Friday, September 30, 2016

Spider Baby

Spider Baby (shot in 1964, released in 1968)
Dir. and written by Jack Hill
Starring Lon Chaney Jr, Carol Ohmart, Quinn Redeker, Jill Banner, Sid Haig




There’s really no other movie quite like SPIDER BABY. Yes, there are other movies which perhaps occupy the same general universe -- that is to say, post-PSYCHO exploitation pictures straddling the uncomfortable border between arch 50’s dorkiness and sleazy 60’s psycho-sexual chaos, but lacking the appropriate context to know exactly where to set the dial on either-- but none of them really resemble SPIDER BABY in any meaningful substantive way. SPIDER BABY is a very weird film. It’s the kind of film that has a dozen or so alternate titles --The Liver Eaters, Attack of the Liver Eaters, Cannibal Orgy, The Maddest Story Ever Told -- mostly, one suspects, because nobody in the advertising department really knew what to do with it. What do you do with a film like SPIDER BABY?


Scraped together by former Roger Corman collaborator Jack Hill (FOXY BROWN, THE BIG BIRD CAGE) for a paltry (even for the time) $65,000 and shot in black and white in a little under two weeks, it has at least the general shape of a normal exploitation film of the era. It boasts a splendid Southern Gothic Manor House both grandiose and dilapidated enough to put the Bates’ place to shame. It’s anchored by a tale of madness and murder which sort of gestures towards some kind of modern sense of psychology, while still not being remotely tethered to anything we would call “reality” today. And it has a very, very aging horror star of yesteryear to show up and appear on the poster. Normally this would be Boris Karloff --still very much active at this point*-- but even he might have wanted more than a 65 K budget would allow, so instead they went with Lon Chaney Jr. (THE WOLF MAN)**


The story revolves around a trio of teenagers isolated in a remote country manor -- Ralph (Sid Haig, HOUSE OF A THOUSAND CORPSES), Virginia (Jill Banner, some TV in the late 60’s) and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn, much TV in the 60’s, OLD YELLER), who are all varying degrees of psychotic inbred maniacs due to a degenerative brain condition which runs in their family. They’re watched over by the faithful family chauffeur (Chaney), who has to try and keep their condition a secret, and also keep them from the kind of murderous trouble they’re wont to get up to. This is all about to become extremely complicated due to the arrival of their sleazy cousins (Carol Ohmart, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL and Quinn Redeker, various soap operas, and also apparently he wrote the first draft of THE DEER HUNTER?) who show up with a lawyer to try and steal the property from their relatives, totally unaware of the danger they’re about to end up in.




All that sounds pretty standard, but it doesn’t get at the weird tone here. It’s billed as as a black comedy / horror hybrid, which is about the closest anyone is going to get to an accurate genre, but that also misses something. It’s filled with broad slapstick and a healthy dose of late-50’s early-60’s campiness, but intermingled with some genuinely violent and perverse stuff, some of which is fairly graphic for 1964. That gives it a kind of brazen, transgressive energy, but there’s also an unexpected melancholy here --particularly in Chaney’s character-- which, mostly without directly dwelling on it, acknowledges the real human tragedy here and the horrible inevitability of the slow-motion disaster the movie charts. And the especially odd thing is that these disparate impulses blend together in unexpectedly subtle ways. Scenes which start out as kooky fun end in grim violence which gradually bleeds into painful desperation, and yet plotting the line where one becomes another turns out to be tricky business indeed.


So it’s a deeply strange but somehow oddly harmonious marriage of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. I couldn’t tell you exactly why it works the way it does, which is a problem because that’s exactly the job I have assigned myself. Part of it must be the stark black-and-white images, particularly of the manor house itself. It’s obviously a real location, filled with evocative details even the most brilliant production designer money could buy would never come up with, and that lends the drama an underlying sense of lived-in legitimacy which you’d never be able to capture on a set.*** Part is probably the committed performances of the three kids, all of whom go wildly over-the-top in completely different directions (Haig goes full-on Simple Jack to hilarious and somehow kinda endearing effect, Banner goes for a sadistic Lolita vibe, while Washburn plays the string-pulling manipulator). You’d think this would make it seem like they’re all acting in different movies, but instead it disturbingly highlights the way their deteriorating mental conditions have isolated them, even from each other. They’re so out-of-touch with reality they barely even see each other when they interact. They are acting in different movies. It’s just that those movies are all completely in their own heads.




