Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Spider Baby

Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told (a.k.a The Liver Eaters; a.k.a. Cannibal Feast): written and directed by Jack Hill; starring Lon Chaney Jr. (Bruno), Carol Ohmart (Emily), Quinn Redeker (Peter), Beverly Washburn (Elizabeth), Jill Banner (Virginia), Sid Haig (Ralph), Mary MItchell (Ann), and Karl Schanzer (Schlocker) (1967): The Merrye family has a problem: as they age, they gradually turn into cannibals. Then they turn into bipedal spiders. Then they turn into spiders. Yikes.

Made for the grand total of $65,000 in 1964 and unreleased until 1967, Spider Baby is a weirdly awesome piece of schlock cinema. It plays for the most part like a bleak horror comedy. The producers, perhaps not entirely sure of what to do with their movie, placed a jokey credit sequence at the beginning, complete with star Lon Chaney Jr. singing a title song in the vein of "Monster Mash."

Oh, Lon Chaney Jr.. He's a tribute to the working actor here, gamely playing the Merrye family's caretaker/butler/chauffeur with a sort of wounded, lunatic comic sympathy. He got all of $2500 for the role and earned every bit of it.

The actors playing 'normal' people are all pretty terrible, though that may be a matter of direction. The Addams Family-style farce they seem to be acting in doesn't seem to synchronize at all with the bleaker, blacker comedy of the merry mutating Merryes. Besides faithful Bruno, there are Virginia and Elizabeth, homicidal sisters, and Ralph, simple-minded devourer of cats. 

The production's cheapness and crudity serve it in good stead, though. There's a perverted sense of authenticity to the movie, along with moments of horror and revulsion. There's no graphic violence to speak of, but what's implied is generally more than enough. 

Whether or not later film-makers were actually influenced by the movie may be irrelevant -- though I"d certainly believe that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre shares more than a few DNA strands with Spider Baby. It's an authentic, primitive American horror original. Casual racism and what may or may not be a rape scene will almost certainly offend some people. Nonetheless, Spider Baby is a weird little masterpiece when taken on its own terms. Highly recommended.

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