The Film: 4/5
The "Merrye Syndrome" is one of the rarest of medical conditions in that it only affects members of the wealthy Merrye family. The disease has caused several generations of the clan to regress mentally and physically into inhuman savagery. Three Merrye children - Virginia (Jill Banner), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), and Ralph (Sid Haig) - are nearly of adult age yet have the social dispositions of reclusive children. They live in their dilapidated family mansion with Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.), the Merrye's loyal chauffeur who has protected and cared for the children since their father, "the Master", passed away. Unfortunately, the children harbor psychotic urges they frequently act on when passing strangers happen upon their house, and the duty falls to Bruno to keep them in line and out of trouble.
That's all about to change the day Bruno receives a letter informing him that distant Merrye cousins Emily (Carol Ohmart) and Peter (Quinn Redeker) have retained the services of slimeball attorney Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) with the intention of taking full custody of the surviving Merrye children and are coming to the house for an informal visit. Once their unexpected callers show up Bruno and the kids do their best to put on a civilized facade, but the act carefully unravels when Emily - who only wants custody of the Merrye siblings so she can have a claim on their sizable inheritance - and Schlocker insist on spending the night at the house. The secrets that have been kept hidden behind the walls of the ancestral Merrye manse (including the presence of a few cannibalistic relatives living in the basement) for years will finally be brought to light, and Bruno is forced to make some tough choices to ensure the Merrye family curse does not survive beyond this dark and disturbing evening.
After years of toiling on various Roger Corman productions B-movie wunderkind Jack Hill made his full-fledged solo directorial debut with 1964's Spider Baby. When your filmmaking career officially kicks off with one of the cultiest of cult films it bodes very well for your future in the industry. Though Spider Baby didn't get a legitimate theatrical release until four years after it had wrapped production due to the collapse of the company that had financed it, the movie's intriguing reputation helped pave the way for Hill to become "the Howard Hawks of exploitation filmmaking" as Quentin Tarantino - a lifelong devoted advocate of his work - once dubbed him. Jack Hill could adapt to nearly every genre of cinema he took on as writer and/or director, and his movies were typically the shining examples in their particular field.
When people think of women-in-prison or blaxploitation flicks, chances are it is a Hill feature they really have in mind. The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, Pit Stop, Coffy, Foxy Brown, The Swinging Cheerleaders, Sorceress, there seemed to be no limit to what Jack Hill could accomplish behind the camera. In 1975 he made what I consider to be one of his finest movies, the sinfully entertaining girl gang epic Switchblade Sisters, a movie that is hard to top for any director in any era of cinema. Following some post-production battles with Corman over Sorceress Hill basically retired from filmmaking. It's one of the greatest shames of film history when you consider what his directing peers from the 60's and 70's who also started out helming inexpensive schlock for the drive-in theaters and grindhouses of the world later went on to achieve. To me it seemed like Hill's filmmaking career was truly starting to cook just as it prematurely collapsed.
Being filmed in classic black & white (by Alfred Taylor, who went on to shoot Killer Klowns from Outer Space twenty-three years later) and having Lon Chaney Jr. in the lead links Spider Baby to the great monster movies released by Universal Pictures throughout the Great Depression. In style and tone it resembles one of those strange genre efforts like Tod Browning's Freaks made by the major studios in the days before the Production Code (which would one day morph into the MPAA's ratings system) went into effect and in essence outlawed any film containing what the censors deemed "objectionable". Most of the violence and carnality inherent in Spider Baby is kept off-screen or at the most implied through suggestive imagery and dialogue, but it very much there and sophisticated audiences of the 21st century should have no problem seeking them out. That's part of this movie's oddball entertainment value. Hill and his collaborators in front of and behind the camera feel no need to exploit the darker, more salacious aspects of the story. The characters and delirious dark comedy are what make Spider Baby the offbeat movie treasure audiences continue to embrace nearly five decades after it was initially conceived.
