Monday, 18 May 2009

Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told
(Jack Hill, 1964)

I realise I’m not exactly reinventing the wheel by writing a review of ‘Spider Baby’. Most self-respecting horror/weirdness fans will have seen it, and those who haven’t will surely be familiar with it via it’s killer rep as a – sigh – “cult classic”.

But, for all that, it is still a film which has never been commercially released in the UK and Europe, a film which is still more frequently referred to in passing than it is actually screened or directly discussed. Thus: I feel the need to write about it.

Perhaps one of the reasons for it's ‘limited’ public exposure, even whilst the movie is established canonical viewing for horror fans, is that ‘Spider Baby’ is lumbered with a plot line that is difficult to summarise without making it sound like a thoroughly ghastly enterprise.

Opening with a shot of the ‘Encyclopaedia of Rare Genetic Diseases’ sitting atop the coffee table, the camera pans up to a rather smug, well-adjusted looking fellow, who proceeds to deliver a monologue regarding the curse of the Merrye family, whose bloodline is subject to a unique hereditary disorder that causes it’s victims’ minds and bodies to effectively deteriorate from puberty onwards, subjecting them dementia and psychopathic behaviour from a young age and eventually reducing them to “a pre-human state of savagery and cannibalism” as they advance into adulthood.

As you might well expect, such an affliction has not exactly made for a happy or healthy family tree, but the remnants of an aristocratic fortune have enabled the family to cling onto SOME sort of existence over the years, and ‘Spider Baby’ proceeds to introduce us to the last survivors of the Merrye lineage, teenage sisters Virginia and Elizabeth and their older brother Ralph, who live alone in ascetic poverty, confined to a crumbling, isolated Californian mansion and cared for by the family’s dedicated chauffer Bruno (Lon Chaney), a man whose vow to protect and raise his late master’s offspring has rendered him scarcely any less maladjusted than his charges.

Realised with rare skill and imagination by writer/director Jack Hill, the whole set up becomes an instant masterpiece of American Gothic, as the bored, disobedient children struggle to scratch a life for themselves out of the detritus left by their doomed ancestors. Raven haired psychopath-in-training Virginia obsessively identifies herself with spiders and bugs, separating edible and poisonous toadstools in the garden and playing her favourite game ‘spider’, filling a room with rotting drapes and crouching near an open window, kitchen knives at the ready. Marginally saner sister Elizabeth meanwhile acts out a slightly satanic parody of a bored schoolgirl, fruitlessly trying to provoke her siblings into hating each other, whilst Ralph is a more overtly monstrous presence; a simple-minded, weirdly lovable beast-man, clambering across the rooftops and hunting cats, Ralph is realised in perfect drooling, gurning form by professional really-weird-lookin’-dude Sid Haig. And, in good, gruesome Lovecraft-via-EC-comics backwoods gothic tradition, the family is completed by the unseen “Uncle Ned” and “Aunt Clara”, who dwell in darkness in the basement, their presence noted largely through ominous growls and scrapes.

A potentially grim scenario for a movie, I’m sure you’ll agree, but the choice of actors charged with bringing this deviant family unit to life easily manages to transcend the potentially tasteless subject matter, each of them offering a performance that is little short of extraordinary. Lon Chaney, who at the time had long been cruelly relegated to the sidelines of even b-movie production thanks to the changing times and his legendarily debilitating alcoholism, manages to put in a real career-best performance here, acting with a dignified solemnity that it’s tragic to think he had hidden within him through the proceeding decades of pisstakes and bit-parts. Apparently Chaney was drawn to the script of ‘Spider Baby’ for personal reasons, seeing the role as reflecting his own experiences caring for troubled teenagers. And indeed, it is from this sort of genuine feeling, rather than from horror movie grotesquery, than Chaney builds Bruno’s character, drawing on a reserve of pathos that, combined with the sort of slow, mannered theatrical performance style that was dying out in cinema by the ‘60s, is almost heartbreaking as he patiently tries to discipline the children, explaining to them yet again that “it’s not good to hate” as they listen doe-eyed, knowing that he hasn’t got the strength to protect them from the outside world for much longer, as they grow older and crazier and the family’s position grows ever more untenable.

