BR: Spider Baby (1967)

September 17, 2015 | By


SpiderBaby1967_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Near-Perfect

Label:  Arrow Video / MVD Visual

Region: A, B

Released:  June 9, 2015

Genre:  Horror / Black Comedy

Synopsis: The lives of a greedy couple and their lawyer are endangered when they attempt to wrestle an estate away from deranged relatives.

Special Features:  2007 Audio Commentary with director Jack Hill and actor Sid Haig / 2007 featurettes: “The Merrye House Revisited” (8 mins. + “Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein” (11 mins.) + “The Hatching of Spider Baby” (32 mins.) / Extended Scene (4 mins.) / Alternate Opening Title Sequence (2 mins.) / Stills Gallery / Theatrical Trailer / 2012 AMPAS “Film to Film” Cast & Crew Panel Discussion (34 mins.) / Jack Hill’s 1960 UCLA Student Short: “The Host” (30 mins.) / 38-page booklet / Reversible Sleeve featuring art by Graham Humphreys / Bonus DVD featuring main extras.





The Film

Filmed in 1964 but unreleased until 1967, Jack Hill’s first solo gig as writer-director remains a highly influential horror comedy, even though the director describes it as a story of unconditional love.

In terms of its comedic tone, Hill seemed to take some inspiration from the Roger Corman’s Bucket of Blood (1959) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), both written by Charles B. Griffith, but instead of building the story around nerds and losers who briefly manage to enjoy a little fame or notoriety before their grim behaviour’s unmasked (and they’re chased to their doom), Hill fashioned a tale of a fractured family who remain tight, living quietly in a creepy house on the hill, and messing with society only when it pokes its nose where it doesn’t belong.

Their world gets turned upside-down when greedy relatives Emily (Carol Ohmart) and Peter (Quinn Redeker) comes armed with a lawyer (Karl Schanzer) and his movie-loving assistant Ann (Mary Mitchel), with the intention of snatching the house and the family fortune from the sole heirs, sisters Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and Virginia (Jill Banner), and brother Ralph (longtime Hill stock company member Sid Haig). Little do the interlopers know that the California stem of the Merrye family suffers from a rare genetic disorder in which as young adults the kids will revert to a toddler I.Q., ultimately ‘regressing’ to a kind of pre-homo sapiens state – primal, utterly non-verbal, and very cannibalistic.

To Hill’s credit, the characters of Elizabeth, Ralph, Virginia, and unofficial guardian Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr.) remain consistent and compelling, and the caricature relatives and slimeball lawyer (who sports a loud Hitler moustache and bowl haircut) provide a variety of comedic moments. Auntie Emily is less fearsome of her younger relatives and the creepy house, whereas uncle Peter lives in a world of blissful ignorance, un-creeped by drooling Ralph, spider-eating Virginia, or punchy Elizabeth.

Redeker admits to playing the good-natured Peter as a Cary Grant variant, a nice guy who laughs and sees good in all, unaware, like his equivalent in the cannibal tale Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) that he’s being slated for sacrifice. Lawyer Schlocker (yes, that’s the character’s name) is punchy and often in a state of mid-level outrage, while Peter and assistant Ann are headed for a romance before a return trip to the house endangers their lives.

What’s most surprising about Spider Baby is how well it plays today, poking fun at the horror genre, at lead star Chaney with various werewolf jokes, and maintaining a very fine balance between comedy and genuine horror: the kids are very creepy, and there’s no doubt Virginia’s own regression has her fully believing all strangers who wander into the web that is the Merrye household are bugs, and are fair game to be drained of their ‘juices’ – as happens to a poor mailman (played by iconic Charlie Chan sidekick Mantan Moreland).

There’s even a severed ear which feels like a portent to David Lynch’s own ear gag in Blue Velvet (1986) – another film about dysfunctional people who live beyond the neat fringes of white picket fence suburbia.

Self-styled genre auteur Rob Zombie clearly patterned his hillbilly clans in House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and especially The Devil’s Rejects (2005) after Hill’s little family (Zombie told the director the film was in fact his second favourite film of all time), but Hill’s characters are more likeable because they’re not trashy, loud-mouthed hillbillies raiding and raping nearby pockets of tourists and locals for fun.

Being passive aggressive, the Merrye family is more palatable, and the film’s finale is admittedly neat but fitting, because it shows Bruno willing to preserve the family by making a supreme sacrifice: in a Zombie film, innocents would be trapped as rats with their torturers, whereas Hill has Bruno encouraging anyone still sane and mobile to get out fast before a big kaboom ends the Merrye family’s most deranged genetic strain.

