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Spider Baby is Given The Academy Treatment (Interview with William Lustig)

On any given Friday, New York City boasts a wealth of entertainment opportunities, but on a year when Halloween manages to fall on a Friday, the opportunities multiply tenfold. Parties, shows, and—of course—the iconic Village Halloween parade, all make for tempting options, but for the genre cinephiles Halloween marks a time for embracing and promoting Horror films, and what better way to do so than by cooping yourself in a dark theatre for the night. While Nitehawk Cinema’s 12 hour movie-marathon A Nite to Dismember, or even the more modest showing of cult favorite Halloween III: Season of the Witch at Alamo Drafthouse: Yonkers both made for excellent All Hallow’s Eve celebrations, it may shock you to hear that it was The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (herein referred to as The Academy) that hosted one of the night’s finest events. Co-Curated by Roger Mancusi and NYU’s Dan Streibel, Director of Moving Image Archiving & Preservation (MIAP), The Academy opened “The Real Indies: A Close Look at Orphan Films” with a special newly restored 35mm print of Jack Hill’s directorial debut Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told. The event aims to “re-discover and re-appreciate orphan films – rarely seen, previously neglected cinematic works deserving preservation and revival,” and followed Friday’s screening with a full day of screenings on Saturday, organized into three sessions: Pioneering Women, Experimental Views, and Visions of New York.

Jack Hill, Photo Credit: Peter Dressel/The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Jack Hill, Photo Credit: Peter Dressel/The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

While the restoration and presentation of this oft-forgotten B-Movie gem was a remarkable experience in its own right, the event was enhanced with the presence of guest speaker and horror filmmaker/restoration icon William Lustig alongside Jack Hill himself. After two short, comical introductions of the film by both Lustig and Hill, the screening launched into a series of scratchy, grainy Jack Hill trailers—an effect made to recreate the “grindhouse” cinematic experience. Although there was the odd inclusion of Gus Trikonis’s 1978 film The Evil in the set, the montage of trailers (Pit Stop, Blood Bath, Switchblade Sisters, Coffy, and The Big Bird Cage) crafted a brilliant mood for the night; transforming the event into a cinematic spectacle.

Jack Hill's Spider Baby (1968) [click to enlarge]

Jack Hill’s Spider Baby (1968) [click to enlarge]

The near-sold out crowd were quick to accept the film’s absurdities—and for Spider Baby, absurdity is abound. The theatre roared in laughter and applause at the films quips, as well as many of the reflexive moments. In one scene, when Lon Chaney Jr’s character Bruno shoots Ann Morris (Mary Mitchel) a perplexed look after she references the Wolf Man, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and Count Dracula—all of whom Lon Chaney Jr. has portrayed in various Universal Pictures classics—the crowd burst into a uproar of praise and amusement. Following the screening Hill joined Lustig on stage for a wonderful Q+A. Where Q+As often tend to be misguided by overt agendas, Lustig’s love for film, easy going attitude, and historical knowledge paired well with Hill’s sharp wit. With the Q+A rounding out the evening, it was clear that The Academy set up a real Halloween treat (excuse the pun); an event both for and by cinephiles.

Following the screening, Diabolique met up with William Lustig, to talk about Spider Baby, his role as a restorer, the importance of restoration, and the current and future state of the media.

William Lustig HeadshotDiabolique: It is safe to say that all of our readers are familiar with your work as a filmmaker, but not all of them may be aware of your equally illustrious career in the restoration/distribution business. Can you give us a quick background covering how you came to be involved in this area of the film world?

William Lustig: Sometime in the 90s when there was the Laserdisc, remember those? I was an avid Laserdisc collection, but my frustration was that the films that I really wanted to own were either unavailable, or available only in Japan for enormous amounts of money. So I began acquiring the rights to films, to put them out on Laserdiscs, but I was still at the time making movies. So, it was kind of a hobby for me. I didn’t really do full-blown restorations because the tools weren’t available, at that time, to do it. So, I was just putting them out in their original aspect ratio, creating bonus material—you know like audio commentaries and such. And then, there was the introduction of the DVD, and that sort of began the work of acquiring and restoring films on a full time basis for me. Starting with Anchor Bay entertainment, where I had acquired films and distributed them, and later with Blue Underground, to which I have to this day.

Diabolique: Would you say, then, that your time at Anchor Bay gave you the tools and experience that you needed to take it from a hobby to a full-blown independent and successful business with Blue Underground?

WL: Absolutely, Anchor Bay afforded me basically a school, in the work of preserving movies. It was a time when I began to be able to absorb my mistakes; so that when I started my own company I pretty much had a good handle on how to be able to do the work efficiently.

Diabolique: With restoration and distribution, I am always interested in the role that companies have play between keeping things profitable and meeting the consistently rising expectations of the fan bases—the desire to always want more content, better looking prints, etc.

