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Sting! Sting! Sting!

Jack Hill's 1964 shocker, 'Spider Baby,' mixed risible acting with heartfelt emotion

By Richard von Busack

According to the Dictionary of Rare and Peculiar Diseases, opened for us at the beginning of the 1964 cult horror classic Spider Baby, Merrye Syndrome is a regressive disease that causes the victim to revert to a "prehuman condition of savagery." Later in the film, a character named Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.) elaborates, "It's more than retardation--it's a rotting of the brain, so to speak. The unfortunate result of inbreeding."

Our narrator, Peter (Quinn Redeker), explains that he has had personal experience of this disorder. In flashback, we see how it was that Peter encountered a big, decaying Southern Californian mansion full of Merrye Syndrome sufferers in various stages of mental decay.

Merrye sisters Virginia (Jill Banner) and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) spend their days in play. Both are girls in their early 20s, apparently reduced to the level of fifth-graders. Bald-headed Ralph (the amazing Sid Haig) is further gone, about as smart as an adult chimp. Minding the family as best he can is the loyal old family retainer, Bruno, who is finding it more and more difficult to keep Virginia from murdering passersby.

The low, low budget Spider Baby (which gets an appropriate Halloween revival at the Roxie Oct. 31) invites comparison with The Blair Witch Project. But the tone of the film, wavering between comedy and horror, is much closer to the 1932 James Whale picture The Old Dark House, in which the silliness of some of the cast is matched by the strangely affecting acting of others.

Spider Baby has its ridiculous side. Carol Ohmart, playing a mean, conniving cousin trying to get her hands on the Merrye estate, pirouettes around in a push-up bra and garter belt, seemingly only to give the movie some sex. When a lawyer named Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) is stabbed to death by some of the Merrye family, he goes down muttering, "What about prudence? And good taste. There are proper procedures!"

But Chaney and Banner make this curious melodrama memorable. Chaney, ravaged by alcoholism, reminds you of the last footage of Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 From Outer Space, which was popularly but wrongly supposed to be the worst movie ever made. In his silent scenes at a graveyard in the beginning of Plan 9, Lugosi shows grief and suffering that's as raw and serious as any moment he delivered on film.

In this erstwhile schlock movie Spider Baby, Chaney, looking like grim death, fires up the last embers of his life as an actor. Just as Chaney was put out of his misery as the killer Lenny in Of Mice and Men, Bruno has to end the Merryes' line. As he beguiles these homicidal overgrown urchins with a lie, his pouched eyes fill with tears--in mourning, perhaps, for his own life.

Banner's Virginia is the most dangerous of the Merryes. She likes to play "spider," pouncing on her prey of the moment with a pare of butcher knives, screaming, "Sting! Sting! Sting!" Drifting around the mansion in what looks like a discarded bridesmaid dress, her hair long and untidy, Banner seems like a Lolita version of Barbara Steele.

She's a princess psycho, whose smooth-faced murderousness is modeled on the coolness of Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates. Banner's Virginia is somewhat different, though. Her weirdness is in her slowness. Lazy as a courtesan, this child-minded woman can always justify every killing by complaining about how provoked she was. (Before attacking one victim, she tells her sister, "That little man looks just like a big fat bug.") And in the climactic scene, in which she prepares Peter for her "spider game," she displays her bare legs. Her flirtatiousness is properly creepy; you get a glimpse of the incestousness that's clogged the family's gene pool.

Spider Baby bore more titles than a bankrupt Italian count. It was also released under the names The Liver Eaters and The Maddest Story Ever Told. (Chaney's theme song still refers to the latter version, a reference to the Jesus pic The Greatest Story Ever Told: "Sit round the fire with this cup of grue/a fiend and a werewolf on each side of you/This cannibal orgy is a feast to behold!/The Maddest Story Ever Told!" Nothing to do with the movie, of course.)

It wasn't a hit, and director Jack Hill continued in a vein of low-budget but always-feminist thrillers and shockers. He directed Switchblade Sisters, a.k.a. The Jezebels (1975), with Robbie Lee as the toothy but rabid leader of a near-futuristic girl gang, and two nigh-identical actioners with Pam Grier: Foxy Brown (1974) and Coffy (1973). (The latter was billed with the memorable ad line, "She'll cream you!") Only a director really interested in women could have made these movies or handled the transformation of Banner from knife-wielding killer to biddable little girl.

In Hill's movies, women always have a reason for their violence. And throughout all of his films, which could have been the usual killer-chick potboilers, Hill gives physical, emotional and intellectural credence to the opposite sex, which, in movies, is as rare as Merrye's syndrome.

'Spider Baby' (1964), directed and written by Jack Hill, plays Oct. 31 the Roxie Theater, billed with Vampyres, Daughters of Dracula (1975).

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From the October 25, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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