There’s a lot of unusual plot turns in Spider Baby – not twists, but peculiar turns which characterize Hill’s own determination to let characters dictate the story, if not permit a few plain weird episodes that still add resonance. The dinner scene is hysterical – grisly and ghoulish but never cloying, exceptionally well paced, and perhaps a portent of Tim Burton’s own weird ‘Day-O’ scene in Beetlejuice (1988) – and the sisters confronting Schlocker in the basement is initially comedic, but steers into stark horror largely because Alfred Taylor’s lighting is so atmospheric, keeping the sisters silhouetted until a stark reveal that’s also a great horror jump.

Ray Storey’s art direction isn’t as subtle as Hill thought – backgrounds sometimes have demented and damaged child dolls hanging, resting, or stuffed in places to infer childhoods that have been dumped in the crapper by disease – and he created an eerie environment using a budget of nothing, be it the dining room, or the basement where the family’s other elder relatives apparently survive in their most primal states.

Chaney delivers a compelling performance with sly comedic touches in a career that was petering out in the sixties with low budget westerns, TV guest spots, and the swan song dud Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971). Washburn and Banner are a perfect comedic killing team with reactions, head bobs, and fast banter, and Haig is amusing in an over-the-top performance playing a very politically incorrect version of a mentally challenged lad who ultimately chases and assaults auntie Emily.

That scene forms the strangest of Hill’s Universal horror film homages, with Emily waking up from the assault in a state of post-ecstasy, become the ‘bride’ to Haig’s ‘monster.’ Although it’s unlikely Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder were inspired by the scene near the end of Young Frankenstein (1974), Emily’s transformation to a ‘bride’ is similar to Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn) being transformed into a literal hissing hussy, sporting a classic Bride of Frankenstein (1935) afro with streaking white highlights.

American International Pictures had already curried homages to horror through the endeavors of Roger Corman in anthology shockers like Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963) starring horror greats, but these were tongue-in-cheek tributes with period tales tied to the tone of literary great Edgar Allan Poe, not present day tales larded with cheeky pop culture references. The exception within AIP’s output may be the Beach films, but those entries – Vincent Price in Beach Party (1963), Peter Lorre in Muscle Beach Party (1964), Boris Karloff in Bikini Beach (1964),  Elsa Lanchester in Pajama Party (1964) – tended to feature horror icons in quirky roles rather than integrate horror elements, although Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff played a villain and ghost, respectively, in a haunted house farrago of slapstick nonsense that is The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966).

Spider Baby wasn’t the first tongue-in-cheek homage to Universal spookfests – William Castle’s period-set Mr. Sardonicus (1961) is a worthy candidate – but it’s perhaps the most thoughtful attempt up until 1964 to have fun yet cross the line into icky territory. It also feels contemporary because Hill winks sparingly at audiences, and his direction and editing are more advanced than Castle’s or Corman’s, especially in cross-cutting between 2-3 distinct storylines.


Spider Baby on Home Video + Extras

As Jack Hill recounts in the commentary track with Sid Haig (recorded in 2007 for Dark Sky Film’s Special Edition DVD), the movie has had a peculiar release history going as far back as its intended release date around 1964. The original producers ran out of money and litigation kept the film locked up until 1967, when occasional schlock movie producer David L. Hewitt (The Wizard of Mars, Monsters Crash the Pajama Party) came to the rescue.

The film reportedly vanished from a brief distribution before bootleg copies emerged on home video, prompting Hill to track down any residual copyright holders and whatever materials remained locked up in a lab. In a crafty scheme, Hill was able to get a transfer made under the nose of the lab execs, enabling a legal home video release, but the original elements were still trapped in a lab.

In 1997, Hill’s Switchblade Sisters (1975) had been released on home video by Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder shingle via Miramax, and that influential relationship enabled Spider Baby’s legal headaches to be cleared up, resulting in a Special Edition a year later via Image Entertainment. The new transfer contained an extra scene shorn by the distributor which Hill found in a well-preserved answer print, and was accompanied by a Q&A from a 30th anniversary screening.

In addition to porting over the 1998 commentary, Dark Sky’s 2007 DVD augmented the extras significantly with great featurettes that covered many aspects of the film’s genesis, production, and release: the making-of “The Hatching of Spider Baby” has Joe Dante, Hill, Haig, surviving stars Mary Mitchell, Beverly Washburn, and Quinn Redeker recalling their oddball characters, and co-star Jill Banner, who died in a tragic car crash; the tongue-in-cheek score and Chaney-crooned theme song are profiled in “Spider Stravinksy: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein” with the composer’s widow providing poignant memories of a classic unsung, skilled, prolific genre composer; and Hill accompanies the cameraman to the restored and now inhabited house that was used as the creepy location in “The Merrye House Revisited,” which (incredibly) sits on a busy and tightly packed suburban street.

Also included is an opening title sequence sporting “The Maddest Story Ever Told” moniker, and an extended scene where there’s a follow-up to aunt Emily’s first encounter with wordless, drooling Ralph.

