Movie Review: “Spider Baby” – Creepy Crawly Classic

Written by Angela March 12, 2015

In the mood to watch something delightfully twisted and depraved? If you’re anything like me the answer is yes, and lucky for you I’ve done the legwork to find your next fix. When you get down to brass tacks, Jack Hill’s “Spider Baby, or, The Maddest Story Ever Told” is the epitome of American horror/exploitation, working in all the delicious elements fans crave. Reminiscent of both “Psycho” and “The Adams Family,” this is the creme of the cult crop that absolutely must be seen before anything else.

Filmed in 1964 and released in 1968 due to financial complications, “Spider Baby” heavily relies on unsavoury euphemisms to tell a tale of incest and degeneration. While the subject matter at its core is supremely offensive once one actually pauses to think about it, much of the film’s appeal comes from the way it charmingly unveils its weird little plot.

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Siblings Ralph (Sid Haig), Virginia (Jill Banner) and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) are the sole surviving members of the once thriving Merrye clan. Left in the care of their loyal chauffeur Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr. Aka Universal Studio’s Wolfman, Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster and Count Alucard), the children reside in their crumbling country mansion maintaining as little contact with the world as possible. For all their riches, the family has nevertheless been undone by “Merrye Syndrome,” a genetically inherited disease (spurred on by incest) dooming them to a life of mental and physical regression after the onset of puberty. And, despite Bruno’s best efforts to love and nurture the younglings, it seems that there is no longer anything he can do to keep them from casually murdering the postman. In light of this, their distant relations’ timing couldn’t be worse when they decide to drop in on the children and lay claim to their family’s remaining estate. Unfortunately for them, an evening with their not-so-sweet little cousins is about to turn into a night of unspeakable debauchery.

“Now children, we’ve got to keep some secrets today.”

On a satirical level, “Spider Baby” works marvellously. There’s something to be said for a film that gregariously mocks the general pomposity of the upper class. This has been done many a time in many a medium, but “Spider Baby” operates on an especially sly level. Although wealth, in this movie, is glorified by outsiders as being the ultimate determinate of one’s fate, audiences are instilled with the wisdom that money does not necessarily equal superiority when the richest characters on screen devolve into a raping, murderous, cat-eating subspecies. There are a number of gratuitously exploitative moments in the film, but clever writing and an ironic finale insures that the overall point is polished, packaged, and delivered on a shiny silver platter.

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All movies of this genre contain the same kind taboo subject matter and outlandish displays of depravity and for this, “Spider Baby” is in fact no special feat. Truthfully, what sets “Spider Baby” apart from most other low-budget American exploitation horrors is its performances. As the pathetic but near-lovable manservant, Lon Chaney Jr. exercises his acting chops to portray Bruno as the intriguingly conflicted keeper of the Merrye monsters/children. For a special treat to diehards, there are a few indulgent moments in the film that call upon Chaney to playfully refer to his previous Universal roles. Equally magnetic is the young Sid Haig, whose flexible physicality and vaudevillian facial expressions made him a later shoe-in as Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie’s “House of 1000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects.” While the leading ladies of the film remained regrettably obscure, their Lolita-esque sex appeal and violent impulses nevertheless burn into one’s memory. In their flowing nightgowns, with tousled hair and blood-smeared grins, these are the chicks that all nineties grunge girls unconsciously attempted to emulate but never quite managed to pull off with as much hypnotic grace as Banner and Washburn.

“Want to play ‘Spider’ with me?”

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“Spider Baby” is a super stylish piece of horror history that screams out for more attention. Moreover, its combination of visuals, themes, and performances are a snapshot of a perfectly contrived moment in time that I’m certain can never be replicated. If legendary actors, offbeat humour and pretty, bloodthirsty chicks are your thing, I highly recommend you get yourself caught in this web.

My Rating: 8.5/10

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About Angela

Angela McInnes is an English major and up-and-coming horror film aficionado. To her, happiness is a bottle of rum and a creature-feature on a Saturday night.

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