Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told/Spider Baby/Cannibal Orgy, or the Maddest Story Ever Told/The Liver Eaters (1964/1968) ***½
The house-full-of-crazies movie is among the most heavily trodden plots of territory in the horror genre, having first been explored at least as early as the mid-1920’s. In few such films have the crazies ever been crazier than those in Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told, however; not since The Corpse Vanishes had the world seen anything truly comparable. It’s only to be expected that this movie would be something special, of course, for writer/director Jack Hill would go on to an illustrious (if all too brief) career in exploitation cinema. Spider Baby was something of a false start for Hill, as the producers’ money troubles would cause it to languish unseen for a good four years, but by the time it finally escaped from the vaults in 1968, Hill was back in action, hard at work on a package of extremely strange co-productions with Mexican filmmaker Juan Ibanez. (The resulting four films were the last the world would see of Boris Karloff.) Then in the 70’s, Hill signed on with Roger Corman’s recently launched New World Pictures, where he earned distinction as one of the key figures in the birth of the modern women’s prison movie. Corman’s alma mater, American International Pictures, employed Hill as well during the 70’s, putting him in charge of some of their best and most successful blaxploitation films. Naturally, Spider Baby is a bit more demure than the likes of Coffy or The Big Bird Cage, but it shows that Hill’s distinctively twisted vision was already taking shape at the very beginning of his career.
A courier (Mantan Moreland, from King of the Zombies and The Strange Case of Dr. Rx) driving a vehicle that I can describe only as the bastard offspring of a motorcycle and a pickup truck putters into a small, rural village, searching for the Merrye house. No one wants to tell him where it is, and most of the people he asks flee from him the instant he mentions the place. Eventually (and no thanks to any of the townspeople), the messenger stumbles upon the iron gate closing off the driveway to his destination, and although the gate is held shut by a loop of heavy chain, that chain is so rusty that it disintegrates when the courier gives the gate a good yank. No one answers his knock at the front door, nor does calling out to whomever might be inside accomplish anything. Finally, the courier spies an open window communicating between the parlor and the front porch, and he sticks his head and shoulders inside. Immediately, the window sash slams down upon his back, and a teenage girl (Weekend of Fear’s Jill Banner) charges out from behind the sofa to throw a weird sort of net over him. The girl starts going on about having caught him in her spider web, and then carries the game forward in a truly horrifying direction. Holding a pair of carving knives in a grip that strikingly suggests a spider’s chelicerae, the girl “stings” her prey, slashing the hapless courier to ribbons.
Such is the scene that confronts Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.) when he returns to the Merrye house from running an errand in town. Bruno had been the Merrye family chauffeur, but when his employer died some years ago, he became the de facto caretaker not just for the house itself, but for the six surviving members of the Merrye clan. Generations of inbreeding have cursed the family with a degenerative brain disease that causes its sufferers to begin regressing in mental age as soon as they hit puberty. Additionally, the disease brings on violent tendencies such as those we just saw acted out upon the courier. Virginia the Spider Girl and her little sister, Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), are still young enough to be capable of almost normal functioning (provided that Bruno is able to keep a close watch on them), but their older brother, Ralph (Sid Haig, from Savage Sisters and The Big Doll House), is so far gone that he is no longer able even to speak. One shudders to think what Uncle Ned, Aunt Claire, and Aunt Martha— whom Bruno keeps locked up out of sight in the cellar— must be like. In any event, the dead guy in the parlor means big trouble, especially in light of the mission that brought him to the Merrye house in the first place. As Bruno discovers when he reads the letter the unfortunate messenger had come to deliver, a pair of cousins from a collateral line of the family (one which is not afflicted by the Merrye syndrome) mean to take possession of the house and establish themselves as their disabled relatives’ legal guardians. And what’s more, they’re on their way to the old homestead even now.
