Blu-Ray Review: Spider Baby

Spider Baby Arrow CoverJack Hill’s amusing and mildly disturbing 1964 horror classic Spider Baby finally gets the feature-packed Blu-Ray treatment is deserves courtesy of Arrow Video and MVD and it’s a must for fans of the formerly forgotten flick that became a cult classic. “The maddest story ever told” still holds up today as quite the viewing experience as well as on original little low budget flick that still packs quite a kick in a few places.

The story of the Merrye family’s twisted offspring and their strange caretaker Bruno is, for all the creepy, unsettling antics taking place, quite an emotional tale at heart. Three siblings Virginia (Jill Banner), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and Ralph (Sig Haig) live with Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.) in a decrepit mansion well off the beaten path with a few other relatives. Thanks to inbreeding among the family, all suffer from a genetic condition that makes them regress mentally into primitive states that make them more than a little dangerous to be around. Bruno does his best to keep his unbalanced charges in line, but after a mailman (Mantan Moreland) is killed and distant relatives arrive to claim the mansion and surrounding property for themselves, things take a turn for the darkly comedic worse.


 

The film works because it presents a more sympathetic portrait of the demented trio than it does of the greedy relatives and their lawyer who show up thinking it’ll be all too easy to make that profitable land grab. Cousins Emily (Carol Ohmart) and her brother Peter (Quinn Redeker) arrive with their shady lawyer Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) and his assistant Ann (Mary Mitchel). All are shocked at the appearance of the house and its occupants, but they stay for a memorable dinner made up of whatever insects can be scrounged from the grounds plus a special meaty surprise. Yum. Things get far weirder after dinner as Bruno leaves for a spell, some of the visitors are killed off and fed to the basement dwellers, there are slices of sexual desire gone haywire and more wrongness before all is said and done.

spider baby MPBy the finale, things get wrapped up with a bang and the survivors of the carnage become the new owners of the Merrye property and possibly that curse that affected the former inhabitants. I’m keeping the plot as vague as can be because seeing Spider Baby for the first time seems to always be a revelation for a few people. Jack Hill’s excellent direction and the performances he got from his small cast are somewhat amazing to this day. Particularly the three actors playing the Merrye brood, but Lon Chaney Jr. manages to steal a big scene where he tears up while delivering an emotional speech. He also warbles out the film’s main theme, a comical little tune that fits what’s to come perfectly.

In terms of Bonus Materials, the Spider Baby Blu-Ray is one of the better packed ones Arrow has released this year. In addition to a high definition transfer supervised and approved by Jack Hill, there’s a great commentary track featuring Hill and Sid Haig that’s chock full of interesting information. Also included are a panel discussion from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences FILM-TO-FILM Festival (recorded September 2012), featuring Jack Hill and stars Quinn K. Redeker and Beverly Washburn. This drags on a bit, but is also full of fun tidbits on the making of the film. A more bouncy bit of fun comes from The Hatching of Spider Baby. This segment has interviews with Jack Hill, Sid Haig, star Mary Mitchel, director (and huge Spider Baby fanatic) Joe Dante and others on the making of the film. The music gets a few notes in Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein that features remembrances of the late composer from his wife Harlene Stein, Jack Hill, American Cinematheque’s Chris D. and others recalling his body of work.

Director Hill revisits the main shooting location in The Merrye House Revisited and shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Hill also reveals how a certain scene was shot and how the home, which had no electricity at the time was lit in a very clever manner by the film’s cinematographer. An alternate title sequence, extended scene and image gallery make up the remainder of the visual treats. In addition, there’s a short film directed by Hill included as a really cool extra. The Host (1960) is a 30-minute dark western that features Sid Haig in his first starring role. I did notice an interesting mistake on the disc where film historian and actor Ted Newsom notes that Lon Chaney Jr. never sung in film or anywhere else. Well, Mr. Newsom? Mr. Creighton Chaney (aka Lon Chaney Jr.) would like to have a few words with you:

(thanks, Josh Max!)
 

But I digress. My review disc didn’t come with a that reversible cover sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys or a collector’s booklet, so I missed out on what should be a fine and fun read. According to the MVD Entertainment site, that collector’s booklet features writing on the film by artist and writer Stephen R. Bissette, and an extensive article with photos and illustrations re-printed from FilmFax: The Magazine of Unusual Film and Television featuring interviews with the cast and crew. Ah well. But once again, this is another Arrow that’s hitting its target thanks to a superb HD conversion and a wealth of on-disc content you’ll treasure. You certainly won’t be mad at all at “the maddest story ever told”, but you’ll probably want to see more of Jack Hill’s work. Thankfully, Arrow Video has another winner in the form of his amazing 1969 racing flick, Pit Stop (which is next up for review here – stay tuned)…

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