Spider Baby

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October 31, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

I haven’t been a fan of dressing up or trick-or-treating since high school, but I love watching horror movies this time of year. Few things are as enticing as the lure of a warm blanket, a cracked window, and a scary film, and I’m always on the lookout for the ultimate Halloween picture.

You may think, “Hey! What about Halloween or Trick ‘R Treat?”

Halloween, while a classic, can be a chore if you’ve seen it more than five times. And Trick ‘R Treat just isn’t very good (Sorry to anyone who jumped aboard that hype train; call me when your balls drop.*).

I’m happy to report that I have found what I consider to be the season’s perfect film, Jack Hill’s Spider Baby. Imagine the goofy dysfunction of The Addams Family crossed with the cold-blooded, homicidal weirdness of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Add a dash of Psycho to round out this simultaneously fun and frightening story about romance, cannibals, and the dark joy of never-ending childhood.

Hill, who both wrote and directed the film, walks the line between camp and terror more expertly than almost anyone who’s attempted it. The movie opens with a cute, cobwebs-and-creepy-houses animated sequence, accompanied by Lon Chaney, Jr. singing the theme song. Following a brief introduction to our corny, peppy host (Quinn Redeker), we meet a kindly, old delivery man (Mantan Moreland) as he bikes up to a remote house. He can’t find anyone with whom to leave a very important envelope, and pantomimes his frustration like a bit player on The Beverly Hillbillies.

On the verge of giving up, he sticks his head through the open front room window. From out of the darkness rushes Virginia Merrye (Jill Banner), a young girl with madness in her eyes and a giant net in her hands. She covers the delivery man’s head before stabbing him repeatedly with two large knives, which she wields like spider’s fangs. It’s a horrifying scene, completely out of step with the wacky, late-60s-TV-show vibe of the previous five minutes.

But it’s also a brilliantly effective way of setting up Spider Baby’s unique tone, one that kept me consistently off-balance and endlessly curious. The home’s caretaker arrives a short while later. Bruno (Chaney) has looked after the Merrye children since their father passed away, protecting daughters Virginia and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and son Ralph (Sid Haig) from a world that would not understand them. You see, the Merrye kids suffer from a rare genetic disease that causes their brains to deteriorate at the onset of puberty. The condition is so severe that they are doomed to return to a sub-human preternatural state of mindless cannibalism. For now, though, they’re (mostly) just cute and mischievous.

Bruno finds the envelope on the porch and opens it. Inside is a legal notice stating that long, lost cousins Emily (Carol Ohmart) and Peter (Redeker) Howe will be arriving later in the day to assume control of the Merrye estate. Soon, a well-to-do couple pulls up in their convertible. Emily is the portrait of snobbish sophistication, while Peter is looser and more down-to-Earth—almost cluelessly so. They meet their attorney, Mr. Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) and his assistant, Ann (Mary Mitchel), who Bruno personally escorted to the property on learning of their pending arrival.

In an awkward power move, Emily insists that everyone spend the night in the house. Bruno and the family prepare a hasty dinner comprised of fungi souffle (mushrooms from the back yard), salad (dry grass), and “rabbit” (a stray cat that Ralph killed just before supper). Later, Peter takes Ann bar-hopping while Emily and Schlocker settle in for the evening. For Emily, this means stripping down into rather elaborate lingerie and dancing in front of a mirror—while Ralph spies on her while hanging upside down from a window. The lawyer, meanwhile, snoops around the premises, stumbling onto the secret in the basement. Virginia and Elizabeth see to it that he can’t share his discovery.

Suffice it to say that far fewer people leave the Merrye house than entered it. The evening unfolds as a bizarre horror-comedy, with moments of levity underscored by truly disturbing images, and vice versa. Spider Baby really freaked me out, but it also kicked open a door in the back of my brain, a closet containing a number of movies locked in by a single question, “Why didn’t this work?”.

Movies like Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever, and myriad others have always bugged me with their inability to nail the tricky tone of terror and levity. Each comes close, but even the best attempts have been just slightly off—which, in reality, means they’re way off. Perhaps it’s the seriousness with which those filmmakers approached the material, suffocating the humor with too much darkness; the result is often a sort of staged shock—the same kind of entertainment failure that happens when a comedian warns the audience that they’re about to be offended and amazed by their “outrageous” brand of humor.

By tackling his subject matter from the opposite end—that’s to say, beginning with a wry approach to horror rather than a horrific approach to comedy—Hill infuses his film with scene after scene of off-kilter strangeness. The Merrye family is an utterly wrong but surprisingly tender bunch. Chaney in particular delivers a touching performance as the noble indentured servant who may or may not be completely fucked in the head. Washburn and Banner are utterly convincing as developmentally arrested children trapped in the bodies of weirdly seductive twenty-somethings. And Haig is a real discovery here in a role that is all grunts and expressive gestures (especially for fans used to seeing him as the wisecracking Captain Spaulding in Zombie’s horror movies). One gets the feeling that if the Merryes had been left alone, they might never have been allowed to become monsters—remaining instead withering freaks in a microcosm of familial love.

It’s only when the outside world comes calling that things go wrong, and it’s easy to see Spider Baby as an anti-establishment polemic, a bloody Peter Pan story aimed at keeping squares at bay. To put a really fine point on it, the Howes and their legal team are like flies who couldn’t stay away from a kooky web. It’s a theme that would be explored and modified a few years later in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; the key difference being that Leatherface’s family was a tad more proactive in procuring their meals.

So, if you’re in the mood for a genuinely unique viewing experience, invite some friends over and pop in Spider Baby. You may just be surprised at Hill’s cutting edge humor (over dinner, Ann and Peter profess their love of The Wolf Man to Bruno; if you didn’t giggle at that example, at least a little on the inside, you’re not a horror aficionado—sorry), or the awkwardness of laughing through a mouth covered in shock. This is a masterpiece that screams out for re-discovery. Spread the word.

*That was harsh—but, ultimately, really fun to write.

[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 10/19/11.]

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