Back when my wife was in college, she got a call one night from a friend who had a problem. He was house sitting for a professor that was away for the weekend and somehow a bat had made its way into the house and was now flying all over the place. My future bride went over to this house and spearheaded the effort to get the flying rodent into a pillowcase so it could be safely released outdoors. And yet, if a spider is spotted on the basement stairs she summons me to deal with it. There’s just something about spiders that some people cannot deal with. If you are one of those people, you may find our film today especially creepy. Here comes 1968’s Spider Baby.
Our story takes place in the rundown mansion of the Merrye family. Several of the Merrye “children” live at the house under the care of the family chauffeur, Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.). Now the children suffer from a disease so rare that it’s named after them. Merrye Syndrome is a condition that has been passed down through the family and which causes those afflicted to regress both mentally and physically. Essentially, the three siblings, Ralph (Sid Haig), Virginia (Jill Banner), and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), are full-grown adults with the minds of children. Virginia has a bit of a fascination with spiders. At the beginning of the film we see her pretending to be a spider by trapping and “stinging” a poor delivery man (Mantan Moreland) with a pair of knives. There are also other family members, aunts and uncles who have become severely mutated living in the basement.
What the poor messenger was delivering was a letter explaining that some distant relatives of the family would be arriving soon, with a lawyer in tow, to claim their share of the family mansion and fortune. When cousins Emily (Carol Ohmart) and Peter (Quinn Redeker) arrive, Emily sees dollar signs. Peter, on the other hand, is much more interested in Ann (Mary Mitchell), assistant to their lawyer, Mr. Schlocker (Karl Schanzer). Pretty much all of them, though, are a bit repulsed when Bruno and the children serve them a dinner that includes insects, weeds, and a cat that Ralph killed (though the guests think it’s rabbit).
With a limited number of bedrooms in the house, Peter and Ann head off after dinner to seek other accommodations, while the others remain in the house for the night. Virginia quickly sees an opportunity to play “spider” with the remaining guests. The girls end up killing Schlocker and turning him over to the family members in the basement…presumably as a late night snack. When Bruno discovers what has happened, he is saddened and tells the kids he must run an errand. Though he tells the kids to behave, they are soon playing their deadly games with the others, including Peter and Ann who return after being unable to find lodging.
Recently I happened to see a YouTube video about the “50 Worst Movies Ever Made.” This was not a video some guy made in his basement, this was a professional production. They had Spider Baby as #15 on their list. Let me just say the people that made that list were morons! This film is stylish and very creepy little gem of a horror movie. It was directed by the extremely versatile Jack Hill, whose directing credits include the likes of Blood Bath, The Big Doll House, Foxy Brown, and The Swinging Cheerleaders. Hill does a fantastic job of building an eerie and unsettling atmosphere. The cinematography is also beautifully ugly.
While Hill’s approach to the visuals is a highlight, what really makes this a great horror film are the performances he brings out of his actors. Sid Haig, Jill Banner, and Beverly Washburn are all haunting as the three children. Haig has become a sought after actor for horror directors, recently he has appeared in several of Rob Zombie’s horror flicks. This is one of his earliest films and he does a very skillful job with the difficult role of Ralph. Ralph only communicates in grunts and is the perpetrator of some of the film’s more sinister acts. It would’ve been very easy to go over-the-top with the part, but Haig manages to make Ralph both a repellant and sympathetic character. Of the “kids,” though, the standout performance is Jill Banner as Virginia. She’s scary and disturbingly sexy, especially in a scene late in the film where she goes about trying to seduce Quinn Redeker’s character in a bizarrely childlike way.
When talking about the performances in Spider Baby, though, it would be criminal not to bring up Lon Chaney Jr. If you know anything about Chaney, you should know that this icon of classic horror films had a great ability to create characters that, though monsters, were very sympathetic. As the dutiful Bruno, Chaney brings great heart to this unsettling film. He has protected the Merrye family for years, yet by the end of the film he realizes he needs to do something terrible to stop the horror the children cause. And still, at the end we feel sorry for him. That’s Chaney working his magic.
I know that everything I’ve described sounds pretty dark. It is. Yet there is also an undeniable sense of humor that Hill injects to make it all a bit easier to take. Still, Spider Baby is one of those films that will eat at you a bit after you see it. I am thrilled to have been caught in its web.