D: Jack Hill / 84m
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr, Carol Ohmart, Quinn Redeker, Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner, Sid Haig, Mary Mitchel, Karl Schanzer, Mantan Moreland
A messenger (Moreland) approaches a lonely old house located way out of town on an unmarked dirt road. On the porch he looks in an open window, hoping to find someone at home. It’s the last thing he does. For this is the Merrye House, home to a family blighted by inbreeding and a resulting genetic disorder that causes mental regression from around the age of ten. Looking after the last descendants of this particular branch of the Merrye family is Bruno (Chaney Jr), the family chauffeur who promised to look after the children when their father died years before. He’s kept them safe and away from prying eyes, knowing that their behaviour would see them taken and locked away.
There are two daughters: Elizabeth (Washburn) and Virginia (Banner), and a son, Ralph (Haig). Elizabeth thinks it’s natural to hate everyone, and that everyone else is prone to hate too. Virginia is fixated on spiders, and keeps two tarantulas in a writing desk; she has a special spider game she likes to play as well. Ralph is a grinning halfwit, unable to communicate except by grunts and gestures. All three have developed murderous tendencies, though Bruno has done his best to instil some degree of socially accepted behaviour in all of them. They trust him to look after them, and he does so willingly.
The messenger’s letter informs of an impending visit by distant relatives Emily (Ohmart) and Peter (Redeker), their lawyer and his secretary. Their aim is to dispossess the children of their home and profit from the sale of the house. When they arrive, Bruno and the children attempt to be hospitable but the lawyer, Schlocker (Schanzer) is suspicious of them and their avoidance when discussing an aunt and uncle that should be living with them. Emily reacts coldly, while Peter is equitable and treats them with respect. Schlocker’s secretary, Ann (MItchel) gravitates towards Peter but is also uneasy, especially at the prospect of spending the night. When the issue of two few rooms means Ann having to stay at a hotel in town, Peter offers to take her.
After they leave, Schlocker waits until everyone has gone to bed before he starts to snoop around. He’s discovered by Elizabeth and Virginia, but not before he’s had a nasty encounter with their uncle. They murder him, and when Bruno finds out what they’ve done, he realises it’s really the end of everything. With a plan in mind to keep the children safe forever, he leaves the house. Meanwhile, Ralph is spying on Emily while she undresses for bed. When she sees him at her window she runs from the house. All three children pursue her, but it’s Ralph who catches her. and with unfortunate repercussions.
With all the hotels in town full, Peter and Ann return to the house. Peter agrees to play the spider game with Virginia and finds himself tied to a chair. At the same time, Ann is grabbed by Ralph after she sees the children’s father, and helped by the two girls, is taken to the cellar where they try to kill her. Help comes in an unexpected form, but with things having gone too far, Bruno’s return heralds a more permanent solution.
Filmed in 1964 but unreleased until ’67 because the producers went bankrupt, Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told is a movie unburdened by notions of good taste or civility. Its tale of a family of “retarded” (the movie’s term for it) degenerates at the mercy of an inherited disorder, the movie doesn’t lack for chances to be exploitative or horrific or unnerving. There’s humour as well, a penchant for weirdness for weirdness’ sake, and above average performances, elements that fuse together to provide a rewarding experience, despite its creaky sub-haunted house scenario.
The key to everything is writer/director Hill, making his first movie and showing an undisputed flair for the macabre (not bad for someone who started their career at Disney). The movie has an eerie quality that eludes most horror movies from the Sixties, and it has a pace and style that helps avoid the usual pitfalls, adding greatly to the more outlandish moments such as Ann being expected to stay in the room where the father’s remains are still in the bed. Even when Schlocker begins his prowl round the house, a sequence which, for the period, is often the cue for an extended and usually dull interlude, here it’s given a welcome boost by the Merrye House not being a rambling mansion, and by the unexpected intervention of Uncle Ned.
With certain expectations undermined, Hill is free to tell his story as imaginatively as he wants, and he’s aided by a cast who all seem as committed as he is to making the best movie they can from the material. Chaney Jr gives what is possibly one of the best performances of his later career – if not the best – his sad, weary face a joy to behold whenever he’s on screen, and more expressive than a dozen of his other movies all put together. Chaney wasn’t in the best of health at this stage of his career, and the filming conditions weren’t the best – no air conditioning – so he does look inappropriately sweaty throughout, but his quiet, almost retiring approach to the character of Bruno is effective and oddly profound.
As the children, Hill’s choice of actors also pays off. Washburn and Banner play the sisters like errant schoolgirls, remonstrating with each other over their behaviour and curiously displaying little or no affection. Their quirky, strange, off-kilter view of people and the outside world is by turns amusing, worrying, and terrifying. Without Bruno’s guidance, you wonder how unfettered their behaviour would have become, and the two actresses display that kind of blithe dissociation with ease, inhabiting their roles with impressive composure. Haig hasn’t quite as much to do but his jerky physical movements are often unsettling and his slack-jawed facial expressions, while often humorous to watch, belie a disturbing preponderance for lustful abduction. With his bald head and pop eyed stare, Haig draws the attention throughout.
Redeker narrates the story with a smooth, urbane charm, and maintains a wide-eyed naïveté that contrasts well with the theatrical hysterics of his character’s relatives. It’s an easy-going performance, skewed towards providing much of the movie’s comedy, his reactions to the more outré events providing a lot of beguiling amusement. By contrast, Ohmart is the chilly relative who can only see dollar signs and intolerable weirdness. She spends the latter part of the movie in just her underwear (apparently chosen specifically by Ohmart for use in the movie), and looks great.
Spider Baby looks great too even today, its crisp, atmospherically lit scenes often beautifully executed by DoP Alfred Taylor. Hill shows a good eye for composition as well, blocking scenes with confidence and an intuitive feel for unnerving camera angles. As well as encouraging strong performances from his talented cast, Hill also makes a virtue of the movie’s low budget to create a series of interchangeable sets that add tremendously to the claustrophobic feel of the Merrye house. A mention too for the score by Ronald Stein: suitably creepy in parts, aptly stirring in others, but always complementary to the action.
Rating: 8/10 – with a better presentation and attention to detail than might be expected, Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told is a wild ride bolstered by strong performances and a clever script; not weighed down by some of the stylistic excesses of later, similar movies, Hill’s debut sticks out by being effortlessly creative, and delightfully grotesque.