Actually, I’ve always had a soft spot for Lon. Somehow, he always managed to come across as a hell of a nice guy and a really gifted actor, even when he was portraying villainous cartoon freaks, and, even moreso than his contemporaries Lugosi and Karloff, I feel his eternal typecasting as “the monster guy” was deeply unfair. It was a brilliant stroke of luck therefore that he found a film as good as ‘Spider Baby’ in which to prove his talents to the world at the tail-end of his career, and boy, does he ever make the best of the opportunity. It’s a shame barely anybody got to see the damn thing within his lifetime.

And if ‘Spider Baby’ brought out the best in Chaney, the casting of 17 year old unknown Jill Banner as Virginia was a stroke of genius. She is, to resort to some much-overused filmic clichés, unforgettable, burning up the screen with an extraordinary combination of genuine dementia, childlike malevolence and warped charisma – one of those performances that seems less like a good acting gig, more like a record of a truly incredible and fascinating person, captured on film and doing her fucking nut, so to speak.

In a certain sense, ‘Spider Baby’ can be seen as a final knife in the belly of the classic Hollywood Noir tradition, and as such, Jill/Virginia manages to perfectly embody the vengeful, shrieking lunatic girl who was always lurking behind the soft focus eyes of our favourite femme fatales, fully unleashed at last thanks to the more brutish aesthetics of ‘60s exploitation flick, with her filthy antique dress, wild eyes, pet tarantula and butcher’s knife in each hand, as the vague spider/liar metaphors of ‘Double Indemnity’ and ‘Angel Face’ are blown up into an actual, literal fucking homemade web, with a spider at the centre expressing a perverse teenage fury that wouldn’t be seen again in popular culture until Lydia Lunch was fronting Teenage Jesus in the late ‘70s. It’s scarcely surprising that the early advertising for ‘Spider Baby’ (what little of it there was under that name) concentrated largely on Banner, billing her as “The Spider Baby” and promising “seductive innocence of Lolita, the savage hunger of a black widow!”

She’d steal the show no question, were Chaney, Haig and Beverly Washburn as Elizabeth not all equalling compelling. If such performances were the only thing ‘Spider Baby’ had going for it, it would still be a pretty unique motion picture, but thankfully the same qualities are reflected in every other aspect of the film’s production too.

There is a telling moment in one of the short documentaries accompanying the DVD in which Jack Hill confesses that, at the time of ‘Spider Baby’ at least, he tended to feel jealous of his friends in the movie business who got to work on more ‘serious’ studio films. Such concerns apparently didn’t stop Hill from subsequently embarking on a long career working with Roger Corman, bringing all manner of sleazy, action-packed craziness to the screen over the following decades. But, bearing the above quote in mind whilst viewing ‘Spider Baby’, it is interesting to note the extent to which Hill relies not on the style and conventions of contemporary horror movies (although ‘Psycho’ certainly exerts an influence), but upon the classic Hollywood stand-bys of solid storytelling, broadly painted emotion and carefully composed, articulate mise en scene. Despite it’s grotesque subject matter and sometimes graphic violence, this helps to give ‘Spider Baby’ a wonderfully old fashioned atmosphere that’s perfectly in keeping with it’s gothic lineage, a proud throwback to an eerier era, much as H.P. Lovecraft’s batty faux-Victorian prose must have been in the 1930s.

Some of the credit for this must be given to Alfred Taylor’s beautiful black & white photography, which, at a time when many horror flicks were moving into the realms of garish technicolor gore, pays tribute to the dense interplay of sunlight and shadow of the best of ‘40s Hollywood, lighting the exterior shots of the Merrye house in such a way that you almost expect Philip Marlowe to stride up the front steps.

