A black postal worker (Mantan Moreland) rides his motorcycle to the rarely traversed outskirts of town in search of the Merrye house. Despite unhelpful neighbours refusing to tell of its whereabouts, he eventually finds it - a huge imposing house atop a hill.

Climbing the hill, he knocks on the big wooden door and calls out for a response. He gets a response all right, but not the one he'd hoped for: teenager Virginia (Jill Banner) finds him trapped in a half-open window, throws a makeshift web over him and slices him to pieces with two blades.

She is one of three children left orphaned by the demise of their parents, Mr and Mrs Merrye. They have, we soon learn, inherited a rare degenerative disease - the Merrye Syndrome - which causes them to regress progressively to a "pre-natal" condition. Oh, and become murderous cannibals along the way.

The other two kids are the more sober Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and their gurning, slithering simpleton brother Ralph (Sid Haig). All three are cared for in their family home by their parents' loyal chauffeur Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr, billed here as Lon Chaney).

Aside from little mishaps like Virginia's deadly games of "spider and fly" with wayward postmen, Bruno manages to contain these unpredictable children. He reinforces the rules he's laid out for them every so often (it's bad to hate; "you're never ever to play 'spider' again", "just because something isn't good doesn't mean it's bad" etc) but always does so with affection. His bond with the kids is genuine, and profound.

So you can imagine how alarmed he is when he reads the letter the postie was attempting to deliver: the late Merrye's relatives are due to visit the house, on that very day. Bruno wastes no time in hiding the postman's body and trying to persuade the kids to act as "normal" as possible when their guests arrive.

A short while later, the relatives turn up. Peter (Quinn Redeker) and Emily (Carol Ohmart) are gold-diggers looking for their share of the late Merrye's estate, and have even gone to the trouble of inviting along a lawyer, Mr Schlocker (Karl Schanzer), to assist in their plight.

As the guests settle down for dinner at the Merrye residence and decide to stay overnight, Bruno soon gets wind of this greedy trio's motives - and thus finds it increasingly difficult to keep the kids from letting the murderous impulses of their sickness ("you might call them retarded", Bruno warns at one point) take hold. Oh, and there's also the monstrous off-screen Aunt and Uncle that he struggles to keep hidden in the house's cellar...

SPIDER BABY is great fun, courtesy of writer-director Jack Hill. He's best known, of course, for his 70s exploitation fare such as THE BIG BIRD CAGE and FOXY BROWN. But with this 1964 production, he helmed a perfectly balanced mixture of humour and horror that starts off weirdly, with a camp theme tune followed by an earnest description of the Merrye children's condition by Redeker, and just gets odder.

As bizarre as it truly is though, the film's great strength is that it's always easily accessible: it flows at a great pace, benefits hugely from energetic performances and has the added bonus of a witty, crackling script from Hill. Somehow, it's all pinned together by Chaney Jr's warm, vulnerable performance which lends a sense of tragedy to proceedings that helps keep the film's tone ambiguous enough for the horror set-pieces to really unsettle.

Ronald Stein's eclectic, at times funky score deserves special mention too - not least of all for that amusing theme tune sang by Chaney Jr.

But this is ultimately Hill's baby and his direction has never been as taut as it is here. If there's a sense of the theatrical about the performances, they're evened out by some wonderfully understated set design and atmospheric use of monochrome photography that really does render events spooky in several instances.

Filled with memorable images (Virginia crawling on her belly in the garden looking for bugs; Haig's creepy Neanderthal-type persona; the chilling final act), SPIDER BABY is pure entertainment that just happens to look very good, even on such an apparent low budget - reportedly just $65,000.00.

Arrow Films bring SPIDER BABY to UK home video for the first ever time. Its arrival is long overdue on these shores, but it's certainly been worth the wait: this dual format blu-ray & DVD combo pack is very nice indeed.

The blu-ray disc was provided for review purposes. It presents the film uncut in a stunning 1080p restoration. Provided as an MPEG4-AVC file on a 50GB dual layer disc with a healthy bitrate size, the transfer honours the film's original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and is of course enhanced for 16x9 television sets.

The black-and-white photography has never looked so sharp and filled with depth. Contrast is superb without ever being over-enhanced, while a fine layer of grain throughout ensures an authentic filmic quality is retained in favour of any unwanted noise reduction. Comparing this against the Region 1 Dark Sky DVD of a few years back - which was excellent for its time - the upgrade is instantly noticeable. Honestly, aside from very occasional softer-looking scenes (few and far between), this is a stunning presentation. I'm delighted with it.

Audio-wise, the original English dual mono mix has been given a really nice Master HD clean-up. Optional English subtitles for the Hard-of-Hearing are also up to snuff.

The disc opens to an animated main menu page. From there, pop-up menus include a scene-selection menu allowing access to SPIDER BABY via 12 chapters.

Extras begin with an excellent audio commentary track from Hill and Haig; both of them are blessed not only with great memories about the shoot but an infectious fondness for the film. They speak highly of Chaney Jr despite touching upon his troubles during production (a massive boozer), and at times seem genuinely surprised about how well the movie holds up.

Both are also present in "The Hatching of SPIDER BABY", an immensely enjoyable 32-minute retrospective which traces the film's origins back to 1964 and goes on to celebrate its enduring appeal. Joe Dante features alongside several surviving participants of the film, all extolling its virtues in an agreeable manner. Hill looks really good for his years.

"Spider Stravinsky" takes an 11-minute look at Ronald Stein's entertaining score, while also taking the time to provide a brief biography via his wife and a look at his other filmic achievements.

"The Merrye House Revisited" is an 8-minute video document of Jack Hill's 2006 return to the SPIDER BABY house in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles.

A 33-minute film festival Q&A session sees Washburn, Redeker and Hill in attendance for the presentation of a screening of a new restored print of the film Stateside. Despite an overlong onstage introduction to the film, this also turns out to be a most worthwhile proposition. Anecdotes about Chaney Jr steal the show, naturally. Interestingly, the film was shown back-to-back on this occasion with a newly restored print of CARNIVAL OF SOULS - so it's feasible that someone may see fit to release that in HD sometime soon. Arrow, please?

A 2-minute alternate opening title sequence bears the name CANNIBAL ORGY, but is otherwise identical to the final cut's version.

A 4-minute "extended scene" adds dialogue and little more, but it's good to have it here anyway.

Hill's little-seen 1960 student film THE HOST also makes an appearance here. It also marked the screen debut of Haig and comes with a text introduction from Arrow highlighting the similarities between its plot - based loosely on James Frazer's novel "The Golden Bough" - and the third act of APOCALYPSE NOW.

Presented in its original pillar-boxed 1.33:1 ratio and offered in an understandably rather scratchy monochrome presentation, it's a cheap Western that comes recommended more as a curiosity piece than solid entertainment. Still, the promise of a young Haig with a full head of black hair should entice most into giving it the once over.

A gallery of 19 on-set photographs is a nice touch.

Finally, the blu-ray treats us to the film's original 63-second trailer. The DVD disc was not made available to review, but I gather it contains the same content as above as well as the film in standard definition.

Also forming part of this set but unavailable to comment upon, this release contains double-sided reversible cover artwork and a booklet containing, amongst other things, liner notes by Stephen R Bissette.

SPIDER BABY remains as weird and wonderful as ever. Arrow Films have given it a brilliant release here. Highly recommended.

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by Arrow Video
Region B
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review