But as useful as those elements are to the film’s off-kilter genius, if I must point to a single factor which holds the whole thing together, it’s obviously Chaney --many a year of punishing alcoholism written his face-- giving maybe his best performance ever? Frankly I never really thought of him as much of an actor; he has a certain charisma to him, but seems like he spent almost his whole career phoning it in, snoozing his way through campy sequels and cheap parodies of his few classic roles. But this role plays his strength for schlubby, can’t-catch-a-break pathos (also utilized to strong effect in WOLF MAN, but here with 20 more years of alcohol, failure and increasingly humiliating cameo roles to sculpt his hangdog mug into a living map of tragic missed opportunity) while adding a disturbing new context. He’s tremendously sympathetic as the loyal worker, trying to do right by the only family and sense of home he’s ever known, while at the same time being completely aware of the complete inevitability of his eventual failure. After all, even if he somehow manages to keep the children and their condition a secret, there’s still no future for them except as raging incoherent beasts, and no future for him except as a lonely, isolate zookeeper in a den of freaks. 

The movie doesn’t push the tragedy of his position, but it’s very near the surface of his performance, which gives the movie a potent emotional core and an unexpected heft. There’s a moment near the end where he (spoiler) realizes that it’s over, that no one is getting out alive… and suddenly there are tears in his eyes. In the eyes of an actor who had just done FACE OF THE SCREAMING WEREWOLF and THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE. And I know you won’t believe me until you see it, but I swear to you on all that’s holy, those tears genuinely cut deep (and apparently I’m not the only one who thought so; IMBD claims the entire crew was in tears by the end of the scene). It’s a startlingly vivid and affecting performance, and what’s even more remarkable is there’s nothing really new about it; it’s a completely old-fashioned style of acting and a completely natural character for Chaney. He just really nails it this time. Maybe I underestimated the big lug all along, and he was always a better actor than his roles allowed for.





But never fear, it’s not all pathos. In fact, mostly it’s a lot of anarchic fun, catalyzed by a subtle sense of real derangement. There’s a spot-on-perfect “dinner scene” which must have been somewhere in Tobe Hooper’s mind when he made TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. There’s an ever-ratcheting tension as Chaney struggles to keep the situation for spiraling out of control despite his young wards’ penchant for violent chaos. And there’s even some out-and-out horror, particularly in the startling moment when we discover that the three children are not the only living family members who reside in the house. Of course, that genuine horror beat is offset by the film’s kitschy theme song (sung-spoken by Chaney, why not?) which belies how dark the film gets, but at least perfectly captures what a darkly funny romp it is all the way through. Few films of this era have a sense of humor quite this pronounced and wicked, which would be reason alone to celebrate it as an inexplicably unheralded gem. But the fact that it also brings an unexpected bite to the fun pushes it into classic status. I doubt I know how to sell it to the world any better now than those poor confused AIP marketers did back then, but I do know this: it’s a real good one. Unique, packed with character, and sharper and stranger than it has any business being. So it goes without saying that it sat unreleased for almost four years before someone finally tried dumping it at the drive-in circuit under a variety of aliases, and has been mostly out-of-print since then. That’s the trouble with this world; sure, we worry about the Spider-Babies with their eccentric murdering habits. Understandable. But are the lawyered-up greedy cousins really any better?


*And indeed, Karloff would do four of his five final movies with Hill, starting with FEAR CHAMBER in 1968.


** IMDB trivia claims he was paid a flat fee of $2,500, or about $19,000 in 2016-dollars. Not bad for only two weeks’ work, but I bet even Lance Henriksen makes more than that today.


