”Want to play Spider?”
There was something about Jill Banner, an undoubted charisma and sheer allure that really begged for her to become a film icon. She should have been a legend whose own look garnered praise for her own individual beauty while her acting prowess only complimented such traits, but sadly she was taken at an early age. And, as Hill explains in “The Hatching of Spider Baby”: one of the loves of Marlon Brando’s life.
“Spider Baby” is an immortal tribute to Banner and the possibilities she possessed, and she gladly lives on in this utterly entertaining horror classic. “The Maddest Story Ever Told,” or “Attack of the Liver Eaters,” or “Cannibal Orgy,” whatever you want to call it, it’s a near masterpiece in every sinister minute now as it was then.
2007 was a year where I managed to discover many cult classics for myself. It was a year that opened me up to films I never would have seen years ago and “Spider Baby” was one of the many gems I found thanks to Turner Classic Movies and haven’t stopped talking about since.
“Spider Baby” is one of the crowning jewels of Hill’s cult repertoire, a sheer demented bit of cannibal cinema; It’s a film that was way too ahead of its time to be appreciated, and now after years of being a rare gem, it’s available to own for those fans foaming at the mouth for their own copy for years.
And lo and behold, it’s been given an amazing treatment on DVD.
“Spider Baby” can best be described as “The Addams Family” except completely void of the familial tone, in exchange for a darker gory tone and heavy incestuous subtext, all teamed with a wonderfully catchy theme song that foretells the gruesomeness to come. This isn’t for the children, even if it’s very much in the vein of the series.
Thanks to decades of inbreeding, the once wealthy family of the Merryes, who lived up on a hill in a large mansion have all digressed into raving cannibalistic lunatics thanks to a disease called the Merrye syndrome. The last of their legacy are three children who have not been spared this disease and are also at risk of becoming utterly cannibalistic. The only reason they’re not murdering too many folks, is because of their tortured and dutiful chauffeur Bruno who watches over the estate and keeps them out of trouble.
There’s the disciplinarian Elizabeth who seeks only to please Bruno, played with demented decadence by Beverly Washburn, the large mentally incompetent son Ralph, played with excellent conviction by Sig Haig who is a curious oaf at times and then a vicious killer when influenced by his sisters, and perhaps the most dangerous, Virginia, a devious and merciless young girl with a fascination for spiders and eating whatever crosses her path. Banner’s performance and character makes “Spider Baby” probably the most notable aspect of the film as she stands out even among Chaney as a more sadistic Wednesday Addams, and has even grabbed the cover of the DVD.
Bruno is played by Lon Chaney Jr. who gives a wonderful performance as a man who, in spite of the dark comedy, is stricken with grief and utter stress at preventing the children from gaining a taste for human flesh and keeping them confined to the mansion. But that’s changed when distant relatives arrive to interrupt the abode, claim the house for themselves, and send the children off to be treated as their legal guardians. This doesn’t sit well with the children, who will do anything to ensure their stay at their rightful home with Bruno, even if it means murdering each and every person in the house.
“Spider Baby” is without a doubt Hill’s crown jewel. His penchant for being able to draw suspense and impending doom while also making us laugh is seamless, take for instance a scene where the relatives are boasting about their love for monster movies, including the Mummy, and especially the Wolfman which prompts a look of sheer horror from Bruno who declares in pure Talbot fashion: “There’s going to be a full moon tonight…”
After being out of print for so many years and priced on trading sites anywhere from 30 to 90 dollars, “Spider Baby” is finally back in print in a wonderful widescreen presentation featuring some great cut scenes you couldn’t see in the televised or past DVD versions. Featured in the extras is a very informative “Making Of” feature with interviews with the surviving cast members who fondly remember the filming, and “Revisiting the Merrye House” where Hill and director Elijah Drenner discover the Merrye House that still stands today.
I should thank Dark Sky Films for putting together such a wonderful DVD for the fans and not just transferring an old edition with a pretty packaging.
“Spider Baby” is a pure cult classic that nearly faded away thanks to financial troubles, rights struggles, and the advent of home video, and has now been fully realized on DVD thanks to Hill’s drive to ensure that that the hard work of the entire crew would someday be rewarded. And he got his wish.