Have a Freudian Field Day with Spider Baby
Think of Lord of the Flies by way of Freaks, a mix of horror and comedy with a nod to Psycho and a dash of Freud.
Spider Baby (1967), more formally known as Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, is a magnificent film maudit of exploitation cinema, a true American independent vision, and an eccentric triumph unappreciated (and in fact largely unseen) in its own time. Think of Lord of the Flies by way of Freaks, a mix of horror and comedy with a nod to Psycho and a dash of Freud. It's one of the greatest blasts of B-movie creativity to get dumped into American drive-ins and grindhouses—and get rediscovered decades later in the era of home video by genre-movie mavens. (That's how I first stumbled upon the film and fell in love with its invention and inspiration.) This was the official directorial debut of Jack Hill, who apprenticed under Roger Corman (shooting uncredited scenes for Dementia 13 and The Terror), and went on to make his name in cult-movie circles with films including Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), both starring Pam Grier, and Switchblade Sisters (1975), a girl-gang picture that Quentin Tarantino rereleased under his Rolling Thunder banner in the late 1990s.
Like so many films of its kind, Spider Baby's birth was a mix of inspiration, ambition, and opportunity. Hill was introduced to a couple of real estate developers who wanted to get into the movie business. Given the constraints of a minimal budget and lessons learned from the King of the Bs himself, he scripted a film with marketable genre elements (murder, comedy, a touch of the macabre, a little sex), an isolated location, a limited cast, and a scope that he could manage with his resources. It was financed on a shoestring and shot in under two weeks in 1964, with a crew of eager young filmmakers and a cast that included one genuine (yet affordable) movie icon: Lon Chaney Jr. The premise: The final descendants of the Merrye family hide their curse from society in an old, isolated family manor that looks like it was built by the architect of the Bates hilltop home. They suffer from Merrye's Syndrome, a (fictional) malady that causes all members of the family to regress mentally and emotionally with the onset of puberty. "The unfortunate result of… inbreeding," explains Bruno (Chaney, in a warm, paternal performance), the chauffeur and guardian of the afflicted children of his old master. Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn, in adolescent pigtails) and Virginia (Jill Banner), the spider baby of the title, are typical sisters in a very atypical situation—little girls in adult bodies playing in schoolgirl frocks. Just like little kids they can slip from tattling on one another to squealing with joy when they see their big brother/family baby Ralph (a gangly Sid Haig), an infantile, innocent behemoth who has already regressed back to a pre-verbal state. Everything's fine as long as no one comes around (pity the poor postman), but when distant cousins Peter and Emily Howe (Quinn K. Redeker and Carol Ohmart) arrive with a lawyer (Karl Schanzer) to contest the will, things get interesting. It’s kinky and cruel and oddly sweet all at the same time, and it sneaks by thanks to the grindhouse elements, the offbeat black comedy woven in, and the performances, which aren't necessarily sophisticated but are all committed to the characters and perfectly pitched to the tone of the film.
Washburn and Banner are a terrific sister act, one moment sniping at each other, the next conspiring, and there is a childlike innocence to their actions. Haig creates a sweet and curious Ralph, a well-meaning giant infant in an adult body. He dresses for dinner in a Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit that looks like it shrunk down three sizes in the wash. Redecker plays Uncle Peter like a B-movie Robert Cummings: affable, kind, and instinctively affectionate toward the children. "Aw, he's just a big kid!" he exclaims when Ralph crawls over to check him out, like a puppy unsure of an odd new smell. Chaney, of course, became a genre icon playing the definitive screen werewolf, and Hill peppers the script with Wolf Man references, from a conversation between Peter and the lawyer's secretary about horror movies to Chaney's Bruno ominously observing: "There's going to be a full moon tonight." It's a nudge to horror fans and a generous tribute to from a young filmmaker. Chaney surely appreciated it, and he cited the role as one of his favorites. Hill draws from Psycho, but adds an innocence to the psychos of his story, and stirs in the lighthearted attitude of a William Castle film. That strange brew simmers with the unchecked emotional impulses of Lord of the Flies, the playfully macabre humor of The Addams Family, the embrace of otherness in Freaks, and a Freudian read on adolescence and the primal drives of the human animal—all of which it funnels through the shape of a genre movie. As these adults regress to children, they revert to primitive stages: deadly games (taking her cue from her beloved spiders, Virginia treats killing as play without any real understanding of the consequences), murder as a form of protest, and, finally, zombie-like cannibalism. Along the way, however, a strange strain of adolescent sexuality bubbles up from the child's play. About halfway through, Hill tosses in a scene of Ohmart parading in front of the mirror in skimpy lingerie like a closet dominatrix, adding adult content to what we thought was a teenage drive-in movie. It's a weird detour that hovers between parody and kinky surreality, but it also rouses impulses in Ralph befitting the unleashed id of an old monster movie. After spying on her through the window (he too could be a spider baby, given how he crawls the walls), he gets so excited that he carries her off, an infantile Frankenstein's monster driven by curiosity and inexplicable instincts. Put this next to Virginia's teasing little game of spider with Uncle Peter, and you've got something both inspired and unsettling. While he's tied to a chair, she snuggles into his lap and purrs, a playful child with an undercurrent of nascent (or lingering?) sexual desire. Is it a leftover from their "older" selves, or a Freudian portrait of sexuality complicated by the collision of a child's emotional state with an adult body?
It could be grindhouse Val Lewton, without the poetry but with all the psychological suggestions swirling just under the strange doings. Pretty heady stuff for a drive-in horror movie, and admirably non-exploitative for an exploitation movie. Not that anyone noticed at the time. That's surely due in part to its grindhouse origins, but also to the film's long delay from completion to release, and its rocky road to cult status. As Hill completed post-production in 1964, the producers went bankrupt and the film was frozen with their assets and stuck in limbo for years. By the time it finally got released, in 1967, theaters had largely lost interest in booking black-and-white movies as first run attractions (a select few foreign films to contrary), and Spider Baby was sold as a second feature, dumped onto the second half of drive-in double bills, and abandoned, eventually falling into the public domain. Decades later it was revived and embraced as an inspired oddity, thanks to cheap public-domain videotapes and late-night TV showings. Hill never made a dime off it, at least not until he found the original negative and marketed the restored version on home video himself, but he did belatedly get some attention for it. And deservedly so. For all of its technical shortcomings and budget-related compromises, I think it's his most inspired film and an unacknowledged classic.