MARCH 6, 2009
I think part of the reason I hate so many of those no-budget horror movies from the past couple years (most recent example would be Dark Harvest 3) is that they don’t have any creativity or daringness about them. They make generic slashers and “torture porn” movies in an attempt to fit in with current trends and get their film picked up for pennies and unceremoniously tossed onto the bottom-most shelf of a Blockbuster. But Jack Hill, working with a budget that was probably identical to those films (inflation considered), made Spider Baby, a film that STILL doesn’t give you the impression that you’ve already seen it 20 times, even 45 years later.
A common problem I run into when watching older movies for HMAD is that I’ve already seen a number of the newer films that have copied/homaged/just plain ripped it off, but that wasn’t an issue with Spider Baby. In fact, the only plot point I saw coming was the survival of one character, and that’s because the bulk of the film is his flashback (and even the 2nd part of his bookend contained a nice little surprise to make up for it). Also, since the film is rather obscure, plot points haven’t been spoiled over and over. Consider a film like Psycho, where it’s almost impossible to enjoy the film’s two major twists anymore as audiences did when the film was first released, and you can kind of get the appreciation I felt here. I doubt anyone will feel the same way in 40 years when they discover fucking Dark Ride.
It’s also a damn funny movie. Dark humor is pretty timeless I think, and if anything this type of comedy is more accepted nowadays, which makes Spider Baby a prime choice for rediscovery. Indeed, it’s showing at the New Bev in a few weeks, and I expect it to be a fantastic screening. Helping matters will be the in-theater presence of Sid Haig, who appears in the film as a sort of mutant mongoloid. It’s a terrific performance, and it also just kind of makes you yearn for the days when Haig’s appearance in a low budget horror film wasn’t a sign of mediocrity, like it is today.
Speaking of actors taking paychecks, I was also surprised to see how much Lon Chaney appeared in the film. I was expecting his role to amount to little more than a quick cameo, perhaps in a scene that had zero bearing on the actual film, but Chaney’s role is pretty significant, and he interacts with all of the cast in equal measures. Actually the film as a whole is like an ensemble; no character really dominates in terms of screentime. He gets a number of the laughs (there’s even a Wolf Man reference, possibly the first nerdy meta-injoke in a horror movie), and even sings the theme song (which sounds like Monster Mash set to the theme of the Batman TV show), but his character is also rather tragic. Again, that’s part of the surprise of the film - you expect him to be a scenery chewing typical villain, but Chaney actually delivers a sympathetic, fully-rounded performance.
The only real issues are technical ones. It’s a rather short film, so I assume things had to be dragged out in order to reach an acceptable runtime. So we get like, 10 straight minutes of a guy looking around the house at one point. Hill’s framing also gives away some shortcuts, such as a scene that obviously got shot at different times. The result? An actor disappears entirely:
Later, his framing also gives one otherwise touching scene a bit of unintentional hilarity:
Minor complaints though, and I only mention them to make sure it’s clear that I think this is a great movie. You only notice minor flaws when you’re actually engaged in the narrative and performances; the framing could reveal the goddamn catering table during a Dark Harvest movie and I’d never notice.
The DVD also has some strong extras worth your time. The commentary with Hill and Haig is filled with tidbits and anecdotes, and Hill sounds like an older version of 30 Rock’s Kenneth, so there’s something. He also inadvertently refers to the civil rights movement as a shame when discussing how it ended the career of racist black comic Mantan Moreland. Then we get a trio of featurettes, one about the music, another about the house where the exteriors were filmed, and finally a retrospective that has new interviews with just about every living performer from the film (Spider Baby Jill Banner sadly died in 1982 after some fucking drunk hit her on the 101). There’s also a deleted scene (not entirely necessary) and an “alternate credit sequence”, which is just the exact same credit sequence albeit with the title Cannibal Orgy instead.
Movies like Spider Baby are the exact type of ones I wanted to see when I began doing HMAD (so I owe some thanks to HMAD reader CannibalCrowley, who recommended it over a year ago!). It’s safe to assume that without “forcing” myself to watch everything I get my hands on, I never would have gotten around to seeing it (I might not even be able to attend the New Bev screening due to work, but damned if I won’t try), and that would be a shame. Even if I didn’t like it, I’d much rather watch something offbeat and unique than the umpteenth Breakdown movie, even a technically advanced one. Kudos to Hill and his cast/crew for delivering an example of the former, which 45 years later can help break my monotonous dealings with the latter.
What say you?