Retro Review: ‘Spider Baby’
Like so many actors, the fact that he was classified as a “horror actor” meant that the lay people never truly appreciated the talent of Lon Chaney Jr. Even now in hindsight he is not given the same respect as his scary movie colleagues like Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, or even his own father Lon Chaney Sr. who played a pivotal role in bringing horror cinema to the United States as a whole. In 1964 he gave what many consider one of the finest performances of his long career. Tragically, Chaney would never see the fruits of his labor as, Spider Baby or The Maddest Story Ever Told would not be released until three years later in only two towns in all of North America. Naturally it was ignored and it would be another several years until this cult classic would finally achieve the recognition it deserves.
After an introduction about the fictional “Merrye Syndrome” we are introduced to the Merrye family who are the last carriers of this condition. In an old worn home in the middle of nowhere, patriarch Bruno oversees: Ralph, Elizabeth, and the “Spider Baby” Virginia, the inbred and troubled descendants of Merrye. They are paid a visit by distant relatives and a solicitor looking to stake their claim on the family property. But this normies are ill-prepared, to say the least for the madness they are about to go through.
The brainchild of writer/director Jack Hill, one of the most prolific filmmakers of the grindhouse movement, Spider Baby is coated in the gritty atmosphere of the style. But underneath it, there is an undeniable vibe of punk rock coolness throughout the film. We even get a cool as hell rockabilly tune to play us in through then opening credits. While it is a sleazy exploitation flick, and will no doubt come off as ableist to modern audiences there is an unexpected charm to this movie. It is like watching a twisted episode of the Addams Family where Morticia tries to saw off the limbs of a guest. It balances perfectly that fine line of humor and horror masterfully showcasing both cinematic styles.
As mentioned previously this is widely regarded as Lon Chaney’s best performance since the Wolf-Man. As the one charged with overseeing the Merrye children he has a down-to-earth charm that immediately endears him to the audience. It is clear he genuinely cares about the “children” under his care even if one thinks they are a predatory, murderous arachnid. Speaking of the children each of them is fantastic as well. Cult film icon Sid Haig is clearly having a blast as Ralph, while Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner easily own every scene they are in. While they are legally women, the “Merrye Syndrome” that impacts them ensures they remain with a juvenile and deranged mental status. Banner’s performance as the “Spider Baby” Virginia was a key influence on Sheri Moon Zombie in House of 1,000 Corpses.
This is a movie that could have been another case of drive-in movie schlock, but Spider Baby somehow manages to achieve more. Filmmaker Jack Hill doing the best work of his career combined with an incredible performances from Lon Chaney Jr. has made this into a cult classic that even mainstream critics applaud. While the success of the film was delayed for years it has left an incredible legacy with a lofty 94% Rotten Tomatoes score, certified cult classic status, and even a stage adaptation.