When a film opens up with a raspy-voiced Lon Chaney, Jr. ardently singing the title song, it almost comes with a guarantee of a weird trip ahead. Spider Baby (1964) does not disappoint.
Some commentators have likened Spider Baby to Eraserhead (1977), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974 ), or TV’s “the Addams Family,” while others have erroneously categorized it as “surreal.” If we have to give comparisons, we might find it to be the most idiosyncratic film in the “Old Dark House” genre (and yes, that includes Rocky Horror Picture Show). Still, even that is not adequate. Spider Baby is a maverick that defies labels.
Writer/director Jack Hill‘s credits include Boris Karloff‘s unfortunate Z-grade Mexican horror films House of Evil (1968), Fear Chamber (1968), Isle of the Snake People (1971), Alien Terror (1971); the women-in-prison jigglefests The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972); the Pam Grier blaxploitation vehicle Foxy Brown (1974); and Switchblade Sisters (1975-the title says it all). All of these are lucid examples of trash cinema; Spider Baby is a one-of-a-kind inbred sibling to the lot.
The casting of Lon Chaney, Jr. is, for once, near ideal. 1930s horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi each had an air of European mystery in their screen personas. 1940s horror second banana “sort of” horror icon Chaney, Jr was pure American white trash. When Universal tried to cast Chaney in the Karloff/Lugosi Euro mold, the results often ranged from laughable to cringe-inducing.
Chaney, Jr was, of course, unfavorably compared to his father and has received a lot of bad raps from critics past and present. Most of those raps are well deserved, but it was not his legendary father who proved to be the ultimate detriment to his career. It was Chaney Jr.’s role as Lennie in Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men (1939) that rendered an insurmountable yardstick performance. Chaney could never equal his Lennie, much in the same way that Lugosi could never live up to Dracula (1931).
Unfortunately, off-screen Chaney proved to be considerably more brutish than Steinbeck’s gentle giant, which helped seal his inevitable career failure. Other factors in his decline included alcoholism, drug abuse, typecasting, trying to live up to his father’s image, and (reportedly) self-loathing regarding his latent homosexuality.
Executives at Universal didn’t help. After the success of Man Made Monster (1941) and The Wolf Man (1941) Universal cast Chaney Jr. as their new horror star. Somehow the studio was oblivious to Chaney’s strengths and weaknesses. Astonishingly, they cast the hulking, phlegmatic actor as a grand guignol romantic lead with a Clark Gable-like mustache in the Inner Sanctum films. Son of Dracula (1943) was an even worse case of miscasting with Chaney as the Transylvanian count who must have been living off an excessively high-calorie blood intake.
Few of Chaney’s 200 plus films are of merit, but he did have a handful of good character parts in films which knew how to use him. Spider Baby is among those, featuring his last performance of note. Chaney liked the script so much that he made an extra effort to lay off the sauce, much to Hill’s relief.
There is a touch of pathos in Chaney’s performance as the caretaker. He is close to Tod Browning territory here, seeing this misfit ensemble not as inbred cannibal freaks, but as family. Spider Baby is a far better way to remember Chaney than his actual last performances: Al Adamson’s equally trashy but dreadful 1971 duo Female Bunch and Dracula vs. Frankenstein (both of which try hard to make Ed Wood look sophisticated).
Chaney is helped tremendously by his co-stars, which include Sid Haig as a bald, deformed version of Carroll Bakker’s thumb-sucking Baby Doll (1956), Carol Ohmart as a well-worn, Z-grade Marilyn Monroe bitch of an aunt, and Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn as psychotic sisters.
The Merrye family is dying out, due to inbreeding and a “rotting of the brain.” Bruno (Chaney) is the family chauffeur who acts as their guardian. While Bruno is taking Ralph (Haig, perfectly embodying his character) to the doctor, Elizabeth (Washburn) plays “itsy-bitsy spider” with the mailman (veteran African American character actor Mantan Moreland). Ralph crawls out of the limo like a serpentine chihuahua. Torment floods Bruno’s eyes upon seeing what is left of the unfortunate courier. Virginia (Banner), doing her best Baby Jane Hudson imitation, cannot wait “to tell.” “It’s not nice to hate,” Bruno reminds the family, but it turns out this was simply a case of killing the bad news messenger; the message being news that heir aunt Aunt Emily (Ohmart) will be arriving this very day to throw out the lot of them. Emily brings with her the goofy but amiable protagonist Peter (Quinn Redeker). There is even a slimy caricature of a lawyer who might pass for a cross between Adolf Hitler and John Waters‘ father.
The Merrye house has a personality all its own, complete with rickety, ominous elevator shafts and a basement of dreaded family secrets. Alfred Taylor’s cinematography is an enormous asset, nearly masking the film’s meager budget. A perverted veggie “Last Supper” and a “don’t you dare do go there” consummation (which is, thankfully, subdued) are scenes that burn themselves into the memory.
Hill, for once not working on commission, conceived his child as a labor of love, and his attitude infected cast and crew. As bizarre as the script and direction is, it is an inspired cast that sells it. Dismemberment, incest, cannibalism and the budding sexuality of serial killers are all carried out with inexplicable charm. Still, even with fine work by all, it is Chaney who is the twinkle in the eye of the film’s hurricane.