Spider Baby, A Look At Horror Royalty
Spider baby Madness
B-movie horror has always been like my home away from home, or asylum away from asylum depending on how exactly you look at me. I grew up watching reel to reel films with my dad on a weekly basis. "House on Haunted Hill", "The Bat", "Dracula" and of course the classic "Nosferatu" were all some of dad's prime films and he delighted in trying to scare me and my younger brothers each time we watched. I still feel some of those old reels to be the best films to grace the silver screen.
Recently while attending a midnight screening of John Carpenter's pivitol work "The Thing" with my pals at Deadpit, I bought a vintage Rue Morgue magazine. As always I read cover to cover of the book and was really taken in by an ad for an older film I had known about but never really saw. "Spider Baby". I turned a few pages and there was a review of the same film. That 1 page review was enough to really spark an interest and I suddenly recalled seeing a few clips from a great horror host show starring Zacherly. I could only recall one ear losing scene but I remember the usual cynical Zach gave the film stellar reviews and a very impressive 6 thumbs up.
My nest step was a trip to Internet world where the fine folks at Amazon could help me with my craving for vintage horror in the form of a DVD copy of "Spider baby". What follows is my take on the film.
Spider baby Herself
Bruno- Lon Chaney Jr.
Elizabeth- Beverly Washburn
Virginia- Jill Banner
Ralph- Sid Haig
Uncle Peter- Quinn Redker
Aunt Emily- Carol Ohmore
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Lon Chaney Jr.
In today's age a star studded cast means two or three big names. Back in the 60s a star studded cast really meant stand outs who would no doubt go on to be stars in their genre and "Spider Baby' has just that. While not the young buck he once was, and of course no longer in his classic wolfman make up Lon Chaney is still a horror legend and his royalty is not left out of this one. He portrays Bruno, the caretaker of the last 3 Merreye children. These children suffer a disease that is exclusive to their family bloodline. The sickness causes age regression and eventually disfigurement combined with cannibalistic tendencies.
We come to learn the disease is the end result of ages of incest within the family. Bruno tries to keep the 3 children happy and calm while attending to the fully disease stricken aunt and uncle who are kept locked away in the basement. Chaney’s expert skill in setting a scene and lacing it with a combination of drama and intrigue really plays a huge role in the film’s creative direction. Despite the horror icon’s notorious drinking sprees he was on his best game for this film and to many scholars of b-movie horror this may have very well been his best role.
Beverly Washburn plays the role of young Elizabeth. Elizabeth is the carefree sister who seems to coax the other sister into such irate behaviors. Each time she manages to get her sister to do something wicked she professes "Bruno will hate you for that." One aspect that really gave this character a great deal of depth was that Beverly is a beautiful girl. She really captures that girl next door innocence that was so popular in the 60s. That beauty contrasted so deeply with the scheming little girl underneath the pretty face. It was these contrast that built a character that really stood out but also helped to move the story.
To say her performance was notable would be a gross understatement! She captured your heart at the beginning seeming to be the voice of reason to a troubled child but in the end you start to second guess that assumption and ask yourself if she may not have been the catalysts in the spider’s web.
The oldest child Ralph was played by horror stand out Sid Haig. Haig is now noted as Captain Spaulding of Rob Zombie fame but his role of Ralph was far from that comedic terror. Ralph is the most regressed of the children. Haig is amazing in this film! He has no actual words of dialogue yet his physical acting keeps the scenes fresh and memorable. He says so much with his facial expressions and how he uses his body language that it was no wonder he was to become horror film royalty. I would even go as far as to say his performance rivaled if not topped that of Lon Chaney Jr.
The key role in the film is that of Virginia, the most disturbed of the children. Jill Banner really brought this character to life and breathed some true horror breath into a role that seemed trivial as far as horror went. Virginia delights in an extravagant game she calls spider. She basically stings victims with two crudely sharpened knives. Any "bug" getting caught in her web must forfeit it’s "juices" to her.
She opens the film with a very dramatic scene in which she brutally murders a mailman who is trapped in her proverbial web. From there we see the degrading of youth and innocence and the birth of sheer madness and maybe even a presumed evil that we never really associated with children. Jill Banner really captures the viewers attention and in many ways makes you feel sorry for her as she commits these acts of atrocity all the while perplexed at why she does them.
Watch The Trailer
A video review
The Film As A Whole
As I mentioned I delight in b-movie madness and "Spider Baby" does not disappoint on that foreground at all. The story is one that really seems plausible at a time when life was so unpredictable. A family engaged in incest is cursed with a genetic disorder that turns them into monsters. It was at it’s time highly original and as since been the basis for so many horror films and even a concept played with on the hit TV program X-Files.
The talented acting and the thick plot full of twist and turns paints a vivid, yet cruel picture of a world of horrific possibilities, each in and of itself a deeper and darker look at madness in it’s most mundane of forms. The shadow this film cast is one of negligence to blame. Who is at fault for the action of the deranged children. Are they to be held accountable? is Bruno to blame? Do we shift the finger of accusation to the ancestry that fell to temptations most unclean? Blame is not so easy to cast in this film and that allows us to develop a real relationship with it’s characters.
In a typical horror film like Nightmare on Elm Street we have a direct understanding of the bad and good guys. We know who the evil is and where the good lies. "Spider baby" eliminates that as we question if evil exist in diseased children unknowing of the real world or in the family who come out of the woodwork to attempt to take the family fortune. That line between good and evil is blurred but than we see the development of the children and we start to see the line of reality getting so much clearer with each step back in their evolution.
I myself personally loved this film. I felt like it captured the essence of horror at it’s purest core and brought out a question of morality verses fate.
A Friendly Poll
Who Was The Real Stand Out Star Of Spider Baby
Some interesting trivia
-Filmed in 1964 but not released until 1968 "Spider baby" was a financial disaster until it’s release
-Director Jack Hill went on to become world famous for his black exploitation films such as "Foxy Brow" (1974) and "Coffy" (1973)
-The original print was lost for many years
-Lon Chaney Jr. received $2,500.00 for his role as Bruno
-Despite claiming to be clean Chaney drunk vodka laced orange juice at the end of every scene.
-"Spider Baby" was considered the breaking in film for Sid Haig and in many ways his first step toward horror greatness.
- The director’s cut features exclusive commentary with director Jack Hill and actor Sid Haig