WL: Well that is true, it is a constant struggle. I would say that that is a daily concern, when I am working on these projects. The cost, and, where is the cost going to cross with how much there is for potential income. I must say that, once I take on a picture, I try not to make that a consideration. I try to look at my library in the aggregate, rather than each individual film. So if I have to put extra work into a film, which makes that particular film unprofitable, I hope that there is another film that comes down the line where I have to put less work and it becomes more profitable, and makes up the loss on the other one. So that is how I approach it. I don’t believe that I should give the fans less than what they expect when they plop down the money. Because, from their point-of-view—let’s go SRP, rather than discounted price—the SRP on my Blu-Rays is 29.95, and if it is a title where I put a lot work in I don’t get more money, and if I put less in I don’t get less money for the title. My customer putting their money down, they don’t care what my problems are [laughs], they don’t care if I’ve gone over budget with doing restorations. They want the best possible viewing experience of that movie. I look at the label’s brand as being far more important as to whether or not I get a profit or loss from that particular title. That’s how I approach it.

Bruno Mattei's Hell of the Living Dead (1980) [Click to enlarge]

Bruno Mattei’s Hell of the Living Dead (1980) [Click to enlarge]

Diabolique: That is probably the best way, as it is undoubtedly leaves room for passion projects to come forth that may not be as hot of sellers but still merit release.

WL: Because there is so much time and effort involved in doing this work, I won’t take on a title that I don’t like. I’ve passed on titles that I felt were just titles that I don’t want to put my time and money into, not because I don’t think I can make a profit. It is just [pause] it is a lot of time. You do have to do it with a certain degree of passion, for each project. And, you might say, ‘Bill, how do you have passion for a movie like Rats or Hell of the Living Dead?’ and I can tell you that I appreciate their B-movie charm. That is what I enjoy about them. It is not like each film has to be a masterpiece; it just has to have some connection to me. And that is how I do it, and anybody that knows me, knows that I am an Italian Horror fan and I am a Spaghetti Western fan, so I guess a lot of my releases tend to gravitate towards those genres.

Diabolique: That is a good segue into Spider Baby, because it definitely represents a title that, now, has the opportunity to achieve a second life because of the restoration/re-release work that it has recently received. When did you become attached to the event at the Academy?

WL: Well, I had nothing to do with the restoration of Spider Baby, and the only connection that I have is that I know Jack Hill, and I am fan of his work. I was asked by the academy to host the event, but I really had nothing to do with the restoration. But I must say that there is a film that I have in my library called Fight for you Life. I love the movie and I wanted to put it out on Blu-Ray. So, after doing the SD transfer 10 years ago on the film, I shipped the negative back to the rights’ holder on the film, in New Jersey. Just two weeks ago I contacted the rights’ holder, looking to re-access the negatives, so that I could make an HD transfer of the film, and she informed me that two years ago, during Hurricane Sandy, her basement flooded and the negatives were destroyed. [Pause] And, you know, I didn’t make the movie, it’s not been a big seller for me, it was not an economic loss for me, but I was devastated with that news. To me, it tells me just how fragile movies are. In the blink of an eye, a movie can no longer exist. So, Fight for Life in future media will fade away because the only thing that exists on the movie, today, is a 10-year old SD transfer. With [the negatives] lost, Fight for Life will be lost decades into the future. So, what I look at with Spider Baby, it is, to me, a celebration of a film that survived that fate. It could have easily happened and it didn’t. I think it is a time for us to rejoice that a wonderful film like Spider Baby has survived and is available for new generations to enjoy.

William Lustig [left] and Jack Hill [right], Photo Credit: Peter Dressel/The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

William Lustig [left] and Jack Hill [right], Photo Credit: Peter Dressel/The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Diabolique: Do you remember the first time that you saw the film?

WL: Yes, I saw Spider Baby on a bad bootleg VHS. That was the first time I saw it. It was something that you could barely see. And, I most recently watched it again when I was asked to host this event, Arrow Video in the UK released, a few months ago, a Blu-Ray of Spider Baby and it looks absolutely gorgeous. I presume, this is the element they [screened] Friday. It is absolutely stunning how beautiful it is.

Diabolique: Now a 50-year old film, how do you think Spider Baby holds up? How do you think current audiences will respond to it?

WL: Well, here is the thing that I always found fascinating, that over the years the films that do stand the test of time tend to be, what is commonly referred to as, the B-movies. That, if you look at the A-movies that were made at the same time Spider Baby was made, you know, most of these films are just never seen because there is no interest in them anymore. Very few of them really survive. It always tends to be the genre films, the ones that are the B-movies that survive.

Jack Hill's Spider Baby (1968) [click to enlarge]

Jack Hill’s Spider Baby (1968) [click to enlarge]

Diabolique: The crowd did see to love it, what particular aspect of Spider Baby do you think lends to its longevity?

