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Feature


The Merrye Syndrome is a rare genetic malady in which sufferers mentally regress to a condition of "pre-human savagery and cannibalism”. The syndrome is named after the one family in the world that carries it. The Merrye children—Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), Virginia (Jill Banner) and Ralph (Sid Haig)—all live in the old family mansion under the cautious guardianship of a family chauffeur named Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.). Every once and a while some poor sap wonders into the Merrye web and find themselves dead, but Bruno runs a relatively tight ship. Things go awry when a pair of distant cousins and their sleazy lawyer visits the house and set their sights on the family fortune.

Spider Baby: Special Edition
Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, is a proto-cult movie. It follows the tradition of other American horror-comedies of the 1960s, like Roger Corman’s Bucket of Blood or William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill, and is every bit as funny and wonderful as those more well known features. Unfortunately for all concerned the film was more or less lost. For decades it was best known as one of Lon Chaney Jr.’s last films, and a forgettable rarity. Then came home video, and a legend was born.

The film is a perfect sampling of everything that was great about low-budget, exploitation filmmaking from a more innocent era. Before films like Last House on the Left and The Man from the Deep River fed into a dark public bloodlust there was an acknowledge silliness to drive-in genre pictures. Spider Baby has a more violent edge than many movies of the time, but it’s always wide-eyed about the more shocking story elements, and though it plays the suspense straight, the horror is almost always played for subtle laughs.

The adorable, straight-faced innocence behind the comedy ensures it’s still genuinely funny, even by modern standards. If there was a Vincent Price School of Respectfully Hammy Acting, I would assume that this entire cast had graduated with honours. The level of camp in these performances is perfectly balanced to ensure the obviousness of the ‘wink’ factor without ever grating. Spider Baby keeps its head above almost every other similar feature with definitively good performances (not all that rare for the era), and perfectly dated and witty dialogue. Think about the general tone of Barry Sonnenfeld’s Adams Family movies, and you’re on the right track.

Spider Baby: Special Edition
Writer/Director Jack Hill is one of American Cinema’s best-kept secrets. Much of the Roger Corman brand of exploitation entertainment owes its success to Hill’s effortless direction, and many of the factory’s most successful directors (Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante) owe their early careers to the trails Hill blazed. Hill is comparable to celebrated exploitation filmmakers like Russ Meyer and Larry Cohen, and Spider Baby is possibly his best film overall, though his Blacksploitation features are hard to beat.

New visitors to the Merrye household will probably notice how much it looks and sounds like the Firefly household. Rob Zombie’s directorial debut, House of 1000 Corpses, is effectively a hardcore horror remake of Jack Hill’s mini-masterpiece in dark comedy. Both film share aspects with the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one of the most commonly plundered horror films in history, but Spider Baby came first, and the aspects shared with Tobe Hooper’s debut have been pointed out regularly since the film finally caught on as a cult item.

Video


This new release from our friends at Dark Sky is easily the best version on the market, because the market includes only one other release, a non-anamorphic version from Image. Now then, Spider Baby was cheap, and it’s forty years old, and it was lost for several decades, so the fact that this transfer isn’t a total mess is a miracle. Grain and dirt are prevalent, but the overall cleanliness and detail levels are surprising. There is no colour, so hue blooming and cross-colouration isn’t a problem, but I could do with better contrast. The blacks are reasonably dark, but whites appear a little washed out. Still, a nice job on Dark Sky’s part.

Spider Baby: Special Edition

Audio


This Dolby Digital Mono track is effective and clear, but like many mono tracks it lacks definition. Louder moments are distorted, though not exponentially. The whole of the track has quite a bit of damage, including a consistent crackle and a few pops. Ronald Stein’s quirky and effective score (title track sung by Lon Chaney Jr.) is slightly stilted when the track is at its busiest, but overall I don’t think it’s ever sounded better. It seems the source material just wasn’t there for a totally pristine audio track, but this will do for most fans.

Extras


Dark Sky’s new special edition pleases in quality, even if the overall quantity may appear a little weak. First up, as always, is a brand new feature commentary with writer/director Jack Hill and actor Sid Haig. Both participants are joyful and funny. The track is packed full of info without a lecture-like tone, as if Grandpa Jack and Uncle Sid are simply reliving the old days right there in your living room. Those that own the original Image release may want to hang onto it for Hill’s original solo track.
Spider Baby: Special Edition
‘The Hatching of Spider Baby’ doesn’t run much longer than thirty minutes, but manages to run down the film’s entire back-story in a brisk and entertaining manner. Most of the living participants in the production are interviewed, and none of them have anything less than the warmest memories of the production, even the things that didn’t go quite right.  

‘Spider Stravinsky’ briefly covers the varied and impressive career of composer Ronald Stein, a regular to horror and thriller titles of the era. Interviewees are quick to point out Stein’s incredibly varied musical pallet, but do to rights issues we have to take their word for it on most occasions. The featurette will probably make most viewers want to fill up their Netflix queue with several titles.

‘The Merrye House Revisited’ is a quick trip to the original house used during production with Jack Hill. It’s short (only about eight minutes), but fun, and it doesn’t overstay its charming welcome. It’s followed by the alternate opening title, which is the same as the other one, just with the name Cannibal Orgy at the top rather than Spider Baby, and an extended version of a meeting scene towards the beginning of the film. A still gallery finishes the set.

Spider Baby: Special Edition

Overall


A minor classic, and a must see, especially for fans of Rob Zombie’s first two films, Spider Baby has aged better than most cult films of its era. It’s an influential film, with great performances, sharp photography, a few genuine chills, a creative score, and a murderously dry wit. This new release from Dark Sky is reason to celebrate, especially for those of us that never got around to buy the now way out of print Image release.


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