Any film that has Lon Chaney Jr. singing the title song has my vote for weirdest opening of any horror film, and the rest of this low-budget excursion into depravity doesn't disappoint either. Director Jack Hill, who kept American drive-ins in business with such exploitation classics as THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and COFFY, started off his career with this disturbing little horror-comedy. Try to imagine a cross between Corman's LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and ERASERHEAD, you've got this lovably sick gem. Welcome to the Merrye House, where the entire family is afflicted with the rare and mysterious Merrye's Syndrome. It seems that at the age of 10, each member of the clan contracts the "Family Curse", and while their bodies continue to grow normally, their brains begin regressing until they become babbling, bloodthirsty geeks. Eventually, they even go beyond a pre-natal state and turn into inhuman savages. Of course, no one beside the trusted family chauifeur, Bruno (Lon Jr.), knows the full truth about The Merryes' secret (he refers to their condition as "rotting of the brain"), and he has his hands full covering up the occasional murder. You see, there's Ralph, a drooling, bald-headed man-baby who likes to hide in the dumb-waiter; Uncle Ned and the oldsters, who are forever-unseen in the cobwebbed basement; and pretty little Virginia, who runs about with twin butcher knives, playing "spider". In fact, Virginia is the first to spill blood when she hacks up a Stepin Fetchit clone and saves his severed ear as a souvenir (I wonder if David Lynch saw this film before writing BLUE VELVET?). To complicate affairs. a pair of scheming, distant relatives suddenly show up to lay claim to the mansion -- sticking their noses into family business and disturbing the relative peace and quiet. After a dinner of bugs, undressed rabbit and fungi souffle, these money-grubbers decide to stay the night, which turns out to be a BAD decision. Though the graphic violence is only intimated, the constant creepiness of the proceedings go far beyond the boundaries of good taste (especially for the '60s) -- especially when Virginia coyly seduces her normal Uncle into a game of Spider, tying him to a chair and setting live spiders at his legs. Add a bit of cannibalism, a hint of dismemberment, and a healthy serving of grim humor, and SPIDER BABY becomes an overlooked cult classic for shock junkies. Chaney, who was stuck in some of the worst so-called "horror"-fodder during the late-'60s (DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN, HILLBILLIES IN A HAUNTED HOUSE), gives a fine, unusually sympathetic performance as the faithful servant who promised to care for the family until the lineage dies out; and all the Merrye members are appropriately child-like and maniacal, with B-movie vet Sid Haig stealing every scene as the thumb-sucking Ralph. In fact, the ensemble works so well together that the group bears striking similarities to the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE crazies and their perverse antics. Though the low-budget is evident throughout, SPIDER BABY succeeds in large part because of its stark b&w photography by Alfred Taylor, twisted performances and tongue-through-cheek humor. Most of all, Jack Hill should be commended for creating a true vision of madness. Alternately hilarious, touching and very nasty, it's easily his most original movie; and though the film was originally hampered by poor distribution and constant title changes, it's finally finding it equally-demented fans. Without question, one of my favorites.
© 1990 by Steven Puchalski.