While the reputation for Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre damn near drowns in its tangential relation to real-life serial killer Ed Gein, there is rarely a peep of recognition for Spider Baby, Jack Hill’s incredible film from 1967 which feels like more of a direct influence on the film than the legend of the backwoods monster from Wisconsin. Where only trace elements of Gein’s crimes were appropriated for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the juxtaposition of families both civilized and uncivilized duking it out in an isolated, dilapidated split-level where people quite literally eat other people is complete Spider Baby turf.
Stepping off on the right foot with a framing device in which Quinn Redeker’s Dudley-Do-Right square, Peter, breaks the fourth wall that feels like Criswell by way of Douglas Neidermeyer, Spider Baby spins a yarn regarding the creepy Merrey family, a rag-tag clan of inbreds who dwell in a large, dingy house behind a giant, iron gate that has long been overrun with dead vegetation. Suffering from a condition that takes its namesake from the family, each member is in a constant state of mental regression as they advance in age, eventually causing them to devolve into a pre-human state that leads to cannibalism. When a group of greedy relations descend upon the house to stake their claim to their inheritance, absolutely delightful chaos ensues.
I’m not quite sure if there was ever a horror film remotely like Jack Hill’s Spider Baby before it was made in 1964 (due to the producer’s bankruptcy, it didn’t see the light of day until 1967). It’s sick, perverse, truly creepy, and something of a cut above the drive-in and B-picture fare of its day. Aided by a truly sinister script by Hill and glorious black and white cinematography courtesy of genius-level pro Alfred Taylor, Spider Baby threads a careful needle between art and sleaze while never looking less than a million bucks. Also remarkable about Spider Baby is just how perfectly it balances horror and comedy. A lot of films work overtime to be horror comedies but they usually end up being unfunny and belabored half-assed neither-nors. In fact, so littered is the graveyard with subpar examples to the contrary, I can probably count the number of truly successful horror comedies on both hands with Spider Baby occupying the first thumb or digit (depending on your style of counting with your hand).
One of the things that further distinguishes Spider Baby is its sympathetic and humanistic central performance courtesy of Lon Chaney, Jr. As family chauffeur and protector, Bruno, Chaney brings the highest level of professionalism and emotional complexity to a role that most actors wouldn’t think necessary. A key moment near the end of the film becomes unexpectedly moving as Hill’s camera trains on Chaney’s face, observing Chaney as he heartbreakingly realizes what he must do to truly save the family from themselves, proving that Chaney was one of the most under appreciated of the Universal Monster players. There is also a sweet natured approach to the wild characters in the family and their ghastly actions as they are treated like Charles Addams figures come to life, albeit with a bit more teeth. But by casting the civilized people as the true monsters of the piece, Hill hits on a gold mine of subtext that continues to pay dividends today.
Aside from Chaney, Hill gets a lot from his troupe of actors, some of whom were part of his regular gang that popped up in various Roger Corman productions such as Hill’s Blood Bath and Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13 (which has enough footage directed by Hill to ALMOST count as a co-effort). Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner, and Sid Haig all have an utter gas as the doomed progeny and the aforementioned Redeker pitches his role as the sweet-natured dunderheaded hero perfectly. Also, big ups go to Carol Ohmart in what could have been a thankless turn as the stereotypical cold-hearted and impossibly greedy bitch. Ohmart ratchets everything up to eleven with her tongue in her cheek, finally spinning off into delirious greatness in the film’s final moments as her materialistic deceitfulness gives way to an amorously debauched and animalistic passion for a slobbering man-child Sid Haig. I mean… it’s really something to behold.
While it contains definite nods to Psycho (the bird taxidermy, the Edward Hopper-like house in the middle of nowhere, the preservation of the ghoulish remains of family members) Spider Baby takes a giant step forward in terms of tone, content, and style and ultimately stakes a serious claim as one of the most significant horror films of the sixties. There’s just nothing else quite like it.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain