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From the Vaults: 'Spider Baby' (1968)

September 27, 2010 |  2:43 am

Spiderposter Happy autumnal equinox, my scrappy yet plucky band of readers! The unmistakable slant of fall light is upon us now, even in the 90-degree afternoons, and with it comes my very favorite season for movie watching. Which means I have decided to quit adhering to the four specific years -- 1920, 1940, 1960 and 1980 -- that Larry focuses on elsewhere in this blog, and focus on movies that I'm really excited about. What can I say? It was a full moon last night and I'm running amok.

In last week's post I mentioned writer-director Jack Hill's "Spider Baby," a bizarre yet wonderful cult classic that I discovered earlier this year and of which I am inordinately fond. The film was actually shot in 1964 under the title "Cannibal Orgy," but sat around for a while; one imagines people were sitting around wondering what to do with it. Which would be understandable: The black comedy kicks off with a fabulous, "Monster Mash"-style song performed by Lon Chaney Jr. over stylishly animated opening credits, and it just gets zanier from there.

Chaney plays Bruno, chauffeur and beloved caretaker of the three orphaned Merrye children. Ralph, Virginia and Elizabeth suffer from Merrye syndrome, a degenerative ailment that causes them to sort of regress back down the evolutionary ladder until, by adulthood, they are cannibalistic savages. Several relatives in the basement are in this advanced stage; brother Ralph (Sid Haig!) is well on his way but can still bound about the house like a big old homicidal golden retriever; and the sisters (Beverly Washburn and the hypnotic Jill Banner) act like particularly vicious little kids.

Life is pretty comfortable in the old Merrye house, with Bruno protecting them from the outside world, settling squabbles between the sisters, and feeding the relatives downstairs with a handy dumbwaiter and the occasional unfortunate deliveryman. But one day some faraway cousins arrive with a lawyer, bent on inheriting their rightful share of the estate. The Merryes and Bruno aren't in a position to put up much of a fight, but they have nowhere else to go but the house. This can't end well.

SpiderbrunoIt's hard to explain why I love this so much. Part of it is Chaney's utterly adorable performance as Bruno, endlessly patient with the children, polite with strangers, able to make even the most outlandish dialogue seem reasonable. "Now you can't play spider anymore!" he orders Virginia after she murders a delivery man. "We allow Ralph to eat whatever he catches," he explains to some baffled dinner guests. He's the grounding force amid all the madness, for the viewer as well as for the Merryes.

But the other performances are fab too. Jill Banner is unforgettable as Virginia, whether she's feeding her pet tarantulas, mesmerizing a victim with her spider dance, or bickering with Elizabeth ("Spiders don't eat other spiders." "Cannibal spiders do!"). Carol Ohmart is fabulous as evil Cousin Emily -- you may remember her as evil Mrs. Vincent Price in "The House on Haunted Hill." And Quinn Redeker is hilariously game as her brother Peter, and his goofy line "So are you really a Wolf Man fan, Ann?" gets better with every viewing. (I just love how he flubs it at first but then keeps going -- he is, after all, supposed to be drunk.)

Plus there's just the tone of the thing. How can you not love a movie set in a big old house full of spiders and pajama-wearing skeletons and subhuman relatives in the basement? In real life, you'd snatch up your kitty and run like the wind. But it's fall and it's the movies, so come on in!

Quick tip of the shiny black chauffeur hat to Spider Baby's official site; and to Merricat Blackwood's wonderful blog, where I first read about this movie (and have since read many spine-chilling anecdotes about ghost-hunting in L.A.).

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon