Spider Baby might not be “the maddest story ever told,” but it comes somewhat close.
The film’s a strange mix of haunted house, 1950s sci-fi and cartoon humor–I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a live action cartoon; it’s like “Scooby Doo” on expired sleeping pills. It opens with that 1950s sci-fi introduction, the erudite gentlemen addressing the camera. Here it’s Quinn K. Redeker, who maybe doesn’t do the erudite well, but is a solid and likable leading man for the picture.
Immediately following–oh, I forgot the amazing opening titles, which are animated and set to song (with Lon Chaney Jr. singing no less)–Spider Baby hits a snag. The introduction to the characters is awkward, following a disposable character instead of Chaney. In fact, opening it with Chaney’s arrival and skipping the awkwardness would have worked a lot better. For the first three-quarters of the film, Chaney is the film’s glue. He never lets his performance go, engaging the viewer enough there’s no need to examine anything too close. Even as he guards and enables a bunch of mutant cannibals, Chaney still brings an intense likability to his role.
The script is really pretty good. Jack Hill knows how to shoot on a limited budget (haunted house pictures don’t have to cost much and there aren’t really any special effects), but he knows more how to write for one. That awkward opening, which is a lot bigger than the rest of the film, might have been to disguise the film’s eventual small scale. It certainly seems like a much different picture after the opening, but one of the film’s constant joys is its continual reinvention.
As a horror film, even a comedic one, it has to fire the pistol on the wall eventually, but the way Hill paces things, it’s as though the viewer is willing all the elements to come together, not the filmmaker forcing them. It’s a nice mix of expectation and organic development.
But it’s too bad Chaney falls off in the last act. His character arc is just too much for him and he can’t reign it in. The other acting in this section–particularly from his three cannibals-to-be wards, Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner and Sid Haig–is some of the strongest in the film. It’s also the section where Mary Mitchel and Redeker have their requisite love interest scenes together and they’re both good in them. Mitchel spends most of the movie in the background, so it’s nice when she gets some attention.
In the two flashiest roles, Washburn and Banner oscillate a little too much, but both deliver when it’s important. Washburn’s got some sturdier scenes than Banner… but Banner’s got the more salient character.
Carol Ohmart, as one of the squares, eventually has some really good moments. Actually, the only bad performance is from Karl Schanzer; his fearless and annoying lawyer (with a toothbrush mustache, something I really wasn’t expecting to see) makes many jokes fall flat. His delivery’s poor and the film, for a while, rests a lot on him and he fails.
The film has some real high points, but as the end starts to become clear, it’s also clear Hill hasn’t got his bookends to work right. There’s some off about them and when the end bookend turns into a real scene, Hill’s only moments away from making the film’s final mistake.
But even with a cheap ending, there’s a funny “The End” card and that attention to absurdity makes the film succeed. Also important are cinematographer Alfred Taylor, who does a great job–there’s quite a bit of good, black and white day for night here. Ronald Stein’s music is also important for keeping that playful but still dreadful tone.
I only heard about Spider Baby last month. I’m surprised it doesn’t have more of a vocal following.
Written, edited and directed by Jack Hill; director of photography, Alfred Taylor; music by Ronald Stein; produced by Gil Lasky and Paul Monka; released by American General Pictures.
Starring Lon Chaney Jr. (Bruno), Carol Ohmart (Emily Howe), Quinn K. Redeker (Peter Howe), Beverly Washburn (Elizabeth), Jill Banner (Virginia), Sid Haig (Ralph), Mary Mitchel (Ann Morris), Karl Schanzer (Schlocker) and Mantan Moreland (Messenger).