By Breanna Whipple
CALGARY — “We have lots of spiders,” a deceivingly endearing brunette softly claims. “Would you like to play spider with me?” Enveloping her prey in a web made of rope, constraining and submitting them to her will, with a knife in each hand she poises to sting…
The mind of a child is known to be boundless and unpredictable. One of the most conflicting actualities in the history of human behavior is the innocent mind easily distorted by evil. Once captivated by an insatiable blood lust in which no understanding of the value of human life is established, adolescents become relentlessly unstoppable. Tapping into this unsettling dread is Jack Hill’s 1967 bizarre cult horror, Spider Baby.
Hidden deep within menacing forestry and underbrush is the battered Victorian home of the ill-famed, inbred Merrye family. With only three sole degenerates left in their disturbed bloodline, the plot centres around caretaker Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.) as he painstakingly tries to keep the madness of the Merrye children in seclusion. Spawning an atmosphere more sinister than that of the iconic “psycho,” Norman Bates, and with macabre conventions even going beyond that of gothic favourites, the Addams’ Family, Spider Baby is arguably one of the most unsettling experiences of the late 1960s black and white horror catalogue.
Situated within the confines of the dilapidated home, an overwhelming claustrophobia surrounds the motion picture. Immersing the audience in a manic game of cat and mouse – or in this case, spider and bug – its 81-minute runtime is a loaded gun full of grisly chills and thrills. Clashing the cutesy, wholesome Halloween vibe typically associated with the ’60s, alongside generally conflicting elements of cannibalism and homicidal lust, Spider Baby has rightfully earned a high rank cult status and praise for its notable uniqueness.
Evocative scenes of unnerving Arachnida, cobwebs, and silhouetted shadows, the film is aesthetically aligned with numerous classics dating as early as 1922’s Nosferatu. Despite being released over three decades after both Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (1931), it envelops the audience with a time-honoured elegance lacking within modern horror.
Worthy of accreditation in paving the way for the horror genre’s dysfunctional family niche, the connections to be made to other films are nearly endless. Perhaps one of the earliest examples would be Tobe Hooper’s revolutionary 1974 shock-fest, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, in which a family of cannibalistic inbreds obtain their meat through a mentally unstable adult child; nearly parallel plots only a few years apart. Horror icon and devoted fanatic, Rob Zombie, has also undoubtedly drawn inspiration from Spider Baby throughout his entire career. One could argue that his 2003 directorial debut, House of 1000 Corpses, is a complete homage to this underground cult classic. Not only does the hedonistically sadistic family in Zombie’s film share an isolated mania akin to that of the Merrye’s, actor Sid Haig also plays a prominent role in each film.
A tune jingling lightly above childlike drawings of goblins and ghouls, the voice of Lon Chaney Jr. summates the film’s horrific elements in the form of song, which goes as follows:
“Screams and moans and bats and bones/Teenage monsters in haunted homes/The ghosts on the stair, the vampires bite/ Better beware, there’s a full moon tonight… Take a fresh rodent, some toadstools and weeds; And add an old owl and the young one she breeds/Mix in seven legs from an eight-legged beast/And then you’re all set for a cannibal feast/Sit round the fire with this cup of brew/ A fiend and a werewolf on each side of you/This cannibal orgy is strange to behold/In the maddest story ever told.”
Catch Spider Baby at a midnight screening Jan. 27 at the Globe Cinema.AB, Alberta, Globe Cinema, Night Terrors Film Society, Spider Baby