In this 1960s, the independent film boom was well under way of becoming the next big thing in cinema. The indie films of the '60s, included 'nudie cuties', drive-in flicks, rebel-youth outings, and most importantly, horror movies. These horror movies were a mixture of blood, gore, cheesy but method acting, and dated production values. However, for better or worse, they changed the way that underground films would be made since then.
In this case, director Jack Hill's 1963 cult masterpiece, Spider Baby, remains one of the best of the bunch. Yes, it's not as serious as George Romero's 1968 revolutionary Night of the Living Dead, but it was just as well conceived and in my opinion, well made as that classic film. In terms of film history, I think it is one of the great cult-black comedy thrillers ever made.
The film stars the legendary Lon Chaney Jr, as Bruno, the guardian of three unique siblings: Virginia, Elizabeth, and Ralph, and when I say "unique," I'm not kidding, because they all suffer from a rare genetic disorder that causes them to regress back to childhood, while developing adult characteristics, such as physical and sexual maturity. This proves to be very harrowing, because the stronger their mentality gets, the more dangerous they become.
Bruno has successfully managed to cover up their crimes, when they get a little "knife happy," until two long-lost relatives along with their lawyer and his assistant intrude to sue them. Bruno tells the children to be on their best behavior, so that they will not get taken away from the premises. This doesn't work out too well, since the children have certain "fun and games" up their sleeves for their new house guests.
There are many times when Spider Baby shows its age, especially considering the very limited budget and shooting schedule (which was only 12 days), but the eerie atmosphere is unusually crisp and there are some really creepy moments, such as the dinner scene where the relatives are served weird food, including a cooked cat. Another consists of the murder of the lawyer in the basement, when Virginia and Elizabeth kill him in order to keep him from talking. However, there is a scene that adds some unusual emotion to the mix where Bruno confesses to both girls why their relatives have come to their home. You get the understanding that Bruno really loves and cares for these children, even as they commit awful acts of violence. This elevates this movie beyond its trashy subject matter to almost accurately depict human and family conflict.
There is a certain charm that surrounds the entire film, because originally it was meant to be more a comedy than a horror thriller, but it manages to brilliantly mix comedy and horror where the audience doesn't know what to expect next. This is what a good movie accomplishes, even a bizarre and campy movie like this one.
As usual, Arrow have assembled a standout special edition Blu-ray/DVD combo set that allows you go deeper into Hill's unique, but weirdly memorable film. I doubt that there is going to be another edition that allows a film of this caliber to look as good as it does here. I'm sure that Jack Hill is proud of the work that the people of Arrow Media have done to restore the picture of Spider Baby.
The excellent special features include:
- An unusually informative and entertaining commentary with Hill and actor Sid Haig ("Ralph") as they discuss the origins of the film, from the budget to the casting to the overall reception. Things get a little somber, especially when discussing Jill Banner (who played Virginia) who was unfortunately killed in a car accident in 1982. This was the exact commentary that was originally included in Dark Sky's DVD edition from 2007.
- Panel Discussion from The FILM-to-FILM Festival - A quite illuminating Q&A with Hill, Haig, and actors Quinn Redeker ("Peter") and Beverly Washburn ("Elizabeth") as they discuss everything from Lon Chaney Jr. and how he worked during the production, the performances of the other actors in the film, and its history and legacy. This is a real must-see.
- The Hatching of Spider Baby - a gathering of great interviews from director and fan Joe Dante, Hill, Haig, actress Mary Hitchel ("Ann"), and others on the creation of the film. This is a wonderful featurette with the people behind the movie, and why it continues to have its strange impact on indie filmmaking.
- Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein - This is another great featurette where historian Ted Newsom talks about the impact of the film's late composer, and includes Stein's wife Harlene as she talks about how he met producer Roger Corman. There are also additional tidbits from Dante, Hill, and Chris D. of the American Cinematheque theater.
- The Merrye House Revisited - Neat footage of Hill and filmmaker Elijah Drenner of American Grindhouse as they revisit the original house that was used in the film, which still stands today. Arguebly, the house is just as creepy as the Bates house in Hitchcock's Psycho.
- Alternate opening title sequence - This just consists of the same opening but with the original title, Cannibal Orgy.
- Extended scene - which is the continuation on the scene where Bruno drives the lawyer and his assistant to the house to meet with the relatives.
- Original theatrical trailer
- Gallery of rare behind-the-scenes stills
- The Host (1960), a great early short from Hill, with Haig in his first lead role.
As usual, there is a reversible cover sleeve with the original poster art by Graham Humphreys, and a collectible booklet with a great new essay by artist/writer Stephen R. Bissette and a lengthy article from FilmFax: The Magazine of Unusual Film and Television featuring more interviews with the cast and crew, filled with original images and artwork.
I really enjoyed the sheer weirdness and strange narrative flow of Spider Baby. It's a film that doesn't fit the mold of normal filmmaking, and I love that. It doesn't get discussed too often, outside of cult and horror buffs, but with this new excellent release from Arrow, there's bound to be a second life to this extremely offbeat but amazing movie.