Two films from director Jack Hill had releases on Blu-Ray this week. There is Coffy which I will be taking a look at later and then there is one of his earlier movies, Spider Baby from 1968. The latter has been on my “must watch” list for the past few years because of A) the respect I’ve developed over the years for its director, B) the intriguing premise, and C) the cult fandom and love for this film people have. So I finally watched it and I have to say, it’s not quite what I expected. Oh it’s a good film, but there’s just…. I don’t know…. maybe I set the bar too high? Well, let’s discuss.
NOT THE JACK HILL I KNOW
I’ve always been a fan of the exploitation work of Jack Hill. The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage and even Switchblade Sisters are among some of my favorites Then there is his blaxploitation films like Foxy Brown and Coffy that have resonated with so many over the years. Spider Baby really isn’t like that at all – and I don’t mean just because it’s in black and white. I am aware of the fact that Jack Hill came from the Roger Corman school, having done work on things like Battle Beyond the Sun and The Wasp Woman – and even The Terror but if you look that up on imdb everyone directed The Terror (Roger Corman, Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, even Jack Nicholson are all credited as director). Spider Baby is almost transitional – it has a lot of the Corman aesthetic to it but it’s clearly moving to the Jack Hill that would later give us the sleazy exploitation films that made him so popular. There is the same kind of dark humor present here as with those later films but in Spider Baby it’s so…. I don’t know really how to describe it. Sometimes it’s the nature of the scene blending humorous and macabre together in a neat way that creates the black comedy, and other times it’s the strange tonal shifts from depraved to wacky that makes it unique. ‘Unique” is certainly a good word to describe Spider Baby – because it has a certain cinematic voice to it, just not the voice I’m used to hearing.
It’s like this. Have you ever known an adult that’s had their tonsils removed? They sounded one way all their life and then, after this surgery and there is all this new open space in their larynx they have a completely new and more resonate voice? That’s what happened to Jack Hill at some point between Spider Baby and The Big Doll House. Spider Baby is something before the tonsillectomy – still the same person but just sounds kind of different.
For instance there is a rape in this movie, a woman raping a man no less which is not to different from a scene that would happen later on in The Big Doll House. Whereas the latter film had grit and a certain sleaziness to it – Spider Baby seems so strange with it. I mean the film starts with a musical number, a quasi-parody of “The Monster Mash” being played over a goofy cartoon. You think it’s going to be some delightful, laugh-a-minute, horror comedy but then it’s back and forth between zany character moments and then suddenly depraved stuff.
WHAT IS A ‘SPIDER BABY”?
Spider Baby is the story of the last surviving members of the Merrye family. Three siblings, Ralph (Sid Haig), Virginia and Elizabeth are all inbred and demented and suffer from a unique affliction called “Merrye Syndrome” which causes them to mentally, socially and physically regress down the evolutionary ladder. Essentially they are just crazy, retarded adults – that happen to murder people. Their parents have died so they are in the care of what was once the family’s chauffeur, Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr), whose not the brightest person in the world but he’s got a kind heart. The film presents a lot of fodder which would be ripe for exploitation elements, what with these incestuous adult babies about, but it’s presented so straight-forward in the traditional Corman style that it feels kind of awkward at times. It’s like one can see that this movie could be so much more than it is and screaming ‘why isn’t it?!”
The title of the film comes from the activities of one of these zany Merrye daughters, Virginia, who has an obsession with spiders. She traps unsuspecing victims (like a hapless delivery man at the film’s open) in a ‘web” and then “stings” them to death with her knives. In addition to this she eats bugs, just like a spider does – and when she starts comparing certain people to bugs, well, you get the idea where her confused logic is taking her.
So who are the adults that Virgina views as insects? Well some distant relatives have decided to come and visit, believing they can take over the vast property as well as whatever wealth remains with the Merry family. These visitors include cousins Peter and Emily, their lawyer Schlocker and his assistant Ann Morris. The crazy Merrye family doesn’t take too kindly to visitors and Bruno, bless his big dumb “tell me again about the rabbits George” heart, isn’t going to give up these children he’s come to love or risk exposing the family’s darker secrets. Darker secrets like the animal like aunts and uncles living in the basement that just grunt and eat people all day long.
Okay, you know what. I started out with a kind of “meh” feeling about this movie – that’s the direction I wanted to go. But as I put all of this down in words and think through the film and what was going on I’m starting to realize that I kind of like Spider Baby…. this damn thing is growing on me. So, let’s move forward, off the rails (like this movie) and just go into some damn joy for this flick.