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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 9/17/99

Spider Baby
1964 (1999) - Johnny Legend Cinemania (Image)

review by Todd Doogan, special to The Digital Bits

Spider Baby Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B/A

Specs and Features

81 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.66:1), single-sided, single layered, Snapper case packaging, commentary track with director/writer Jack Hill, 8 minutes of lost footage, video footage of cast and crew reunion at The Nuart Theater in LA, filmographies for Jack Hill and star Lon Chaney, Jr., film-themed menu screens, scene access (16 chapters), language: English (DD mono), subtitles: none

An interesting fact about Spider Baby director Jack Hill, is that he didn't set out to be one of the greatest exploitation filmmakers of all time. Jack Hill wanted to score movies. Born to a music teacher mother and a Hollywood set designer father, Hill went to UCLA to be a musician. It was at UCLA, that Hill took a writing class, and where he made his first film (The Host, archived on the Switchblade Sisters special edition DVD). The experience must have been a life changing one, because Hill went on to do crew work as an assistant director, writer, cameraman, sound guy and editor for Roger Corman, before he got his big break making Spider Baby. From Spider Baby, Hill went on to create some of the most successful blaxpoitation films ever made - Coffy and Foxy Brown, both starring Pam Grier. He's also responsible for a host of other genre greats. Over time, my favorite films from Hill have been his blaxpoitation stuff, and of course, Switchblade Sisters and Spider Baby.

For the uninitiated, the story of Spider Baby tells of a rare disease known as Merrye Syndrome, whose only holders are the descendents of Ebeneezer Merrye. Simply stated, Merrye Syndrome reverses the aging process and progressively takes a human mind back through childhood, past the prenatal stage and then into the cognitive memory of our historic ancestors, bringing about a primitive cannibalistic hunger. Think of it as horror film version of the aging process of people from the planet Ork. The newest line of Merrye children are taken care of by Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr.), who serves both as chauffeur (the children have frequent visits to the doctor) and caretaker of these three incredibly demented tykes. Bound by a vow to their father to protect them from the outside world (and in so doing, protecting the rest of us), Bruno acts as their guardian angel.

The film opens with a delivery guy (Mantan Moreland) bringing a letter to the Merrye home. Poking around looking for someone to sign, he sticks his head into an open window and is immediately "caught" in Virginia's (Jill Banner) web, and is hacked to death with a pair of knives while Virginia plays spider. "Sting, sting, sting!" She chimes as she slices. Bruno is none to happy about this, but what's the guy to do? He scolds her while she jumps rope, and Virginia's sister Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) eggs Bruno to hate her for what she did. But he can't -- he loves these sicko kids. They can't really help it that they are demented. It's just their nature to think murder is play. And unfortunately for these kids, their play is murder.

The letter, by the way, was from a distant line of greedy relatives -- a sister and brother, named Emily (Carol Ohmart) and Peter (Quinn K. Redeker) Howe, who are en-route to claim the Merrye family fortune as theirs, and dispatch these kooky kids. In every sense, Emily is more evil than any of these kids combined. Her brother Peter is only physically there, and seems like he simply wants to get this whole thing over with so he can go home and lounge around. They bring with them their attorney Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) and his assistant Ann (Mary Mitchel). Rounding out the cast is Hill's favorite actor Sid Haig, who plays the cat killing "older" brother to the girls, Ralph, with so much gusto that you could watch him play this character all day and not get tired of it. His wide-mouthed expression when he gets happy is worth the price of this disc all by itself.

The cast, once assembled, cautiously meets each other, and sits down for some dinner -- a nice little entrée that Ralph caught out in the yard (and it's not rabbit). Bruno is valiantly trying to bide his time, knowing full well the danger that is slowly climbing over his visitors heads. He's like Rain Man knowing Wopner is coming on in a few minutes. As the night progresses, Ralph is hanging outside Emily's room, watching as she slips into a sex kitten outfit -- not very appropriate, but who's complaining. Virginia, the spider baby herself, marvels at the fact that Schlocker looks like a bug (perfect for her spider web - "sting, sting, sting"). And Elizabeth is not lost in any of this, as she provokes the coming violence from the sideline. Ann and Peter get some time off, and they head to the local motel to get to know each other (seeing how there wasn't enough room at the Merrye House for everyone to stay the night). But they'll be back to share in the orgy of horror.

