SPIDER BABY 1964
KISS OF THE SPIDER GIRL
This mildly disturbing horror camp comedy has slowly earned its cult status over the four decades since its release. It has also been known as: THE MADDEST STORY EVER TOLD, an obvious spin on the George Stevens epic, THE LIVER EATERS, and CANNIBAL ORGY. Jack Hill wrote, directed, and edited it. Hill, a former Roger Corman production assistant, knew how to keep America’s thousands of Drive-In screens busy and jumping. Over his career, he has directed 21 films, and most of them had their debuts over the hoods of automobiles, flickering madly and hoping to keep the bobbing head teenager’s attention for several minutes consecutively. Among his films we could find THE WASP WOMAN, THE TERROR, COFFY, FOXY BROWN, and the infamous SWITCHBLADE SISTERS. He filmed SPIDER BABY in just twelve days. He wrote DEMENTIA 13, and as a writer, he worked on 19 other films.
Ronald Stein wrote the movie’s musical score. He had been a film composer since 1955, and was a veteran of work on 84 films. Most of them were teen and horror-oriented fare, but he did some excellent work on TARGETS (1968), RAIN PEOPLE (1969), and GETTING STRAIGHT (1970). Alfred Taylor was the chief cinematographer, and this was his debut film. Another epic effort for him was KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE, done in 1988. Although the old mansion they used for exteriors was very Victorian and creepy, the interiors were really cheesy. The background flats and cobwebs looked like the kind of thing one would find at a high school play.
The film opened using comic credits, with Lon Chaney Jr. singing the title song. The song was later released on a 45, the flip side to Bobby Pickett’s
MONSTER HOLIDAY. Critics have labeled the film as “ a whacked out dive into dementia.” One wrote,” It is the strange story of a bunch of twistoids, intimately disturbing, and darkly comedic.” Another wrote,
“ The characters regress into babbling blood-thirsty geeks.” So, of course, the movie had to become a schlock epic.
This movie, although obviously not a serious candidate to compete for horror status when rubbing shoulders with the American International Edgar Allen Poe classics, mostly starring Vincent Price, or with the British Hammer lush remakes of all the original Hollywood monster films, but never the less, it has managed to carve out its own quiet niche. It never takes itself too seriously, and yet it never reduces itself to the burlesque and pratfalls rampant within THE ADAMS FAMILY, and THE MUNSTERS television shows that were popular at that time. It became an early schematic for future films done about a “crazy family”; movies like HOUSE OF A 1000 CORPSES, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS.
The rather unique plotline revolved around a fictitious medical problem, a genetic brain malady called the “Merrye Syndrome”. Generations of Merrye in breeding had created some form of degenerative brain disease, and all the members of the family suffered from it. Just before puberty, at about age 10, the family members would regress their emotional age. At some point they would lose language, and develop a taste for human flesh. Several of the older extant family members were kept in a deep pit in the basement of the old house. The odd dead body was tossed into the pit as a treat. One could only imagine the stench of such a place, but again logic was not a guest at this cinematic feast.
The family chauffer, Bruno, as played by Lon Chaney Jr., looked after the “last of the family”. There were three children, son Ralph, and daughters Elizabeth and Virginia. Bruno had to be the caretaker and protector of the children, and the family secrets. He had promised the children’s father that he would take care of them. He understood that his tenure was tenuous, and that soon, the whole family would be residing in the pit, but he would faithfully serve them as long as it was possible. So over the years, he had hidden them and their disease from the rest of the world. He did make forays out to see the family doctor, but those visits became less frequent. It was never revealed as to how Bruno managed to control the family fortune, or how he paid the bills and handled all the matters of finance and taxes. Those kinds of detail were just not necessary, I suppose.
The plot thickened with the arrival of a Messenger, played by the old comedy veteran, Mantan Moreland. He had appeared, years before, in Charlie Chan films, and other Universal Pictures programmers. His career started in 1933, and it spanned over 40 years. His characters were mostly the Stepin Fetchit bug-eyed variety, and they would not be very amusing to today’s audiences, but in his heyday, he gave America what it wanted, and expected to see. After this film, he appeared in cameos within five more movies, working until 1973 when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
As the Messenger, he managed to get himself stuck half-in, half-out of the living room window. The young Virginia, played by Jill Banner, dispatched him quickly. A crudely woven net was thrown over his face, and then Virginia, “playing Spider”, attacked him with two sharp butcher knives, approximating the front pinchers on an arachnid. Later Bruno carried the body to the basement pit, where it was tossed to the relatives as a delicacy.
When the letter that Moreland was delivering was finally read, it announced the proposed arrival of two family cousins, Emily and Peter Howe; along with their lawyer and his secretary. A subplot was introduced whereby the cousins wanted to push Bruno out of the picture, have the children “put away”, so that they could get their hot little hands on the mansion and the family fortune. What they did receive was far less rewarding, but perhaps appropriate. In some strange way, the movie represented a kind of morality tale, a macabre fairy tale. Schemers received their just deserts, and there was closure on the family dilemma.
When the four guests insisted on staying for dinner, and the night, the festivities began. There was this hilarious scene at the dinner table. The guests were served some bizarre cuisine. The centerpiece was roast cat, provided by young Ralph, and there was a huge dry grass salad, some boiled fungus, and some steaming bug stew. The scene went on a little past its comic peak, but it was a joy to watch.