(The fact that the guy who DOES stride up the steps, and with whom the audience is encouraged to identify for the film’s opening sequence, is actually disgraced black comic actor Manton Moreland, says a lot for ‘Spider Baby’s status as an impossibly strange one-off – a film that was never going to find a comfortable home in the time/place of it's creation.)

Hill’s direction too is often suitably stately, managing to imbue the Merrye family with an internal logic and a deep sense of recognition and sympathy worthy of a Frank Capra film, albeit one turned on it’s head, as the mantle of lofty, everyman humanity assumed by Jimmy Stewart in Capra’s most memorable films is taken on here by a gang of murderous, damaged outsiders, whose happy isolation is threatened by the venal, cowardly “normals” who intrude upon them. All this nearly thirty years before Tim Burton (you knew he was gonna get a mention somewhere) explored the same themes in a slightly less extreme form in ‘Edward Scissorhands’.

Not everything in ‘Spider Baby’ is flat-out wonderful of course: there are a few moments when the low budget and quick shooting time clearly show through, and other scenes that are just plain goofy, attempting to rope in some bankable exploito fare and just sorta… failing weirdly, as the film’s more genuine feeling of humour and humanism win through. There’s also the fact that when the aforementioned “normals” arrive, although each of the actors does a prerfectly sterling job, they nonetheless somewhat undermine the film’s odd sense of realism by basically acting like they’re hamming it up in a William Castle monster movie… although in a sense, this very lack of depth helps to set them apart from the warmth and empathy generated by the “weirdos”, in way that serves the film’s themes very well.

Overall though, ‘Spider Baby’ is an unlikely masterpiece, a creative triumph for all concerned. Given the love, thought and commitment that was clearly put into the film by cast and crew alike, it remains nigh-on unbelievable that it was written and shot as a drive-in circuit filler under the working title “Cannibal Orgy”. A perfect example of how great, moving, life-changing art can happen when the right elements just happen to come together and throw up sparks, someplace where no one would ever think to look.

There are so many more things to say about ‘Spider Baby’ – I haven’t even yet mentioned Ronald Stein’s amazing, unconventional score, the cartoon credit sequence or Lon Chaney’s utterly bizarro speak-singing ‘theme song’ ; I haven’t got around to discussing how gleefully effective the twist-in-the-tail ending is, despite being so predictable it’s nigh on inevitable. I haven’t discussed how the various sub-plots involving the ‘normal’ visitors are kinda fun in their own right, or found time to riff about the extent to which the life histories of some of this movies cast and crew read like choice examples of California Gothic in their own right (check out Jill Banner’s biog some time), or related the history of how the lay completely unseen for decades, building a legendary word-of-mouth reputation as a lost classic until Hill was eventually forced to effectively steal the negatives of his own film so that he could get a remastered print made to counteract the emergence of terminally degraded VHS bootlegs.

But, I’ve said enough. The fact is, whether you reckon the film is an over-exposed, obvious cult reference point or you’ve never heard of it before in your life, we should give thanks for the fact that anyone with a multi-region DVD player or a boradband connection can now watch ‘Spider Baby’ in full, so I’ll just conclude by recommending you go and do just that - you know where to find it, I'm sure.


Jack Hill said...

Your kind and very insightful comments on my film are greatly appreciated. Thanks.

JRSM said...

Wow: this is a film I must see! Any chance the other one is '(We are) the Damned?' I got hold of that recently, and am very much looking forward to it.

Ben said...

Jack: Thanks for taking the time to comment, and thanks, of course, for making such a wonderful film! Hope I haven't said anything too inaccurate about it, and hope life is good with you!

JRSM: Yes, the other film is indeed "These Are The Damned"; excellent guesswork! A really extraordinary little film that I'd never even heard of until I saw a copy in the rare/bootleg DVD shop in Camden market and thought "boy, that's got to be worth watching", and indeed it is.