None other than Quentin Tarantino has dubbed Spider Baby director Jack Hill as “the Howard Hawks of exploitation filmmaking.” While Tarantino is often given to extreme hyperbole, in this case he is spot on. Hill really only directed 10 or so feature films of his own. But of those films, fully half are genuine cult classics, including The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, Coffy, Foxy Brown, and, to a lesser extent, Switchblade Sisters. And now we can add Spider Baby to this list.
Originally lensed in 1964, the film was caught up in bankruptcy purgatory for several years before seeing an extremely brief release in 1968 before disappearing entirely. Due to this legal limbo, the film never saw a re-release, played on television, or was even released on VHS during the Golden Age of the video boom in the mid- to late-eighties. Consequently, its legendary status grew as viewers lucky enough to have seen the film could attest to just how mad the story being told was.
So how did Jack Hill manage to direct so many low-budget movies with a lasting impact? It all begins with a strong story that is entertaining and allows the audience to identify with the characters. Then you mix a cast of talented newcomers with seasoned veterans. Throw in some talented and enthusiastic technical crew like cinematographers, art directors, and musicians with strong directing and it’s nearly guaranteed the film will make an impact. Spider Baby is helped by all these things.
Lon Chaney, Jr. plays a gentle giant of a man tasked with the caretaking of three siblings (and some other family members) who suffer from a syndrome that causes them to regress back to infantism even as they age. Thus, we have three budding adults with minds like children. Bruno (Chaney) genuinely loves these kids, even when they misbehave and kill innocent people. Unfortunately, this happens on a fairly regular basis. Sid Haig is Ralph, the oldest sibling, who has regressed to the state of a toddler. Virginia (Jill Banner) and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) are the two sisters who enjoy playing deadly games with their “prey.” Elizabeth goads Virginia into playing “spider and fly” far too often, but poor Bruno feels too sorry for the girls to chastise them.
Enter cousins Peter (Quinn Redeker) and Emily (Carol Ohmart), who have designs on shoving these distant and decidedly weird family members into an institution so they can collect the inheritance. Along for the ride are Mr. Schlocker (Karl Schanzer), the lawyer for the cousins, and his pretty assistant, Ann (Mary Mitchel). They force themselves into the house and stay the night. But will they be able to survive a night in the old house?
Hill has crafted a weirdly unique story that, while certainly schlocky, also displays a sensitive and surprisingly sophisticated layer as well. Designed as much as a comedy as a horror film, Hill (who also wrote the screenplay) infuses the film with tons of in-jokes such as the dinner conversation about the Universal monster movies, to which Chaney’s character notes that “there’s a full moon tonight.” But there is also more subtle comedy as witnessed when the slimy lawyer—who, with a Chaplin mustache reminds one of Adolf Hitler—goes to sit down at the dinner table only for his assistant to take his chair, assuming he is pulling the chair out for her. He moves to the next chair, pulls it out from the table, only to have someone else take it. He continues moving down the table until he is successful at finding a chair, but when he finally sits down he finds himself face-to-face with the disturbingly strange Ralph. The joke is magnificent but only the most astute viewers will catch it. Hill also adds some real melodrama to the story as viewers are privy to the very real, and very sympathetic, relationship between Bruno and his brood. These children may be unhinged and deadly, but they are fiercely loyal to Bruno. For his part, he dearly loves them all regardless of their flaws, which he rightly recognizes cannot be helped. There are many heart-rending and tender moments in the film which will surprise the viewer for not being typical in this kind of low-budget genre feature.
Even with superior writing, one must have solid actors to translate the words on paper to actions and feelings on screen. While Chaney is mostly remembered for a series of decidedly average horror potboilers made in the forties and fifties, here he shows both his comedic chops as well as his fatherly, sympathetic side. Bruno is probably the most sensitive and caring character Chaney had played since his turn in the original Wolfman film. Though an aging alcoholic, he was smart enough to recognize a quality role when he saw one. So while the money he received was less than he was used to getting, he jumped at the chance to play against type. Sid Haig was a newcomer to the screen, and what a role for a new actor to play an oversized, infantile toddler with no speech. His bald head and big, round eyes allow for a creepy performance, along with his only noise, a snakelike hissing. Jill Banner as Virginia and Beverly Washburn as Elizabeth couldn’t have been more different. Banner was a first-time actress at 17 years of age while Washburn had 20 years of acting experience, even being nominated for an Emmy for an earlier role. But the two mesh perfectly as the sisters in the story, alternately teasing and fighting each other and planning murders together. Virginia seems to have regressed a bit more than her sister and is easily manipulated by Elizabeth. But both sisters dearly love their brother Ralph as well as Bruno and don’t hesitate to display their genuine affection and excitement whenever either is around. Its vaguely sickening for the viewers to realize that both crazed females are actually pretty sexy in their little dresses. Banner has a nasty and sensual scene as she plays “spider” to one visitor’s “fly.” He is tied to a chair with a web of ropes while Elizabeth sits on his lap, sniffing and tasting him as she rubs her face to his. It’s a little disconcerting for the viewer to note both girls are turn-ons even when they are stalking their next victim.
Carol Ohmart, a veteran character actress in her late thirties plays the nasty cousin Emily Howe, whose only design is to get rid of the children so she can get her hands on the inheritance money. She is a snobby bore with not a lick of sympathy for the family, though even pushing 40 she still presents a lovely figure in a filmy black negligee.
Even Mantan Moreland, the black deliveryman, who played the comic (and some say racist) foil in countless films during the thirties and forties, is spot on as a spooked mailman who falls into the Spider Baby’s deceitful web at the beginning of the film.
If this isn’t enough, while Hill has gone on record as saying he was clueless directing his first film, viewers will note this film doesn’t look like a rookie’s initial attempt. The cinematography is creative and the lighting is simply fantastic. The film has a noirish look to it, helped by its crisp and clear black-and-white photography. The chiaroscuro lighting effects create plenty of light and shadow that helps the creepy mood of the film. Some of the lighting is revelatory, and Hill’s audio commentary enlightens viewers to these facts as well as his reasoning for them.
Perhaps one of the most entertaining aspects of the film is Ron Stein’s musical score. A journeyman composer, his score for this film is as unique as the movie itself. The opening credits song with Chaney singing the theme is hilarious. His score is creepy when it needs to be and emphasizes the funny aspects of the comedy as well.
Suitable to the recovery of a lost gem, Arrow Video has again created a deluxe package for Spider Baby, including a fun and informative commentary track by Hill and Haig, two great friends. It’s fun and interesting. There is also a 2012 panel discussion that includes Hill and most of the co-stars and further featurettes which allows the filmmakers to reminisce about the making of the film, including a piece on the sadly deceased Ron Stein. Along with a trailer, an alternate opening sequence bearing the title of “Cannibal Orgy” (!), and an extended scene, viewers are also treated to Hill’s 1961 student film, The Host, starring a very young Sid Haig. The quality of the film is astounding. For a no-budget, throwaway film with a brand new director, the restoration of Spider Baby is a minor miracle.
If you are a fan of the quirky and offbeat, do yourself a favor and see one of the “maddest stories every told.”
The film can be found on Amazon or you can go directly to Arrow Film’s website at http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/category/usa