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!”
Spider Baby is one of the most original psychological horror gems that is as queerly frightening as it is endearing. It opens with Bruno the Chauffeur played by Lon Chaney Jr. 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’s a childish hymn that tributes oddballs in the world who struggle to find their place in the world.
Bruno, The Chauffeur: “Just because something isn’t good doesn’t mean it’s bad.”
The film is special partly due to the presence of Lon Chaney Jr. as Bruno who looks after the Merrye children with undying devotion. Living in the decrepit and crumbling old family mansion, they are the last generation of surviving Merryes occupying the odd space like a whimsical little fun-house.
Because of inbreeding the family has been cursed with a type of mental regression, and arrested development. Bruno sort of cleans up any of the messes or homicidal fatalities that happen due to the Merryes being like wild unchecked gremlins.
Including the postman (Mantan Moreland busy actor in the 40s who often took off on black caricatures for the all-white films he played all jittery or stereotyped buffoonery Hollywood made a brand out of his name and his ebullient persona. Anyway, he should have known better than to try and leave a package any further than the steps, instead of poking his head inside the window and being trapped in Virginia’s theoretical web and being sliced up with a large pair of knives, losing an ear that will be kept in a little box as a token. He was a big bug caught in her net after all.
Directed by Jack Hill (Blood Bath 1966, The Big Doll House 1971, Coffy 1973 and F0xy Brown 1974) who brilliantly populates this queer little world with the perfect characters, 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.
Ronald Stein’s music 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).
The film’s alternative titles are 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 a pre-infantile state of savagery and cannibalism. The three surviving children of Titus Merrye are Elizabeth who dresses like a little girl (creepy) and Virginia who thinks she’s a giant spider.
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 who would later take on grittier roles as screen heavies in exploitation films.
Carol Ohmart (House on Haunted Hill 1959) comes into the picture as Cousin Emily Howe who is after the family fortune not expecting to uncover the house of Merrye madness.
The film has been compared to the work of iconoclast Luis Buñuel. who was considered a moralist director 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 a nod to his The Exterminating Angel, as 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 creates its own little universe of characters who move in their own orbit with a sense of unorthodoxy. Virginia with that large bow in her hair is ridiculous as it is uncomfortably creepy for an obviously grown young woman to sport a child’s ribbon like a doll, where she evolves into a monstrous assassin with her two sharp knives in her anxious hands elevating her to a truly gruesome character and not just a childish simpleton.
It’s this teetering irony of the film that takes us from darkly whimsical 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, as it’s witty, macabre, quirky, irreverent, and a bit of film noir in its use of shadows and devious figures doomed from the beginning. Spider Baby is 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 as she runs around amidst the ‘old dark house’ trope as the woman in peril.
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.”