Friday, May 1, 2009

Spider Baby (1968)

A terrifyingly square-jawed (and dumb as the piece of rock his chin resembles) man called Peter (Quinn Redeker) tells us a little story about that strange little illness known as Merrye's Disease.

It's quite a fittingly named disease, seeing that only members of the Merrye family seem to suffer from it. At some point in their teenage years, all Merryes start to regress mentally and also develop some unpleasant signs of murderous insanity. In the end, a Merrye even falls back into a pre-human state of existence (that is, starts to resemble Jo-Jo the dog-faced boy).

The last presentable members of the family (I suppose procreation by something other than accident can get a little problematic when you are never mentally adult), Virginia (Jill Banner), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and Ralph (Sid Haig) live in the rather musty old family home, protected and fed by their trusty old family chauffeur Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.).

The old man is also taking care of the less human family members, a small assortment of aunts and uncles hidden away in the cellar.

Alas, Bruno is but a single man - not a very sane man himself, at that -, and when he returns from an excursion into the city, he finds himself confronted with the dead body of the postman (played by our old nemesis Mantan Moreland), who did not survive the charming little game of "spider" that Virginia likes to play so very much.

Even worse than the corpse though is the letter the postman was delivering - some greedy relatives are planning on taking the "children" under their wings and steal all their money. Oh joy, they're coming to visit today.

And what charming people they are. There's Emily (Carol Ohmart), whose love for dancing in front of mirrors while dressed in her undies will prove quite problematic for her future survival, our narrator (and therefore hero of the piece, so hurray for him) Peter - as I said, dumb as a rock, the hitler-mustachioed lawyer Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) and his secretary Ann (Mary Mitchel), the future love of Peter's life, who is of equally dubious intelligence.

Bruno and his charges are bravely trying to put on a sane face, but Emily's insistence on first having dinner at the house and then staying the night combined with Schlocker's unhealthy curiosity lead them down a path, or rather a corridor, that ends like all corridors in old dark houses end - in a room where someone is very enthusiastic about playing "spider".

Spider Baby's director and writer Jack Hill is one of my heroes of low budget filmmaking in the 60s and 70s. The way in which he was always on the look-out for new methods of making his films as sleazy as possible, while at the same time instilling them with a sense of outrageous fun as well as a very healthy dose of satire alone would be enough to make most of his films (The Big Doll House! Coffy! Foxy Brown! Switchblade Sisters! etc.) mandatory watching in my book. But Hill was also a more than competent director, not of the sort that has much use for obvious signs of flashiness, yet exceedingly effective at making well-paced and clever b-films that for once tend to keep the promises their one-sheets make.

Underneath the wonderful and sometimes delirious strangeness of Hill's movies, there was always something else going on, be it that Hill made a quite cynical commentary on the genre of the revenge flick inside of a revenge flick or that he used a cheerleader exploitationer as a declaration of love and hate for women's lib at once.

Spider Baby isn't any different. Here, Hill drags the corpse of the old dark house mystery/horror movies from the 30s and 40s from its grave and takes a good look at what can be done with it in the late 60s. While he's doing that, he might just as well add the sexuality to it the older films were never able (or allowed to) talk about.

And, while he's at it, he makes parts of the sexuality quite uncomfortable by ascribing it to young women with the minds of children, basically poking around in the closet with the sign "Children and sexuality! Don't open!" without running the risk of not being able to sell his film to an audience.

Brilliantly, Hill does this trick while still making a sleazy, well-paced, well filmed, competently acted and very weird black comedy.



Unknown said...

Thanks so much for your very kind comments on my Spider Baby. Seems like each new generation discovers anew the delights of the film, much to my delight, unexpected as it has been.
==Jack Hill

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

You are very welcome, and I have to thank you for the pleasure I've always had with your movies.
I think the cyclical re-discovery of Spider Baby and your other films speaks of their qualities and the fact the you, as a director, seem to always have put more energy/thought/love into them than you had to.