Want to Play Spider? A Review of Spider Baby (1968)
by Amy M. Vaughn
30 October 2019
For a certain kind of person, Spider Baby is a feel-good movie. I know that isn’t one of its official classifications, but I think it belongs there, right alongside horror, dark comedy, independent, low budget, B, and exploitation. It absolutely transports the viewer to another time, a weirder mind, a world away from whatever shit they’ve faced that day. Plus, it’ll make you smile. That is, if you’re the kind of person who enjoys dark wit and can appreciate watching a filmmaker do a whole lot with very little.
Spider Baby was filmed over 12 days in 1964 on a budget of $65,000, which translates to roughly $500,000 today. It wasn’t Jack Hill’s first time directing. He had Blood Bath (1966) and Mondo Keyhole (1966) under his belt as well as uncredited experience on The Wasp Woman (1959). He was also one of six additional directors, aside from Roger Corman, on the clusterfuck that was The Terror (1963). But Spider Baby was the first time he both directed and wrote. And it’s the kind of film that once you’ve watched it—or even made it halfway through—you want to look up who wrote it and what else they’ve done. (His other writing credits include Coffy (1973) and Switchblade Sisters (1975).
No, this isn’t a piece about Jack Hill, but knowing who wrote Spider Baby, who directed it, and when it was made gives us an idea of what to expect. For instance, other films with similar budgets released the year Spider Baby was made include The Creeping Terror (1964) and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies (1964). If you’ve watched either of them, then you know the answer to “What should we expect?” is “Not much.” But what we get from Hill with Spider Baby is so much more than its contemporaries.
One of Hill’s master strokes was to bring in an aged Lon Chaney Jr. By this time, Chaney’s alcoholism was keeping him from getting steady work, which is why Hill could afford him. Chaney abstained from drinking during the two weeks of filming, and the DTs are responsible for his shaky hands and at least some of his profuse perspiration plainly visible in the film. (It was also brutally hot on set, as they were filming in late summer with no air conditioning.)
Chaney plays the sympathetic role of Bruno, the Merrye children’s guardian. The children—Ralph (Sid Haig), Virginia (Jill Banner), and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn)—have a degenerative disease that strikes around the age of 10. It causes them to regress through their young years and will finally leave them in a condition of “pre-human savagery and cannibalism.” Bruno, the family chauffeur, swore to the children’s father on his deathbed (where he still resides) that he would care for them always. The children are already starting to show signs of “pre-human savagery” when a distant aunt shows up to claim the Merrye fortune with her lawyer and her brother in tow. Merrye mayhem ensues.
This movie is droll in the best sense of the word. There are a few standard jokey dialogue bits and sight gags aplenty, and the stereotyped characters, especially the greedy aunt and the self-important lawyer, are milked for laughs. There are also gross outs and jump scares and other horribly fun things that have come to define horror comedy. One of those delightful crossbreeds in this film is Sid Haig. Hired for the way he could contort his body, it was his first starring role and he resolutely succeeds in putting pathos and even joy behind the monster he portrays.
The real horror of Spider Baby comes from witnessing Bruno in his losing battle as he tries to protect the children from the world and the world from the children. His unconditional love is no match for their complete amorality. Besides having the same strength and physical abilities as young adults, Hill (who would go on to be one of the best known exploitation filmmakers ever) doesn’t pussyfoot around the issue of the children’s sexuality. One of the tensest scenes in the film occurs when Virginia, playing the game she calls “Spider” with her uncle, sits in his lap while he’s tied to a chair. It is expertly crafted to induce discomfort and squeamishness in the audience, and then it ends in a snap as she bounces back to her childlike ways.
From the kooky, spooky theme song played over cartoon faces in the beginning credits, to the house whose floorplan makes no sense, to scenes where two actors are obviously never on the same set at the same time, this movie has ample opportunity to fall apart. But the quality of the acting and the unique nature of the premise hold it together. The many foibles simply make it quirky and endearing.
During filming, Spider Baby was called Cannibal Orgy, or The Maddest Story Ever Told. Then, before it could be released, the production company filed bankruptcy and the movie went into legal limbo. Three years later, in January of 1968, it was released as a drive-in second feature called either Spider Baby or Liver Eaters, depending on what it was being shown with. It did not do well, not least because it was nearly impossible to market. How do you advertise a movie the likes of which has never been seen before? Among its taglines were “Seductive innocence of Lolita, savage hunger of a black widow!” and “Spider Baby will give you nightmares forever!” These were par for the course for the day, but they didn’t exactly capture the humor and poignancy that makes this movie special.
After a brief run it faded away and, for decades, it was considered a lost film. But in the 1990s, Jack Hill acquired the “answer print,” which is the first version of a film that is color-corrected and has the sound properly synched. Because of this find, Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told was made available to a new generation, where it appealed to a certain kind of person and gained the cult following it has today.
5 out of 5 Tarantulas named Winifred
Spider Baby is currently available through Tubi and Amazon Prime
Amy M. Vaughn writes weird little books. Among them are Skull Nuggets (Bizarro Pulp Press) and The Shelter (Cabal Books, forthcoming). She is also serving as editor for Dog Doors to Outer Space: A Compilation of Bizarro Writing Prompts (Filthy Loot, forthcoming). Amy lives in Tucson and online wherever writers go to avoid writing.