Spider Baby

Spider Baby
Two-Legged Freaks!
Updated: 09-22-2007

They live in a ramshackle shack. They go postal on the postman. They care for their grotesquely mutated relatives, who dwell in the basement. They eat things like cats, fungus and spiders.


No, they're not the contests of the next "Island" TV reality show. They are the three children of their deceased father, Titus W. Merrye, and they are the end of his accursed family line.


The longtime, long-suffering, kindly manservant of the family, Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr.) watches over the increasingly erratic Virginia (Jill Banner), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), and Ralph (Sid Haig--a staple in both Jack Hill and Roger Corman shlock-fests, as well as George Lucas' THX 1138 and all of Rob Zombie's movies).


The Merrye siblings suffer (though they wouldn't call it suffering) from a rare disease that is unique to their freakish family. "Merrye Syndrome" is a neurological disorder that begins to manifest itself at the age of ten, causing the brain to slowly decay and send its victim into an alternately violent and infantile state. Once that virus has consumed all it can, it moves on to the physical body until the victim has no choice but to live out the rest of his or her desolate days hidden away in the dark basement, thrown the occasional bone.


Hairless, wordless Ralph is supposed to be a vegetarian, but basically he eats "anything he can catch," while the dark-haired child-woman, Virginia, fancies herself a human spider. She catches her prey in her "web" (a large, disintegrating net) and then "stings" them with her pincers (two long knives).


Her blonde, baby-doll wearing sister, Elizabeth, is full of a bubbling hatred that she can't keep from boiling over, no matter how hard she tries to be a good girl.


Lon Chaney, Jr. (who'd dropped the Jr. by 1964 and actually never was a Jr.--his birth name was Creighton) as Bruno shows some flashes of his former acting chops (his portrayal of Lenny in Of Mice And Men earned him raves decades before, and he was in everything from High Noon to Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein) and emerges as the most sympathetic character of the loony lot.


While it might seem best to let nature to take its merciless course and allow the family's grim legacy to die out, the Merrye trio have two distant cousins, Emily Howe (Carol Ohmart, who starred in House On Haunted Hill) and Peter Howe (Quinn K. Redeker, who had roles in such varied films as The Three Stooges Meet Hercules, to Ordinary People), who are laying claim to the derelict family mansion and any money that might be remaining in the estate.


But not long after they arrive on the scene, with their attorney and his assistant in tow, they start to have grave regrets about their decision to barge in on their blood relations.


Jack Hill, who went on to make such cult favorites as Switchblade Sisters and Foxy Brown, made his directorial debut (he'd co-directed before) with Spider Baby.


Shot in 1964, Spider Baby collected arachno-webs on the shelf until 1968, when it was briefly released as the second half of a horror double-bill on the drive-in circuit. After it appeared on home video in the early Eighties, it began to develop a cult following and is now regarded as a classic little gem of swinging Sixties horror and reminiscent of, later films like Basket Case, Mother's Day, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and House of 1000 Corpses, Spider Baby is creepy-crawly fun.


It's due for a special edition anniversary DVD next year, and was shown on the big screen last night with a special Q&A (Jack Hill, Sid Haig, and others were in attendance) at The Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, CA.


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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson

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