Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Every Told (1968)

I feel awful because I know I found out about this movie through an interesting review on some movie blog or other, but it was awhile ago and I just can't remember where I read about it. I seem to recall the site having a black background and white text? If you are the mystery reviewer, please let me know!

Anyway, Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, a title that always puts in mind a mad cackle and thunder clap when I say or read it, is a wacky horror tale of the best kind. It centers on the Merrye's, a family afflicted with a rare disease (so rare, in fact, that only they have it) that causes individuals to begin mentally regressing in late childhood until they eventually reach a pre-natal state that is also cannibalistic. And it makes them homicidal? Yes.

So kindly chauffeur Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr) is left to care for remaining family members- all ranging in age and therefore ranging in mental capacity for non-murdering/cannibalism. But when distant cousins decide to drop on the Merrye mansion with the intention of taking away their fortune and the house, it's up to Bruno and the youngest of the clan to find a way to stay together.

Considering somebody gets an ear hacked off by a teenager within the first ten minutes, I was pretty much ready right away to think Spider Baby is wicked awesome. And in many ways, it is! It's got lots of murder and stabby-stabs and creepy insinuations and sexy innuendo and made-up medical science. There is no graphic violence, with the grisly stuff taking place offscreen, so the result is more of a pensive, atmospheric horror with a lot of implied homicidal antics. Rad.

What with all the offscreen stuff, this movie becomes more actor-driven than I might have expected. Lon Chaney, Jr is great as the put-upon chauffeur, whose commitment to this hopeless family eventually drives him a little crazy too. I loved Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner as the Merrye sisters- the youngest and therefore least cannibalistic of the family. The former has a sinister Olsen twin thing going on and the latter is delightfully sadistic with an undertone of teenage sexuality. I also enjoyed Carol Ohmart as the greedy Emily, one of the cousins seeking the Merrye fortune. She's condescending and stuffy yet likes to let loose by dancing around in a stranger's lingerie. Also she was totally Vincent Price's wife in The House on Haunted Hill, and oddly reminds me of Meryl Streep, face-wise.

The downside to Spider Baby is that it is dated, with the whole fake "mental illness" thing and overuse of the word "retard" and whatnot. It's still an impressive little film, with several memorable scenes and smart pacing.

4/5

PS I wish I had seen this before my Top 5 Movie Theme Songs list, because it totally would have been in the running. It's got a weird, fun tune sung by Lon Chaney, Jr himself.

Pair This Movie With: Perhaps What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? or any other movie featuring wacky people stuck in a decaying house. I love those. Grey Gardens comes to mind.

4 comments:

  1. We reviewed this about a year ago, but I have no idea if that was what you saw. Spider Baby's an awesome mix of disreputable exploitation and character-based black comedy, and it's gleefully cartoonish in a way that's all too rare for horror movies.

    I love Elizabeth & Virginia, and Chaney might even have his best role here. So yeah, Spider Baby is pretty fantastic and you do it justice. Especially that theme song! Not many movies can live up to the title "the maddest story ever told," but somehow Spider Baby does it.

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  2. Ha! That guy at the start is none other than stand-up comedian Mantan Moreland from the Charlie Chan movies who used to play chauffer Birmingham Brown. I put this scene on my blog in my "Top Seven Violent Comedian Deaths In Movies" post last year (Sid James being machine gunned to death in Quatermass 2 came in at number one).

    Yeah that song is great. There were a couple of CDs put out by, Percepto I think, that feature it. It's a great movie but I think it kinda goes off the boil a little towards the last third.

    Glad you liked this one. I only discovered it a few years back.

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  3. Was that my little old blog you saw it on? If so, I'm tickled that I had some hand in you seeing this little gem. And don't worry about not remembering it was me...Sniff, I get that a lot...

    If it wasn't me, well, I'm still tickled that you enjoyed it. Jill Banner is most awesome in this film. Her scene where she crawls into her cousins lap is so perfectly creepy.

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  4. This is one of my favorite horror films of all-time. For years, Whitney tried and tried to get me to watch it but for one reason or another, it never seemed to happen. And then one weekend, when she had gone out of town, I watched it at 3AM and wished so badly that I could call her and tell her how right she was. It's great!

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