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Spider Baby (1968)
From the moment Lon Chaney Jr's craggy voice begins crooning about the maddest story ever told over the opening credits, it's apparent that Spider Baby is going to be something different from your average homicidal-family romp. Filmed in 1964, but stuck in cinematic limbo for four years, director Jack Hill's debut swirls with a peculiarly innocent sense of horror.
In a decrepit mansion at the edge of town lives the Merryes -- a family struck by a degenerative brain disease that causes them to regress before they've even left childhood. The last remaining members of the line romp around the grounds, murdering strangers who pass by, but mostly enjoying each other's company, and the company of their chauffeur/caretaker Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr.). When distant relatives come with a plan to snatch everything away, the "children" concoct a plan to keep what's theirs forever and ever.
Spider Baby was a labor of love -- twisted love, perhaps, but love all the same. Hill notes in his DVD commentary that it's the only film he's ever done without a prompt from a producer (i.e. "Make me a racing picture!"). It sprang completely from the stranger portions of his brain, unbidden. Most of the actors worked for scale. Chaney, a notorious alcoholic, went on the wagon for the entire production. Apparently anybody who read the script fell for it and gave their all to make it come to life.
It's really not hard to see why so many would devote themselves to such a project. Although there's some creakiness to the plot, it's full of heart. It's the kind of film where you root for the killers, pray for the gruesome deaths of their victims, and never feel dirty about it. It shares some things in common with The Devil's Rejects in that sense -- the innocent glee of the Merrye's murderous ways is far preferable to the conniving calculations of their cold-hearted aunt.
Another thing this film shares with Rejects is Sid Haig, here playing the dog-like degenerate Ralph. Haig bounds and pounces with all the grace of a golden retriever; he devotes himself completely to the character's extreme physicality. Without a word, Haig impresses upon us the taxing ravages of the Merrye curse.
As Ralph's sisters Elizabeth and Virginia, Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner play at a curious chemistry. Washburn, the more experienced actress, acts out to the cheap seats, everything clearly enunciated and started firmly. Banner, working in her first film, underplays her role, giving Virginia an obsessive whisper as her trademark. Normally such styles would clash, but here the dichotomy only serves to underline their childlike natures.
Chaney turns in the best performance of the latter half of his career. His Bruno gently exudes compassion and duty. While he's the sanest person in the Merrye home, he's hardly "all there." It's the kind of role Chaney does best -- the affable guy with a terrible burden. Sadly, this would be the last decent role he would play, as he was mostly consigned to grade-Z schlock like Dracula vs. Frankenstein.
One of the oddest things about a film that just oozes a sense of nasty playfulness is that it almost completely lacks gore of any kind. There's a severed ear and some briefly-viewed monstrosities, but otherwise, the film's clean. I suppose it's fitting. The children are all about having good old-fashioned fun, not wallowing in the bloody guilt of their deeds.
Jack Hill's Spider Baby proves to be a minor cult gem, a film worth giving a look at least once. I'm betting that you'll be charmed by the quaint and quirky ways of the Merrye clan and their lovable oaf of a chauffeur. Even if you don't like the film, you can't hate it. As Bruno reminds us, "It isn't nice to hate!"