Despite a few credits before this one, this movie stands as the actual feature (solo) directorial debut from Jack Hill, who also wrote the script. And what an astonishing statement it is, effectively serving as a bridge between classic horrors such as The Old Dark House and the terrors to come from titles like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The plot revolves around a highly dysfunctional family, named Merrye. Lon Chaney Jr is Bruno, the father figure, although he was actually the chauffeur before circumstances made him a guardian, and the “children” are played by Jill Banner (her character leading to the film title), Beverly Washburn, and Sid Haig. All three have a rare genetic condition that leads to them becoming wild, animalistic, and harmful to others. Bruno has tried to protect them for as long as he can, but he’s unable to delay the inevitable when visitors come knocking. Those visitors include a lawyer (Karl Schanzer), his assistant (Mary Mitchel), and a couple of distant relatives (Carol Ohmart and Quinn Redeker), and it’s not long at all until they start to realise that things are a bit odd in this particular household.
If you’ve already heard of this movie then no doubt you’ve heard it being described as a bit of a bonkers experience. There’s no denying that it absolutely IS insane in a number of ways. The actions of the main characters, the details that come out during the main events in the movie, even the way in which it is all framed by Redeker’s character directly addressing the audience and maintaining a straight face while describing the fictional disease that affects the Merrye clan. All of these things seem a bit mad. Add in the strange tone of the film, which tapdances around between dark and dangerous moments to comedic sequences to attempts at earnest character speeches, and you have one hell of a wild ride.
Banner steals the show with her deadly antics, but she’s almost matched by Haig. Chaney Jr was rarely the best actor in any film that he appeared in, it has to be said, but he has one or two moments here that allow him to give a surprisingly affecting performance. Washburn aside, the rest of the cast are really just lined up to observe the madness and be potential victims.
In his commanding role, Hill does a fine job of piling on the macabre and the bizarre without somehow tilting everything over into something so overdone that it becomes mind-numbing. He knows how often to jump around between the main characters to keep things moving along briskly for the entire duration (all 81 minutes of the runtime) and he knows how to film the more grisly moments without the need to show everything.
You obviously know that you’re in for something strange when you opt to watch a film entitled Spider Baby, Or The Maddest Story Ever Told. The big surprise is that you also get something worthwhile, despite the occasional mis-step.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: JACK HILL
STARS: LON CHANEY JR, CAROL OHMART, QUINN REDEKER, BEVERLY WASHBURN, JILL BANNER, SID HAIG, MARY MITCHEL, KARL SCHANZER
RUNTIME: 81 MINS APPROX
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