[I wrote the following as part of the Film Club over at the horror blog Final Girl; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like degenerative mental illness in a heavily inbred family.]
The film is called Spider Baby, depending on who you ask. Some may prefer The Maddest Story Ever Told, while others may go with Cannibal Orgy. These titles already give you a glimpse of the film’s true nature: excessive, sensational, manic. It’s an ultra-low-budget B-movie with the best of them, for sure. But while lots of the ’60s horror movies I’ve sat through have been slow, grainy exercises in dullness, Spider Baby takes off into high gear from the first few seconds. Hell, the opening credits, sung by Lon Fuckin’ Chaney, Jr., give you a taste of totally absurd, campy horror that tops some feature-length films.
Cannibal spiders creep and crawl
Boys and ghouls having a ball
Frankenstein, Dracula and even the Mummy
Are sure to end up in someone’s tummy
Spider Baby is an unexpectedly self-aware movie, as its theme song casually references the horror movie tropes about to be employed. Even if Chaney was a friendless alcoholic nearing the end of his life as he sang it (at least according to interviews I’ve read), this opening is nonetheless infused with a strange sense of fun, and the filmmakers’ knowledge that they’re about to dollop out some tricks and treats. But not even the invocation of all these past monster movie muses can prepare the viewer for the bizarrerie that follows. The song is just a stream-of-consciousness gateway to the abyss.
In true horror movie style, the story is prefaced by an official-sounding monologue. A man sitting comfortably in what looks to be a den introduces the Merrye family and their namesake syndrome, both of which he claims were wiped out 10 years ago. This, we later learn, is Peter, who with his sister Emily, their lawyer Mr. Schlocker, and his pretty assistant Ann, have come to take possession of the Merrye household. However, they’re opposed by the Merrye children – the childlike, knife-wielding Elizabeth and Virginia, and the large but animalistic Ralph (Sid Haig) – and their paternal chauffeur, Bruno (Chaney). Herein lies the film’s driving conflict, but it’s one which is never expressed in anything but the most unpredictable and off-putting ways.
And before any of that can happen, we enter the Merrye estate alongside a courier played by Mantan Moreland, a black actor best-known for his bug-eyed, broadly comic, racially stereotyped roles in 1940s comedies and Charlie Chan movies. Moreland’s brief performance raises the possibility that this will be a light, jokey horror-comedy. Then he’s attacked, mutilated, and murdered by Virginia, who insists it was all part of her “spider” game. When we dolly in on his ear, which drops lightly to the floor, we realize it won’t be that kind of movie – yet the levity continues as Moreland flails in the window, and when Elizabeth walks in on the scene, she plays the big sister, acting as if Virginia’s been leaving her roller skates sitting around. This radical dissonance between the onscreen violence and the characters’ reactions is just an initial sample of the film’s perverse humor.
Writer-director Jack Hill, a purveyor of cult favorites who’d go on to direct Pam Grier in Coffy and Foxy Brown, delights in sick jokes like this. A skinned cat is passed off as rabbit for the Merryes’ hungry guests, and as Virginia’s spider psychosis threatens addition lives, strains of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” punctuate the soundtrack. Hill plays similar games with audience sympathies: we pity the Merryes, whose “happy” family and way of life is about to be interrupted, but that doesn’t keep us from screaming “Don’t go in there!” as Schlocker investigates the house. Schlocker is a bureaucratic slimeball, sure, complete with an omnipresent cigar, but Hill still compels us to worry for him. The kids, of course, are never in any real danger – they’re the source of the horror. In case it’s not clear, this is an intentionally confounding movie.
The greatest object of our pity, anyway, is poor Bruno. Although he shields and enables murder after murder. He’s an anti-hero in the mold of Seymour from The Little Shop of Horrors: stuck in a bind (a promise he made to the children’s dying father), he believes it’s his responsibility to protect this brood of psychotic cannibals, as well as their aunt and uncle (who dwell in a pit in the basement… it’s that kind of movie). Since Bruno doesn’t actually kill anyone on his own, it’s easy to feel sorry for him, and his final decision – to enact an explosive mercy killing – hails back to the pathos at the end of Of Mice and Men. (Chaney played Lenny in a 1939 film version, opposite Burgess Meredith.) Chaney, never an especially subtle actor, still brings all of his conflicted devotion to the role of Bruno, and is the emotional cornerstone of the film.
But nothing can top the performances of Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner (neither of whom had much of a career outside of this) as Elizabeth and Virginia. All good horror fans know that children are evil. But who knew children could be this evil? They’re especially effective because they don’t seem aware of their sadistic, homicidal natures; they just act like little kids, and Virginia talks about her spider game as innocuously as if it were jump rope. They’re as fickle, irrational, and lacking in self-control as real children – they’re pure id. (It’s worth noting that during production, Washburn and Banner were about 21 and 18, respectively.) The civilized intruders don’t even appear to notice the giggling, rosy-cheeked menaces right under their noses. And by the time they do, it’s too late.
Spider Baby is a pretty audacious horror movie in how it brings four “normal” people into an obviously, outrageously abnormal situation, and shows them relatively at ease in it, a juxtaposition that would feel at home in a Luis Buñuel movie. It’s also a haunted house movie par excellence, but extends the usual twists to the point of hyperbole. Psycho had one jittery motel owner with some stuffed birds and his mother’s preserved corpse saved for the big final scare. Spider Baby has a jittery chauffeur, three psychos in plain sight, two more downstairs, birds mounted randomly on the wall, and the father’s skeleton revealed still in his bed halfway through the film. At 81 minutes, it wastes no time, ramping up each successive scare into more and more over-the-top territory – and considering the minimal resources and $65,000 budget, that’s damn impressive.
So what to make of Spider Baby? It’s far better and more interesting than I expected. The title smacks of cheesy, ridiculous, low-budget schlock, and while these words all applicable to varying degrees, it’s also a seriously scary and fucked-up movie. The Maddest Story Ever Told isn’t just one of those comically superfluous subtitles; it’s a surprisingly accurate description of the film’s ambitions. And the moniker “spider baby” can be applied not only to Virginia, who gleefully catches “bugs” in her web of innocence, but to Peter and Ann’s child as seen in the disturbing epilogue (with one of the best-deserved “THE END?” twists of all time). In this final scene, the film thrusts all of its bloody depravity and wicked humor in the face of 1960s Middle America and its petty little dreams. Even after the climactic destruction of the haunted house, the movie cunningly says, the horror may live on in quiet suburban backyards. And that’s scary.