Sunday 18 March 2007

Spider Baby (1968) Jack Hill

This one couldn't fail to entertain: it's a 1968 comedy horror written and directed by Jack Hill, who has an awesome list of cult movies to his credit from early horror movies for Roger Corman into the blaxploitation era and some of Pam Grier's best films. It stars Lon Chaney Jr dropping the Jr as he did so often to leech off his father's name and features Sid Haig in one of the first real roles he ever had, linking him with Jack Hill for the first of many films. The film is subtitled 'or, The Maddest Story Ever Told' which isn't far off the truth and was originally titled Cannibal Orgy. Also it's number three on the list of greatest cult films of all time as defined by the 5 Minutes to Live website which is far more accurate than any other such lists I've seen, such as the one done by Entertainment Weekly.

We start out with a terrible introductory sequence that tells us about the Merrye Syndrome, as defined in the Dictionary of Rare and Peculiar Diseases. Restricted to the descendants of the Merrye that gave it its name, it kicks in around the age of ten and regresses sufferers in mental age. Then we get to see the reality of the Merrye Syndrome, ten years before, when there were three Merryes left: Virginia (Jill Banner), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and Ralph (Sid Haig). All are full grown adults physically but children mentally.

We meet Virginia first, playing spider with a visiting mailman who has got trapped in her window, slicing him up with a couple of large knives. Elizabeth has pigtails to emphasise her youth and eats bugs. Sid Haig looks amazingly like one of the pinheads from Freaks, combined with some Uncle Fester and maybe some insane Telly Savalas in there too. Lon Chaney plays Bruno, their chauffeur and caretaker who tries to ensure that they don't get into too much trouble. Somewhere in the cellar behind hidden doors are Aunt Clara, Aunt Martha and Uncle Ned, who are no doubt even further along with the Merrye Syndrome.

The story kicks in about fifteen minutes in when Emily and Peter Howe, cousins to the Merryes come to take possession of the house and custody of the 'kids'. Emily is Carol Ohmart, Miss Utah of 1946 but best known for William Castle's The House on Haunted Hill, and Peter is Quinn K Redeker, whose last film as an actor was The Three Stooges Meet Hercules but who went on to be Oscar nominated for co-writing The Deer Hunter. Emily is a cold hearted mercenary with very nice lingerie while Peter is friendly and happy to flirt with the lawyer's secretary. She's a horror fan who talks horror movies with Peter leading to a wonderful Chaney in joke, which goes a long way to making up for the fact that he's a terrible actor.

It's hard to look at individual performances here because however memorable all these characters are, they're all overshadowed by the film itself. Jack Hill has created a wonderfully twisted picture that takes everything that's acceptable only through strict accordance to the rules but still completely beyond the pale and throws it all together in a joyously camp mix. There are flaws all over the place, not least the way day changes to night and back without any consistency at all, and some of the acting is truly awful, but this is one of the most enjoyably out there movies I can remember seeing. I caught it on TCM Underground but I'll definitely be buying the DVD with the extra documentary with both Hill and Haig. Wonderful!

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