Bad movies are a genre unto themselves. Ed Woods’ PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE, and films like ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES, and SANTA CLAUS VS. THE MARTIANS, all are strong contenders when lists are made up of “Bad Cinema”. These are the movies that we enjoy watching being made fun of on SCIENCE FICTION THEATRE. Actually, SPIDER BABY had fairly good production values, certainly more so than most of Ed Wood’s features. But it did share something significant with several Ed Wood classics. Wood gave the aging Bela Lugosi some screen time before his death. Jack Hill, in this film, managed to give Lon Chaney Jr., who had starred with Lugosi in several Univeral classic horror films, his farewell role. Chaney, who was an alcoholic, stayed dry for the two weeks of the shoot. And despite everything, he delivered a rather nuanced performance, somewhat poignant in spots, implying that he never really was given much of a chance to show us what a good actor he really was. He had an obvious talent for drama, but he made his living portraying weak, evil, and driven characters in scores of genre films. I remember a small scene he had, as Big Sam in Stanley Kramer’s THE DEFIANT ONES, which showed some dramatic promise. It is sad it never came to fruition. He was in HIGH NOON, for instance, but his character didn’t stand out. As Bruno, he was given several lines that are often quoted by cinematic cultists.
Bruno: It is not nice to hate.
Bruno: Just because something isn’t good, doesn’t mean it’s bad.
Bruno: Please treat the children tactfully. You see…they’re not accustomed to strangers, and …they might act wild, if encouraged.
One of my favorites, echoing his most famous role as THE WEREWOLF, was:
Bruno: There’s going to be a full moon tonight.
Later he reused this line as part of the lyrics for the title song.
The character work for the roles of the three children was done very well. With such a short shooting schedule, actors had to be trusted to be creative, and to bring their own weirdness to the table. The character of Ralph, played by Sid Haig, was wonderful to watch. Haig found the childish innocence, and combined it with a kind of primal ferocity. He was very athletic, and he was able to twist his young body into several grotesque shapes. His introduction scene, where he crawled out of the back seat of the 1937 family Packard, was sterling. He liked pulling himself up and down the dumb waiter. When he appeared for the formal dinner dressed in a 19th century five-year-old’s outfit, he seemed so very proud of his lace, short pants, and Buster Brown hat complete with ribbon. Haig has had a long career as a character actor, appearing in over fifty films. This was his third film. At present he is featured in KILL BILL, VOL. 2, and HOUSE OF A 1000 CORPSES.
The focal character, the spider girl, was the youngest daughter, Virginia. Jill Banner played her, and this was her debut film. The sight of her “playing Spider”, crouched over and ready to pounce with her two butcher knives flashing, was haunting. The film was very sparse on gore. The violence was more implied than illustrated. As in the Greek plays of old, the primary action happens off stage and off camera. Banner with Virginia often played the Lolita card, combining sensuality with murderous intent, melding seductive innocence to the savage hunger of a female black widow; and she had developed a definite taste for blood. Ms. Banner did a lot of television roles, and later she did appear in 8 other films. She died in a car accident at 36 years of age.
Playing in the yard, observing a spider.
Virginia: She has to tease him and wound him, and make him wiggle—so that his juice will taste better.
Beverly Washburn played the oldest daughter, Elizabeth, coquettishly. She seemed deceptively sweet, was easily offended, and was always the first to yell,” Kill him!” And she was always the first to strike. Carol Ohmart played cousin Emily Howe, the scheming uptight bitch part. She was the pushiest of the bunch. It was she that insisted they stay for dinner, and stay the night. She did the standard pulled back hair and button-up blouse character that was really a hottie underneath. As a former Miss Utah, she was one of dozens of buxom blondes that was kept in the wings, hoping to be groomed for the next sex goddess slot. It never really happened for her though. THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL gave her one of her larger roles, playing with Vincent Price. In this film, she was able to push the sex limits of 1964, and strip to her black bra and panties, stockings and garters, topped with a sheer negligee. She primped in front of the mirror for what seemed an eternity. Finally, in the mirror, she noticed Ralph spying on her through the window. PSYCHO was popular at that time, and Janet Leigh had broken some significant ground posing in her bra and panties, being spied on by Anthony Perkins. But Ohmart did provide some much needed gratuitous sexual energy, and it allowed Hill to have Emily run about for several scenes in that skimpy outfit.
One could imagine sitting in a Drive-In in 1964, slogging down a bad pizza and stale popcorn, watching this little almost-gem of a film, as a double bill with an Elvis picture, or a Roger Corman AI horror feature like THE RAVEN, with heavyweights Karloff, Lorre, and Rathbone in it. It probably would have slipped quietly by me in 1964. It would have seemed a bit silly, and not very scary. I would have wished for more sex and more gore. But today, upon reflection, I can see that this little B&W feature was prototypical in its creativity, had some clever writing, was fairly humorous, and had above average acting for the genre. One of the magical things about movies is that we can revisit the films of the past, and view them with new more experienced eyes, can redefine our older responses, and appreciate the subtlety initially missed.
I gave this movie a rating of 2.5 stars
Glenn Buttkus 2004