Starring: Lon Chaney Jr, Carol Ohmart, Beverly Washburn
Though I’m not generally a fan of “killer family” movies, Spider Baby is one of the first and remains one of the best. Rob Zombie tried to recreate some of its genius for House of 1000 Corpses, going so far as to cast Spider Baby star Sid Haig and give his career a minor revival, but Zombie has nothing on the master of exploitation, Jack Hill. Better known for his later exploitation films such as The Big Doll House (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1972), Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), and Switchblade Sisters (1975), this is Hill’s first feature film and contains some of his most overt horror elements. Thankfully, U.K. based label Arrow Films has gone all out for their recent release of Spider Baby on Blu-ray and DVD.
In an old country house, a small, inbred family lies in wait. The two Merrye sisters and their brother suffer from a genetic disorder that causes them to mentally regress as they physically mature. Virginia (Jill Banner) is obsessed with spiders, which she keeps as pets, and her favorite game involves trapping visitors in her “web” and stabbing them with her “fangs.” Ralph (Sid Haig) is mute, violent, sex obsessed, and enjoys eating cats. Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), the youngest and most normal (so far), sometimes has a penchant for using a pitchfork when she feels threatened. The family chauffeur, Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr.), keeps watch over them until some of their distant relatives show up with a lawyer, eager to take the family home away and convinced their madness is just a ruse. When their cousins are determined to spend the night, they get far more than they bargain for and meet the rest of the Merrye clan... who are hidden away in the basement due to their insatiable hunger for human flesh.
Jack Hill’s debut feature is utterly, delightfully bizarre and will please fans of weird ‘60s and ‘70s cult horror. This is certainly Hill’s weirdest, most imaginative film, but don’t go into it expecting a horror version of his classic exploitation films. Overall this is as much a black comedy as a horror film and there are some truly amusing scenes, such as the dinner the two girls serve the family. There are also some neo-gothic, haunted house elements, as much of the action takes place in a very Addams Family-esque home. Spider Baby is a unique blend of influences and includes some humor and sexual moments that are likely to be a little offensive to any overly PC-viewers, along some very effective scares and moments of surprising terror. Elizabeth and Virginia are both young, wholesome-looking girls that are prone to displays of discomfiting violence and overt sexuality. Examining the film with the benefit of time, the family is reminiscent of the Manson cult to a certain extent, which was coincidentally operating at the same time, though their family murders would not occur until the year after Spider Baby’s release.
There are some decent performances throughout the film from a range of recognizable faces. Lon Chaney, Jr. gives one of his best late-period performances as the protective Butler and was allegedly so excited to appear in the film that he even took a break from drinking for the shoot. Carol Ohmart’s (House on Haunted Hill) lingerie scenes are particularly memorable and she is charismatic as cousin Emily, so obsessed with greed that she willingly ignores the very real insanity afoot in the house. The actors who play the three children — Sid Haig, Jill Banner, and Beverly Washburn — steal the film, particularly the grunting, animalistic Haig and the unpleasantly sexy, Lolita-like Banner.
With a 1.67:1 aspect ratio and an AVC encoded 1080 high definition transfer approved by Jack Hill himself, Arrow really did an excellent job with Spider Baby, and this is one of the finest restored prints they’ve released in a while. There is some slight speckling throughout, but otherwise the print looks great and is devoid of the wear and age damage usually expected from such a relatively obscure film. The black and gray contrast levels look particularly nice and Alfred Taylor’s memorable cinematography is certainly better defined than in previous releases.
Of course Spider Baby has already been released on DVD, but in addition to the lovely looking print, the main reason to pick up this release is the sheer amount of extras provided by Arrow. To start with, there’s an entertaining and informative audio commentary from director Jack Hill and star Sid Haig. There are a number of great interviews, including a 2012 panel discussion from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences FILM-TO-FILM Festival with Jack Hill and actors Quinn K. Redeker and Beverly Washburn. The Hatching of Spider Baby is a collection of interviews about the making of the film with Jack Hill, Sid Haig, Mary Mitchell, Joe Dante, and others.
This is a two-disc set with both a Blu-ray disc and a DVD. Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein is a featurette about composer Ronald Stein, who worked on Spider Baby, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, and other films. The Merrye House Revisited is an on location interview with Jack Hill about the house used in the filming of Spider Baby. In addition to all these featurettes, there is an alternate opening title sequence, some extended scenes, a trailer, and behind the scenes stills. One of Jack Hill’s early short films, The Host (1960), is also included and features Sid Haig in his first major role. The release comes with a reversible sleeve with new artwork from Graham Humphreys and a booklet with essays from Stephen R. Bissette and a reprinted article from FilmFax Magazine that includes interviews with the cast and crew.
Known under a variety of titles including The Livers Eaters, The Maddest Story Ever Told, and my personal favorite, Cannibal Orgy, Spider Baby suffered from poor marketing and was largely forgotten alongside Hill’s later exploitation films, but it comes highly recommended and deserves to be seen by a much wider audience. This weird little gem is one of the highlights of late ‘60s American horror and should be part of every horror fan’s collection. The Arrow Blu-ray release is the finest edition currently available, but don’t forget that this release is Region B, which means that if you live in the U.S., you need a multi-region Blu-ray player to watch it.