Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told (1967)

Spider Baby first published by

“Are you a horror fan, Miss Morris?”, asks happy-go-lucky playboy Peter Howe (Quinn Redeker) of his fellow dining guest Ann Morris (Mary Mitchel), in a central scene from Jack Hill’s Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told. Ann’s enthusiastic response leads both of them to list all their favourites: Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932). “Oh,” adds Ann, “and The Wolfman!” Later, after a night of heavy drinking at the local inn, Peter will ask Ann: “Hey, are you really a Wolfman fan?”; to which she will reply: “Oh yes, I think that’s how every man should be – like a wild beast.”

Although the low-budget, monochrome Spider Baby was shot in 1964, it had to be shelved when its producer was bankrupted, and its first theatrical release did not come until Christmas Day some three years later. The timing is important: for the end of 1967 also marked the end of an era. The following year would see the release of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, two films which together would usher in the modern age of horror – whereas Spider Baby represents the very last gasp of the classical era, still caught in the long shadow of Universal’s castle horror (as represented by Peter and Ann’s list of titles). It is relevant here that their host at the table, Bruno, is played by Lon Chaney Jr., who starred as The Wolfman in the Universal Pictures’ homonymous 1941 feature (and in four sequels), but who is now cast as guardian to a younger, more debased gene pool of beasts.

There is a postmodern self-consciousness to the horror of Spider Baby – not just in these metacinematic discussions of genre and in the historically resonant casting of Chaney, but also in the cartoonish opening credit sequence and its jaunty accompanying theme song (gamely howled by Chaney like a children’s ditty from a Hallowe’en pantomime), in Redeker’s nodding-and-winking charm (channeling Cary Grant), in the insistently playful way that rape and murder are presented, and in the general hamminess of the performances. The light-hearted approach kicks in with the prologue, where Peter, dressed nattily in a smoking jacket and sat in an armchair, picks up a book entitled Dictionary of Rare and Peculiar Diseases and starts chirpily telling his tale, direct to camera, of how “Merrye’s Syndrome” was “extinguished forever from the human race that fateful day ten years ago” – all said with a twinkle in the eye that seems incongruous with the pathological theme of his words.

The (entirely fictitious) Syndrome, it turns out, is a degenerative disease confined exclusively to members of the Merrye pedigree – their very surname a signifier of the film’s mirthfully carnivalesque tone. Passed down through successive generations via incestuous practices, Merrye’s syndrome causes its victims gradually to regress to bestial behaviour. The rest of the film (save for an ironic coda) unfolds in flashback, as we see Peter being dragged along by his formidable sister Emily (Carol Ohmart) to the isolated rural mansion where the last remaining Merryes – young Elizabeth (Berverly Washburn), her spider-obsessed sister Virginia (Jill Banner), and their mute, Priapic older brother Ralph (Sid Haig) – are looked after by family retainer Bruno as they slowly succumb to the illness that is their legacy. Emily has a different sort of legacy in mind as she attempts to claim ownership of her distant relatives’ estate, with property lawyer Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) – another speaking name in this most reflexive of schlockfests – and his pretty secretary Ann in tow. Yet what Emily and her companions will uncover is a forgotten dynasty in rapid, delirious decline, desperate to keep its skeletons in the closet and its monsters in the basement.

While Spider Baby may deal in perversion, psychosis and those repressed animalistic urges that underlie the façade of middle-class American respectability, nonetheless all the Merryes’ outrages are really just child’s play that has got out of hand – and likewise everything here comes with a mischievous smile (even the corpse of one of the family’s victims, whose lips are still not only clenching a cigar, but also conspicuously grinning). For the film is perhaps less close to the Universal horror films that it keeps referencing than to the monstrous mash-ups ofThe Addams Family, The Munsters and Jules Bass’ Mad Monster Party? (also 1967) – knowing pastiches whose creature clans are always good for a giggle, and not so very much less salubrious than their venal human counterparts. Much as the Merryes have reached the end of their genetic line, the film itself shows an incestuous genre reaching some kind of endpoint in its hybridised mutations and backward-looking self-parody. And yet, as the coda suggests, we are always living off the past, inheriting its hidden afflictions along with its buried treasure  – and what seems to be ‘The End’ might only be another beginning. Certainly, despite its slavish reverence for horror’s history, Spider Baby would also go on to influence the genre’s future – in particular Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), with its similar off-road house of horrors crammed with deranged dinners, mummified relatives and cannibalistic carve-ups. And of course now, some half a century after Spider Baby tried to end their blood line forever, the Universal monsters are once more being resurrected and revamped for a whole new cinematic Dark Universe…

Summary: This hilarious haunted house schlocker opens the doors on America’s demented, diseased history of horror, before burying it beneath the foundations of the genre’s next golden age.

© Anton Bitel