…or, The Maddest Story Ever Told.
Welcome once again to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, a series in which two blogger friends (Me and Mike’s Take on the Movies) pick films for the other to watch & review once a month.
So it’s a Halloween theme this month as we picked for each other some offbeat scares; I got Spider Baby, or, The Maddest Story Ever Told, a 1967 movie starring Lon Chaney, Jr., and written and directed by Jack Hill (Dementia 13, Foxy Brown). Now if ever I could call a movie “not for everybody” this would be it. But I don’t mind this type of thing. If you happen to check my FILM DIARY (where I keep notes on everything I see), I just had my near annual rewatching of Scream, one of my all time favourite films, because it has the perfect balance of hilarious and terrifying. I was always a big X-Files fan, which is relevant to mention because this movie reminded me of the show’s famously creepy inbreeding episode “Home.” So I’m a fan of horror that uses black comedy and is self-referential (when it works), and that’s certainly what Spider Baby is all about. It starts out in a comical way, with cartoony credits and Quinn Redeker casually telling, as if he’s at children’s storytime, the tale of the freakish, genetically cursed clan the Merryes, who are afflicted with a regressive disease that makes them devolve beyond anything human. Then we flash back to the day when Mantan Moreland, playing a messenger, is having a tough time finding the Merrye mansion (he should have stopped looking when the locals fled at the mere mention of the place). When he finally finds it he’s trapped while peeking in a window and then things turn horrifying when a young girl (Jill Banner) murders him. She’s playing “spider” which means throwing a net over the poor guy and gleefully chopping up his face (you see none of it, but the jerking of his legs is plenty for your imagination).
We then learn the situation at this decrepit house is that the chauffeur Lon Chaney, Jr., has for a long time been the sole custodian of the three Merrye kids, Jill Banner, Beverly Washburn and Sid Haig, and that the letter the messenger was meant to deliver is notification of the family members Carol Ohmart (The House on Haunted Hill) and Quinn Redeker’s planned visit with a lawyer to take control of the property and institutionalize the children. You may surmise right away that such an intrusion and change won’t be accepted by Chaney or the kids and that the visitors are walking into what will be the worst day of their lives. The weirdness of this movie is built upon the dissonance between the horror story setup, the black comedy and the sweet lovable nature of Chaney, who only wants to stay true to his late master’s wishes (whose body is still in the house) and keep the kids home and happy. You really feel for Chaney as he seems so exhausted but tries so hard to keep a lid on all the horrific activities and tendencies of the family, which of course is a losing battle and spoiler: doesn’t end well.
Before you get to that inevitable disaster, there are laugh out loud moments like the girls calmly plotting people’s murders like they were picking which colour dress to wear, and debating whether their behaviour will make Chaney “hate” them or not. There’s Chaney’s mispronunciation of the skeevy little lawyer’s name, Shocker instead of Schlocker (overplayed by cigar chomping Karl Schanzer, who looks like he just walked out of a Hitler audition for a Mel Brooks movie). But nothing comes close to the “dinner” the Merryes have to prepare for their dense but insistent guests, which, contrary to the usual vegetarian fare, includes a “rabbit” (the scene where they caught dinner was the only bit that almost turned me off, I have to admit) along with the possibly poisonous mushrooms and bowl of grass and weeds. Ohmart pulls a candy bar and bag of chips out of her purse while Redeker and the lawyer’s assistant Mary Mitchel hit it off over their mutual love of horror movies. Great “meta” moment when she expresses her love for The Wolf Man and everything freezes for a beat while the two of them exchange a look with Chaney. It’s still amusing when Schanzer goes snooping and finds the secret basement and Uncle Ned living in a pit down there and protests that the plot’s gone “beyond the bounds of prudence and good taste!” And then it’s scary again when things fall apart and the kids can no longer keep their murderous nature contained. There’s another way-ahead-of-its-time moment when Haig crawls upside down, down the outside of the house to peep at Ohmart, who sure picked a strange time to try on the lingerie she finds in the closet (whose is that anyway, in a house with only men and kids?).
I found Redeker really key to the tone of this movie, because while Ohmart has to play the perpetually offended, inheritance-obsessed relative, Redeker plays his role like he’s in a comedy, all smirking, jolly and light and not taking anything seriously until he’s strapped into a chair and beset by tarantulas. I remember Quinn Redeker from The Young and the Restless, playing Jeanne Cooper’s boyfriend, he was also in Ordinary People and The Candidate, but did you know he also wrote the story for The Deer Hunter? The actors playing the kids are unforgettable and went on to do lots of work in film and TV (Jill Banner, who was often seen on Dragnet and Adam-12, was killed at 35, the victim of a drunk driver).
Spider Baby is strange, amusing, eerie, memorable and, say it with me, not for everybody. But I’m not everybody and I kind of enjoyed it.