Just watch that above video. I’ll wait. It’s the opening titles to Jack Hill’s classic in morbid humor, SPIDER BABY.
You finished yet? You wanna watch it again? Go right ahead. I’ll be right here.
If you like THE ADDAMS FAMILY more than THE MUNSTERS, this is the movie for you this Halloween season. The movie itself is a riff on the hoary Old Dark House tropes that were already tired back in the silent era. In many of these films, family members are gathered in a creepy mansion because of a pending inheritance. They are then picked off one by one as the story progresses. In this case, it’s the Merrye estate in question. The direct descendants in the Merrye line — Virginia, Elizabeth and Ralph (Jill Banner, Beverly Washburn and Sid Haig) — live on the estate under the guardianship of the caretaker, Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr.). The Merrye family is afflicted with a strange syndrome (believed to have been brought on because of inbreeding): as the children reach adolescence, they begin to mentally degenerate. The older they become, the more childlike they become, eventually regressing into savagery and cannibalism. Bruno has sworn to protect the family until the final descendants have passed away. However, distant relatives (unaffected by the syndrome), their attorney and his assistant suddenly arrive, intending to claim the property as their own. As the household is plunged into chaos, Bruno’s control over the Merrye family slips away — something that can only be resolved through drastic measures…
Lest this sound like some serious, TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE prototype, the film is full of the darkest black humor, funny film references (the attorney’s assistant is seemingly very…erm…enthusiastic about the movie THE WOLF MAN), cartoonish characters and witty wordplay. Plus, it’s got the should-have-been-bigger Carol Ohmart (HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL) as one of the greedy relatives, and she does mean better than just about anyone. But the Merryes are the stars on display here, and they are great. Virginia is the “bad” sister, showing no hesitation about killing people and being generally duplicitous and possessing a borderline sexual attraction to her newly-arrived Uncle Peter that is…well…disturbing. Elizabeth is the “good” sister, tattling on Virginia’s every move. Ralph is completely gone, communicating only through grunts and gasps, and behaving like a bizarrely horny two-year-old. And then there’s Bruno.
Bruno is one of Lon Chaney, Jr.’s best performances. His gentleness and genuine affection towards those in his care is almost heartbreaking in its sincerity. He genuinely seems like a man who has been driven almost to the point of madness after the years spent taking care of a house full of crazy people (whom he can never let leave the property), yet who is still driven by a solemn oath he pledged to the estate’s former patriarch. He’s the anchor that grounds the entire movie, and Chaney is superb in doing so.
The production company went bankrupt after the film’s 1964 production, and so it sat unreleased until 1968. It was thereafter plagued by recuts and alternate titles that bore little relation to the film’s subject matter (THE LIVER EATERS, anyone?). It took a while to find its audience, but a cult has slowly grown around the movie over the years. Join the cult now, and give the film a watch this Halloween season!