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Spider Baby

Spider Baby(1968)

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The year was 1964, and the agent representing Lon Chaney Jr. wasn't used to getting calls for his services. By this late point in his storied career, the actor was no longer much in demand. However, the call that came in was not something Chaney felt inclined to leap at: a low-budget horror comedy with the unpromising title Cannibal Orgy to be written and directed by ex-Roger Corman acolyte Jack Hill, a man whose experience in filmmaking had not yet rated an actual onscreen credit. "Um... Cannibal Orgy you say?" inquired the wary agent. Hill explained that he had wanted to call the thing The Maddest Story Ever Told but the producers overruled him.

The offer was for a mere $25,000, an embarrassing comedown for a former Hollywood headliner. But Hill had no room to negotiate-he was already offering almost half his film's budget, and the rest of the cast would be paid wages no greater than what was being spent to rent a prop car. If Chaney wasn't interested, said Hill, he'd just go see if maybe John Carradine was available. And just like that, Chaney changed his mind and took the role after all.

It was an inauspicious beginning. What would follow from this rather shaky start would be a career high point for all involved. Perhaps most remarkable of all, Cannibal Orgy (eventually rechristened Spider Baby) would be an anomaly in the grindhouse world. The numberless films of its kind being cranked out in those days were designed to turn a quick buck, to fan out across the drive-ins of the land and wind up on the junkheap. Spider Baby would instead sit unscreened for years, only to find-decades later!-adoring fans and an enduring cult popularity.

Integral to its lasting appeal was Lon Chaney Jr., a performer then considered by the rest of the industry to be washed up. Compared to his fellow horror star alums, Chaney was always the most warm, the most real, the most human. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and the afore-mentioned Mr. Carradine-those guys were creepy, otherworldly. At his best, Chaney grounded even the craziest of roles in something genuine and recognizable. He could ennoble the crummiest of material. Problem was, poor Lon ended up having to ennoble a lot of crumbs. Then he went and squandered what goodwill he still had with drink. By the 1960s, no serious casting director would give him the time of day.

Regardless of how many vodka-soaked oranges he consumed during the late summer of 1964, Chaney imbued a potentially ludicrous role with sincerity and charm. The premise, later played straight in such grisly flicks as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, was simple: generations of in-breeding have produced a family of infantilized degenerates. Unable to distinguish right from wrong, these feral children commit murder as part of their make-believe game of "spider." They are only barely held in check by the family's caretaker (Chaney), who finds the situation spiraling out of his control when a distant branch of the family shows up to take over the estate.

What distinguishes the film from its predecessors is the sense that the true villains of the piece are the ordinary people who intrude into this isolated ruin looking for private gain. The only sympathetic figures among the "normals" are those played by Quinn Redeker and Mary Mitchel who show loving tolerance towards their weirdo cousins, and then admit their fandom for the classics of Universal Horror (especially those starring Lon Chaney Jr., natch). The film has nothing but sympathy and love for the children, despite their many brutal killings. For generations of misfit teens and social outcasts, this would be the hook guaranteeing Spider Baby's immortality.

Producers Paul Monka and Gil Lasky had financed Cannibal Orgy on real estate speculation. When the market collapsed, so did their phantom monies. Bankrupt, Monka and Lasky had no choice but to let their film wither on a shelf indefinitely. A few years passed until a buyer came along. David Hewit bought the rights in 1968, gave it a new title, and shuffled it out across theaters to appreciative crowds-but he failed to pursue the booming home video market in the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, rock-n-roller Johnny Legend decided he'd had enough of poor-quality bootlegs and put his own money into a Spider Baby revival and video release. The success of that 1994 edition set the stage for this more lavish DVD upgrade from Dark Sky Films. The anamorphic transfer of the longer "director's cut" is flawless, and accompanied by bountiful extras including an informative audio commentary, documentary, and bonus footage.

For more information about Spider Baby, visit Dark Sky Films.

by David Kalat