Saturday, June 13, 2015

SPIDER BABY (1967) Blu-ray Review

Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told (1967) d. Jack Hill (USA)

Horror fans only familiar with Sid Haig from his millennial Rob Zombie flicks or with Lon Chaney, Jr. from his hairy heyday of The Wolf Man should do themselves the favor of experiencing these two genre legends toward the beginning and end of their respective careers. Writer/director Hill’s fascinating blend of macabre humor and bizarre chills revolves around the Merrye family, stricken with a “progressive age regression” disease that leads to childlike behavior and cannibalism. (This was Hill’s first credited feature directing gig, even though it didn’t come out for several years after principal photography had wrapped in 1964.)

The three remaining members of the Merrye family, Ralph (Haig), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), and Virginia (Jill Banner), are cared for by family chauffeur Bruno (Chaney), who is kept busy constantly covering up for their less-than-socially acceptable ways. But when a couple of distant relatives, Emily (Carol Ohmart, House on Haunted Hill) and Peter (Quinn K. Redecker), show up with their lawyer Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) and his cute assistant Ann (Mary Michel, Dementia 13) to lay claim to the family inheritance, they find themselves unwittingly drawn into the “children’s” games, with cannibalism, rape, murder, and bondage on the evening’s playlist.

There’s no denying Spider Baby’s low budget origins (witness the reflection of the film crew in Ohmart’s car window at one point), but equally unequivocal is the gentle warmth and humanity folded gently within its macabre subject matter. The enjoyably heightened performances combined with Hill’s dementedly dizzy dialogue add up to a delicious combo of shock and satire, with a justly famous dinner table scene.

That’s Chaney himself singing the oogey-boogey title song composed, along with the rest of the lively melodramatic score, by Ronald Stein, a staff composer at AIP for several years (along with Les Baxter). This is without a doubt one of Chaney’s finest hours within the genre, and the former Universal star makes the most of it, tendering a sweetness and warmth not seen since his breakout role as Lennie in 1939’s Of Mice and Men. Bruno’s lectures to the children on the subtle differences between “good” and “bad” or why “it’s never nice to hate” are sublime in their execution, and Chaney’s final tear-stained sacrifice reminds us what a talent he was when used properly.

Arrow Video’s marvelous Blu-ray release retains many of the jewels served up by DarkSky’s double-disc release from 2007, but also whips up a few new ones to sweeten the deal. For starters, there is a panel discussion featuring Hill, Redeker and Washburn following a screening of Spider Baby in September 2012 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences FILM-TO-FILM Festival, dedicated to film restoration. It is from this restored, Hill-supervised-and-approved print that the Blu-ray’s transfer was derived, and it’s the best the film has probably ever looked. Indeed, though I’ve seen the film numerous times, this is the first time I noticed the thin drooling line of spittle connecting Haig’s lower lip and the table. The original theatrical trailer is also included.

Of special note to Haig’s legions of fans will be the inclusion of his very first collaboration with Hill, the 1960 western short The Host. The director and star must have gotten along together, as they continued to work together for another seven features. This curio, shot when Hill was a film student at the University of California alongside Francis Ford Coppola, features Haig as a jail house escapee who stumbles upon a strange old squaw residing within a crumbling ruin who invites him. The tale would not seem out of place with a sardonic intro from Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, and on DarkSky’s Hatching of Spider Baby doc, it’s even intimated that the story serves as the template for the final reel of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

Arrow’s packaging features a reversible sleeve with both the original artwork and a newly commissioned cover design by Graham Humphreys. The collector's booklet features essays by artist/writer Stephen R. Bissette, and an extensive re-printed FilmFax article featuring interviews with the cast and crew, illustrated with original artwork.

The vintage DarkSky supplements kick off with the amiable and informative audio commentary between Hill and Haig, with the writer/director quoting often from Dean Sluyter’s big-brained Spider Baby essay from his book, Cinema Nirvana. (Even if many of Sluyter’s assertations are bold interpretative reaches, it doesn’t make them any less pleasurable for movie geeks to mull over.) Hill reveals that the day-rate rental cost of Bruno’s Duesenberg automobile amounted to the same as an actor’s weekly salary ($100), and that the prosthetic ear – made to look as though it were trimmed off ’40s funnyman Mantan Moreland – actually belonged to one of the crew members who would pull it off to throw it in his date’s cocktail if he wasn’t feeling the magic.

Hill also discusses the as-yet-unproduced sequel, tentatively entitled “Vampire Orgy,” which follows Peter and Ann’s ongoing adventures with the supernatural during their honeymoon. Haig’s rumbling baritone shows up less often, but fans should enjoy his bemusedly enthusiastic opining as he reflects upon Ohmart’s fine figure or how his eyes were almost literally popping out whilst being hung upside down outside the starlet’s window for Ralph’s voyeur scene.

The three Elijan Drennan-produced featurettes uncover even more gold, with the aforementioned 32-minute The Hatching of Spider Baby sitting astride the supplemental throne. Hill, Haig, Michel, Redeker, Washburn, Schanzer, DP Alfred Taylor (Killer Klowns from Outer Space), and everyone’s favorite monster kid Joe Dante discuss the quirky film’s genesis, its failed release, its long period in the gray market bootleg wilderness, and its final rediscovery and appreciation by a new generation after Hill and Johnny Legend self-distributed it on VHS in the 1980s.

“Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein” celebrates the underrated composer of numerous AIP efforts, including The Terror and The Premature Burial. His widow Harlene Stein, Hill, American Cinematheque’s Chris D., and others offer long-overdue tribute. Speaking of which, if you enjoyed Stein’s bouncy theme and the opening title caricatures by e.i.p. (who had also illustrated the darkly amusing credits for Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors), both are showcased once again via the film’s alternate title sequence as Cannibal Orgy.

For “The Merrye House Revisited,” Hill and Drennan revisit the original house used as the main location, which gives an all new appreciation for the director’s skill in concealing the surrounding neighborhood – turns out our creepy mansion was not nearly as isolated as it seemed. The two don’t get to go inside, but since interiors were shot in a studio, it’s no great loss. (Trivia: the same house was later used as the communal lodging in 1979’s Silent Scream.) There’s also an extended scene with Chaney, Michel, and Schanzer in the fabled Duesenberg, which sets up the explosive ending, and an impressive gallery of behind-the-scenes images.

Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told is available now on Blu-ray and DVD from Arrow Video and can be ordered HERE:


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