Blu-ray Review: Spider Baby (1967)

Spider Baby BR CoverDistributor: Arrow Video

BBFC Classification: 15

Director: Jack Hill

Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Carol Ohmart, Quinn K. Redeker, Sid Haig, Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner, Mary Mitchel

In the world of cinema there are cult films and there are Cult Films, and director Jack (Foxy Brown/Pit Stop) Hill’s debut feature film Spider Baby definitely falls into the latter category. Originally filmed in 1964, released in 1967 after legal issues and considered something of an enigma ever since, Spider Baby neatly encapsulated the evolution from the ‘safe’ horror films of the era to a creepier, edgier style of horror and was made by one of a new breed of directors looking to take things in a new direction.

Sisters Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn – The Lone Ranger) and Virginia (Jill Banner) Merrye and their brother Ralph (Sid Haig – Pit Stop/The Devil’s Rejects) suffer from a unique genetic disorder caused by inbreeding that makes them mentally regress back to childhood as they get older. Looked after by their loyal family chauffeur Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr. – The Wolf Man/The Ghost of Frankenstein), the siblings lives are interrupted when distant relatives and their lawyer come by to lay claim to their estate but the unwanted visitors soon wish they’d left well alone as they get drawn into the Merrye’s weird world of rape and murder.

Despite having a reputation as an over-the-top shocker, there isn’t actually anything that gruesome about Spider Baby. Much like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre it isn’t any one scene or act that gives it its reputation but the overall tone, and the tone of Spider Baby is one of unnerving uncertainty that acts as a bridge between the relatively family-friendly dark humour and shocks of The Addams Family and The Haunting, and the more transgressive horror films of the following decade like the aforementioned The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Last House on the Left and oddities such as George A. Romero’s Martin. There’s no blood, no swearing, very little violence and the acts of rape and cannibalism are implied and not seen but due to Jack Hill’s inventive direction, some excellent cinematography and some truly wonderful performances from the cast, the film manages to get under your skin like very few films actually ever do.

Performance-wise there’s very little to fault. A puffy-faced Lon Chaney, Jr. steals the show as Bruno, giving what would turn out to be one of his last screen performances and one that is just as emotive and convincing as his legendary turn in The Wolf Man (which gets referenced more than once), but props must also go to Beverly Washburn and the wonderfully strange Jill Banner as the two Merrye sisters and, of course, the ever-wonderful Sid Haig as Ralph, creating a family unit just as wild and wacky as anything that Tobe Hooper or Wes Craven ever came up with.

Spider Baby is an odd film in that when you actually look at the plot and read it out aloud it sounds as mad as the Merrye family, but when you look at all of the ‘mad family’ films that have been released since the 1960s then it is easy to see where the inspiration came from. It isn’t a fully-formed vision of an inbred family and it certainly isn’t a perfect film but it is highly enjoyable and provides a glimpse of a talented filmmaker in his career infancy, a future cult star showing his early chops and an old master having another day in the sunshine. Plus it has the stunning Carol Ohmart (The House on Haunted Hill) running around in her bra and suspenders, so something for everyone… provided you’re into sheer lunacy.

Spider Baby

Special Features: Audio commentary featuring director Jack Hill and star Sid Haig, panel discussion from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences FILM-TO-FILM Festival 2012, The Hatching of Spider Baby featurette featuring interviews with Jack Hill, Sid Haig, star Mary Mitchel, fan Joe Dante and more on the making of the film, Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein featurette remembering the composer, The Merrye House Revisited – Jack Hill revisits the original house that was used as the main location in the film, alternate opening title sequence, extended scene, original trailer, gallery of behind-the-scenes images, The Host (1960) – Jack Hill’s early short film featuring Sid Haig in his first starring role, reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys, collector’s booklet featuring writing on the film by artist and writer Stephen R. Bissette, and an extensive article re-printed from FilmFax: The Magazine of Unusual Film and Television featuring interviews with the cast and crew, illustrated with original stills and artwork.

UK Release Date: 17th June 2013

Arrow Films – Website

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