Reel Discoveries: Spider Baby

by RPO

The dulcet tones of Lon Chaney Jr. performing the opening theme song lets you know you are in for a special treat. Whether it’s going to be especially good or especially bad remains to be seen. Hey, everybody, this is your old pal RPO talkin’ atcha for the premier of [my new and improved] Reel Discoveries. [What’s new? The restrictions of only reviewing older films. After all, the bizarre and the unusual are not restricted to black and white films (or films where the color is so washed out you wish they were in black and white). What’s improved? More clips, less looking at my ugly mug — which is a win-win situation for everybody. But enough about that.] Today, Jack Hill — the auteur who brought us such memorable classics as The Big Bird Cage, The Swinging Cheerleaders, and Switchblade Sisters — takes on the “Spooky Old House” genre and brings Lon Chaney along for the ride in his classic Spider Baby or The Maddest Story Ever Told.

Chaney plays Bruno the chauffer and all-around caretaker for the remaining three children in the Merrye family. The family is cursed by a strange affliction, possibly the result of inbreeding. It seems that when Merrye descendants reach a certain age, they begin to regress — and as they became adults they have the minds and attitudes of young children. [Aw, there they are. Aren’t they just adorable?] Eventually they lose any form of language and turn into cannibals. Ralph, played to perfection by the ever-lovable Sid Haig, is close to this final transformation and provides most of the scares without ever uttering a word. [Show ’em how you talk, Ralph. Ain’t he quaint?] Meanwhile the two sisters have their own peccadillos. [Elizabeth, the youngest and therefore most sane, is obsessed with hatred. Virginia on the other hand keeps spiders as pets and tries to emulate them whenever possible. Hey, take it easy with those knives girl!]

This charming Rockwellian family is faced with a crisis when two distant relatives of the Merrye family — Emily and Peter Howe — have decided to take a firm hand in the Merrye family fortune. Putting it bluntly, they want their cut — and if that means cutting the “children” out of the financial picture then so much the better. To this end, they have hired shyster lawyer Mr. Schlocker and his secretary Ann Morris. They are all determined to spend the night in the Merrye Manse despite Bruno’s misgivings and half-hearted warnings. Death, mayhem and madness ensue, but in a humorous vein in keeping with the “Spooky Old House” genre. [Here we see Mr. Schlocker meet his schlocking–er–shocking demise.]

This was one of Chaney’s last films, and it’s no great secret that this late in his life he was something of an alcoholic. He does seem to have laid off the sauce for the most part while filming this and turns in one of the best performances of his late career. [Okay, maybe he wasn’t all that sober. What was that, Lon? My God, man enunciate!] Also turning in truly memorable performances are Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner as the demented sisters. And comic actor Mantan Moreland has a small but memorable role as the messenger who delivers the bad news at the beginning of the film.

This movie is a must-see for fans of Lon Chaney Jr. if for no other reason than to see him turn in his last truly great performance. I give three and a half out of a possible five psychotrons for a decent script and outstanding performances by the leading characters. Alas, I have to take away one and a half psychotrons for the pedestrian performances of the rest of the cast. Except for Mantan Moreland, who turns in his usual but all too brief comedic performance. [Let’s watch some of that, shall we? Ah — pure comedy gold.]

Next time on Reel Discoveries, we’ll look at a brand-new movie — proving that it doesn’t have to be old to be psychotronic or a cult classic. Paul Dano is stranded on an island and Daniel Radcliff is the corpse who proves to have a number of unique talents in Swiss Army Man. A refreshingly new comedy or a Weekend at Bernie’s retread? You’ll find out next time on Reel Discoveries.

full movie

Directed by Jack Hill
Bart Patton (assistant)
Produced by Paul Monka
Gil Lasky
Written by Jack Hill
Starring Lon Chaney, Jr.
Carol Ohmart
Quinn Redeker
Beverly Washburn
Jill Banner
Sid Haig
Mary Mitchel
Karl Schanzer
Mantan Moreland
Music by Ronald Stein
Cinematography Alfred Taylor
Edited by Jack Hill
Distributed by American General Pictures
Release date
December 24, 1967
Running time
86 min.

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