Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1967

Sunday, April 11, 2010

League of Wednesdays: SPIDER BABY (1968)

Having just seen, loved, and written about Girly (1970), I must delve into its American cousin, Jack Hill's de-lovely Spider Baby (1968), for Stacie Ponder's Ye Olde Film Club Day over at the definitive Final Girl. 

And if you needed a reason to love Spider Baby, think of its homicidal purity in contrast with, say, the new Addams Family musical, which I've read disturbing things about via the NY Times' Ben Brantley:
"Gomez (Mr. Lane) and Morticia (Ms. Neuwirth), the heads of the family, discover to their alarm that Wednesday (Krysta Rodriguez, left), their 18-year-old daughter, has fallen in love with Lucas Beineke (Wesley Taylor), a young man from a middle-class all-American home. What’s more, Wednesday has invited Lucas and his parents — Mal (Terrence Mann) and Alice (Carolee Carmello) — for dinner, and insists that the family try to act “normal” for the night."
Wednesday grown up and asking her parents to act "normal'" and not embarrass her in front of her bland boyfriend? Why bother making the play at all? Nothing's worse than when a genuinely macabre family gets watered down and sanitized to appease Times Square tourists. Imagine a Spider Baby remake starring Michael Cera in the same situation as Quin Redecker (above) --tied down and at the mercy of a nubile nymphet with two butcher knives. Cera would squirm and make lame excuses and try to talk his way out of the situation, just like a big...fat... bug... caught in a spider web.  Redecker still squirms, but he's a swell fella, with some real class and a thorough conveyance of adman Bob Dobbesism.

Spider Baby has a come a long way and endured many setbacks en route to its current cult status. It was barely screened at all when originally released because no one wanted black and white films at the drive-in anymore, all of a sudden. It resurfaced later on blurry video where it became a slow-burn cult favorite but even then it was the kind of film you had to dig for. At least I had to dig in 1990 when I'd watch it every night around three AM, drunk on bourbon and ginger ale - it was on a 6-hour tape I made, betwixt Mesa of Lost Women and Faster Pussycat Kill Kill --all culled from a Seattle cult video and used record store I found when "living" in Seattle. Together the three films on that video formed for me an inner sacred space of the devouring Kali goddess cinematic energy, a womb where death and life were all in the hands of batshit insane dark haired spider ladies and drag racer lesbians, and they set the groundwork for my appreciation of Camille Paglia's 'chthonic' vision when I read her Sexual Personae a few years later. Prurience, punishment and drunken self-loathing all came together for me watching this film, transmuting into to 127 proof gold of the absolving Kali.

No one can climb into the lap of a tied-down uncle (Redecker) or mix girly baby doll sexuality and creepy murderousness like Jill Banner (above). Though Beverly Washburn as her sister Elizabeth comes in second. Together, murderous nymphetitude gets no better, not even in Don't Deliver us From Evil of Jean Rollin's vast oeuvre. Cordelia's more about tattling to the family custodian/chauffeur Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.) while Virignia's thing is the "spider game" and presumably is the titutlar baby; their rival bickering is forgotten when the sanctity of their home is threatened in favor of a well-armed murderous solidarity. As usual with these film dionee, the brother is a wild child simpleton (Syd Haig), the patriarch confined to his bed in his upstairs master bedroom (and long dead), and Bruno is the best kind of doting dad to step in as guardian, eternally gentle and decent with his homicidal charges.

We all love Chaney's farewell monologue with the children gathered around, as he comes up with the solution to their unwanted house guest problem, a solution which will mean the death of them all-- and a gleam of sadness comes into his eye and you know he's using his personal career rises and falls and awareness of his own mortality and bogey man obsolescence to access that melancholy and ravaged relief -- everything in poor Lon's life, from his childhood sleeping in the vaudeville trunk of his thousand-faced dad, his career-igniting turn as Lenny in Of Mice and Men and instant cult status as The Wolfman, all the way down to fucking up his live TV Frankenstein by thinking it was just another rehearsal--it all comes pouring out so beautifully, you can't help but well up, especially if you're watching your love life fall apart through a haze of weed and whiskey while the Seattle rain staccatos your flat apartment roof and she dresses to go out to some dumb potlatch you're far too wasted to attend. It's his "Home... I have no home" speech (i.e. what won Martin Landau his Oscar) and he does it so well he never has to vary from being mellow and glowing, happy that all their woes will soon come to an end. Lon shows just what he was still capable of and it makes a nice capstone for a great actor mauled by Hollywood's fickle taste changes and his own genetic predisposition for booze. In this single scene on a film that crawled out of the obscurity basement all on its own, he transmutes his entire wrecked life into an unqualified triumph.

As with GIRLY, described in my last post, SPIDER BABY that seems to merge with my psyche as if it had been made just for me... zeroed in but not in a sort of overkill give the people what they want kind of way but a perfectly-realized, just gory and strange enough but never to the point of post-modern narrative disruption way. Nowhere are there the tedious elements that usually mar old dark house and murderous family films: snarky reporters, imbecilic cops, doting old ladies and suspicious tire salesmen, to name a few.  None of that! and yet there are all sorts of groovy meta links to the gonzo films of the past in the casting: Monogram mainstay Mantan Moreland opens the film as an unlucky telegram Sam; Carol Ohmart, the archetypal broad in House on Haunted Hill (1957) and The Creature from the Haunted Sea, is great at making greed and contempt super sexy; Sid Haig, the Jack Hill perennial, brings weird savage naive pathos. Why, the whole thing just stinks with atmosphere! (that's a quote from the sun-dappled but roughly similar and underrated Boogeyman Will Get You (1943).

I can't find my copy of the old version DVD but I ordered the director's cut direct at his Spider Baby Online site. I'm hoping director-writer-producer Jack Hill gets a bigger cut of profit so he can get rich and make more movies. Stop meditating and start scarifying again, Jack! You've got a great eye, ear and wit, so use it, por favor--and Stacie Ponder, you are the Mother Queen of all horror and strange film bloggin's. Yours was the first "blog" I read and related to, years and years ago! You showed monsters, raconteur wit, and perceptive film history-savvy writing could be fused!


  1. Thank you for your kind comments. You might like to know that a new director's cut transfer is available from MPI/Dark Sky, from Amazon:

    ==Jack Hill

  2. Thanks, Jack! I hope this is the same new one I just bought off your Spider Baby Online site while researching this piece. Can't wait to see it.

  3. I had the same "merge with my psyche" feeling. What a fab movie. And yes, I love Chaney's final monologue, when his eyes suddenly fill up. Through all the zaniness the relationships feel very genuine.

  4. You might like to know that a new director's cut transfer is available from MPI/Dark Sky, from ajaazi.