★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
This proto-hillbilly inbred cannibal family horror comedy is a forgotten gem!
Directed by Jack Hill.
Before there was The Hills Have Eyes, before there was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and before there was The Devil’s Rejects, there was Spider Baby. This is one of the earliest movies featuring a creepy inbred family of cannibal deviants. You know, the best kind of family! This dark comedy was a forerunner of the grindhouse movement, and though it starts out slowly, by the time the full cast is assembled and is one place, the movie turns into a rollicking and sinister funhouse with some surprisingly good comedic performances. I suspected little from this film, which certainly falls prey to “Don’t judge grindhouse by its poster art” which suggests that this would be little more than tawdry fare at a minimal budget. At first glance my thoughts went to movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space, The Horror of Party Beach or Hillbillies in a Haunted House… something really and truly trashy. But my instincts proved me wrong! What? No! My instincts are never wrong! Until now.
The premise of the film is delightfully simple. Emily (Carol Ohmart) and Peter (Quinn Redeker) are a brother and sister duo who find out that they are the inheritors of a significant estate from a long-lost uncle, but the decaying mansion happens to be occupied by the degenerate remaining members of the Merrye family. The youngest is their teenage niece Elizabeth, who despite being the baby, is scatterbrained and a horrible tattletale. Virginia, slightly older, fancies spiders, and likes to play spider by entangling people and attacking them with kitchen knives. And, the oldest, Ralph (who the two girls adore) is a bizarre troglodyte of a young man whose behavior is that of a violent three-year-old. My podcasting partner, Mike Campbell often comments “Where have I seen this actor before?” I had one of those moments with this movie. After reading the IMdB page, I discovered that that strange looking character Ralph is played by Sid Haig, who went on to a long and glorious career as a horror movie oddity, in House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, and Bone Tomahawk some 30 years later. He learned his horror character acting chops from none other than Lon Chaney, who plays Bruno, the doting chauffeur caretaker of these retrograde children.
These children, you see, are suffering from a degenerative condition that makes their humanity regress with the passage of time. It all stemmed from inbreeding, which naturally drives them towards cannibalism! The children are now young adults, with wicked violent streaks. Once Peter and Emily recognize the situation, their sneaky lawyer who they brought with them to case out the Merrye house confirmed that the best way to claim full custody of the property would be to have the children put into the looney bin. The film is laugh-out-loud funny, which I never expected. The humor is well timed and the idiot kids are a lot of fun to watch. Perhaps the best reason why this humor works is that the protagonists and the antagonists are a bit of a shuffle. Redeker plays Peter with fantastic nonchalance, and he finds the freakish family endearing. Ohmart takes the character of Emily, and she oozes greed and indifference. The fact that both Peter and Emily are willing to play along with the madness makes the humor really bend with the story, and the Virginia, Elizabeth, and particularly Ralph are so wonderfully kooky and the antics in the third act are Three Stooges worthy.
The impression I had about the minimal budget would be accurate. This movie was “el cheapo”, and it looks like it was made by rummaging through the sofa cushions for spare change to make a movie. This isn’t one of those movies to be praised for the cinematography and the glory of black and white. It’s cheap and almost done without any special effects. The biggest effect is probably that carcass that was served up for dinner that I’m showing in the image above. For that reason, I think the mere presence of Chaney in this film helped immeasurably. He radiates a stoic gravitas, as he played the straight man to all the wackiness that ensues through the film. though his career would careen off to some pretty terrible movies in the latter stages, he still has the power to ground a movie. There is a well-placed wolfman reference in the middle of the film that is met with the lightest of raised eyebrow by the man who made that character famous. It was all he could do from winking at the camera. It was also great to see Chaney delighting in his role, late in his career, as opposed to poor Bela Lugosi, who famously suffered through the catastrophe that was Plan 9 From Outer Space.
You can definitely see the DNA of the road-trip hillbilly fare that would come out of the grindhouse movie in this film. I particularly like the silliness of this feature, which doesn’t have the meanness of the movies which would travel down the twisted path that Spider Baby paved. This is certainly a proto-exploitation movie. There’s a gratuitous scene where Emily is enjoying trying on lingerie (with Ralph catching a peep). This may also be one of the very first movies where “The black guy dies first” trope comes in to play. And though it uses a genetic disease as the means to describe mental illness and developmentally challenged individuals… it would be considered horribly NPC by today’s standards.
This film was also billed as The Liver Eaters, Cannibal Orgy, and The Maddest Story Ever Told. It just predates the MPAA rating system, and it is clear that at this time, the Hayes Code has completely been ignored. For the time this would have been a pretty shocking movie. As it stands, it’s probably a PG-13 movie now, but the behavior of Virginia, Emily, and particularly Ralph would be very upsetting for younger children to watch. That said, this would be a fun gateway movie for people wanting to try out 60’s grindhouse.