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 to 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.

Play it Again, Samhain

(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
Whatever happened to... Spider Baby
None, although supposedly Jack Hill wrote one
None, although it was adapted into a stage musical in 2004, which has since been performed as recently as 2012.
Lon Chaney, Jr. and Sid Haig! Plus Jack Hill probably counts.
Yeah, although it’s off-screen
Ears sliced off, yikes
Yes, the gradual mental unravelling of the “children”
Sid Haig watches one of the interlopers inexplicably dress sexy and swish around in her bedroom.

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.
You should really be paying your chauffeur a lot better.
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.
N/A, but I think she’d have dug it.

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