Thursday, July 30, 2009

Film Review: SPIDER BABY (1964, Jack Hill)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 81 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Lon Chaney Jr., Beverly Washburn, Sid Haig, Carol Ohmart, Jill Banner.
Tag-lines: "Come into my parlor, said the spider to the..."
Best one-liner: "I caught a big fat bug right in my spider web and now the spider gets to give the bug a big sting. Sting! Sting! Sting! Sting! Sting!"

Do you like spiders, Mr. Howe?" (You should probably think very carefully before you answer that.)

In 1964, after doing some mostly uncredited work on some Corman pics and directing a brilliant, existential student short (THE HOST), Jack Hill finally got a shot at his first feature, and boy, is it a doozy. It's in turns manic, hilarious, sincere, terrifying, and devastating- and it's probably the greatest, most original American horror film to emerge from the 1960's. Unfortunately, due to bankrupt financiers, it didn't see the light of day until '68, but it was the first in a series of bona fide low-budget masterpieces from Hill that would later include the Shakespearean SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, the hard-hitting Blaxploitation gem COFFY, and the radical/reactionary treatise THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS. SPIDER BABY made an indelible impression on many a filmmaker, from Tobe Hooper and his cannibalistic family units to David Lynch and his chillingly chipper oddities to Wes Craven and his 'people under the stairs' to, most recently, Rob Zombie and his weaker noodlings on the same subjects.

But a movie as freakishly visceral as SPIDER BABY deserves far more than just a history lesson, so allow me to explain why it works (without giving too much away, of course). The film is at its best when eerily combining completely disparate elements: from the opening credits (with children's book cut-outs accompanied by Lon Chaney Jr.-sung lyrics about cannibal orgies) to Sid Haig's lanky man-child to the blurry line between kid's playthings and murderous implements, SPIDER BABY delights in fusing the juvenile and the macabre. Why have a scene with just incestuous undertones when you can have a scene with incestuous, pedophilic, violent, AND insectoid undertones?

And for being a 7-day bargain basement shoot, it has an incredible amount of class- almost as if Nabokov and Tennessee Williams collaborated on a script directed by a German Expressionist (turned Corman protégé). The acting (particularly by the aforementioned Haig, the well-meaning caretaker Lon Chaney Jr., and the two psychotic sisters, Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner) pulls of the difficult feat of being at once sinister, darkly hysterical, and full of pathos. Whew! Now: revel in the majesty that is SPIDER BABY...if you dare!

-Sean Gill

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