One of those rare, sad films that achieved more fame (and infamy) after its initial release than when it first reared its drooling head at the cinema, Spider Baby is the seminal Midnight Movie. One can't help but feel saddened for Jack Hill and all involved behind and in front of the camera that this darkly comedic, original, and wildly entertaining monster mash didn't achieve for its creators the fame and monetary gain that its threatened remake probably will. Full of attitude and a unique philosophy, this macabre marriage of in-jokes, incestuous love, and ill-fated cannibals is slick and well made and could very well be considered one of the earlier forerunners of the modern horror parody littering shelves today. However, this sick puppy has something that many of these come lately retreads don't -- dedication to their dark vision and an ability to blend the sick and truly repulsive with laughs and a sense of family that brings something of tenderness to the proceedings.

Energy and love obviously went into Spider Baby, and so did enough plot twists to fill John Holmes jockey strap. Originally known as Cannibal Orgy and/or The Maddest Story Ever Told, this ballsy brainchild of director/writer Hill was filmed in twelve days. While it can't help but look dated, it has aged well, and the primal impulses and bold themes its ditzy, murderous characters embody are as relevant (and entertainingly disturbing) now as when they were captured to celluloid in 1964. Lon Chaney Jr. excels as gentle but undeniably insane Bruno, the kindly chauffeur and caregiver to the three Merrye children. Taking care of the children and Merrye estate, Channey reprises in this one fun character several of the trademark roles that made him famous, ranging from the gentle retarted giant and mad scientist to the 'man of the people.' Like the story as a whole, his role is a mass of contradictions that somehow work together. Both victim and victimizer, madman and family saint, Bruno embodies the contradictory instincts of the entire movie. Likewise the children, Virginia (Jill Banner), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and Ralph Merrye (Sid Haig), are walking contradictions. Suffering from a deteriorating disease called 'Merrye Syndrome'( exclusive to this family) that results in both mental and physical deterioration, these kids are charming, cute, and deadly. Guarding his charges from the outside world, Bruno is shocked to learn that distant relatives are on their way to reclaim the children -- and the estate. Soon Mr. Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) and his assistant Ann (Mary Mitchel), Uncle Peter (Quinn Redeker) and Aunt Emily (Carol Ohmart) arrive, hungry for inheritance. Unluckily for them, the children are hungry for their own special brand of games, and when the intruders insist on spending the night, Virginia delightedly decides to make them the 'bug' in her demented game of 'Spider.' What ensues is a witch's brew of shockingly macabre humor, disorientating horror, and slapstick.

Easily one of the highlights of the film, and one which once again sets the tone for the entire production, is the scene where mailman Mantan Moreland is forced to play Spider and Fly with the children. Thankfully, even at this point the film never winks at the audience. The scares are played straight, and even the more ridiculous situations come across as serious (even when we know they're not). It is this fusion of fright and fun, the deadly and the ludicrous, that makes the film work. Shelved when producers Paul Monka and Gil Lasky went bankrupt, Spider Baby was a victim of bad timing, broken faith, and money -- not a lack of talent, skill, or ideas. Both visually and thematically the story is brave for its time. The story and its implications walk a tight rope between the acceptable and the taboo. Especially for its time, this story of an inbred, isolated family of freak-show mental deviants and their cannibalistic disease must have provoked outrage. Or would have, had it been more widely seen. When it found some brief play in theaters in 1968, word of mouth among fans and artists kept the film's premise and reputation alive, and for good reason. When Image Entertainment released it uncut and with several restored minutes of footage, people's faith that this story was something special, something different, was rewarded. Jack Hill is one of the guiding forces behind this unique hodge-podge of hilarious horror. Learning his craft under Roger Corman, this, his first feature, has never been equalled for its enthusiastic eccentricity. While there is nothing an artist hates more than to hear his earlier work championed over his newer endeavours, Spider Baby does indeed achieve an entertainment value lacking in even such exploitation successes as The Big Doll House and Switchblade Sisters. The impressively maintained marriage of ominous atmosphere and tight-lipped laughter is further cemented by the score of Ronald Stein.

Whereas the Image DVD suffered from grain and splotchy imagery, this new edition from Dark Sky Films, under the direction of Hill himself, presents what can only be described as the definitive print. The picture is presented in a new anamorphic DVD transfer. Restored from the original 35mm elements in High Definition, the visuals are startling in their clarity. Picture is sharp and clean in 1.66:1. Crisp black and white photography is absolutely delicious. Audio is just as impressive, including a 2.0 mono track that dopes its job with no interference.

Extras are a delight, providing a cultural, aesthetic, and historical context with which to better appreciate this demented delight. First up is a newly recorded Audio Commentary with Jack Hill and Sid Haig. The two chat about the shoot, cast and crew, and several informative behind-the-scenes tid-bits. Both technical and friendly, this is a wonderful track that bares listening to more than once. Several more segments make up the supplements including "The Hatching of Spider Baby," a 30-minute documentary that examines all facets of the film production, from its genesis and financing to its ill stared fate and modern resurgence as an icon of pop culture. "Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein" is next -- a wonderful exploration of the composer who created music for several of Roger Corman's features. This is followed by "The Merrye House Revisited," wherein Elijah Drenner accompanies Hill to the house that used as the Merrye mansion. The disc also includes the "Cannibal Orgy" Title Sequence, an Extended Scene, and an impressive Still Gallery. This is Spider Baby as you've never seen it, and as it deserves to be remembered.

Review by William P. Simmons

Released by Dark Sky
Region 1 - NTSC
Not Rated
Extras :
see main review