Originally titled CANNIBAL ORGY or THE MADDEST STORY EVER TOLD, SPIDER BABY was filmed over the course of 12 days in 1964. When the film's producers, Paul Monka and Gil Lasky, found themselves in financial trouble and forced into bankruptcy, the project was shelved until several years later, in 1968, when it briefly hit the drive-in circuit under the title SPIDER BABY and later, THE LIVER EATERS. Bootleg VHS tapes where available shortly after the initial home video boom hit, but they were of sketchy quality and it would be years before a serviceable release would become easily assessable. In 1999, Image Entertainment released SPIDER BABY on DVD with several welcomed extra features, including eight minutes of lost footage that had been cut from the picture's second reel. While fans rejoiced at the opportunity to finally get their hands on an official release, the picture quality suffered from frequent spots of grain, occasional jumps and had some contrast issues. In 2007 Dark Sky Films, under the personal supervision of writer-director Jack Hill, released a more definitive DVD, and now Arrow Films revisits the title for this ultimate Blu-ray/DVD combo.
In one of his last released features, Lon Chaney Jr. (THE HAUNTED PALACE) plays gentle and kind-hearted chauffeur Bruno, caretaker of the three Merrye children and the Merrye family estate. Virginia (Jill Banner, THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn, PIT STOP) and Ralph Merrye (Sid Haig, SAVAGE SISTERS) all suffer from a very rare, deteriorating condition called Merrye Syndrome, named so because the only known carriers are members of the Merrye Family. This peculiar disease presents itself as a regression of one's mental and physical faculties, with symptoms progressing rapidly as the carrier ages, eventually turning them into a cannibalistic "pre-human." Bruno has taken great care to follow his masters’ wishes and guards the children from an outside world that does not easily understand or accept their special needs. However, their solitary existence is thrown into jeopardy as a letter, delivered by Mantan Moreland (KING OF THE ZOMBIES), foretells of the impending arrival of several distant and unwanted relatives. Accompanied by their legal representation, Mr. Schlocker (Karl Schanzer, BLOOD BATH) and his assistant Ann (Mary Mitchel, PANIC IN YEAR ZERO!), Uncle Peter (Quinn Redeker, THE THREE STOOGES MEET HERCULES) and Aunt Emily (Carol Ohmart, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL) arrive at the Merrye family home with every intention of taking over full custody of the Merrye children, and any inheritance that may come with them. Despite his best efforts, Bruno succumbs to his house guests' request to stay the night, much to the delight of Virginia, whose game of “Spider” is in need of new participants willing to play the part of “bug.”
Jack Hill is one of many talented filmmakers that got their start under the watchful eye of Roger Corman. From his first assignments, filming additional scenes to fill out the running time of foreign product purchased for U.S. release, he would later direct some of cult cinema's most notorious films, such as COFFY, FOXY BROWN, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, THE BIG BIRD CAGE and SWITCHBLADE SISTERS. His first feature film is just as infamous and is one of the few horror comedies that gets it right. SPIDER BABY is a perfect blend of giggle inducing sight gags and dialogue, backed against scenes that are genuinely eerie. The film's odd nature and mood are greatly enhanced by a score from frequent Corman composer, Ronald Stein, whose collaboration with Chaney provide the film's opening song. Stein was one of several of the film's participants who were drawn to the project's unique story, which was unlike anything they had ever seen before. Chaney was in fact so enamored by the script that he lowered his fee to be a part of the production, once he got word that the part was going to be offered to John Carradine (and he was paid a flat $2,500 for his participation).
And thank goodness he did, as Chaney (who also “sings” the theme song) gives a memorable and endearing performance as Bruno, a loyal employee who has been left to take care of the Merrye family's weirdo offspring. Chaney comes across as genuine and likable, and gets one of the best laughs in a scene where he channels his past theatrical success, THE WOLF MAN. Banner and Washburn are both devilishly effective as the Merrye sisters, with Jill’s performance as Virginia being principally creepy. Haig’s portrayal as the grotesque Ralph, the oldest sibling, is a feat to admire as he is one of the most memorable characters, despite his dialogue consisting of little more than a moaning “ie ie ie.” Redeker’s Uncle Peter could best be described as a “square”, but despite his being far from hip, he rolls with the punches, never condescending to his unusual relatives and in doing so, is one of the few characters who make it through to see the end credits. Filled with memorable scenes and an eccentric cast of characters, no one had experienced a film like SPIDER BABY upon its initial release, and few modern films have come close to capturing the pitch-perfect blend of both horror and comedy elements since.
