Spider Baby (1968)
By: Paul Ryan on February 18, 2009  | 
Umbrella (Australia). All Regions, NTSC. 1.66:1 (16:9 enhanced). English Subtitles. 84 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Jack Hill
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr, Carol Ohmart, Quinn Redeker, Sid Haig
Screenplay: Jack Hill
Country: USA
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The Merrye family are a unique bunch. Shut away from the world in a lonely, crumbling old mansion, they are the only known carriers of an ultra-rare malady named – appropriately – Merrye's Syndrome. Apparently developed through generations of inbreeding, members of the Merrye clan tend to regress – both mentally and physically – as they age, ultimately becoming feral, ravenous cannibals. Charged with keeping a lid on this barmy brood is the family's loyal chauffer Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr). With the elder Merryes long absent, Bruno serves as the guardian of their three grown children, the slavering mute, Ralphie (Sid Haig) and the sweet, pretty – and pretty demented – girls Elizabeth (Beverley Washburn) and Virginia (Jill Banner). When Virginia - who likes to pretend that she's a spider – hacks up a visiting messenger (played by Mantan Moreland, he of the now very-un-PC "feet don't fail me now" black comic relief of the 40's), Bruno wearily finds himself having to dispose of the body and cope with a visit from the saner branch of the family tree.

Enter straitlaced relatives Peter (Quinn Redeker) and Emily (Carol Ohmart), who have come to seek guardianship of the children and ownership of the mansion. Backed up by Hitler-mustached lawyer Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) and his cute secretary Ann (Mary Mitchell), these distant relations expect a smooth handover of the family assets. But as the natural instincts of the Merrye "children" emerge, the visitors quickly find themselves fighting for their lives. Bruno, on the other hand, simply finds himself fighting to keep the kids under control. After all, they may be mentally backward, woefully sheltered, and let's face it, downright murderous, but they're his responsibility and he loves them like they were his own family, dammit!

A well deserved cult classic, Spider Baby is silly, melodramatic, campy and great fun. Like an episode of The Addams Family with added slice-n-dice, this maintains a fun, curiously light-hearted vibe amidst all the bizarro shenanigans. Atmospherically designed and shot (in just 12 days, no less), exploitation legend Jack Hill gives a pleasing funhouse feel to the proceedings and coaxes uniformly terrific performances from his eclectic cast. Best of all is Chaney – who even sings the theme song! - as the long-suffering, but deeply compassionate Bruno. It's a performance that is warm, tender and deeply droll, and worth the price of admission alone. The rest of the cast from Karl Schanzer's shifty lawyer, to the hilarious - and very sensual – double act of Jill Banner and Beverley Washburn are great as well.

This DVD release of Spider Baby presents Hill's preferred cut of the film, with a few dialogue scenes originally cut by its distributor restored. Having been in limbo for many years - thanks to it's producers going bankrupt, followed by years of rights issues - it's great to see this kooky little gem finally emerge on DVD, in the form its director intended.
Spider Baby comes to DVD in a very nice anamorphic transfer. While the age of the film is apparent, the picture has been very nicely restored. There is some curious wobbling in some shots of Peter tied up in a chair near the end, but this is a minor quibble in an otherwise fine transfer. The disc - a port from the US release - is formatted in NTSC.
Spider Baby's audio comes in a perfectly acceptable 2.0 track. Essentially mono, the audio is very occasionally muffled, but overall quite clear.
Extra Features
Commentary with Jack Hill and Sid Haig: Hill and Haig talk us through a genial, fact-filled commentary track. Long-time collaborators and friends, the two exchange friendly jibes about each other's technique – such as Hill joking about Haig's "method acting" as Ralph – and speak of the film with great affection. Hill also highlights elements of the story and production that aren't immediately obvious on a first viewing, making this commentary a very worthwhile listen.

The Hatching of Spider Baby, Or, the Making of the Maddest Story Ever Told (31.42m): An entertaining retrospective piece on the making of, subsequent shelving and rediscovery of Spider Baby. Pretty much all the surviving cast and main crew are featured, with candid anecdotes from the likes of Hill, Haig, Schanzer and others. Director Joe Dante (who unsuccessfully tried to save the film's trailers from being junked – hence their absence from this DVD) and American Cinematheque programmer Chris D (who calls the film a rare example of "Californian Gothic") provide additional commentary. Great stuff.

Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein (10.58m): A short, but succinct look at the life and career of the film's composer, the late Ronald Stein. Stein scored a huge number of early Roger Corman cheapies, and his work is celebrated here by Hill, Dante, Chris D, and historian/filmmaker Ted Newsom. It's limited by only using music from Spider Baby, but the commentary – especially from Stein's widow Harlene – makes this a very worthwhile look at an underrated film composer.

The Merrye House Revisited (7.35m): Jack Hill (accompanied by filmmaker Elijah Drenner) returns to the now-110-year-old mansion that stood in for the Merrye estate in October 2006. This is a brief, but anecdote-packed little featurette, with one especially great tale about Hill driving Mantan Moreland to the location – with Moreland happily seated in the back.

Alternate Opening (1.49m): The title sequence from the original Cannibal Orgy print. Title aside, there's nothing otherwise different here.

Extended Scene (4.03m): A few minutes of extended dialogue and character introductions from early in the film. While there's nothing hugely essential here, it is surprising that some of this was cut, as it establishes the Merrye children a bit more effectively.

Stills Gallery: 38 assorted stills comprised of publicity shots and candid behind-the-scenes business.
The Verdict
Funny, atmospheric and genuinely, surprisingly sexy in places, Spider Baby is well worth your time. The DVD presentation is simply excellent, with a great, informative range of special features.
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score

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