Jack Hill’s “SPIDER BABY” (Arrow Blu-ray Review)
Shot over 12-days, held off from distribution for years due to legal tangles, and discovered primarily on bootleg VHS tapes for decades, SPIDER BABY (or CANNIBAL ORGY or THE MADDEST STORY EVER TOLD) might be a beloved B-movie classic these days, but it was never really released – it escaped.
Jack Hill’s debut is a sweetly perverse 60s exploitation concoction pitched somewhere between THE ADDAMS FAMILY and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, but made before the latter franchise existed. This is one of the ultimate cult films. Once seen, it’s never forgotten, and the legion of movies that were influenced by SPIDER BABY have sadly all ended up more well-known than the should-be-iconic original. It’s the type of movie that begs for a marquee Blu-ray release to give it the attention denied for far too damn long. Thankfully, that’s what Arrow does best, and now it’s time for horror fans to dedicate a few hours to adoring appreciation of the disc, followed by some well-warranted dancing in the streets.
For those unfamiliar, Hill’s flick opens up with one of those post-PSYCHO B-movie prologues discussing an odd psychological disorder that will be delightfully exploited for the next 80-odd minutes. In this case it’s the “Merrye Syndrome,” a bizarre disorder that causes youngsters to regress into childish psychosis once they hit puberty. Conveniently, all the remaining Merrye Syndrome sufferers are limited to one family who share the syndrome’s name. Former family servant Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.) now looks over the three Merrye siblings, two girls Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and Virginia (Jill Banner) – who like to engage in murderous games of “spider” (unlucky visitors to the family home are the bugs) – and Ralph (Sid Haig), a massive man-baby with a taste for house cat flesh. They’re a creepy lot, and in accordance with classic horror movie convention are unexpectedly visited by two lost family members (Carol Ohmart and Quinn Redeker) as well as a lawyer (Karl Schanzer) and his secretary (Mary Mitchel) who hope to claim the family home as their own. They unwisely decide to stay in the overnight and as expected, the family reunion doesn’t go well.
So that’s the set up and it’s a doozy, but the payoff is even better. Jack Hill was a special exploitation filmmaker who knew how to fulfill the genre requirements and lace it with a sly wit of self-parody. SPIDER BABY is hilarious in its depiction of sick family values and hysterically-pitched acting (Sid Haig’s drooling Ralph is worth the price of the disc alone), yet the film is also filled with genuinely creepy moments and a heartbreaking late career performance from Lon Chaney Jr.. Camp comedy and perverse chills combine for a deliriously entertaining romp that holds up far better than most horror efforts of the era that were actually granted a proper release. The film deserves every member of the cult it has earned over years and is prepped to earn many more thanks to Arrow’s efforts. The high definition transfer is kind to Alfred Taylor’s gorgeous black and white cinematography, revealing depth in the shadows and details in the California Gothic production design never visible before in previous muddy releases of the once-lost classic. SPIDER BABY was a cheap movie with a rushed production, so you can’t expect the visuals to match the gorgeous restoration of Arrow’s recent Bava discs. However, SPIDER BABY is a far more visually expressive film than the flick often gets credit , and has never looked even remotely close to this good (even in Dark Sky’s impressive 2007 DVD of the director’s cut presented here).
Extras from that Dark Sky disc have all been carried over including the incredibly entertaining commentary from Jack Hill and Sid Haig and a wonderful 30-minute documentary that includes factoid gems like the fact that Lon Chaney referred to two of his co-stars as “Crackerass” and “Bubblebutt” on set (no points for guessing who). The new disc is also stacked with its own impressive new features like Jack Hill’s 30-minute film school graduation thesis THE HOST starring Sid Haig. It’s a little technically crude and overly ambitious like most student movies, but the talent of the director and his star is immediately apparent – and the film seems to have served as a bit of an influence on Hill’s classmate Francis Ford Coppola’s later APOCALYPSE NOW. On top of that is a panel discussion with the director and stars recorded at The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last fall, a nice retrospective doc on composer Ronald Stein (who spins tales of scoring SPIDER BABY, ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN and others), and a featurette about Jack Hill visiting the SPIDER BABY house over forty years later. Overall, it’s one of Arrow’s most stacked and carefully restored sets to date and no film deserves it more than this one (Arrow also recently gave Hill’s Blaxploitation classic FOXY BROWN the Blu-ray treatment). If you’ve never sampled the strange and wonderful joys of SPIDER BABY before now, it’s time dangnammit. If you knew it well, you finally got the release you’ve been begging for. Either way you and SPIDER BABY win.