Arrow Film’s U.K. and identical U.S. Blu-ray (released on this side of the pond by MVD Visual) offers a newly cleaned up HD transfer with sharp picture and sound, all of the Dark Sky extras, and a few more goodies, making this the final special edition in Spider Baby’s long path to perfection on home video.

While the 30th anniversary screening footage seems to remain exclusive to the 1998 Image laserdisc, Arrow’s added a new Q&A that was sandwiched between a double-bill screening of Spider Baby and Carnival of Souls (1962), both restored from their negatives with cleaned up audio, and screened via newly struck prints in the academy’s Film to Film series. The 2012 Q&A has Hill, Redeker, and Washburn on stage, and while a nice bonus, most of what’s discussed is already present in both the featurettes and the commentary, so there are more than a few echoes of production and personnel anecdotes.

The featurettes and commentary are pretty exhaustive, but it’s the latter goodie that’s the star extra, in spite of being recorded in 1998. Hill and Haig provide great career snapshots of themselves and the cast & crew, with attention given to some of the figures no longer alive, including stunning Ohmart (best known for House on Haunted Hill), who dons teasing Fredericks of Hollywood naughties which makes Ralph go berserk; and Banner, then a newcomer to acting but a total natural, and perfect fit as the film’s eponymous villainess.

It’s soon learned that Banner was both working for Marlon Brando and reportedly deeply beloved by the actor when she died in a horrific car accident in 1982. Among Banner’s clusters of TV roles are a handful of rare film appearances, including the shocker Weekend of Fear (1966), the Tony Anthony spaghetti western A Man, a Horse, a Gun (1967), and the comedy The President’s Analyst (1967).

Haig and Washburn would co-star (as full-fledged adults) in Hill’s other masterwork, the stock car racing ‘art film’ Pit Stop (1969).


The Host (1960)

And then there’s the other unique extra, Hill’s short film The Host (1960), filmed while he was still at UCLA, and apparently useful as a calling card to get the directing gig of Spider Baby.

Originally appearing on the Rolling Thunder release of Switchblade Sisters as a bonus short, Hill’s film makes its HD debut here, but viewers will notice more than a few odd aspects that might take away from this otherwise creepy story inspired by James Frazer’s “The Golden Bough,” an examination of mythology and religion from 1890.

The core story has Sid Haig (Hill’s UCLA classmate) playing a roguish thief who finds a ruined Spanish hacienda in a valley. A Spaniard with a gun pins him inside the main building, where a priestess urges him to hill the shooter and become their God. Greed ultimately motivates the thief to follow her bidding, and he soon discovers the woman heads a blood cult that requires human sacrifice to bring rain for their crops. He quickly realizes he will be their next victim come the next drought, and the question is whether he can escape on horseback in time, or remain stranded.

As Hill recounted in an excellent 2002 interview with DVD Talk / Cine Schlock-O-Rama’s G. Noel Gross, the film was never completed, existing as a 16mm work print with rudimentary sound effects and dialogue, but with Tarantino and Miramax bankrolling the restoration and release of Switchblade Sisters, Hill took their financial goodwill as an opportunity to record new sound effects, fix some missing dialogue, and commission a new score so the short would be more refined.

The cleaner sound does smoothen out the print’s splices, but the music is very much an economical all-synth work circa 1997, which dates the film; a few pieces in Ron Feuer’s score do work, but the synth emulations don’t quite match the kind of minimal orchestral or acoustic score that would’ve suited the short.

The Host is part curio, part important footnote in the making of Apocalypse Now (1979), as director Francis Ford Coppola ‘appropriated’ the concept of a man treated like a fertility God by locals until he too is destined to be sacrificed, or as Hill related to Calum Waddell in the 2009 tome Jack Hill: The Exploitation and Blaxploitation Master, Film by Film,

“John Milius wrote the script and Francis thought it was great but he did not like the ending. In fact, he didn’t come up with the right ending until he was over in the Philippines shooting it. So he knew my student film very well and I got this straight from Steve Burum, who … was my cameraman on “The Host” and he was the second unit cameraman on Apocalypse Now and he said, ‘We were all laughing and saying that we were doing Jack Hill’s student film.’

The Host is also of note because cameraman “Steve Burum” is also Stephen H. Burum, the fine cinematographer of The Entity (1982), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), Rumble Fish (1983), and Body Double (1984), the latter the first of many collaborations with director Brian De Palma.

Also buried among the credits is ‘visual effects’ by Donald Shebib, the Toronto-born, future director of the CanCon classic Goin’ Down the Road (1970). Shebib had gone to Hollywood and worked (uncredited) on Roger Corman’s The Terror (1963), and Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13 (1963), which contained additional footage shot by Hill.

After multiple home video releases, it’s pretty fair to conclude Arrow’s Blu-ray is the ultimate special edition for a long-admired cult film that continues to rope in new fans.



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
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