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April 8, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #14 - Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told

It's no secret that the horror icons from Universal's monster films of the "golden era", did not ride off into the sunset with their heads held high after the studio's reign of terror ended. Most know that Karloff stayed busy in TV and drive-in movies (including occasional masterpieces like Targets), and more probably know about Bela Lugosi's spiral down into failed improv-TV pieces, Ed Wood films, and drug addiction. But few focus on the career path of Lon Chaney, Jr., who played second fiddle to both of these men AND his renowned father. Chaney suffered from typecasting despite strong work in Hollywood hits like Of Mice and Men and High Noon and, as I learned while researching today's film, slipped into alcoholism in the later years of his life. Like Lugosi, he hit a low when he showed up on a 1952 live TV broadcast of Frankenstein drunk.

You might think a drunk Frankenstein could work, but it won't if that Frankenstein thinks it's a rehearsal and mutters "break later" while leaving each piece of furniture he's supposed to smash intact. (In fairness, who wants to watch a version of Frankenstein that's all furniture smashing anyway?) But fear not - Chaney, if only for the better part of twelve days, found something that inspired him to stay sober in 1964 - Jack Hill's script Cannibal Orgy, or The Maddest Story Ever Told (Yeah, I didn't expect that title to hold either...we now have Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told).

Spider Baby
is, in the simplest terms, one of the most original horror films I've ever found. The story focuses on the Merrye family and their "rare and peculiar" brain syndrome, which causes the deterioration of the brain as an individual ages. Chaney plays Bruno, the guardian of the Merrye estate and their three surviving children, who are definitely among the maddest characters ever known. There's Virginia, the spider-obsessed dark haired daughter who starts the murderous action in the film's opening scene; Elizabeth, the blond haired daughter who spouts verbal abuse while hiding behind a pouty face; and Ralph, a bald and drooling invalid played by resurrected horror star Sid Haig.Playing like a haunted house film with real-life haunters, Spider Baby picks up steam when a few visitors show up at the Merrye house. They include a pair of distant relatives (soap-opera star Quinn Redeker and House on Haunted Hill veteran Carol Ohmart) and a pair of nosy social workers (one of whom is Panic in the Year Zero's Mary Mitchel). The Merrye family's "secrets" simply must not get out, and Bruno begins to have more and more difficulty controlling the children as the night goes on.

Chaney is the star, but the rest of the cast is also fantastic. Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner are the Merrye daughters and, at 20 and 17 years old, are both able to harness their youthful exuberance into a fantastic bit of insanity. Redeker hams it up brilliantly (to this day he still hates his performance; but I find it to be the definition of unintentional comedy) and Ohmart willingly flaunts her bosom while playing the sexual target for Haig's goofy manchild. It's a good thing.

But Spider Baby is Chaney's barbecue, and it tastes good. The veteran plays off the young cast perfectly, pleading with the children with vigor as his character's resolve slowly fades away. Like his best performances in Of Mice and Men and The Wolf Man he's a physical presence, using facial expressions to advance the story and create a connection to the viewer. Near the end of the second act he provides a knockout monologue that proves he was a better actor than he had ever been given credit for, and I still remember nearly choking up in tears the first time I saw him deliver this incredibly heartfelt speech. As if the scene isn't sad enough, Hill speaks in the DVD commentary about the fact that Chaney, due to his health and the film's distribution issues, never got a chance to see the completed film that he cared about so much.I can't say anything more about Spider Baby without getting all gushy, so I'm going to keep my final statement short: See Spider Baby. To me it is without a doubt one of the most original, entertaining, and impressive B-movies ever filmed. And when you consider Chaney's path back to horror stardome, plus the path to distribution and the rescue from a slew of bad VHS copies (Hill goes into great detail as to the film's distribution woes during the commentary), I'd say the restored version of Spider Baby should be one of the treasures of any classic horror fan's collection. For me it's definitely more than just another Midnight Movie of the Week.

(Big props to Stacie @ Final Girl for choosing this as this month's Final Girl Film Club pick. Head over there on the April 12th to check out more reviews of a true classic!)

HorrorBlips: vote it up!


Jack Hill said...

Thank you so much for your kind comments.
==Jack Hill

R.D. Penning said...

I watched this movie for the first time a couple years ago, and I absolutely fell in love with it. It is such an amazing movie, driven by the characters and the script the ride on. Great review Mike! I really need to add this to my collection.

The Mike said...

Mr. Hill, thanks for reading. I feel lucky to have found this film, and I hope I've done it justice. And thank you for all the hard work you've done to keep Spider Baby around so people like me can still get ahold of it!

Mr. Penning, glad to know you've seen it, because I'd have forced it on you sooner or later if you hadn't! :)

deadlydolls said...

Great review, I can't tell you how much I love this movie. I only caught it last year and since then, it's become my go-to background cheer up film. Hearts all around for all the reasons you said!

Murphy Screams said...

Great review, Spider Baby is a true classic! It also boasts one of the greatest opening theme songs ever, sung by Mr Chaney himself! Good stuff

I Like Horror Movies said...

Ive been trying to, I promise Mike!! The copy I was watching on Youtube only included parts 1-3 out of 7, which I found out after 3.. Been waiting for the price to drop online for some time, may just put it on the Fathers Day wishlist =D

Thanks for more fuel to the fire to get on this one!

AE said...

Glad someone else was excited to see a "Panic In Year Zero" alum. Great review! I loved this movie.

Sam Crombie said...

There is a musical based on the movie playing currently at the Lyric Hyperion Theatre & Cafe in Silverlake/Los Angeles, CA until December 5, 2010.

Great rock music, young and talented cast, all around rompin fun!

For more information you should visit