The decision to reveal the tendency of the Merrye children to occasionally murder an unfortunate soul who wanders too close to their cherished home - in this case it's African-American comic actor Mantan Moreland in the twilight of his career as a lost deliveryman - at the beginning was a wise one because it adds a delicious layer of disturbing horror to practically every event that transpires following that moment. Modest touches in the look of the movie, from Schlocker's Hitler-esque wisp of a mustache to the embarrassing Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit Ralph is forced to wear to dinner - enhance the narrative with some unexpected broad comedy that never overpowers the bleaker humor. The Merrye house is ideally musty and menacing and has an authenticity that makes it never feel like a movie set.
Horror legend Lon Chaney Jr. was approaching his mortal end at the time he was cast as Bruno (a role that almost went to John Carradine after Chaney's representation expressed misgivings about the meager salary offer on the table). Accusations of overacting plagued him for most of his career, but his performance in Spider Baby is a model of simplicity. The years of hard living brought about by screen success are displayed in Chaney's iconic visage and attitude and they work marvelously in convincing us of the moral and physical anguish Bruno has had to endure as the protector of the last generation of Merrye children. He makes the character a weirdly compelling and sympathetic one, an ordinary man who only wants to honor the promises he made and do what is best for everyone in the end. Chaney excels at registering sadness and regret, but you also believe he loves the Merrye kids dearly and would walk through fire and ice to keep them safe. Next to The Wolf Man he was at his best here.
The rest of the cast make their own minor impacts. Sid Haig injects some gentle, goofy comic relief into the movie as Ralph. Deprived of the ability to speak coherently he instead relies on physical comedy, but he also has moments where you realize he could become a monster just like the other members of his family at any time (watch out for the cat). Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn, who were both young adults at the time they starred in Spider Baby as the adolescent-minded Virginia and Elizabeth, give performances possessed of childlike innocence and genetically ingrained murderousness lurking beneath their refined beauty. Banner in particular almost steals her every scene with her spider act and burgeoning sexuality, both readily apparent in her attempted seduction of cousin Peter in the wild finale. Washburn has her moments as the seemingly more principled of the sisters, but a throwaway smashing of the fourth wall in the movie's last minutes (an outtake that became a happy miracle for Spider Baby, according to Hill's audio commentary) shows off her ridiculous side as well.
Ohmart and Schanzer haul out the heavy doses of sleazy and avarice, while Redeker makes a capable straight arrow attempting to understand the Merrye children as best he can. Only Mary Mitchel seems out of place in the role of Schanzer's secretary Ann. The actress' performance is adequate but the character serves no function in the story. She's unnecessary, but I cared little for her presence anyway so it didn't really matter much. Spider Baby is just too good a movie to be affected by a single thankless character.
Spider Baby makes its world premiere on Blu-ray in a brand new MPEG-4 AVC-encoded, 1080p high-definition transfer in the 1.67:1 widescreen aspect ratio that reflects the film's original theatrical exhibition. I wasn't expecting a visual marvel for a low-budget independent cult horror-comedy from the early 1960's, but Arrow Video's restoration is by far the best Spider Baby has ever looked on home video and I highly doubt the presentation can ever be topped. Filmed in 35mm, the black & white cinematography of Alfred Taylor looks remarkably crisp and strong in picture depth and any traces of noticeable print damage appears to have been completely removed. I couldn't spot a single instance where the transfer looked less than terrific. Grain content in the picture has also been reduced to a requisite minimum. Complimenting the feature is an English 2.0 LPCM audio track whose quality is only reduced by occasional volume drops on the soundtrack. Otherwise it's a solid track with strong volume levels for the dialogue, music score, and atmospheric ambient sounds and no distracting overlap in the sound mix. English subtitles are also included.
