60s Horror: Spider Baby

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Director and Writer: Jack Hill
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Carol Omhart, Quinn Redeker, Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner, Sid Haig

My understanding is that Spider Baby was shown primarily as the more risque, but perhaps also lower quality, part of a drive-in double bill during its initial cinematic run. After watching the movie, it’s not hard to see why.

It’s just not that good.

It’s an interesting cinematic time capsule, good for some laughs, and some great 60s camp, but not much of a horror movie, really, more of an artifact from a time when movie audiences were more innocent, more easily scared or scandalized.

The story focuses on the strange Merrye clan, the sisters Elizabeth and Virginia and their brother Ralph (played by Sid Haig, who modern audiences will know as Captain Spaulding from Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses), who are all afflicted by a curious genetic disorder that runs in the family. As they reach puberty, they are struck by a regressive disease that causes them to become ever more childlike until they, in the overly dramatic (but not displeasing) language of the film, regress past birth and into a state of pre-human savagery.

Into this mix come Peter and Emily Howe, cousins to the Merryes, who aim to adopt the children and take their estate from them.

Of course, given that the Merrye children are now in states of nearly “pre-human savagery” nothing good comes of the Howes’ attempts, and most every person in the film ends up dead.

Spider Baby is short and isn’t likely to be a terribly enjoyable film for modern viewers: it’s too slow, too little happens, there’s too little gore or scariness.

Those interested in horror history will find in a notable film, though. The film reaches into the past for its actors – Lon Chaney Jr. plays the Merrye’s butler and caretaker – and into the present, principally in the form of Haig, who is likely well-known right now, in what was only his third film.

Spider Baby is also an obvious precursor to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Both movies feature a bizarre, rural family who take bloody vengeance on outsiders and city folk who stumble upon their homes. Both films feature odd, disgusting dinner scenes.

And, as Spider Baby is an influence on Texas Chainsaw, so too is it an influence on that film’s descendent, House of 1000 Corpses (the line between the two being drawn not only through Texas, but also through the presence of Sid Haig).

The film also feels like, at least, a spiritual precursor to 80s slasher films in which sexually aware and active interlopers are picked off, one by one, by a killer who then displays their bodies “surprise” revelations.

For the average film viewer, it’s hard to recommend Spider Baby. For those who enjoy 60s-style camp and B-movies, it’s likely a gem. And for the student of horror, for the obsessive, Spider Baby won’t be a great film experience, but it will be an educational one.

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