The two cousins are Emily Howe (Carole Ohmart, from The House on Haunted Hill and The Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe) and her younger brother, Peter (Quinn K. Redeker, of The Andromeda Strain and The Christine Jorgensen Story). Peter is a mostly harmless ne’er-do-well— lazy, unscrupulous, and none too bright, albeit basically without malice— but his sister’s avarice is boundless. Naturally, Emily cares not at all for the three demented kids, but seeks only to use them as a means of gaining access to old Titus Merrye’s presumably valuable estate. Also on the way are the Howes’ lawyer, Schlocker (Karl Schanzer, from Blood Bath and Dementia 13), and his secretary, Ann Morse (Panic in the Year Zero!’s Mary Mitchell, who was also in Dementia 13). Schlocker’s job is to make sure Bruno understands that, deathbed vow to their father notwithstanding, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on in the event that he should try to fight the Howes for custody of the children.
Let’s just say that Emily, Peter, and the lawyer don’t have the first clue what they’re getting themselves into. The Merryes, with Bruno’s assistance, may be rather more mannerly than later horror movie clans like the ones in The Hills Have Eyes or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but they’re only slightly less dangerous, and her innocent appearance makes it almost inevitable that Virginia, the deadliest of the bunch, will go woefully underestimated by her prospective victims until it’s much too late. Bruno tries to keep a lid on the worst of it, but things are just way too weird around the Merrye place not to arouse some suspicions. After a somewhat unnerving dinner at the house with Bruno and the kids, Peter takes Ann into town for what he hopes is going to be the night, leaving Emily and Schlocker to get to the bottom of whatever secret the old chauffeur is trying to hide. They’ll find what they’re looking for, alright, but they’re not going to like it very much when they do.
What makes Jack Hill’s movies such a joy is that no matter how grim and horrid the subject matter becomes, he almost always retains a sense of warped humor about it, yet no matter how goofy and campy things get, he also invariably keeps his cutting edge. Spider Baby is among the blackest of black comedies, and I can think of no more effective means of establishing its credentials in that department than to open with Mantan Moreland, perpetrator of some of old-time Hollywood’s most odious comic relief, getting carved up by a girl who likes to pretend she’s a spider. Similarly, look to the dinner scene here for an illustration by contrast of exactly what James Whale got wrong in its counterpart from The Old Dark House. The Merrye kids may be screwy and cartoonish, but they’re also honestly threatening (Virginia especially), and Lon Chaney Jr. gets what almost has to be the finest moment of the downward phase of his career when Bruno has to deal with the conundrum of mediating their interaction with Peter, Emily, Schlocker, and Ann. On the one hand, Bruno wants the interlopers gone, so it’s to his advantage to let the children freak them out; on the other hand, he can’t let the kids get so out of control that the Howes call in the authorities. Meanwhile, he wants to put himself across as forthright and cooperative, but he’s also got a basement full of retarded would-be cannibals that the Howes and their lawyer must not find out about under any circumstances. Chaney’s success in portraying that dual conflict plays up another of Jack Hill’s strengths as a director— he had an uncommonly consistent knack for coaxing terrific performances out of limited actors. You see it in his women’s prison flicks, you see it in his Pam Grier vehicles, and you see it writ large in Spider Baby. Chaney hadn’t been this good since the early 40’s, and Lord knows Hill seems to have been just about the only director prior to Rob Zombie who really understood what an asset Sid Haig can be. More impressive still is what Hill wrings from Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn as the Merrye girls. Neither actress has had much of a career beyond Spider Baby, so it comes as something of a shock when they both manage to steal every single scene in which they appear, despite playing alongside actors with a great deal more experience. Banner in particular is a prize, believably childlike in her interactions with the rest of the cast, commendably chilling in her portrayal of her character’s paradoxically innocent evil, and unnervingly sexy in the scene where Virginia finally convinces the unsuspecting Peter to play Spider with her. Even the way she holds her knives is perfect. Give me Virginia Merrye over Saul Femm any day!