Saturday, April 24, 2010

Spider Baby (1968)

Spider Baby is a 1968 black comedy horror film, written and directed by Jack Hill. It stars Lon Chaney, Jr. as Bruno, the chauffeur and caretaker of three orphaned siblings who suffer from "Merrye Syndrome", which causes them to mentally, socially, and physically regress backwards down the evolutionary ladder starting in early puberty. Cinematography is by Alfred Taylor, who had previously worked on the cult film The Atomic Brain, and would later work on the television series The Paper Chase. The entire production cost about $65,000, and took only 6 to 7 days to shoot in black and white. Carol Ohmart, Quinn Redeker, Mary Mitchel, and Karl Schanzer also star.
The film was shot between August and September 1964. However, due to original producer's bankruptcy, the film was not released until January 18, 1968. Spider Baby suffered from poor marketing as well as a series of title changes, being billed alternatively as The Liver Eaters, Attack of the Liver Eaters, Cannibal Orgy, and The Maddest Story Ever Told. Although these alternate titles have little or no relation to the plot, the latter two appear in the lyrics of the title song sung by Chaney: "This cannibal orgy is strange to behold in the maddest story ever told." The opening titles of the film also dub it Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told.

Three children of the Merrye family live in a decaying rural mansion with their guardian and chauffeur, Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr.). The children suffer from "Merrye Syndrome", a genetic affliction unique to members of their family, which causes them to mentally, socially, and physically regress down the evolutionary ladder, starting in late childhood. Two distant relatives arrive with their lawyer and his secretary in order to examine and claim the property as rightful heirs. Bruno's shaky control over the children deteriorates; murder, chaos, and insanity ensue. [1]
The siblings, Ralph (Sid Haig), Virginia (Jill Banner), and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), are inbred, demented and dangerous. These overgrown children exhibit playful innocence mixed with brutality and feral madness. Virginia is known as Spider Baby because of her obsession with spiders (thus the film's title). She stalks and eats bugs, moving with a strange and spider-like grace. She also enjoys trapping unsuspecting victims in her rope "web", "stinging" them to death using two butcher knives. After murdering an innocent delivery man (Mantan Moreland), Virginia cuts off one of his ears, which she keeps in a match box.

Spider Baby's brother, Ralph, is a sexually advanced but mentally deficient simpleton who moves through the house via the dumb-waiter. Unable to speak, Ralph communicates with only grunts and leers. He becomes sexually aroused with the arrival of the two visiting women.
Several mysterious aunts and uncles who have regressed even further than the Merrye siblings live in the cellar. The skeleton of the family's dead father is kept in a bedroom and is kissed goodnight by Virginia.
Bruno, the children's sworn and loving protector, has been able to maintain control and keep the family secrets hidden. But when the snooping, greedy Peter (Quinn Redeker) and Emily (Carol Ohmart) arrive to take possession of the property, the bizarre behavior of the Merrye clan is revealed.
Peter, Emily, their humorously named lawyer, Schlocker (Karl Schanzer), and his assistant, Ann Morris (Mary Mitchel), insist on staying at the house. Dinner is served after Ralph happily kills a cat for the main course. The revolting meal includes insects, mushrooms, and a garden salad made of weeds.
Bruno leaves on an errand. Despite warning the children to "behave", events spiral downhill as the Merrye kids run merrily amok. Virginia and Elizabeth murder Schlocker and dump his body into the basement, where the demented beastly relatives apparently eat him. The basement dwellers are unleashed. Meanwhile, Emily models some black nightclothes as Ralph is peeking in. After being chased and then seduced by Ralph, Emily becomes sexually aggressive and murderous.
Bruno returns and realizes that he has lost control of the children and of their secret unsavory lives. He lights a bundle of dynamite, blowing himself, the house, and the children to bits. This seems to kill all carriers of "Merrye Syndrome".

A smug, surviving cousin Peter is recounting the story as the movie comes to a close. However, the camera cuts to Peter's young daughter who eerily resembles Virginia. We see her admiring a spider in its web. Has the curse been eradicated? Or does it remain to afflict further generations?
The tone of the film is dark and weirdly humorous. Several references are made to the 1941 "scary movie", The Wolf Man, which is one of Lon Chaney's most famous character creations. Also, Chaney sings the theme song, a parody of the "Monster Mash", during the film's opening titles.

JACK HILL (1968)
86 MIN

MPEG1 / 775MB

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