In Spider Baby, Hill sets out his stall at the start, bringing on Mantan Moreland, an eye-rolling, black comic actor from the 1940s whose career had taken a hit as soon as the civil rights movement kicked in. Moreland does his trademark spooky-house face, glancing hither and thither – and is then knifed to death by a demented teenager, something that could never have happened back in the days when horror movies played by a safe set of rules…
Equipped with a budget of only $60,000, nearly half of which was paid to star Lon Chaney Jr., Hill approached his first professional, solo directing gig (his filmography is littered with odd part-works, sharing credit with others or receiving no credit at all) with a take-no-prisoners bravado, seemingly hopeful that a movie subtitled ‘The Maddest Story Ever Told’ might get by just on being completely different from anything ever before attempted. Disastrous previews nearly stopped the movie coming out at all.
From its insistent theme tune, sung with gravelly enthusiasm by Chaney himself, to its gleeful embrace of inbreeding and genetic disorder as a plot point, the film is a bad-taste banquet. With little money to spend, Hill nevertheless cast extremely well, with pixie-like Beverly Washburn and baby-faced Jill Banner impressive as two psycho teens whose minds have regressed into infancy – and possibly to a pre-human state; hairless, gash-grinned Sid Haig (a Hill favourite) is a wondrous, appalling sight in his Little Lord Fauntleroy uniform; and Chaney himself enjoys a late-career renaissance in a role that actually treats him with some respect as an actor and a horror icon (all his most famous monster roles are name checked). Years of alcoholism left the lumbering actor looking puffy and leonine about the face, and he’s neither quick on his feet nor with his delivery, but as with Lennie in Of Mice and Men (1939), his finest role, he has material that plays to both his strengths and weaknesses. Forget the likes of Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), as I’m sure Chaney did, and look upon Spider Babyas a final grace note in a long and disorderly career.
The straight characters are fun too, as they rarely were in Corman movies: Carol Ohmart excels as the nasty heir, intent on kicking the freaks out of their decaying mansion, and Quinn K. Redeker is both hilariously square and curiously lovable as the hero. And there’s even something appealing about the more exploitational elements of the flick: the sexual content is limited to the more attractive female cast members running about in their undies. It all seems so innocent.
The limitations of budget and schedule are seen in some inconsistent, but often eerily beautiful, black and white photography, and some quite noticeable sound problems, plus the movie, having set up its premise too hastily, is then required to remain in a holding pattern until the crazed climax. But it’s all so much more inventive, and more good-natured, than a movie shot under the title ‘Cannibal Orgy’ has any right to be, so how can one quibble? At its best, it achieves camp irony, serious psycho-horror and pathos all more or less at once, which is more than most movies achieve sequentially.
Arrow’s Blu-ray is typically handsome, with the misty, diffuse whiteness of Alfred Taylor’s photography attaining a mysterious, chalk-and-charcoal dustiness that’s truly dreamlike. A cluster of extras trace the movie’s fascinating genesis, and Hill himself comes over as a far nicer guy than most practitioners of supposedly ‘legitimate’ mainstream cinema.