THE JACK HILL FILES: SPIDER BABY (1967)

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

William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration

William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration is tough to encapsulate in a review and pretty much impossible to tether to any specific genre. Picture a gum-ball machine full of primary coloured spheres and a few speckled throughout that are multicoloured and not just that but the colours seem to shift, migrate and elbow each other around the tiny globe like a scintillating oil spill. That’s not to say that the vast majority of single colour orbs don’t represent films that defy genre or think outside the box, it’s just that the multi hued mystery flavour ones head so far out past the stratosphere of genre playgrounds that they almost create a plane all their own. This is most definitely one such film.

Somewhere in the misty mountains of the Pacific Nortwest (actually filmed in Germany and Hungary) a giant, gothic castle plays host to a group of American ex-soldiers, committed to mental health treatment for PTSD and a host of other issues but left to roam free and act out their delusions more than anything else. Among them are Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), a once great astronaut who wigged out and lost his shit minutes away from a moon voyage launch, Frankie Reno (Jason Miller) who is recreating Shakespeare plays using all canine actors and a whole team of others with their own set of eccentricities. Together they are a classroom full of clowns who at first appear to be irreversible loonies, but as we know in human beings, that is ever solely the case. Stacy Keach is Colonel Vincent Kane, a distant, disturbed psychiatrist brought into treat them and he uses methods that range from complacent to empathetic to just as bizarre as their behaviour. I’ve just described general plot but that does nothing in imparting the dense, deep and often elusive philosophical ideas this wondrous film has to offer.

Blatty we all know as the author of The Exorcist, and he’s made it very clear that this is the spiritual sequel to that story. It’s a tough film to digest and unpack but infinitely rewarding for a few key reasons: He is adapting his own novel here, and as such we get an unfiltered glimpse of his creative ideas that cuts out all middle men and is the purest form of his work on the page. This was mostly financed by Pepsi of all people, who made a deal with him that if he filmed at least part of it in Hungary (where they had landlocked funds) that there’d be no interference on their part on anyone else’s. This allows a difficult, unconventional but extremely rewarding experience to unfold onscreen. Wilson is brilliant as the spooked astronaut, hiding his true nature behind a barrage of nonsensical banter and getting as down to earth as anyone could in a heartbreaking monologue that outlines exactly why he wouldn’t go to the moon and pinpoints a good portion of humanity’s collective existential dread in the process. Keach is hauntingly detached as Kane, a man obsessed with duality and the nature of good and evil in our world, it’s a tough character to nail down but the arc is secure in his hands. This is one of those ‘like nothing you’ve ever seen before’ films that can actually say it’s earned it. Part psychological thriller, part cerebral mood piece with touches of dark comedy, sympathy for the afflicted and ambition to understand the turmoil and alienation of the human spirit. Absolutely brilliant film.

-Nate Hill

NOEL MARSHALL’S ROAR — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

7

For me, the primary job of any movie is to show me something I’ve never seen and to take me to a place that I’ve never been. Well, I’ve never been to Africa, and I’ve never been surrounded by 150 lions, tigers, cheetahs, jaguars, panthers, and elephants. So you’ll have to excuse me when I say that Noel Marshall’s berserk, perverse, masochistic, fascinating, totally nuts wildlife “film” Roar is unbelievable. And I should also mention that I’m a life-long cat lover; big, small, wild, domesticated – it’s a species of animal that I’ve been intrigued with ever since childhood, and there isn’t a day that goes by where I’m not thankful to have my own little buddy, Gus, who is now looked upon differently after my obsession with this film started earlier this year. You literally feel like an outlaw while watching Roar, which has got to be the single most irresponsible piece of filmmaking that I’ve ever seen. Upon first viewing, you essentially hold your breath for 90 minutes, waiting the other paw to drop. Outside of Grizzly Man, I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen mental lunacy of this nature before captured on film. It’s a miracle that nobody was killed, but cinematographer Jan De Bont was scalped, and numerous members of the cast and crew suffered injuries, so there’s that I guess. And let me just say something about the camerawork in this movie – it’s wholly ASTOUNDING. I don’t understand how this movie was achieved. One bit. It makes no realistic sense. How De Bont was able to gather the shots he did I’ll never understand. Why anyone showed up on day #2 I’ll never understand. All I know is that you feel like a criminal while viewing this wild piece of work.

5

The entire thing is truly staggering in retrospect. If you’re not familiar with the premise of this movie, it seems that actress Tippi Hedren and her late husband Noel Marshall became big-cat enthusiasts after an African safari vacation back in the late 70’s. Upon returning to their Sherman Oaks estate, they started introducing lions and tigers and other exotic cats into their home life, allowing daughter Melanie Griffith to sleep with the animals, while their sons, John and Jerry, also became “friendly” with the beasts. It was customary to see a maid stepping over a fully grown male lion in the kitchen. PURE MADNESS. Marshall then had a genius if potentially deadly idea – why not make a movie that aims to highlight the plight of the wild cat, but also make a “monster” movie at the same time. So, he gathered an unhinged crew of daredevils, stuck Hedren, Griffith, his sons, and a few others into the scenery, and concocted an asinine narrative that centers on a wildlife preservationist (Marshall) bringing his wife and children (Hedren and the gang) into the jungle to visit him, only to have them terrorized by a gang of lions and tigers who proceed to trash and destroy the wooden house that they all “live” in. If what I’m describing sounds fairly psychotic, well, it is. And I don’t want to ruin any of the numerous surprises that this film has, but I will say that the sight of Hedren’s face covered in honey as a young jaguar licks it clean is something I’ll not soon forget. You can smell the fear on all of the “actors” in this film – the honest look of terror in their eyes is palpable, and despite everyone going on the record as saying that they “knew” these animals and that they were “comfortable” with them in the grand scheme of things, suggests an insane amount of hubris or a genuine, bonded relationship between human and animal that is simply extraordinary to ponder.

2

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter though. This movie got made (over the course of 11 years!), people went on to have prosperous careers (look at De Bont’s credits as both cinematographer and director!), and now the film is finding a second life as an oddball cult curiosity, with Special Edition Blu-ray dropping in November. I can guarantee you this – you’ve never seen anything like this movie, unless of course you were there to witness it being created in real time, or if you’ve tracked down a bootleg or the non-anamorphic DVD that’s floating around. It’s sensationally scary and almost too impractical to make sense of. Roar makes you feel like you’ve dropped acid when you absolutely know you haven’t been dosed. It’s a strangely personal piece of filmmaking that while shoddily directed (at times), is still somehow oddly coherent, a $17 million home movie that became a clear point of obsession for its makers. The unintended comedy of the mostly looped spoken dialogue only adds to the bizarre hilarity of the entire piece. Also of note: included on the straight-from-the-source-DVD that can be purchased on line is a vintage “making-of” featurette which includes some talking-head footage from “friend of the family” Richard Rush, sitting in this absurdly ostentatious living room, looking like Jack Horner’s older brother. It’s gold.