Spider Baby Review (1968), The Maddest Story Ever Told, aka Cannibal Orgy, The Liver Eaters.

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I have to admit I have a deep affection for this film as it carries a sad story with a happy ending, and I am a sucker for the underdog. Jack Hill’s debut attempt into full length feature making almost never saw the light of day with financial problems which harboured its official release it floated around in the urban myths of lost horror movie limbo for many years, until Jack himself saw fit to liberate it from its coffin in some long forgotten vault and orchestrated its release onto the home video market. With the recent Arrow version on Blu ray it has been brilliantly restored and the host of extras make it a must buy for fans, even though it is still in the public domain. The public domain version being awful in terms of quality though.

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Spider Baby is a tragic story really, although it plays out in the form of a tongue in cheek black comedy, the elements which underpin it are really sad when you think about them in any depth. It also carries with it some deep messages about acceptance, unconditional love, greed, and morality. Chaney plays Bruno, a hired hand for the Merrye Family who carry a strange degenerative disease which only afflicts their family line. As family members age past puberty they start to regress into retarded creatures with cannibalistic tendencies. Bruno has been entrusted with the last heirs to the Merrye throne Elizabeth, Virginia and Ralph who have not yet past the point of no return in terms of regression, he has made a promise to their father to let no harm come of them and protect them from the prying eyes of a world which may not be so understanding. While there are a few mishaps Bruno does a grand job with the Merrye children and although they have the tendency to go off the deep end or act inappropriately, they are if nothing more very polite. As well as the kids to look after Bruno has also inherited other members of the family who are no so controllable and therefore have to be contained in the Merrye House basement, some of the Aunts and Uncles which are in advanced stages of the disease. Then there is Daddy, whose corpse resides in his death bed, and Virginia insists on kissing goodnight before going to bed. Problems arise when relative Emily attends the Merrye house with the strict intentions of taking the family fortune, with brother Peter in tow and lawyer Sclocker with his secretary Ann. It seems Bruno is finally losing his grip and this invasion into the safe haven he has created for the Merrye children is about to have dire consequences for all those involved.

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Hill himself explains that this movie shot on a mere budget of $65,000 in just 12 days, was a pure miracle in casting, and crew, and puts this down to just pure luck. Lon Chaney Jr who they originally wanted for the part almost never starred in it if it had been down to his agent who turned it down because of the money on offer, but Chaney himself requested to do the role, regardless of the lack of finance. I am a big fan of Chaney but this role has to go down as my favourite as he gives it his all portraying the desperate and misguided Bruno. Sid Haig cut his acting teeth as retarded Ralph seems perfect for the role, intriguing and fitting as an oversized baby with no control over his libido. Beverly Washburne as  Elizabeth already had extensive experience as a child star is delightfully twisted in her role, innocent but deadly. Perhaps the most compelling performance though is by Jill Banner as Virginia, The Spider Baby, only 17 years old at the time and relatively inexperienced she is nothing short of compelling in her performance. It is extremely heartbreaking that her life ended so abruptly in 1982 .She was obviously a very talented actress as her performance in Spider Baby shows and there is something about her that the camera just seems to love. House on Haunted Hill star Carol Ohmart is brilliant as the money grabbing and heartless Emily who seemed to have a lot of fun flitting around set in some, for the time, very risqué lingerie. While Quinn Redeker (Peter) and Karl Schanzer (Schlocker) and Mary Mitchel (Ann) provide a very solid supporting cast. There is also a small role for Mantan Moreland as the delivery man who was someone Hill specifically wanted for the role as he was very fond of his work.

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There are some really interesting character elements in the Merrye family first and foremost with Spider Baby Virginia herself, who loves to eat bugs and inadvertently kills people in her wicked games which involve stinging them with knives after capturing them in a rope web. Then there is Ralph mute, childlike, with an obvious eye for the ladies, and Elizabeth who seems to have more of a clue but still lacks the understanding to prevent getting the family into more trouble. Chaney as the troubled Bruno is exceptional in his role, as he clings on to his sense of duty and tries to educate the Merryes into the ways of the world. The dark twisted concepts which surround the family provide a distinct gothic edge to this movie, which I loved, being in some way reminiscent of shows like The Adams Family and The Munsters in a more adult format.

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There is no denying Spider Baby was a forerunner in the horror genre and its influence is one which has endured over the years. It is cited it was one of the first times the theme of cannibalism was dealt with in horror, a theme which popped up later in countless Euro flicks during the 70’s and 80’s. The depiction of this crazy and dangerous family can be noted as a direct influence on Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and of course later in Rob Zombie’s work in House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. The influence in Zombie’s character creation of Baby Firefly is obvious, as she bears a more than casual resemblance to Elizabeth in the way she speaks and her mannerisms, albeit if Zombie’s character is a more hardcore version.

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While the film does deal with some controversial themes, such as cannibalism and rape, it does so without being graphic and even though this is the case with most of the worst acts appearing off-screen, it really works. Of course this is a black comedy so everything plays out with a certain tongue in cheek quality but if you look at the foundations of the story there really is some horror there, and it comes from a surprising source (without giving anything away), but the film does bring up some interesting ponderings, at least it did for me.

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One final thing to mention is the score by Ronald Stein, which is nothing short of genius. If you manage to pick up the Arrow version there is a short documentary on Stein which explains his career and how he was very much like Spider Baby in that he was also an underdog. Stein worked extensively in films but never really made it into the big time despite an obvious talent. He picked up Hill’s project  because it was so unique and he liked the idea of it. The theme song Stein wrote which is sang by Chaney is just amazing for its lyrical content alone.

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In summary all I can say is watch this film, watch it now! Refreshingly brilliant even after all these years, Spider Baby is finally having its moment in the sun which it has deserved for so long and that is something all us horror fans should celebrate.

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Categories: 60's horror, Comedy Horror, Reviews

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  1. Five films in the Public Domain you really need to see… | Stigmatophilia's gore splattered corner of insanity.

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