Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Spider Baby

As I mentioned, yesterday, I had the opportunity to re-watch “Spider Baby” (1964) starring Lon Chaney Jr., Carol Ohmart (“The House on Haunted Hill”) and Sid Haig (“The Devil’s Rejects”). The alternate title for this film is “The Maddest Story Ever Told” amongst others. Amazingly enough, the opening credits start off with Lon Chaney singing the theme song (!!). The story involves the sinister doings of the Merrye family and their chauffer/caregiver named Bruno (Chaney). Evidently, the Merrye family suffers from an inherited malady that causes age regression and eventually leads to deformity and a reverting to a cannibalistic state of primitive behavior. The film, itself, plays as a black comedy which is something that Chaney stated he had always wanted to do, but never got the opportunity. Here, his performance (as well as the rest of the cast) shines. According to Jack Hill (Director - this was his first feature film), Chaney, who was a serious alcoholic at the time, wanted to do this film so badly that he actually went on the wagon for the 12 days that it took to shoot the film.
As I mentioned, the cast is excellent. Of particular note is actress Jill Banner. Although only seventeen at the time of shooting and with no prior film experience, shows herself to be a natural. Every hand and body movement was improvised and adds a creepy understated value to the performance. It’s a shame that she was killed at a young age as a result of an automobile accident (although she had left the acting profession, by then). The most touching scene is the one where Chaney is explaining to the children how “everything” is going to be OK” while setting up a suicide scenario. In the director’s commentary, Jack Hill mentions that while shooting that scene, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house and the crew gave Chaney an ovation.
Made in 1964, the film wasn’t released until 1968 due to legal issues and, even then, only enjoyed a very limited release. This is truly a shame, since Chaney never got to see it released nor was he able to enjoy the cult status this film has since achieved. The DVD has some nice extras on it, including deleted scenes and a short feature on a cast reunion at a screening in Los Angeles. Though offbeat in nature, I highly recommend this film if you have a taste for well-acted dark humor or if you are a Chaney completist and you’re tired of seeing how pathetic he could look in his later films. This one is an absolute gem.


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