Arrow Films (who released this identical package in the U.K. in 2013) presents the 84-minute “Director’s Cut” (with portions of the previously mentioned eight minutes of cut footage intact) on domestic Blu-ray in a 1080p High Definition transfer in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. This seems to be taken from the same source master as the 2007 Dark Sky Films DVD, but the results here are far more spectacular. This is an exemplary presentation of a cheaply made black and white movie, with clarity being strong, and there's a pleasing level of sharp detail. Filmic grain is present but never obtrusive, retaining the moody cinematic look of the original cinematography. White levels are stable, black levels are deep and the grayscale is well-balanced throughout. The transfer is very clean, only showing a few light lines in some of the restored scenes. The audio is presented in 2.0 mono (uncompressed PCM) and sounds fine with no standout flaws. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included.
Originally recorded for the 2007 Dark Sky Films DVD is an audio commentary track featuring Jack Hill and Sid Haig reminiscing about the shoot and the fellow actors and crew. It’s great to hear two old friends reminiscing about making this film, and it’s quite enjoyable (as are all of Mr. Hill's commentaries) and he provides a number of interesting behind-the-scenes revelations. For instance, the ear that Virginia slices off of Mantan Moreland at the very beginning of the film was in fact a prosthetic, which belonged to a crew member, painted to match Mantan's skin tone. Also picked up from the Dark Sky Films DVD are three featurettes. "The Hatching of Spider Baby" (31:43) is a great documentary by Elijah Drenner that covers the film from its inception to its present day cult status, and it includes interviews with Joe Dante, Hill, Haig, the late Schanzer, Redeker, Mitchel, Washburn, director of photography Alfred Taylor, and Chris D. (former programmer at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles) who describes the film as “California Gothic”. There’s some great stories shared here, including a lot about what working with the legendary Chaney was like. "Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein" (10:58) is a fitting tribute to the life and career late composer (he also got a flat $2,500 for his work on the film) who contributed to the vast majority of Roger Corman’s productions throughout the late 1950s and well into the 1960s, and it includes interviews with Stein historian Ted Newsom, Stein’s widow Harlene, Hill, Chris D. and Joe Dante. "The Merrye House Revisited" (7:38) follows filmmaker Drenner as he takes Hill out for a car ride to the film’s original shooting location, back to the house (which was built in 1899) that was used as the Merrye family mansion.
Exclusive to this release is a panel discussion (33:08) which was recorded at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2012 after a screening of SPIDER BABY (which was followed by CARNIVAL OF SOULS), featuring Hill, Redeker and Washburn. The professionally-shot Q and A session has the participants answering questions and reminiscing about making the independent film on a very short shooting schedule. They all share some great anecdotes about Chaney, who Redeker stands up and imitates on occasion, and he’s also asked about working with The Three Stooges. “The Host” (29:49) is Hill’s short 1960 film which he made while still a student at UCLA. Shot in black and white in the full frame Academy ratio, it’s a dark period western about a fugitive (Sid Haig, in his cinematic debut and a full head of hair) who arrives on horseback to a ruin inhabited by a mysterious, beautiful Indian woman (Sharon Bercutt). It’s sort of “Twilight Zone”-esque in style, and there’s a pretty violent murder when Haig is defending himself from a trigger-happy Spaniard (Joseph Hanwright). The short film’s obvious synth score must have been added at a much later date. Other extras include the alternate “Cannibal Orgy” title sequence (1:50) and an extended scene with Chaney (4:04) concerning the Merrye children's initial introduction to their distant kin, an original American General Pictures trailer (“Starring ‘Spider Baby’ and Lon Chaney”) and a still gallery with some great behind-the-scenes shots. The cover sleeve is reversible, and the packaging includes a booklet featuring an essay on the film Stephen R. Bissette, as well as interviews with the cast and crew. (Jason McElreath and George R. Reis)
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