Spider Baby

Spider Baby poster

It was with gentle diligence and duty, not to mention a measure of justified pride, that family chauffeur Bruno took care of the three children of his employer Titus W Merrye upon his death, Ralph the eldest and most profoundly affected by the inherited affliction known as Merrye Syndrome and so mentally underdeveloped, Elizabeth also noticeably withdrawn but the most socially adapted of the three and consequently the one in whom Bruno places the most trust, and young Virginia.

The most dangerous and uncontrollable of the three siblings, her behaviour knows no boundaries, obsessed with playing the game of “spider,” her latest victim a courier who bore news of the imminent arrival of their distant cousins Emily and Peter Howe accompanied by their lawyer Schlocker, intent on assessing the house and the children, their concern less for their wellbeing than determining whether they can be institutionalised with the wealth of the estate passed to them as the only living relatives of sound mind and body.

Spider Baby: the Merrye children at play, Virginia, Elizabeth and Ralph (Jill Banner, Beverly Washburn and Sid Haig).

Written and directed by Jack Hill and bearing the subtitle The Maddest Story Ever Told in the animated opening credits accompanied by a song performed by the great Lon Chaney, Jr, who also stars as Bruno, his dedication undervalued and his opinions dismissed, his third feature Spider Baby lives up to that promise with a tale of family rivalry culminating in murder driven by a condition said to be directly linked with prolonged inbreeding.

All knowing innocence and menace, the children are played by Sid Haig, Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner, while the condescending Emily is Carol Omhart, the future she has planned for them less magnanimous than monetarily advantageous, aided by Karl Schanzer as the ruthless Schlocker, with Mary Mitchel playing his horror movie loving secretary Ann who catches the eye of the more charitable Peter, Quinn Redeker’s character also serving as narrator of the framing story.

Spider Baby: Virginia and Elizabeth (Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn) ponder what to do with their visiting cousins.

Released as part of a double bill in late 1967 to little fanfare, unlike the tragically curtailed Merrye family tree the legacy of Spider Baby has fared better, slowing somewhat in the middle section of the nocturnal investigation of the crumbling house by Schlocker but a respectable achievement for a film shot in twelve days on a budget of only $65,000, the picture quality sharp, the print well preserved and the subject matter ahead of its time.

Perhaps partially inspired by We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson’s 1962 novel of reclusive, murderous siblings and their unwelcome cousin which features a character known as Merricat, with Bruno’s statement that consumption of meat exacerbates the condition Spider Baby also echoes forward into Our Town, Mulder and Scully’s investigation into a hotspot of degenerative Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease caused by cannibalism, the web spun half a century ago both subversive and enduring.

Spider Baby will be available on the Arrow platform from Friday 17th May

Spider Baby: playing "spider" with her cousin Peter (Quinn Redeker), Virginia (Jill Banner) prepares to sting him.



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