Arrow Video has wisely retained the great extra features from Dark Sky's 2007 Region 1 Special Edition DVD while including some new bonuses exclusive to this release. Starting things off is a commentary track with director Hill and co-star Haig that is both informative and affectionate as the two longtime collaborators kick back to reminisce about the movie's production and rebirth via revival screenings and home video. Listening to these two legends of cult cinema share their memories of working on Spider Baby enhanced my enjoyment of the movie a great deal.
Next up is "The Hatching of Spider Baby" (32 minutes), a highly edifying retrospective documentary featuring fresh interviews with Hill, Haig, co-stars Karl Schanzer, Quinn Redeker, Beverly Washburn, and Mary Mitchel, director of photography Alfred Taylor, and filmmaker Joe Dante (a former employee of Roger Corman, much like Hill). Some occasional overlap with the commentary notwithstanding, this doc covers a lot of ground in the making of the movie, the financial problems with its producers that resulted in Spider Baby not seeing a release until four years after it was made, and its ultimate resurrection as a cult classic. Everyone interviewed here has fond remembrances to share about working on the movie and Dante, who wasn't involved in the production, has a few brief and amusing stories to tell about how he discovered this twisted little gem for himself as possibly the only school student in America with a subscription to Variety.
The movie's composer gets his own featurette in "Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein" (11 minutes). This short doc is comprised of a condensed version of Stein's life and career and naturally focuses mostly on his work on Spider Baby, including composing the jaunty theme song sung by Lon Chaney Jr. over the opening credits. His military service, work with Roger Corman and American-International Pictures, and his death from pancreatic cancer in 1988 are also covered in decent detail. A fine tribute to an underrated cinematic music master.
In "The Merrye House Revisited" (8 minutes) Hill and filmmaker Elijah Drenner take a trip to the Highland Park area of Los Angeles where Spider Baby was filmed to check out how the house that portrayed the Merrye home in the film is looking today. They find that the house has been refurbished and looks better than ever. Hill shares a few additional anecdotes about filming there. Since the house wasn't in an isolated location the director had to employ some visual trickery to conceal the presence of other homes so they wouldn't ruin the illusion he wanted to preserve.
The last of the extras held over from the Dark Sky release are an alternate opening title sequence from when the movie was originally titled Cannibal Orgy (2 minutes) and an extended scene showing Bruno and the guests' arrival at the Merrye house (4 minutes). Arrow has also added a panel discussion from an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screening of the movie recorded last September with Hill, Redeker, and Washburn (33 minutes), a behind-the-scenes still gallery, and a trailer (1 minute).
The most fascinating new supplement in Arrow's set is "The Host" (29 minutes), a short film Hill made in 1960 as a student at UCLA that I first saw when it was included as a bonus feature on Miramax‘s 2000 DVD release of Hill‘s Switchblade Sisters. The story follows an outlaw (played by a very youthful Haig) on the run who takes shelter in a remote Mexican village. When he arrives there he finds that the peasants live in fear of an aging tyrant and they are now looking to him to set them free. Reportedly, Hill's short served as the inspiration for the third act of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, and in fact the two share many similarities. The relationship between Hill's and Coppola's works may be the stuff of legend but "The Host" also provides us with an early look at the budding talents of the director and his star. It also has a clean narrative with some interesting layers and striking visuals filmed in black & white.
Rounding things off are Arrow's customary reversible cover with new artwork by Graham Humphreys and a collector's booklet included with this release that features an essay about Spider Baby written by writer-artist Stephen R. Bissette, a reprinted article from FilmFax magazine devoted to the movie that also includes interviews with members of the cast and crew, and original archival stills and promotional art.
Until the end of the existence of the human race Jack Hill remains one of the greatest directors of B-cinema there ever was, and Spider Baby is one of the few crowning glories of his career. This dark and delicious horror-comedy looks and sounds better than it has in ages. Arrow Video once again delivers the definitive home video release of a genre classic that should now have no problem gaining the larger cult audience it deserves.