Are cannibals worse (horror-wise) than other notorious monsters? Spider Baby thinks so: the theme song (sung by Lon Chaney Jr) goes through the usual full-moon etc scenarios and then suggests that
“Frankenstein, Dracula, even the Mummy,
are sure to end up in somebody’s tummy!”
Cannibals are real humans who have chosen to eat from their own species, while the others are undead, reanimated, aliens, etc – less believable for being (to most of us) not true. Cannibals are true – they have existed, they do exist, they will exist. Not quite like this little family, though.
Spider Baby is a 1967-ish black horror comedy film, written and directed by Jack Hill. I say “1967-ish” because the film was made in 1964, whereupon the producer went bust, and it was finally released to less than ecstatic reviews in December 1967. Spider Baby was barely marketed (no budget) and also suffered a series of title changes, being called at various times The Liver Eaters, Attack of the Liver Eaters, Cannibal Orgy, and The Maddest Story Ever Told. Two of the titles were incorporated in the title song: “This cannibal orgy is strange to behold, in the maddest story ever told.” And the opening titles of the film read Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told.
Three siblings live in a decaying rural mansion with their guardian and chauffeur, Bruno (Lon 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 until they reach:
…a prehuman condition of savagery and cannibalism.
Bruno describes it as “rotting of the brain” and compares it to paresis, one of the latter stages of syphilis.
Two distant relatives arrive with their lawyer and his secretary in order to examine and claim the property as rightful heirs. They insist on staying for dinner, so the crazy brother, Ralph (Sid Haig, who appeared recently in another cannibal movie, Bone Tomahawk), catches a stray cat. The family won’t eat it though – they are vegetarians. “It’s dead” the other sister explains. “We don’t eat dead things.” Eating meat hastens the process of the syndrome. Another good argument for veganism.
Virginia (Jill Banner) is the eponymous “Spider Baby”, so called 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”, and “stinging” them to death using two butcher knives. After murdering an innocent delivery man (Mantan Moreland), Virginia cuts off one of his ears, which she keeps in a match box.
The mysterious Aunt Clara, Aunt Martha, and Uncle Ned, who have regressed even further than the Merrye siblings, are kept in the cellar. The family also keep the skeleton of the family’s dead father, in striped pyjamas, in a bedroom, and Virginia likes to kiss him goodnight. She also eats spiders, explaining that this is something “cannibal spiders do”. Which is quite insightful. Bruno leaves on an errand, first warning the children to “behave”, but of course murder, rape and cannibalism ensue.
The bodies end up in the cellar, where the older generation of Merryes eat them. Family relations go rapidly downhill, culminating in Bruno blowing up the house and its occupants. The surviving cousin speaks to the camera at the end, boasting that he has inherited the family fortune, and that the “Merrye Syndrome” has been eradicated in the exploding house. As he speaks, the camera pans to his young daughter, who looks a lot like Virginia, as she admires a spider.
Lon Chaney Jr is of course one of the greats of the horror genre. His father was probably more famous, a giant of the horror silents, but Junior did OK. He first shot to fame not in horror but in the 1939 film of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. He entered the world of horror two years later as The Wolfman (Waggner, 1941) and subsequently played the whole gamut of reboot monsters in The Ghost of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1942), The Mummy’s Tomb (Young, 1942) and Son of Dracula (Siodmak, 1943). He appeared in a vast range of parts, not just horror but Westerns, comedies and dramas and even had a guest role in The Monkees. The great director Stanley Kramer told the press in the 1950s that, whenever a script came in with a role too difficult for most actors in Hollywood, he called Chaney.
Spider Baby cost about $65,000 to make, and took only 12 days to shoot, in black and white. The promo said:
Spider Baby has the seductive innocence of Lolita and the savage hunger of a Black Widow.
The film was barely noticed on release but has since achieved cult status (it has its own website due to plans for a remake, which never eventuated) and has achieved an extraordinary 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with one critic saying:
Simultaneously creepy and hilarious, this is the perfect slice of Grand Guignol for a humid summer’s night.
The full movie is available, last time I checked, on Youtube.