Spider Baby is a 1968 black comedy horror film, written and directed by Jack Hill. It stars Lon Chaney, Jr. as Bruno, the chauffeur and caretaker of three orphaned siblings who suffer from "Merrye Syndrome", a genetic condition starting in early puberty that causes them to regress mentally, socially and physically. Jill Banner, Carol Ohmart, Quinn Redeker, Beverly Washburn, Sid Haig, Mary Mitchel, Karl Schanzer and Mantan Moreland also star.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Jack Hill|
|Written by||Jack Hill|
|Music by||Ronald Stein|
|Edited by||Elliot Fayad|
|Distributed by||American General Pictures|
|January 18, 1968|
Three children of the Merrye family live in a decaying rural mansion with their protector and chauffeur, Bruno (Chaney). The children suffer from "Merrye Syndrome", a genetic affliction unique to members of their family, which causes them to mentally, socially and physically regress down the evolutionary ladder, starting in late childhood. Two distant relatives arrive with their lawyer and his secretary in order to examine and claim the property as rightful heirs. Bruno's shaky control over the children deteriorates; murder, chaos and insanity ensue.
The siblings, Ralph (Haig), Virginia (Banner), and Elizabeth (Washburn), are inbred, demented, and dangerous. These overgrown children exhibit playful innocence mixed with brutality and feral madness. Virginia is known as "Spider Baby" because of her obsession with spiders. She stalks and eats bugs, moving with a strange and spider-like grace. She also enjoys trapping unsuspecting victims in her rope "web", "stinging" them to death using two butcher knives. After murdering an innocent delivery man (Moreland), Virginia cuts off one of his ears, which she keeps in a match box.
Ralph is a sexually advanced, but mentally deficient simpleton who moves through the house via the dumb-waiter. Unable to speak, Ralph communicates with only grunts and leers. He becomes sexually aroused with the arrival of the two visiting women.
The mysterious Aunt Clara, Aunt Martha, and Uncle Ned, who have regressed even further than the Merrye siblings, live in the cellar. The skeleton of the family's dead father is kept in a bedroom and is kissed goodnight by Virginia.
Bruno, the children's sworn and loving protector, has been able to maintain control and keep the family secrets hidden. But when the snooping, greedy cousin Emily (Ohmart) and her brother Peter (Redeker) arrive to take possession of the property, the bizarre behavior of the Merrye clan is revealed.
Peter, Emily, their lawyer Schlocker (Schanzer), and his assistant Ann Morris (Mitchel) insist on staying at the house. Dinner is served after Ralph happily kills a cat for the main course. The revolting meal includes insects, mushrooms, and a garden salad made of weeds.
Bruno leaves on an errand. Despite warning the children to "behave", events spiral downhill as the Merrye kids run merrily amok. Virginia and Elizabeth murder Schlocker and dump his body into the basement, where the demented beastly relatives apparently eat him. The basement dwellers are unleashed. Meanwhile, Emily models some black lingerie as Ralph peeks in. After being chased and then raped by Ralph, Emily becomes sexually aggressive and murderous.
Bruno returns and realizes that he has lost control of the children and of their secret unsavory lives. He lights a bundle of dynamite, blowing himself, the house and the children to bits. This seems to kill all carriers of "Merrye Syndrome".
Smug surviving cousin Peter, who managed to escape the house with Ann, is recounting the story as the movie comes to a close. Addressing the audience, he explains that, as the sole remaining heir, he inherited the Merryes' vast family fortune, married Ann and wrote a book on the strange "Merrye Syndrome" phenomenon. He adds that his particular branch of the family was distant enough to be immune to the syndrome. However, the camera cuts to Peter's young daughter, who eerily resembles Virginia, admiring a spider in its web.
The film was shot between August and September 1964. However, due to the original producer's bankruptcy, the film was not released until December 24, 1967. Spider Baby suffered from poor marketing as well as a series of title changes, being billed alternatively as The Liver Eaters, Attack of the Liver Eaters, Cannibal Orgy, and The Maddest Story Ever Told. Although these alternate titles have little or no relation to the plot, the latter two appear in the lyrics of the title song sung by Chaney: "This cannibal orgy is strange to behold in the maddest story ever told." The opening titles of the film also dub it Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told.
In 1999, a DVD of the film's original laserdisc transfer was released, including a cast and crew reunion and a commentary track by Hill. In 2007, Dark Sky Films released a version featuring Hill's director's cut, a new commentary with co-star Haig and multiple documentaries on the making of the film. In 2015, British home video distributor Arrow Films released a director-approved Blu-ray/DVD combo special edition of the film.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 100% based on 12 reviews, with a weighted average rating of 7.3/10. Author and film critic Leonard Maltin awarded the film two and a half out of a possible four stars, calling the film "At its best it's both scary and funny."
A musical version of Spider Baby played small community theaters, looking for a wider audience. It opened at the Empty Space theater in Bakersfield, California, on Halloween 2004. In October 2007, it opened in Brookings, Oregon at the local Grange Hall, and in Orlando, Florida at the Black Orchid Theater.
In 2009, the musical toured with stops in Fresno, Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Tehachapi and San Francisco. A 2010 tour a multi-city tour had stops in Las Vegas, Nevada; Toronto, Ontario; and Los Angeles.
The film's theme song has been covered at least twice: By the band Fantômas on their film-score covers album The Director's Cut, and by crossover thrash band The Accüsed on 1988's Martha Splatterhead's Maddest Stories Ever Told as "The Maddest Story Ever Told."
In 2007, independent film producer Tony DiDio began preparing a remake of the film, featuring original director Hill as executive producer, and Jeff Broadstreet as director.
Broadstreet stated in an interview, "We’re going to stick very closely to the basic story of the original film, and at the same time dig deeper into the backstory of the inbred Merrye family". The new script by Robert Valding "expands on the themes of unconditional love, and also the story elements of cannibalism and the mutant relatives in the basement".
In 2009, Spider Baby writer/director Hill and END Films launched the "official Spider Baby website," featuring historical information about the film, director/cast biographies, video clips and photo galleries.
Preservation and archival status
In 2012, the film was preserved by the Academy Film Archive, using the original camera negative. A new fine grain master positive, new duplicate negative and new prints were created, as well as analog and digital soundtrack masters.
- "Spider Baby". American Film Institute. Retrieved August 29, 2019.
- p. 92 Ray, Fred Olen The New Poverty Row: Independent Filmmakers as Distributors McFarland, 1 Jan 1991
- "Spider Baby". TVGuide.com. CBS Interactive. Retrieved February 25, 2017.
- "Videophiled Cult: 'Spider Baby' and the B-movie delights of Jack Hill". Cinephiled. July 5, 2015. Retrieved February 25, 2017.
- "Spider Baby". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved February 25, 2017.
- http://www.rickmcgrath.com/jack_hill_movies/spider_baby.html/ Archived February 11, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
- "Smith Estate". Roadtrippers. Retrieved February 25, 2017.
- "Spider Baby (1968) - Jack Hill | Overview". AllMovie. Retrieved February 26, 2017.
- "The Spider Baby Website". Spiderbabyonline.com. Retrieved February 25, 2013.
- "Spider Baby (1968) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes.com. Totten Tomatoes. Retrieved October 16, 2017.
- Leonard Maltin; Spencer Green; Rob Edelman (January 2010). Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide. Plume. p. 622. ISBN 978-0-452-29577-3.
- Fangoria - America's Horror Magazine
- "The Official Home of Spider Baby". Retrieved March 24, 2016.