Classic Musings: Spider Baby (1968)

Successful horror comedies tend to be a mixture of the best of both worlds, making the audience laugh and get freaked out in satisfying, relatively even intervals. There's a black-comedy mood that exists between the two, though, that frequently goes overlooked in those hybrid productions: that unsettling feeling where someone's unsure of whether to snicker or to squirm, a complicated balance to strike without tilting too far in one direction or the other. The Merrye house in Jack Hill's Spider Baby seems as if it was built out of materials designed specifically for that middle-ground in mind, setting the stage for a cleverly disturbing piece of '60s filmmaking that uses cannibalism, inbreeding, and mental disorder to just the right ends. Creepy without being too grotesque and witty without ruining the eeriness of the atmosphere, Hill constructed a gem of a horror picture out of a straightforward concept that withstands the test of time due to its macabre equilibrium.

It's hard to overlook the similarities between Spider Baby and The Addams Family, where a ghoulish family largely separated from society goes about their everyday activities as if their warped sensibilities are the norm. The oddness of the Merrye family goes beyond the way they conduct themselves, though, since they're the outcome of a deep history of family breeding within itself, resulting in a degenerative disorder that causes its members to regress into a infantile, cannibalistic state with age. After the death of the father, the family's manservant and connection to the outside world, Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.), took on the responsibility of caring for the three remaining children and keeping the family a secret in their large dilapidated house: twisted sisters Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and Virginia (Jill Banner), the youngest fancying herself a human spider, and their brother, Ralph (Sid Haig), who's in an advanced stage of the "syndrome". Their way of doing things gets interrupted by distant relatives and their lawyer, arriving to seize the estate's assets after evaluating the situation overnight.

The key difference between Jack Hill's film and the popular television show to which it's so naturally compared lies the relationship among the Merryes, which isn't made of the same perverted flip on the nuclear family and conforming to social conventions. These folks are truly demented and barely held together by the nervous yet complicit Bruno, shrewdly played by Lon Chaney Jr. with a booming, reassuring appeal as he deals with the challenges of keeping the house from falling apart. Spider Baby doesn't take very long in revealing the reasons why their secrets are worth keeping, either, as Virginia shows how she enjoys "playing spider" with a pair of fang-esque kitchen knives upon a random delivery man in the film's first scene. Therefore, when strangers come knocking and sticking their noses in the Merryes' affairs, there's a sense of dread atop the morbid curiosity in seeing how they'll respond to outsiders, though Hill's script certainly doesn't shy away from opportunities at grotesque humor, either.

With cinematographer Alfred Taylor capturing the dim, dingy corners of the tattered household and the things that lurk underneath, Spider Baby settles into an spooky overnight situation where these "normal" people are thrust into the evening activities of the troubled Merryes, tapping into a vein of black comedy amid their acclimation. The outsiders are, admittedly, a tad broad: Emily's stiff disgust with the family and absorption with money tends to be all too predictable despite Carol Ohmart's charismatic efforts, as are the sleazy and skeptical antics of thin-mustached lawyer Mr. Schlocker (Karl Schanzer). Director Hill uses that simplicity to concoct a sharp contrast between personalities, though, matching the urbanites beat-for-beat with the peculiarity of the siblings' table manners and other ... uh, routines. A brilliantly twisted dinner scene emerges as a result, where the oddities of the meager dishes served -- and how they got to the table -- are accentuated by Quinn Redecker's "Uncle Peter" and his acceptance of the skin-crawling situation.

The rest of the evening turns into a cabaret of the bizarre as the siblings work their wonders on their visitors, transforming Spider Baby into a raucous experience with unforeseeable and delightfully morbid twists. Despite the questionable reasons why folks choose to stick around and leave the the Merrye household, Jack Hill creates a series of unsettling events that naturally unearth from what we've learned about the family members beforehand. While she's captivating from the start as she dual-wields her knives, the seductive, predatory scheming of Jill Banner's Virginia becomes even more of a force to be reckoned with in the presence of their guests, producing an entrancing bit of eroticism as she "dances" for her latest prey ensnared in her web. Turns out, her performance is only the tip of the iceberg in deciphering the weirdness behind the walls and under the floorboards of the Merrye house, leaving one feeling mightily sorry for old Bruno's call to duty once all's said and done in this deranged little fable.

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