Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, March 14, 2009
      ( 3/14/2009 09:22:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"YOU'RE ALL SET FOR A CANNIBAL FEAST." Though its title has spent decades lodged in my brain, I only recently had the opportunity to view Jack Hill's 1968 exploitation classic Spider Baby (a.k.a. The Maddest Story Ever Told). A low-budget horror camp fest starring a very down-on-his-luck Lon Chaney (who clearly struggles to put a game face on it all), Baby concerns a family of wealthy in-breds who suffer from a syndrome that has them growing more infantile as they age. The three youngest -- sisters Virginia and Marilyn Merrye, plus imbecile brother Ralph Merrye (the inimitable Sid Haig, overacting to the hilt here) -- dress in children's clothes and are shielded from the world by former family chauffeur Bruno (Chaney). "They're what you might call retarded," Bruno explains at one point, though in actuality their affliction is much worse. Deep within the decaying mansion's basement, the elder family Merryes have all devolved into hairy cannibalistic pre-humans, though we're never really given too clear a look at 'em.

This idyllic family scene is disrupted when a pair of relatives arrives, angling for a piece of the Merrye moneys. Peter (soap regular Quinn Redeker) appears to be the nice half of the duo, though he's not averse to taking any of the family fortune he can get, while his sister Emily (shapely Carol Ohmart, who gets to dance in front of a mirror in some sexy lingerie) is more mean-spiritedly avaricious. Also accompanying them: a sleazy lawyer with an Oliver Hardy mustache and his legal secretary Anne, the requisite good girl in peril.

We also get to see an aging Mantan Moreland (Birmingham from the Charlie Chan features) as an unfortunate deliveryman stabbed to death by the spider-obsessed Virginia, who also slices off an ear and places it in a matchbox. Moreland's called to do his trademark fraidy cat skittishness, and that anyone would think to have him recreate this type of role in the mid-sixties (though released in '68, the movie actually was filmed four years earlier) is pretty amazing. Too bad he's gone after the first ten minutes.

Hill (also responsible for such law-budget gems as Coffy, Switchblade Sisters and Swinging Cheerleaders) wrote and directed this odd little feature as a horror comedy. The broadest comic sequence is a dinner scene when our interloping visitors get to dine at the Merrye table: told that the three "children" all are vegetarians (since meat, apparently, speeds up the degenerative process), the four guests are fed a neighborhood cat that Ralph has caught in the yard. It's an effectively awkward moment.

The movie's horror scenes are filmed with gusto, even if the extremely low budget keeps the director from showing us too much. There's a way-too-long sequence where the sleazy lawyer makes his way through the house, and the explosive climax definitely shows its budgetary limitations. But the family's climactic attack on Anne -- with Virginia pulling out a hacksaw to cut off the girl's foot so she can't get away -- actually had me worried for a few moments, even though I knew from the jolly introduction provided by hero Peter at the movie's beginning that she'd probably survive her visit to the Merrye Mansion intact.

Probably not the "Maddest Story Ever Told," but a diverting slice of period cheese. Reportedly, a remake is in the works. Bet they blow it.


# |

Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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