Tuesday, May 3, 2011
It's oftentimes hard for me to write about something I really love. It's also hard to write about something everyone else really loves too. What can I say that hasn't been said previously and said better? What can I add to the conversation besides my undying love? It's a lot like this with Jack Hill's SPIDER BABY (1964). I've loved this film for years, yet never written about it or really had a good conversation about it with like-minded folks. Case in point, I've never put it into words why I love it so much. I just know that I adore it, with out really flushing out why.
The film came to me years ago. My friend, Rachel, had the shirt of the now common (to me and other film fans) poster art but had bought it movie unseen. It was a kickass shirt and she just liked the art work. Now I usually equate this behavior as poseur-ish, like painting band names on your leather jacket when you're not really a fan of the band, or haven't even really heard the band. But there's a lot to be said about aesthetics, and if something speaks to you aesthetically, why not rock it? So yeah, I saw this shirt and was like, wow, that seems cool. Maybe one day I'll check that movie out.
Years later, I bought a big lot of VHS films from eBay. Having forgot about Rachel's shirt, SPIDER BABY was among some of the fifty odd movies I procured in that lot. I can't recall when I actually first saw it, but I loved it from that moment. It was such an interesting little thing, with the sum of its parts (outstanding performances, dark humor, outlandish scenarios, Psycho-homages, etc.) making it great. Why isn't this up there with midnight movie brethren?
SPIDER BABY tells the story of the Merrye family, Virginia (Jill Banner), the youngest sister who fancies herself a spider and eats bugs, Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), the middle child and the most 'normal' of the bunch, and Ralph (Jack Hill regular Sid Haig), as the oldest and strangest member of the clan. You see, the children suffer from Merrye Syndrome, defined by the Encyclopedia of Rare Peculiar diseases, as a progression deterioration of the mental faculties, a rotting of the mind. The older they get, the more they regress into infantile dementia, thus resulting in strange behavior, not limited to cannibalism. It's all an unfortunate side effect of inbreeding and these three kids are the last of the clan. Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr. in one of his last roles) is the family chauffeur turned guardian of the clan and swore to the children's father, Titus, he would care for them until their dying day.
While psychotic and sociopathic (the kids often kill people that come by the house with seemingly no remorse - take for instance, a hapless delivery man just coming to deliver a letter - Virginia traps him in her spider web and 'stings' him with two butcher knives), the Merrye family is intrinsically likable. They're quirky and strange, Ralph reminds you of Schlitze the Pinhead, but that doesn't mean you don't root for them. You see, after we meet them Merryes, distant cousins Peter and Emily (played perfectly by ice queen bitch from HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, Carol Ohmart), have arrived to take over guardianship of the children and sell the house for a great profit. Titus, although insane, was quite wealthy and Emily wants to cash in on this for her own gain.
When threatened by these outsiders, the Merrye family does what they have to, which is frighten and kill and seduce these distant family members so their world can remain as is. The family is close knit and they could just go on about their business eating cats and playing with tarantulas, but 'normal' society had to step in. I just can't help thinking the entire time these people, who are supposed to be family, need to leave the Merryes the fuck alone. You feel for them, even if they are murderous cannibals. But somehow that never even figures into the equation. They're lovable psychos and you love them just as Bruno does.
Speaking of Bruno, Chaney brings this totally ingratiating-ness (is that a word? oh well, it is here) that's hard not to feel sadness towards. He loves those kids, even though he can't control them and his word is as good as his honor. Chaney was definitely on his last legs here, riddled by alcoholism and looking pretty long in the tooth, but I'd wager to say this is one of his best performances, albeit it, a lesser known one. I read somewhere he didn't touch a drop of booze for the eleven days they were filming SPIDER BABY, but the night the film wrapped he and Jack Hill stayed up until the four in the morning getting plastered.
Sid Haig is just as wonderful. He's very young here and almost disappears into his role. He's not one of those guys you normally think of as someone that can really bring any character to life, he's so recognizable. But here, he's straight out of FREAKS, is mute, and is absolutely perfect as Ralph, the most-gone of the Merrye clan.
The performances from the girls are just as great - Virginia (Jill Banner) is creepy, seductive, flirtatious, and dangerous all rolled into one, and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) is just as sinister, if not completely polite, but with a total darkness to her. It's a shame Jill Banner didn't go on to do more. I think she would have been a hit on the B-movie circuit.
The performances are dead on and the whole things sounds morbid and disturbing, but is actually quite darkly comic. I'd love to see this one with an audience and see when and where the movie elicits laughter. Ralph, for sure, would garner a few chuckles based on appearance alone.
SPIDER BABY, made four years after PSYCHO, contains plenty of similarities, although you wouldn't think such immediately about a black comedy about cannibalism and rare diseases. From the rotting Victorian mansion on a hill where outsiders come to ultimately perish, to the father's corpse rotting in a bedroom and referred to as alive, to the warped family values, SPIDER BABY owes a something of a debt to Hitchcock's film. I don't know whether the homage is intentional, since the movie was written and shot at a breakneck pace, but it's there.
I might not have totally done this thing justice, as I'm sure there are more points of discussion. Please feel free to expound upon them in the comments.