Sunday, April 11, 2010

The 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."
A Wednesday all 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 or doltish beau Blandings. 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 handle on adman Bob Dobbesism.

Spider Baby has a come a long way and endured many setbacks en route to its current cult status as the living segue between the Capra-directed Here Comes the Groom (where Bing, like a cool-cool-cool of the evening Lon Chaney Jr.,, nurtures two hardscrabble Frenc war orphans, one of whom is a dead ringer for Beverly Washuburn), Grey Gardens (like that film it shows how bourgeois politeness usually conceals great depravity, and Philadelphia Story, where Tracy and Dinah's 'con' isn't so sophisticated that the average lawyer or reporter wouldn't realize they're 'performing' to mask some scheme. None of them think it would be murder, of course. Or the 'Spider Game'. That's where the film earns its wings, so to speak, just not angel's wing. It earns bat wings.

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 has her own great charm, and they have a great rapport, murderous nymphetitude gets no better, not even in Don't Deliver us From Evil or Jean Rollin's vast oeuvre. Cordelia's the one still smart enough to sense the approaching danger, and her 'act' of demure sophistication (her curtseying and socialite hostess bridge club phony grins, 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 (Sid Haig), the patriarch confined to his bed in his upstairs master bedroom (and long dead, or seemingly so), 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 how that line "we didn't have all that much time left anyway," seeming to sum up the entirety of his personal career rises and falls and awareness of his own mortality, alcoholism, and bogey man obsolescence, all flashing at once the way it does when one steps into battle, or a suicide spiral; to access that melancholy and ravaged relief takes huge courage, everything in poor Lon's life, from his childhood sleeping in the vaudeville trunk of his thousand-faced dad to his own career-igniting turn as Lenny in Of Mice and Men and later his Universal horror cult status as The Wolfman, all the way down to fucking up his live TV Frankenstein by drunkenly 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 your soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend dresses to go out to some dumb hippie potlatch you're far too wasted to attend, if you were invited. It's his "Home... I have no home" speech (i.e. what won Martin Landau the Oscar that was really Bela's) 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, and these cute children will be spared the cannibalistic final act. It's a single scene on a film that's otherwise a macabre horror comedy, yet it fits and elevates the whole thing. It was already a pretty good time, but this monologue transmutes the film into greatness, and Chaney's entire wrecked life into an unqualified triumph.

As with GIRLY, described in my last post, SPIDER BABY 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. It lies on the historical time line between my love for those old Bela Lugosi Monogram and PRC poverty row horrors and the art film Corman-school mix of post-beat wit and Corman trained mastery of on-the-fly shock, schlock, and drive-in pacing. Nowhere are there the tedious elements that usually mar old dark house and murderous family films: no snarky reporters, imbecilic cops, doting old ladies or suspicious tire salesmen 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 Castle's House on Haunted Hill (1957) and Corman's The Creature from the Haunted Sea, is great at making greed and contempt super sexy; Sid Haig, the Jack Hill and later Rob Zombie 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 all the profit so he can get rich and make more movies. Stop meditating and start scarifying/exploitating 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! You fused 'em and Broadway's Addams Family with its tourist-streamlined wanting to be normal Wednesday, you can taste the Spider sting of our ambivalence!


  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.

  5. Once seen,never forgotten.

  6. nice one keep posting


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