*** IMBD trivia also claims that the manor’s original occupant was Judge David Patterson Hatch, who, while living there, “wrote occult books as well as metaphysical writings after he retired from the bench.” A quick bit of research reveals this unlikely anecdote may actually be true; Hatch is widely cited for his occult writings, and apparently did build and occupy the “Smith manor.” Woah! Apparently the house is also used “inside and out” in INSIDIOUS PART 2! I have no memory of that at all.





CHAINSAWNUKAH 2015 CHECKLIST!
Play it Again, Samhain


TAGLINE
(deep breath here):
Spider Baby will give you nightmares forever!
So shocking it will --- sliver your liver!
The most gruesome horror ever shown!
Not for people who faint easily!
Do YOU dare see it!
Come into my parlor, said the spider to the...
Seductive innocence of LOLITA
Savage hunger of a BLACK WIDOW
and
Whatever happened to... Spider Baby
LITERARY ADAPTATION
None
SEQUEL
None, although supposedly Jack Hill wrote one
REMAKE
None, although it was adapted into a stage musical in 2004, which has since been performed as recently as 2012.
DEADLY IMPORT FROM:
USA
FOUND-FOOTAGE CLUSTERFUCK
No
SLUMMING A-LISTER
None.
BELOVED HORROR ICON
Lon Chaney, Jr. and Sid Haig! Plus Jack Hill probably counts.
NUDITY?
Nah.
SEXUAL ASSAULT?
Yeah, although it’s off-screen
GORE?
Ears sliced off, yikes
HAUNTED HOUSE?
No
MONSTER?
No
UNDEAD?
No
POSSESSION?
No
CREEPY DOLLS?
No
EVIL CULT?
No
SLASHER/GIALLO?
No.
TRANSMOGRIFICATION?
Yes, the gradual mental unravelling of the “children”
VOYEURISM?
Sid Haig watches one of the interlopers inexplicably dress sexy and swish around in her bedroom.


OBSCURITY LEVEL
Wrongly obscure. It was thought to be a lost movie as recently as the 1990s, thankfully since then Hill was able to find a surviving negative. Recently Arrow Video put out what is, by all accounts, an absolutely lovely blu-ray as well, so now you’ve got no excuse but to get acquainted with this unfairly forgotten gem.
MORAL OF THE STORY
You should be thankful that science can solve the problems caused by science, even if it means losing your home and livelihood and everyone you love!
TITLE ACCURACY
It’s a weird title, sir, but it checks out. Of all the various alternate titles, “SPIDER BABY” is probably closest to accurate, though it still doesn’t even come remotely close to describing the film. It did, however, serve me well: the only reason I ever stumbled upon this film is that I drunkenly mistyped the title for the Klaus-Kinski-as-Edgar-Allan-Poe oddity WEB OF THE SPIDER. So I’m for it.
ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE?
N/A, but I think she’d have dug it.



Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Island of Terror

Island of Terror (1966)
Dir. Terence Fisher
Written by Edward Mann, Al Ramsen
Starring Peter Cushing, Edward Judd, Carole Gray, Niall MacGinnis




On a remote island somewhere off the East Coast of Ireland, there’s something sinister transpiring. A farmer has gone missing, and when his body turns up in a nearby cave, somebody notices, huh, this dumb mutha fucka done lost all his bones. I can’t remember if that’s a direct quote or not but they say something like that. Bones gone, with apparently fatal consequences. You know that that means. There’s only one man for a mystery this mysterious which is specifically about bones being gone, and that is Dr. David West (Edward Judd, THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, VAULT OF HORROR), just a fuckin’ awesome bone doctor guy who can’t quite commit to his rich beautiful sassy girlfriend (Carole Gray, THE YOUNG ONES) but they have a lot of fun quipping back and forth and of course she insists on coming along to investigate this gruesome medical mystery on an isolated island, and oh yeah, about that helicopter which is the only way of getting there, it’s needed somewhere else for awhile, so, uh, hang tight. You hear that? I just pitched the single greatest movie of all time.


