Spider Baby directed by Jack Hill
When I was a wee lad, many decades ago, there were two female images that would inevitably give me the jitters as I lay down to sleep at night. The first was that of Vampira’s ghoulish character, advancing toward the camera with arms extended, in a nighttime graveyard, in the film that I much later realized was none other than Ed Wood’s notorious Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). (This image was apparently frightening to other viewers besides myself; it was later used in the opening credits of the great television program Chiller Theatre back in the mid-‘60s!) And the other image that used to give the young me the willies was that of Carol Ohmart’s recently deceased Annabelle Loren character, noose around her neck and floating at the window, in William Castle’s baby-boomer favorite House on Haunted Hill (1959 again). Even today, decades later, those two images can manage to give me the creeps. But whereas Vampira’s fascination has pretty much faded for me, that of Carol Ohmart abides.
Both beautiful and talented, Ohmart’s career seemed to be on the rise in the late ‘50s; a career that sadly petered out around a decade later. If I may quote myself from my review of her film The Scavengers (1959 still again), a sleazy B noir in which she easily steals the show, “Ohmart films have not exactly been easy to see. And that’s a real shame. Ohmart was a real beauty — Miss Utah in the 1946 Miss America pageant and, Paramount hoped, the new Marilyn Monroe — with a unique presence and style.” And indeed, other than House on Haunted Hill and The Scavengers, Ohmart films are practically impossible to track down today. Happily, however, she did appear in any number of 1960s television programs (I almost fell off my couch recently when she popped up in an old Route 66 episode that I was watching, the one entitled “Sheba”), and also appeared in one film that has become something of a cult item today. And that film is indeed Spider Baby. Shot in the late summer of 1964 in just 12 days and at a cost of a mere $65,000, but not released until more than three years later due to legal complications following a bankruptcy proceeding of the film’s producers, the film was released under a plethora of titles, including The Liver Eaters, Cannibal Orgy and The Maddest Story Ever Told. It quickly sank into oblivion, but today is highly esteemed by both fans and critics … and for very good reason.
Spider Baby gives us the story of the Merrye family, the only family known to science to suffer from a malady inevitably known as Merrye Syndrome. In this small clan, children over the age of 10 begin to regress mentally and physically, ultimately reaching a savage, “prenatal stage” (!) in which they become bestial and cannibalistic, a result of many decades of inbreeding. The Merryes just might be the most dangerous and unsettling bunch of family misfits seen on screen up until that time … until, that is, audiences were introduced to Leatherface and his kin in Tobe Hooper’s unforgettable The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and, three years later, Jupiter’s desert-dwelling cannibal brood in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. In Spider Baby, however, the proceedings are nowhere near as intense as in those later films, and the Merryes remain a wholly likeable family, despite their, uh, unusual tendencies.
When we first encounter the latest generation of the Merryes, a mailman (the great Mantan Moreland, whose work I had so hugely enjoyed in 1941’s King of the Zombies) is delivering a package to their crumbling Victorian mansion, set in a secluded area near a highway’s side road. This messenger is quickly killed off by young Virginia Merrye (Jill Banner), who imagines herself to be a spider and enjoys killing her human bugs with a pair of butcher knives. Her older sister, Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), chides her for the deed, while their imbecilic, bald-headed, older brother, Ralph (the late great Sid Haig), merely capers about and travels up and down the household dumbwaiter. When the Merrye chauffeur and the children’s caretaker, Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr.), arrives home, he also scolds the children, and then becomes upset when he reads the contents of the mailman’s delivery. It seems that some distant cousins of the Merryes, Emily (our Carol) and brother Peter (Quinn Redeker), are about to arrive for a visit, accompanied by their lawyer, Schlocker (Karl Schanzer), and his pretty secretary Ann (Mary Mitchel), preparatory to claiming the house and all its possessions as their own, and putting the children in an institution. And what a visit it turns out to be!
