Spider Baby is a weird, weird film. An anomaly in the late ‘60s, that was directed and written by Jack Hill (Switchblade Sisters, Foxy Brown, Pit Stop, Coffy) and starred Lon Chaney, Jr., Carol Ohmart, Quinn K. Redeker, Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner, and Sid Haig. Siblings Virginia (Banner), Elizabeth (Washburn), and Ralphie (Haig) are looked after by the kindly old family chauffeur/caretaker who promised their dying father that he would look after his children after his death. You see, in the inbred Merrye family, they don’t live too long; a regressive, childlike state only serves to send the family members closer to death the longer they live — either by genetics or by circumstance. The sisters pass the days pretending they are predatory spiders — at least when passerby come around — as they unknowingly fall into a mental Benjamin Button-like state. The first instance of this we see is an elderly messenger (played by the famed character actor Mantan Moreland) who only wants to deliver an important envelope; even with his decades of experience, he is no match for two murderous children.As it turns out, this envelope heralds the arrival of several strangers, whether they are distant family members and/or lawyers and assistants, the Merrye clan’s days at home — and possibly their secluded life and wealth — are numbered. Like a loyal family dog, Bruno sees to it that the status quo (among his perverse though sweet-natured intentions) are upheld. The girls are allowed to continue playing “spider” and more people die. Fans of psychological horror, exploitation, and just plain odd films are likely to love this very strange artifact of film. Let’s not forget, in the context of American history, the “Summer of Love” was only two years away, and the Vietnam War was raging.
The transfer is likely identical to Arrow’s UK release, which means it’s beautiful and brilliant. Ronald Stein’s score lends itself well to the action, providing great cues while amping up the dread and excitement factors of the film. Beautifully preserved deep blacks and pristine white and gray shades — as well as great audio — make this release a highly recommended grab.Steadily growing in reputation as the “Criterion of genre,” Arrow presents Spider Baby — along with (most or) all of its releases — with a thick booklet featuring thoughts and theories on the film by Stephen R. Bissette; interviews with the cast and crew; “The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein” featurette; original stills and artwork; and a reversible sleeve sporting newly commissioned artwork by the legendary genre illustrator Graham Humphreys. Fans can also thrill to the trailer, a cast & crew discussion, the short film The Host, directed by then-film-student jack Hill in 1960, a cool “return to Merrye House” featurette with Jack Hill, audio commentary with Jack Hill and Sid Haig, and much more. This Arrow release is fascinating; you’ll learn that Marlon Brando was engaged to be married to star Jill Banner, who prematurely died — in addition to other fascinating factoids.
Overall, Arrow’s Spider Baby is a fantastic addition to any fan’s media library. Unfortunately, I can’t give Pit Stop as high praise as Spider Baby for a few reasons. The basic premise, a guy (Rick Bowman, played by the decidedly James dean-like Richard Davalos) without purpose suddenly deciding he wants to become a mercenary-like racecar driver for sport and profit, as egged on by rich guy Grant Willard (played by Brian Donlevy) is a bit tedious. Additionally, there are several instances of the transfer’s film degradation, at least at the beginning of the picture. The whole thing seems to be something of a cash grab by the producer, Roger Corman.Pit Stop also stars Ed McLeod (George Washburn), a young Ellen Burstyn as his wife and second-in-command mechanic (credited as Ellen McRae), Hawk Sidney (Hill regular Sid Haig), and Jolene (Spider Baby‘s Beverly Washburn, as Rick’s love interest). As a young greaser in suburbia, Rick doesn’t have much to fight for, save the sake of being a rebel, and the rich old codger Grant decides to bail him out of jail one night, in hopes of recruiting this malingerer as a new rough-and-tumble race car driver. We go through the motions of Rick rebelling against his “calling,” which he slips right into easily, not having much emotion to speak of, or really, anything better to do.
Haig starts out at the beginning of the movie as the clown prince of the race car circuit, but is eventually revealed to be a person with actual human emotions, unlike our protagonist, Rick. (Well, he does display anger). It’s not clear if Haig is simply the better actor (likely) or if he was written and/or directed better than Davalos, either by choice or by disregard. Guys intend to dethrone other guys and it’s an exciting race to the finish line of who gets to be the biggest jerk! Career and wife and girlfriend stealing win the day!Excepting my snarky commentary, I’m sure some people (dudes) would enjoy this film. Arrow Video USA releases it with the usual TLC, such as a demonstration on the film’s restoration, an original trailer, Hill’s audio commentary, an interview with Roger Corman on how the film came to be, and an interview with Sid Haig, who recalls how the film was made for about $35,000. Illustrated with original stills and newly commissioned artwork by Jay Shaw, the included collector’s booklet offers thoughts by film critic Glenn Kenny, as well as an essay by musicologist Gray Newell on the film’s soundtrack.
As a fan of film, any work done to repair a decaying medium in order to preserve a story (no matter how asinine) is a worthy venture. As reported by the booklet copy: “Thousands of instances of dirt, scratches and debris were carefully removed frame by frame, damaged frames were repaired, and density and stability issues were improved. Some minor picture issues remain, in keeping with the condition of the film materials. The soundtrack was also remastered, minimizing audio issues such as pops, bumps, clicks and audible buzz.”
Verdict? For hot rod or Hill completests only.