But wait, let me sweeten the deal for you. What if I told you that in addition to Dr. David West, you could have another affable square 50’s-style science guy to help solve that mystery? Oh, what’s that, you don’t think this could possibly get any better? Well shut the fuck up you fucking pissant peasant, because he’s played by Peter Cushing. That’s right, the beloved star of Dr. Who from 1965-1966, also STAR WARS I guess. Don’t you feel like a real piece of shit right now for doubting the world could be so generous?




Anyway, with director Terence Fisher (pretty much 75% of legit good Hammer movies, including DRACULA and CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN) on board and Cushing and a mystery about monsters de-boning people, you’d think this would be a can’t-miss proposition. Or, you would, if you hadn’t seen NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT which had pretty much the same plot and cast and Christopher Lee but is still a total fucking piece of shit. So let’s not get too excited here. In fact given the close proximity between the two films and the suspiciously similar settings and the fact that they’re both about swarms of funny-looking blob monsters eating rural villagers, I have a strong inclination to guess they were filmed either together or back-to-back using many of the same sets/props/cast, though I admit I have only my gut and the fact that I am a human being with two functional eyeballs to support that thesis. But fear not! If you absolutely must see one of the two not-very-good sub-Tigon mad science creature movies set on remote Irish islands which Peter Cushing appeared in between 1966 and 1967, this is definitely arguably the better of the two, in some ways, I guess.

Antagonist in NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT (1967, above) vs antagonist in ISLAND OF TERROR (1966, below)

Cushing has some funny lines (including one where he subtly propositions a threesome!*) and gets his hand cut off. And the dastardly tentacle monsters which are behind all the de-boning are but pretty fun when they eventually turn up, especially when they rally en mass for the excellent (maybe even vaguely exciting?) finale. And if you like cheerful, unselfconsciously modernist science types smoking pipes and musing about how men will never truly understand the female mind while they leisurely drive around the quaint Irish countryside looking for bone-suckers, boy howdee, Christmas just came early for you. It’s definitely that kind of movie.




Unfortunately it really drags in the middle as people drive to different places to try and find their friends, only to discover they’ve gone somewhere else. Cell phones would have easily cut 40 minutes out of this movie, and you’d have missed none of it. You kinda expect that sort of filler in something like this, and it’s not exactly painful watching or anything --Cushing is on-screen most of the movie, so it’s never completely dire-- but you’re going to notice it. In fact, the most memorable scene in the movie has nothing to do with monsters, and everything to do with straining to fill 89 minutes of screentime with images, without spending any money whatsoever. It takes awkward time-wasting filler to such a hilariously protracted degree that you could absolutely stick it right in the middle of an episode of Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! or something and no one would ever suspect it was made apparently sincerely in 1966.


Here’s how it goes: Cushing and Dr. David West (bone disappearance expert extraordinaire!) need to get a radioactive element out of some kind of stupid science closet in a lab. Fortunately, there are radiation suits nearby. So Cushing puts on boots. West puts on boots. Cushing puts on big puffy radiation pants. West puts on big puffy radiation pants. Cushing puts on radiation vest and helmet. West puts on radiation vest and helmet. Cushing puts on radiation jacket. West puts on radiation jacket. Cushing puts on left radiation glove. West puts on left radiation glove. Cushing puts on right radiation glove. West puts on left radiation glove. Then, they open the closet and take out what they need. And then everything comes back off. This has to take 5 minutes of screentime at least, made all the funnier by the unassuming lack of music, all the better to hear two middle-aged British men softly grunting as they change clothes in a cheesy-looking science room. It’s so outrageous that it’s immediately the best thing in the whole movie, and let’s not forget, this is a movie which has Cushing, Niall MacGinnis, and tentacle-waving bone-snatchers.




