Virginia –“I caught a big fat bug right in my spider web and now the spider gets to give the bug a big sting.Sting, Sting, Sting, Sting, Sting!”
One of the most original psychological horror gems that is as queerly frightening as it is endearing. It opens with Lon Chaney Jr. really singing a little nursery song about werewolves and vampires and it’s quite effectively eerie as the opening hymn. Chaney’s character delivers one of my favorite lines–it goes to the sense of all oddballs in the world who struggle to find their place. How often that quiet place is usurped by society’s gatekeepers and grabbers.
The film is special partly due to the presence of Lon Chaney Jr. as Bruno the chauffeur, who looks after the Merrye children with an undying devotion. Living in the decrepit and crumbling old family mansion, the last generation of surviving Merryes’ occupy the odd space like a whimsical little fun-house.
Because of inbreeding the family has been cursed with a type of mental regression, or arrested development. Bruno sort of cleans up any of the messes or fatalities that happen due to the Merryes being like wild unchecked gremlins,
Like the postman (Mantan Morelandbusy actor in the 40s who often took off on black caricatures for the all white films he played all jittery or buffoonery in, you could either be reviled by his being cast to play the part, or for taking the part as an actor when the studio wasn’t making oodles of roles for black actors to be seen in– either way he made a brand out of his name and his ebullient personality and always seemed a likable guy)
Anyway he should have known better than to try and leave a package any further than the steps, instead of being trapped in Virginia’s web and sliced up with the gardening shears. He was a big bug caught in her net after all.
Directed by Jack Hillbrilliantly populates this queer little world with the perfect character players, all on a budget of $65,000.
Lon Chaney was only paid a flat fee of $2,500 for his role and it was a little poignant to watch his performance with bits of his alcoholism seeping through the character, he had been drinking pretty heavily at that point.
The Merrye sisters Virginia (Jill Banner) and Elizabeth (Beverley Washburn) are suited as the demented girls, and then there’s Ralph, adorable feral little Ralph manifested by the quirky Sid Haig.
Now Carol Ohmartcomes into the picture as Cousin Emily Howe who is after the family fortune not expecting to uncover the house of Merrye madness.
Ronald Stein’smusic is often lyrical & offbeat (Attack of the 50 Ft Woman (1958), Dementia 13 (1963), It Conquered the World & She Creature (1956) Not of this Earth, Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Undead, Dragstrip Girl (1957) The Girl in Lovers Lane (1960) The Haunted Palace (1963)
Alternative titles The Liver Eaters–be assured no livers are eaten, at least not on screen. Cannibal Orgy-I assure you there is no orgy, there isn’t even any cannibalism. While I say there is no cannibalism, there is a book that explains how exclusive Merrye Syndrome effects only that family, where the disease: causes its victims to regress mentally to pre-infantile state of savagery and cannibalism. The three surviving children of Titus Merrye is Elizabeth who dresses like a little girl (creepy) and Virginia who thinks she’s a giant spider.
The film has been compared to the work of Luis Buñuel. who was considered an iconoclast and a moralist who definitely populated his films with the sense that revolution was necessary to change the stagnant ways people conform to their lives.
I can see the dinner scene as, with his The Exterminating Angel etc, the table is set where everyone but the guests are vegetarians. Ralph has caught a Rabbit. Unfortunately it’s the neighborhood cat. When Ralph grabs the ‘rabbit’ and starts tearing into it, Cousin Peter (Quinn Redeker) is confused because he thought he was a vegetarian. Bruno tells him “But Ralph is allowed to eat anything he catches!”
Spider Baby in that sense does create it’s own little universe of characters who are moving in their own orbit with a sense of unreal abstract unorthodoxy. Virginia with that large bow in her hair is ridiculous as it is uncomfortably repulsive, but the sharp knives in her anxious hands elevate her to a truly gruesome character and not just a childish simpleton. It’s this teetering from not looking serious to suddenly going for the jugular that creates the uneasy feeling surrounding the Merrye family.
It’s one of THE definitive Cult films for sure, that even defies one particular label. It’s witty, macabre, quirky, irreverent, a bit of noir in it’s use of shadows and tragic figures doomed from the beginning.
It’s an adult fairy tale with dark corners and speculative questions about madness and responsibility and who gets to make those decisions. And Carol Ohmart just looks damn sexy in her black lingerie. Sorry for reverting to objectifying Carol Ohmart, even for a moment, but I truly do find her a very sexy lady as well as a good actress.
IMDb Fun Fact:
The film was shot in August and September of 1964 with the title “Cannibal Orgy, or The Maddest Story Ever Told”, but its release was held up for years because the producers went bankrupt, which tied up the film in legal limbo. Independent producer David L. Hewitt acquired it for distribution in 1968 and changed the title to “Spider Baby” and “The Liver Eaters.”