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Jack Hill has remained steadfastly closed-mouthed about any possible inspirations for Spider Baby (shot in 1964, released in 1968), telling interviewers in the decade since its rediscovery that the spark just came to him. Still, it's intriguing to speculate as to what works of art might have suggested, even if subconsciously, the particulars of "the maddest story ever told." Certainly the central casting of Lon Chaney, Jr. suggests at least a childhood familiarity on Hill's part with the Universal Studios monster classics, while the film's Gothic blandishments hearken back to James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932). William Castle went back to J. B. Priestley's source novel for his remake of The Old Dark House (1963), released a year before Spider Baby went into production. The isolated Merrye Mansion and the misdeeds of its inhabitants also echo the morbid humor of cartoonist Charles Addams and Shirley Jackson's like-minded 1962 novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, in which a weird family's legacy is pursued by an avaricious cousin. As a protégé of Roger Corman, Hill also would likely have seen Corman's House of Usher (1960), with its Freudian spin on one family's troubled bloodline, and The Haunted Palace (1963), with its misty town square full of malformed evolutionary throwbacks.
The moldering Merrye household shares some similarities with the dilapidated Hudson Mansion, setting of Robert Aldrich's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). The Merrye Kids and the Hudson Sisters both evince a singular dying-on-the-vine atavism aggravated by the unkindness of strangers. (Distributor David Hewitt sold Hill's film with the advertising tag "Whatever happened to...Spider Baby?") Some of Spider Baby's action seems lifted directly from Dracula, with credit due more to Bram Stoker than to Tod Browning. Mantan Moreland's journey to Merrye House comes complete with frightened locals yanking their children indoors at the mere mention of the Merrye name, while Jill Banner subsists on the Renfield Diet of bugs and sundry "little lives." Later in the film, Sid Haig's retardate Ralph spies on acquisitive cousin Carol Ohmart by crawling upside down along the façade of the crumbling mansion, as had the Undying Count in Stoker's original novel-a stunt that no movie version of the book attempted until Scars of Dracula in 1970.
In pinning its narrative to a weird family's desperation to keep its own shadow from touching the outside world, Spider Baby anticipated a score of disparate works, including Jack Clayton's masterfully eerie Our Mother's House (1967), Mario Bava's Lisa and the Devil (1973), Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977) - hell, even the Maysles Brothers documentary Grey Gardens (1975). Due to the common denominator of actor Sid Haig, some online critics have identified Spider Baby as a progenitor of Rob Zombie's House of 1,000 Corpses (2003) and its sequel, The Devil's Rejects (2005). Yet despite the glut of in-your-face outrages committed by the Firefly Family (including the humiliation and murder of the members of a country-and-western family band), Zombie's films come off like so much pandering to the black tee-shirt and serial killer trading card set; Hill had mined the veins of incest, necrophilia and gleeful mass murder forty years earlier and in a much more repressive and censorious milieu, making Spider Baby the more daring and dangerous work despite its lack of graphic violence. Imagine how Haig's below frame canoodling with onscreen cousin Ohmart late in the film must have curled toes back in 1964, and dig how Ohmart's grim fate at the hands (and teeth) of the far-gone, cellar-dwelling Merryes predicts the consumption of Night of the Living Dead's (1968) Judith O'Dea in the clacking jaws of the zombie hoard.
Regardless of what may have inspired it or what subsequent films it may have influenced, Spider Baby remains very much its own animal. Set as it is off to one side of the real world, there's a timelessness to the film, whose freshness remained sealed in during its decades languishing in obscurity. Hill's script is a canny send-up of its time, the Spic-n-Span post-Camelot years in which modernity and science were employed as a bulwark against superstition, neurosis, complexity and ring around the collar. The Merrye children suffer an obsession with correct behavior, a code of ethics to which they hew with steadily diminishing degrees of success. In his role as the family caretaker, Lon Chaney is part Igor, part Synanon councilor, sternly rebuking his charges about their lapses while keeping them hopeful with the wisdom that "nothing is very bad." Spider Baby's sole seat of normalcy is Quinn Redeker's affable, buttoned-down hero, a doughy JFK surrogate who struggles to keep his Bryl-creamed head while all about him are losing theirs. Outwardly shrugging off the idiosyncrasies of his nonconformist relations with a nervous chuckle, this stuffed Arrow shirt proves to be the most dangerous of them all...immune to the familial madness, he is nonetheless a carrier, whose survival of the film's explosive denouement ensures that the Merrye madness will be carried forward into the next millennium through his own offspring.
Blackly comic, mercilessly savage and light years ahead of its time, Spider Baby definitely has legs.
Producer: Gil Lasky, Paul Monka
Director: Jack Hill
Screenplay: Jack Hill
Cinematography: Alfred Taylor
Film Editing: Jack Hill
Production Manager: Bart Patton
Production Design: Ray Storey
Music: Ronald Stein
Make-up: Elliott Fayad
Cast: Lon Chaney, Jr. (Bruno), Carol Ohmart (Emily Howe), Quinn K. Redeker (Peter Howe), Beverly Washburn (Elizabeth), Jill Banner (Virginia), Sid Haig (Ralph), Mary Mitchel (Ann), Karl Schanzer (Schlocker), Mantan Moreland (Messenger).
by Richard Harland Smith