WL: What makes Spider Baby timeless is in the same way that it was kind of timeless at that time. There is nothing in the movie that says ’60s. In fact, if you look at the girls in the film they have a very contemporary ‘goth’ look about them. You look at Jill Banner in the film and she feels like a contemporary actor. She doesn’t look dated at all. There is nothing about the costumes or anything in the film, because what Jack Hill brilliantly did was create his own world in that movie. It is really a timeless movie.

Diabolique: That is probably an attribute of many of the best films, that they don’t really adhere to ‘our’ reality but create their own working reality.

WL: Exactly, and what is also interested about Spider Baby is that it is an ensemble acting piece. So every time you watch it you can focus on another one of the actors. I would say that the first time that I watched it I focused on Lon Chaney, because I am a big Lon Chaney fan. Then I found that when I watched the Blu-Ray—where I could see more—I wound up focusing on the girls, particularly Jill Banner. I kind of have a crush on her, even though she is no longer with us.

Diabolique: So what are your thoughts about the evolving state of film mediums—from your time with Laserdisc to Blu-Ray and with 4K Blu-Ray on the horizon? Clearly there are positives, but with the fact that people can now easily access high quality prints from their living rooms, do you have any fears for the future of the cinema?

WL: Well, are you saying that the home theater is diminishing the value of going to the cinema?

Diabolique: I don’t think that is actually the case, more I am trying to gauge where you stand on that opinion, as filmmakers often run the gamut between thinking that it signals the death of the industry and seeing a great deal of positives for expanding tastes to wider audiences.

WL: Well, what I’ve noticed is that there has been a rise of interest in what I call the ‘tastemaker’ theaters around the country. In Brooklyn, as an example, Nitehawk Cinema, or in LA Cinefamily, or in Austin the Alamo Drafthouse, and it goes on and on in different cities around the country. [These] are places where young people gravitate to watch some of these older genre films because they want to watch it in a communal experience. It is not fun to stay home and pop it on, they want to be with their friends and they want to experience watching it on a big screen. Now, with the cost of making DCPs dropping so dramatically—you can make half a dozen DCPs for less than it would cost you to make one 35mm print. So it becomes a thing where you now are going to be able to see more these films exhibited. I am very happy about that. If you are asking me about what I perceive as the next generation, as far as physical media is concerned, the revolution is going to be when broadband is at the point when you can stream or download an entire Blu-Ray with all the subtitles and bonus material and watch it online.

Diabolique: And even as someone who runs a physical media company, you seem happy about this?

WL: You know, it’s funny, I’ve had arguments—I’ll give you an example, and I love them dearly—with the Anthology Film Archives (NYC). I put on a series of films that were buried treasures and I did it for four years. It became, towards the end, necessary to use some digital format in order to show a movie. They would argue with me, ‘No, we are Anthology Film Archives, were film,’ and I would say, ‘but what’s the point, it is the movie that is the most important thing.’ It is not the media, it is the movie. No one gives a fuck if the movie is on 35mm, 16, DCP, VHS, whatever it is, it is the movie that you want to show to the public. You have to use any format available to do it. So when you ask, would I rather films not be available because it is unaffordable to be able to make 35mm prints, or would I want to get DCPs made, which is far more affordable so that the film gets seen, I think you’ll know what my answer is. To me, it is all about the movies, it is not about the technology.

 

About Joe Yanick

Joe Yanick is a writer, videographer, and film/music critic based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the former Managing Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Noisey.vice.com, and Stagebuddy.com. In addition, he has worked with the Cleveland International Film Festival as a Feature reviewer. He is currently a Cinema Studies MA Candidate at New York University.

2 comments

  1. Just because something is only available in SD, though unfortunate, doesn’t mean it’s going to become lost or forgotten: the TV series ‘Fawlty Towers’ and ‘The Golden Girls’, not to mention the first 25 years of ‘Dr Who’, were shot quickly and cheaply on SD video (and they sure look it!), but those shows have hardly been forgotten, have they? I don’t know how bad the SD transfer of ‘Fight for Life’ is, but it can’t look any worse than the DVDs of ‘All In The Family’ or ‘The Wonder Years’.

    Let’s reserve the “All is lost!” woe for those movies and broadcasts that truly are gone forever. If you’re one of those people who refuses to watch anything that isn’t in 1080p, you’re part of the problem, not the solution.

    • It is a direct quote, not something we necessarily subscribe to. But, When something is shot on film and there is only a SD transfer and that is the best it’ll ever look, that is sad. Yes, it is good we have it, but that is a particularly important film for Mr. Lustig, so I think he speaks with a strong passion knowing how much more he could do now. I understand your point, but I think that you are overselling it as well!

      Either way thank you for the comment and for reading it!

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