Saturday, November 30, 2013

#170: Spider Baby (Jack Hill, 1968)

Filmed in 1964 but not released until four years later due to a series of setbacks and complications, Jack Hill's Spider Baby is a cult film truly deserving of its reputation. Campy, funny, dark, creepy, sexually depraved, and very, very entertaining, Spider Baby is evidence of both the unfairly neglected Jack Hill's great talent and the imaginative superiority of many drive-in/exploitation/B-movies over expensive, mainstream Hollywood product. Spider Baby is not like other movies. It has its own weird, freaky thing going on, and I salute that weirdness and wholeheartedly endorse that freakiness. Throw away whatever you're watching now and put Spider Baby on.
For those of you unfamiliar with Spider Baby's charms, it's the story of the Merrye family, a tight-knit unit who live in a run-down Gothic mansion in an isolated, foliage-hidden stretch of rural California. The family suffers from a rare disorder, beginning in late childhood, that causes the brain to slowly regress in age as the body continues to age normally. As adulthood continues, the Merryes become more childlike until they have the brain activity of infants. Then things get weirder as the disorder makes them regress even further. They become feral, disfigured, hairy wild creatures, though the Merryes we're introduced to at the film's beginning haven't regressed this far yet.
Those three Merryes, in their late teens and early twenties, are Ralph (exploitation film legend Sid Haig) and his two younger sisters, Virginia (Jill Banner) and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn). The Merrye parents are no longer among the living, so the trio of afflicted young people are looked after by the dutiful family chauffeur Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr.). There's also some talk about a feral uncle and two aunts who live in a hidden basement, but we won't see them for a while. Ralph is a large, bald baby who's about to go feral, but his sisters are still lucid, if very childlike. They also have a dark side. Virginia is obsessed with spiders and has a murderous streak, while Elizabeth likes manipulating Virginia, pushing her to do bad things and then chastising her for it. She has a murderous streak of her own, and the two make a dangerous team.
The Merryes receive a telegram from an ill-fated messenger (Mantan Moreland) informing them that two distant cousins are visiting that day. The cousins, a brother and sister named Peter and Emily Howe (Quinn Redeker and Carol Ohmart), have learned that they are the inheritors of the Merrye fortune and that their afflicted cousins are being raised by a family employee. Assuming Bruno is merely after the family's money, they decide to pay a visit to their distant relatives and assess the situation, their lawyer Mr. Shlocker (Karl Schanzer) and his assistant Ann (Mary Mitchel) in tow. The Merryes are not the visiting type, and an already weird day is about to get weirder.
Working independently with a small budget provided by first-time producers who worked in the real estate business, the filmmakers nevertheless created a memorable, unusual film with better performances and more striking images than your run-of-the-mill drive-in cheapie. Washburn and Banner are both hilarious and frightening as the Merrye sisters, with their odd spoken cadence and body movements reminding me, in part, of documentary footage of Manson family acolytes. I don't know if the Manson Family women ever watched Spider Baby, but they seem to have stolen a few moves.
Lon Chaney, Jr., gives a sincere and emotional performance as a man who genuinely cares for the Merrye family. A bad alcoholic at the time of filming, Chaney was so devoted to this film that he managed to stay off booze for the 12-day shoot. Chaney as Bruno is a bit crazy, in his own way, but he's the sturdy foundation that grounds the film, the straight man the other characters play off. (He also sang the awesomely goofy theme song, nicely covered by the avant-metal supergroup Fantomas on their film score covers album The Director's Cut.) The rest of the cast give their characters unique traits and distinct mannerisms, especially Redeker (a veteran actor who also cowrote the screenplay for The Deer Hunter, oddly enough). No one here is a stiff placeholder or a tool of the plot. These are characters existing in a world created specifically for this film, not a generic world of general film tropes.
Writer/director Jack Hill is an underrated, unique film voice who had a great run of B-movies in the '60s and '70s. Hill grew up in Hollywood with an architect father who did a lot of work for Disney and Warner Brothers as a set designer. He attended UCLA's film school with classmate Francis Ford Coppola, and both men got their start with Roger Corman, though Hill remained in the drive-in/exploitation circuit. After codirecting a couple of horror and sexploitation films, Blood Bath and Mondo Keyhole, Hill got the chance to write and direct his own film with Spider Baby. He followed it with a drag racing film, Pit Stop, that introduced Ellen Burstyn to the world; four blaxploitation films with Pam Grier (The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, Coffy, and Foxy Brown); The Swinging Cheerleaders, my favorite cheerleadersploitation film; and Switchblade Sisters, a favorite of Quentin Tarantino's. Hill's last movie, the 1982 fantasy film Sorceress, was an unhappy experience and a reportedly lousy final product, though I haven't seen it. The finished film was taken away from Hill, reedited, and credited to fictional filmmaker Brian Stuart.
Fed up with the movie business, Hill retired after the Sorceress fiasco to concentrate on writing a novel. The single novel turned into a series of novels that Hill is still working on, and I hope he finishes them before he kicks off and that somebody publishes them. He wrote another screenplay in the 1990s, an offbeat sex comedy he planned to direct with Twin Peaks' Sheryl Lee in the lead role, but he failed to find funding. The movie business doesn't treat its veteran directors very well unless they're firmly entrenched in the big studio system, and that really sucks. Jack Hill's still here, though, and so are his best films, of which Spider Baby is most definitely one.

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