I'm not going to spoil anything by giving a play by play of the rest of the story, because Spider Baby is one of those great B-movies that are best watched not knowing a damn thing. Your mind goes through a huge range of thought about everything -- the acting, the characters, the lines of dialogue -- you'll think about it all, and it's all good. Chaney is fine as Bruno. He gives a very sober (literally as well as figuratively) performance. His eyes are put to best use -- he seems so sad and impossibly outmatched in this house, and yet, it's his station. Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner are really fun to watch as the girls. Banner especially, has a hungry look in her eye, like a cat that plays too rough, sees bare leg and goes right at it without a thought. The rest of the cast is very good as well, in a B-movie kind of way, especially Carol Ohmart, whom fans will recognize from House on Haunted Hill as Vincent Price's conniving wife.

The standout in the whole film though, is Sid Haig as Ralph. Haig is so cool anyway, being a standard B-movie fixture for Hill and his 70s-era exploitation films. Haig is great here, with his shinny bald head, Buster Brown clothes, and an uncontrollable hunger for flesh! This is a funny-scary movie, and should be watched that way. It's not a dark comedy, nor is it a light horror film. It's just a very funny, scary movie, about a family that would kill you to meet you.

This is a special edition disc from Image, and as DVDs go, this is a great one. Being a huge fan of genre films, getting something as obscure as Spider Baby on DVD is a welcome change of pace, and a hopeful sign that more great B-grade films are on the way. B&W film looks super on disc, and Spider Baby is no exception. The bold cinematography by Alfred Taylor (who also did Killer Klowns From Outer Space -- why don't you Image folk work on getting that out as a special edition?) is very nicely represented here. The solid blacks, bright whites and muted grays are all deep and free of any artifacts. The source print for this transfer has some moments of question, but it's certainly no fault of the DVD. We get a few matte hairs, a rip in the emulsion, and a handful of dust. But believe me, this is the best way to see this film in your home. I have a few copies of Spider Baby on tape, and they are all in the garbage now. The soundtrack is a simple, well-done mono, and I didn't detect any problem spots.

The special edition side of the disc is what is most fun. There's a nice essay by Joe Dante in the liner notes (back and center), and audio commentary by Jack Hill, 8 minutes of footage previously thought lost, video feed from the 30th Anniversary reunion of the cast and crew (hosted by cult legend... Johnny Legend), and filmographies for Chaney and Hill. The commentary and lost footage are some of the best stuff on the disc. The commentary is Hill alone, going over the history of the film, from how it was conceived (it just came to him), to how it was produced, and how it was tied up in bankruptcy court as an asset. He even goes into what it was like working with legends like Karloff and Chaney. I really enjoyed what Hill had to say. Critically, I think his manner of speaking on this track was a bit flat, and it can get boring to listen to, but WHAT he to say is definitely worth listening to. I think it will amaze people to know just how connected this guy was in the early days of his career. The cut footage expands a little on the story of what's going on, as everyone comes to the Merrye House during reel 2. I liked it very much, and thought it worked well enough that it should be edited back into the film. But in or not, I'm very happy that I got to see it anyway. As big a fan as I am of Hill and this film, I've never seen it before, and it's always great to find new stuff.

You can't do much better, as a genre film fan, than to run out today and grab a copy of Spider Baby. It serves just about every purpose a great film should serve: conversation pierce, group entertainment, solo entertainment, and late night beer and pizza party focus. DVD doesn't get much more exciting than this. Well, at least until Killer Klowns From Outer Space makes its way to disc. Now THAT would be cool.

Todd Doogan
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