying the full creature’s name and looks over at Chaney, who summarily looks up at an angle and says in a perfect Lawrence Talbot worry-voice, “There’s going to be a full moon tonight!” I had to stop the film and go, “wow!” and then realize that I haven’t seen Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) in a really long time. Oh, and by his mentioning the full moon, perhaps they were also covering the shadows during the day-for-night shots?

I would like to share a special nod and raise a glass of a Virgin Shirley Temple to cinematographer Alfred Taylor, who does one of the more amazing lighting jobs I have seen in a black and white film, arguably equal to Gregg Toland’s handiwork in Citizen Kane (1941). Taylor gives amazing depth to the basement, the back ends of the rooms, and in the outdoor scenes. Some of the bootleg and VHS copies are quite murky from what I understand, but this remastering is just jaw-droopingly beautiful.

With Spider Baby taking on the American International Pictures style (Roger Corman mentored Hill) and mixing it with the even more absurd (but not as silly) The Raven (1963), over the early years of its existence this film had been pretty maligned. But it is due in part to bankruptcy of the producers and a legal issue with ownership of the negative, which is why it didn’t play on late night television like some of the others mentioned above. I’m not sure it would have been shown on television anyway without being cut to ribbons by censors because this film is quite wonderfully bizarre in its creepiness, and unique in its story, written by the director, Jack Hill. He would go on to write and direct such exploitation classics as The Big Doll House (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1972), Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), The Swinging Cheerleaders (1974, which received a big pictorial write-up in Penthouse), and The Jezebels (1975; this would arguably be an influence on 1979’s The Warriors).

Over the years, however, as these kinds of things do, there has been an ever growing fan base (Marshall McLuhan’s “Rear View Mirror Thinking”) that has come to realize what a stunning work of dark fiction it actually is, and deserving of the praise it now receives.  This notice has even taken its director, Hill, buy surprise, as it was his first feature on a small budget of $60,000 (that’s $456,000 in 2015 currency).

This release abounds in extras. Not in order of sequence of the menu, of course there is the trailer, but that is only the breadcrumbs before the feast. There is an additional 30-minute black and white short Western called the Host from 1960, listed as Sid Haig’s first film. Looking like a cross between an old Twilight Zone episode and a college film (it was Jack Hill’s student project), we meet an escaped robber (Haig with hair!) who comes across a mysterious religious Mission in the middle of the desert. He is called upon to complete a task, and though you can see the ending coming, it’s quite well done.

There is a 33-minute panel discussion (2012?) from the American Film Archive, who had a showing after preserving the release from the original negatives. The panel is Jack Hill, Beverly Washburn, and a bizarre turn by an interruptive and muddled Quinn Redeker. It’s funny, fact-filled, and with Quinn’s part, a bit sad as he tries to tell a number of stories about working with Chaney, but hardly ever gets there.

Another 2006 short is nearly 8 minutes of filmmaker Elijah Drenner (who directed “The Hatching of Spider Baby,” discussed below) and Jack Hill returning to the since-restored Smith Estate in Los Angeles, which stood in for the Merrye Mansion. We never see the inside, but the tour of the grounds help you realize how creative they had to be to make it appear isolated.

Getting back to the film, there is an alternative credits (under the title of Cannibal Orgy) and an extended scene as we all get to meet Schlocker and Ann. These are more historical references than anything actually necessary. Though the backstage stills collection is nice and telling, especially about Ohmart, who looks like she’s not having much fun (the look she gives directly at the camera made me shudder; in the commentary, however, Hill said she had a lot of fun). The 11-minute “Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein,” focuses on the man who composed the music to this and many other Corman films. It kept my interest throughout.

The penultimate is a 30-minute, “The Hatching of Spider Baby, or the Making of the Maddest Story Every Told,” with interviews of most of the living cast, and other filmmakers such as Joe Dante. Not dull for a second, this is what “Making Of” featurettes should be like: a little bit technical, a little bit of anecdote, and a fast pace without being maudlin.

The cherry on the cake, though, is the full-length commentary with Jack Hill and Sid Haig. One of the better commentaries I’ve heard in a while, it really is a nice mix of filmmaking and personality discussion. They are both open to express what worked, how they did it, giving proper due to the cast and crew, being open about their reactions at the time, e.g., Haig explaining how he had the flu during one sequence, making it the hardest work he did in his then-45 year career (again, around 2006 when this must have been recorded). It was also nice to have the English captioning for when I was listening to this track.

I am definitely a convert to the film, and will take pleasure in repeated viewings. I believe that says it all.


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