Man, Jack Hill rules. Sorceress? Switchblade Sisters? Coffy? The Big Doll House? That’s why Tarantino referred to him as “the Howard Hawks of exploitation.”
Of all his movies, I love Spider Baby most of all. It’s the most perfect of all films, packed with menace, sweetness and madness all in equal measure. Who else would let Lon Chaney Jr. sing the theme song to their movie other than Hill?
This $65,000 movie — shot in The Smith estate house that was originally occupied by Judge David Patterson Hatch, who wrote books on the occult after he retired — pretty much disappeared upon release and numerous title changes didn’t help it find an audience. Yeah, titles like The Liver Eaters, Attack of the Liver Eaters, Cannibal Orgy and The Maddest Story Ever Told didn’t work.
But it found the right people when it was all over. People like Johnny Legend, who made sure that this movie wouldn’t die.
Spider Baby is all about the Merrye family. The end of the family, that is, as the last three children all live in a mansion that’s falling apart and are protected by their chauffeur Bruno (Chaney, absolutely perfect). They all suffer from a disease called Merrye Syndrome that only impacts members of their family, hence the name, and causes them to regress down the evolutionary ladder as they grow older.
Two relatives visit with their lawyer to try and get whatever money is left, but the kids have lost all control and Bruno can no longer stop them from doing what they do best: kill, baby, kill.
Virginia (Jill Banner, The Stranger Returns) is known as Spider Baby because she loves trapping people in makeshift webs, climbing around the house and eating bugs when she isn’t murdering delivery people like Mantan Moreland (who is also in Lucky Ghost and nearly replaced Shemp in the Three Stooges).
Ralph (Sid Haig!) loves the ladies and has completely lost his mind. He can barely communicate now and uses the dumb waiter to silently get around the mansion.
Finally, Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn, Old Yeller) may look normal, but she’s just as demented as her siblings.
Meanwhile, Clara, Martha and Ned have regressed even further and live in the basement, where they must constantly be fed human bodies. And oh yeah — the skeleton of the children’s father gets kissed good night by Virginia before bed every single evening.
Of course, the arrival of new people can only mean one thing: everyone must die in a dynamite explosion. That’s how these things go.
Carol Ohmart from The House on Haunted Hill plays one of those interlopers as does Quinn Redeker, the only person I know that wrote the story for The Deer Hunter and appeared in a movie with the Three Stooges.
Sid Haig avoided Lon Chaney Jr. for the first two days of filming because he had no idea how to interact with him. One day, he was needed for a scene and the future Captain Spaulding went to the former Larry Talbot’s trailer. He knocked on the door and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Chaney. You’re needed on set.” Chaney told Haig, without skipping a beat, “Stop that. I’m not Mr. Chaney. I’m Lon. You’re Sid. Let’s leave it at that.”
Haig also related that in the scene where Chaney discusses the toy, the crew broke down into tears and gave him a standing ovation. He deserved it.
This movie makes me incredibly emotional. Maybe it’s the fact that the children are doomed to never fit in. Perhaps it’s because Chaney realized that he’d never have — or even had — a role this good. Or maybe I just really torn up by movies.
Spider Baby is available for free download on The Internet Archive and you can stream it for free on Tubi and Amazon Prime.