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Spider Baby | Blu-ray Review

spider-baby-coverArrow Video resurrects Jack Hill’s first solo directorial effort, Spider Baby (1967) for lovers of cult oddities. Prior to becoming a lynchpin in the Blaxploitation film movement with his signature Pam Grier titles such as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), Hill knocked around as co-director on B-grade horror films, including Roger Corman and Stephanie Rothman projects. Unfortunately, this strange little number didn’t see release for several years due to its producers getting tied up in bankruptcy. Originally titled “Cannibal Orgy,” the theatrical release kept the extended title of Or the Maddest Story Ever Told (several other venues played it under the title The Liver Eaters). Not nearly gritty or violent enough to warrant such provocative monikers, its eventual name remains the most befitting. Featuring horror alum Lon Chaney Jr. and an eerie early role for (an almost unrecognizable) Sid Haig, Hill was obviously inspired at arming popular genre motifs with teeth. Though perhaps a bit too simplistic by today’s standards, it’s still a creative and weird forgotten gem of the late 60’s.

We segue from the opening narration of Peter Howe (Quinn Redeker) into a tragic indcident he recounts from ten years prior. A hapless delivery man gets murdered in his attempt to locate the residents of the Merrye estate when he accidentally runs into Virginia Merrye (Jill Banner) while she’s playing her favorite game, ‘spider.’ Moments later, she’s chastised by equally strange sister Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) just before their caretaker and chauffeur, Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.) arrives home from a visit to the physician to clean up the mess. The girls’ older brother Ralph (Sid Haig) displays the physical characteristics of the Merrye family’s genetic disease, an affliction causing physical deterioration and mental regression once adolescence hits. One of the other pesky side effects appears to be cannibalism. The dead delivery man was the bearer of bad news, the letter posted by a lawyer (Karl Schanzer), announcing the arrival of two distant Merrye relatives (Carol Ohmart; Redeker) who wish to take over the estate. Bruno does the best he can to prepare the children for the surprise visit.

Hill seemed inspired by a variety of popular genre literature, realizing the effectiveness (and frugality) of a single isolated locale in the middle of nowhere and revolving around a strange, inbred family clashing with money hungry distant relatives. Initially, this seems merely like a darker version of “The Addams Family” or “The Munsters” set up, a pit of weirdoes isolating themselves from the world and suffering from strange, specific maledictions.

Decades later, this regressive “Merrye” disease would appear again in cannibal metaphors, most notable in Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are (2010) and Jim Mickle’s Americanized remake. The actresses portraying the weird sisters, Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn, are delightfully offbeat, here reminiscent of adolescent versions of Natalie Wood and Fairuza Balk.

Plenty of wink-wink mentions of classic studio horror films are used a bit too frequently to acknowledge the iconic Lon Chaney Jr.’s, presence, though he’s cast against type as the only real amiable figure. Quinn Redeker is also entertaining in a slightly goofy performance, though Hill’s decision to bookend the film with his character’s recounting of these ten year old events is exactly what lends the title a cheap pallor it may have more easily avoided.

Disc Review:

Considering the film’s delayed, muted release, and subsequent lapse from the public eye, this newly restored high definition Blu-ray edition is the culmination of the film’s many devotees. The package includes both Blu-ray and Standard Definition DVD presentations, enhanced by a number of notable of extra features in this director approved special edition. Though the high definition transfer makes it easier to recognize several goofs (like a member of the film crew present in the reflection off a car window in a sequence with Redeker), Alfred Taylor’s cinematography and Ronald Stein’s expressive score are much more pronounced in this restoration (and features audio commentary with Jack Hill and Sid Haig).

The Hatching of Spider Baby:
A half hour feature includes interview footage from principal cast members such as Sid Haig, Mary Michael, director Jack Hill, and fan Joe Dante. Hill recalls his inspiration for the title coming as a riff on the film The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Spider Stravinsky:
An eleven minute feature about composer Ronald Stein feature filmmaker and Stein historian Ted Newsom and Stein’s wife, Harlene. Stein composed scores for many famous titles, including The Terror and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

The Merrye House Revisited:
Filmmaker Elijah Drenner and Jack Hill returned to the Highland Park area of Los Angeles in October, 2006 to visit the original filming locations of Spider Baby in this brief seven minute feature.

Alternate Opening Title Sequence:
The alternate opening title sequence is included, when the film was known as Cannibal Orgy.

Extended Scene:
Chaney’s initial sequence with the antagonizing lawyer is presented in its extended form, enhanced by an additional three minutes or so.

Panel Discussion:
A half hour panel discussion from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Film-to-Film Festival in 2012 is included. This celebration of film preservation was hosted by Eleanor Harrington (Spider Baby screened as a double bill with Carnival of Souls), and the following discussion from cast and crew is included.

The Host (1960):
Jack Hill’s early short film The Host, starring Sid Haig, is included. Shot while he was still a student, it was Haig’s screen debut. The film, based on the novel The Golden Bough by James Frazer, is said to be an influence on the third act of Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, and the two filmmakers were classmates and friends at UCLA. The half hours feature is easily the most significant extra feature on the disc.

Final Thoughts:

A title that’s languished in obscurity, Spider Baby is a generously entertaining cult item worthy of wider recognition. Rightly credited as a bizarre labor of love, unique even in comparison to Jack Hill’s own outlandish filmography, the film is at last available in a well attenuated Blu-ray edition.

Film: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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