It’s October! That marvelous month of the macabre and mayhem. With a wealth of horror movies to catch up on, I decided to go for something a little retro and that has a lot of retaining influences. With Kelly’s last LTTP post on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I thought it would be fun to follow up with another tale of cannibal clans, madness, and backwoods terror; Jack Hill’s Spider Baby or The Maddest Story Ever Told!
And what a story of madness it is.
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The film starts off with a musical cartoon montage about the ‘maddest story ever told’ to set the mood. Then, a man with a book on rare diseases discusses “Merrye Syndrome.” A genetic disorder which causes a degeneration of the inflicted’s physical and mental state, causing them to become childish sociopaths. The last three known Merryes are Ralph, Virginia, and Elizabeth. Ralph is a mute but excitable manchild (played by none other than Sid Haig!). Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) is the more restrained and bullied sibling. And Virginia (Jill Banner) is a violent womanchild obsessed with bugs and spiders. The titular Spider Baby ‘trapping’ a deliveryman in her web before brutally stabbing him to death. Using a pair of knives as her pincers. The guardian of the trio and the estate is their chauffeur Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.), a kindly old man who just wants to keep the poor remnants of the Merrye family afloat and sane. But when distantly related Merrye family members arrive to claim the estate, it will turn into the most fearsome family reunion ever!
Watching the film, it’s interesting to see it as the ‘missing link’ of sorts between the ghosts and ghouls of the early 60’s to the more visceral and brutal human killers of the 70’s and onward. Despite being a more grindhouse style film, there’s a lot of heart to these madmen. Bruno sees the trio of siblings as kids, despite their age, size, and homicidal tendencies. He made a vow to watch over the Merrye clan to the family patriarch, and he intends to keep that oath. Ralph, Elizabeth, and Virginia are sympathetic in that their lot is of no fault to their own, but due to a cruel genetic disease. Virginia also keeping a collection of pet tarantulas such as Barney and Winifred.
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All three stand out in their own ways. Ralph is playful and funny (The scene of Sid Haig having to wear an ill fitting schoolboy suit to dinner is as hysterical as it is weird) but still a giant of a man. Elizabeth and Virginia are like any bickering sisters, though with a proclivity for blades. And unlike most stories of psychopathic families, we get a lot of perspective from the cannibal clan themselves, something not oft done even in modern horror.
While not necessarily a frightening movie, it really sets the mood. The black and white tones making the dark and forbidding Merrye estate all the more suffocating and eerie. With a subdued pace, it can feel almost like a character study at times. Like an exploitation version of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. Even doing something most films of its time never did, in becoming meta about the horror genre. In a tense but delightful scene around dinner, the visiting Merryes decide to spend the night at the estate despite Bruno’s warnings against the idea. Peter and Ann joking about the place being haunted and their love of horror movies with vampires and werewolves when Bruno notes that there’s a full moon that night before panning to the deranged trio of siblings.
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A delightfully deranged tale of 60’s style madness and murder, for anyone interested in digging deeper into the roots of these kinds of horror tropes, Spider Baby is worth a visit to the Merrye family…
Join us next week when James Jay Edwards goes the greatest show to ever visit Earth with Killer Klowns From Outer Space!
Feature Image Courtesy Chris Fischer