The ability to blend horror and comedy into one seamless entertainment package is a tricky one, but here, director/screenwriter Jack Hill manages the task splendidly. Spider Baby can thus be confidently placed in that select pantheon of great horror comedies, a pantheon that includes such splendid entertainments as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and Bubba Ho-Tep (2002). In retrospect, the film strikes the modern-day viewer as a more gruesome and more violent version of TV’s The Addams Family, which would premiere just a few weeks after Spider Baby was shot. Both the Addams and the Merryes are comprised of oddball characters living in a creepy old Victorian manse, but of the two, the Merryes house is by far the more disconcerting. A moldering old pile that makes one feel that it is about to collapse due to termite infestation (even Bruno mentions that the wood in the building is rotten), in which spiders large and small appear whenever an object is disturbed, in which rats, other insects and owls abide, and in which stuffed birds that look like they were purchased from the Bates Motel are on display, it really is a home that makes one wonder why anyone would want to sue for its possession.
And spiders, rats and owls aren’t the only living things that are infesting it. In the cellar, and unseen until the film’s bravura finale, live Aunts Clara and Martha, as well as Uncle Ned … members of the Merryes who are so far gone that they have devolved into shambling mutant monstrosities! Spider Baby has its tongue firmly in cheek until it gets going in the second half, where the horrors tend to overwhelm the comedic aspects, but nonetheless, the film remains one that a parent can safely watch with any 10-year-old. The violence is pretty much all suggested, with none of the red stuff on display, although what is suggested surely is pretty darn gruesome.
Terrific scenes in this one-of-a-kind film include the dinner that the Merryes serve their cousins, including as it does a barely cooked cat that Ralph had recently killed, along with some lawn weeds, (possibly poisonous) mushrooms, and some black gunk that only Virginia is seen chowing down; the sight of Elizabeth and Virginia at the top of the cellar stairs, backlit from behind so that their faces are invisible (a terrific B&W visual, and beautifully shot by cinematographer Alfred Taylor), before they attack the snoopy Schlocker; Peter being trussed up in a chair by the playful Virginia, suddenly aware of his dilemma as the girl’s two pet tarantulas, Winifred and Barney, along with some of their fellow tarantulas, begin to emerge and advance on him; the mutated uncle and aunts’ emergence from that cellar; and, of course, the scene that all fans of Carol Ohmart should just eat up, in which Emily prepares for bed and is shown admiring herself in a mirror, dressed in a black brassiere, garters and negligee (an image so great that it appears on the film’s poster). Emily, I should in all honesty say here, is completely unlikeable in this film, but come to think of it, all of Ohmart’s characters have been unsympathetic, duplicitous and nasty in the three films that I have seen her in. But how good Ohmart is at depicting them! Truly, a wonderful and gorgeous actress who never quite got her due.
And then there is Lon Chaney, Jr. himself, who is absolutely terrific as the children’s caretaker Bruno. This is one of the more sympathetic characters that the great actor gave the world in his later career; a dedicated family servant who had given the children’s dying father, many years earlier, his solemn promise to take care of them, and who will move mountains to ensure that that promise is kept. Chaney is fully invested in the role here, even going so far as to sing the film’s theme song over the opening credits! And how wonderful he is, after Ann mentions “The Wolfman” movie, when he replies “There’s going to be a full moon tonight”! Director Hill manages to elicit a splendid performance from the Golden Age legend, and his helming of the entire production is to be commended. Hill, who would go on to direct Pam Grier in such films as The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, Coffy and Foxy Brown, as well as the cult item Switchblade Sisters, injects genuine suspense into this, one of his earliest efforts, and manages that tricky balancing act between comedy and horror with great skill.
Spider Baby is a film that I have seen around a half dozen times now. I used to own a beautifully packaged VHS copy of the film (that I lent to a friend and, quite understandably, never got back), have seen it on the big screen, and, most recently, have enjoyed via a pristine-looking print shown on TCM. The film always manages to stun the viewer, and is a surefire crowd-pleaser for all audiences, I feel. For this viewer, of course, it is made extra special by the inclusion of the great Carol Ohmart, here in one of her two great horror performances. My one beef with this film: It is such a shame that Carol is not given the opportunity to scream here; House on Haunted Hill had demonstrated what a world-class, effective screamer she could be! What a pair of lungs! Actually, there is a third horror film of Carol’s out there, one that is almost impossible to see today. That film is 1974’s The Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe, and I surely do wish that some enterprising company would put it on DVD one day. Till then, however, we have Annabelle Loren and Emily Merrye (if that is indeed her last name) to keep us happy. And what a fine pair they are!