What it doesn’t appear to have is any awareness that it’s fucking 1966. There are about 800,000 similarly corny nuclear monster movies out there --and I’ve seen them all-- but fucking 1966 was pretty late for what is, in every imaginable way, a 1950’s sci-fi horror about the perils of the nuclear age and the heroic square-jawed military and science folks who protect us (from, uh, the horrors that they caused with their military and science). I mean, PSYCHO was a half-decade old by this point. BLOOD AND BLACK LACK had come out two years before. And not only had Cushing himself had already been in nearly 10 years of much more boundary-pushing, red-blood spackled gothic horror, but Hammer’s whole English horror renaissance was arguably heralded by 1955’s THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, a much more gruesome and morally ambivalent take on exactly this kind of science-gone-wrong mutation. But you would never know that from watching ISLAND OF TERROR, which appears completely unaware that society has changed in any way since the days of THE FLY or IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE. If there were any people in the world other than rich blondes, pipe-smoking scientists and ignorant villagers in 1966, ISLAND OF TERROR certainly never heard of them. John Lennon and Yoko Ono met in 1966. I doubt they went to see this movie.


Anyway, it’s funny to see such a late entry into this genre, because it really accentuates the comically modernist deference for science people were supposed to have, according to this genre of movies. Head townie Niall MacGinnis (so fantastic in NIGHT OF THE DEMON, but pretty wasted here) and his fellow townsfolk are really surprisingly --perhaps even absurdly-- accommodating of the increasingly bizarre pronouncements by these two strangers who have flown in and begun to rampage through their quiet community, not getting at all upset or accusatory after our heroes reluctantly fill them in that several of their most prominent citizens have been horrifically killed, and dutifully complying with every request our boys make without complaint, even when that means killing every single cow on this tiny agricultural island. MacGinnis even pulls one lad aside and angrily chides him for questioning if these nincompoops know what they’re doing (they don’t, but yes, he gets killed like a little bitch for daring to question them. It’s like if FRIDAY THE 13th movies decided to punish insufficient reverence for science instead of teenage sex!). In fact, just like THE FLY (a movie almost ten years old by this point), the script makes a point to carefully explain that while yes, in this case science got everyone killed and created a race of invulnerable bone vampires, science is still our friend.


Of course, that message is somewhat diluted by the delightful twist ending, where we see some signs that perhaps the same horror is about to repeat itself -- in Japan! Since Japan would still be churning out this kind of affable rubber monster crap (albeit with much better monsters) at least into the early 70’s, this almost feels like a kind of torch-passing moment. Japan, you really dropped the ball on making a sequel, here. Unfortunately there wouldn’t really be much follow-up from the English-speaking world; like the unfortunate isolated rural town which Cushing and West cheerfully leave completely depleted of livestock and citizenry, the age of the scientist-hero and the nuclear monster in the West was pretty well kaput. As last hurrahs go, this ain’t exactly a blaze of glory, but in this genre you could do a whole hell of a lot worse.


*The sole, solitary beat in the whole enterprise which might remind you that this is 1966, not 1953.





CHAINSAWNUKAH 2015 CHECKLIST!
Play it Again, Samhain


TAGLINE
How could they stop the devouring death...that lived by sucking on living human bones! And They lived by eating human bones!.
LITERARY ADAPTATION
None
SEQUEL
None
REMAKE
None, although it has some striking similarities to 1967’s NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT
DEADLY IMPORT FROM:
England.
FOUND-FOOTAGE CLUSTERFUCK
None.
SLUMMING A-LISTER
None.
BELOVED HORROR ICON
Cushing, and I’m going to count MacGinnis too.
NUDITY?
Nah.
SEXUAL ASSAULT?
No
GORE?
Uh, I suppose there’s some weird floppy corpses, does that count?
HAUNTED HOUSE?
No
MONSTER?
Bone vampire!
UNDEAD?
No
POSSESSION?
No
CREEPY DOLLS?
No
EVIL CULT?
No
SLASHER/GIALLO?
No.
TRANSMOGRIFICATION?
No
VOYEURISM?
Nah


OBSCURITY LEVEL
Rightly obscure.
MORAL OF THE STORY
You should be thankful that science can solve the problems caused by science, even if it means losing your home and livelihood and everyone you love!
TITLE ACCURACY
I guess it’s pretty terrifying, and it’s definitely on an island, they mention that specifically.
ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE?
N/A