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Monday, August 12, 2013

Lon Chaney Jr. ... Mantan Moreland, and Jack Hill's classic 'Spider Baby'



Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, B&W, 1964. Directed by Jack Hill. Starring Lon Chaney Jr. as Bruno, the chauffer, Carol Ohmart as Emily Howe, Quinn K. Redeker as Peter Howe, Beverly Washburn as Elizabeth, Jill Banner as Virginia, Sid Haig as Ralph, Mary Mitchel as Ann, Karl Schanzer as Schlocker, the lawyer and Mantan Moreland as the messanger. Schlock-meter rating: Nine stars out of 10.


By Doug Gibson


In the 1960s several creepy, very original low-budget B&W shockers (some loaded with black humor) were thrown into the drive-ins and theaters. Most fared poorly at the box office (the exception being Night of the Living Dead). Others included Carnival of Souls, The Sadist and Dementia 13. Perhaps the best of the lot is Jack Hill's Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, an extremely creepy, laced with black humor let's-spend-the-night-in-a-house-filled-with-homicidal-lunatics film. Spider Baby's inventive plot involves the story of The Merrye Syndrome, a disease that infects the few remaining descendants of the deceased Titus Merrye; what happens is, after a Merrye turns 10, they rapidly age backwards. As they become more childish, they become homicidal, graduating towards dementia and cannibalism as the afflicted moves past the pre-natal stage. As the story begins, the clan is cared for by loyal servant Bruno (Chaney Jr., in a great performance). Living there are sexy teenage "toddlers" Elizabeth (Washburn) and Virginia (Banner), a young man, Ralph (Haig), who has degenerated to baby status, and aunt Martha and uncle Ned who live in the basement, mewling, growling and being fed scraps of raw meat. Virginia likes to play "spider," and in a highly entertaining opening sequence, a hired messenger, played by former cult movie star Mantan Moreland, is trapped in a window sill by Virginia the spider, who use knives and scissors to "bite" him to death. Mantan the messenger is eventually tossed in the cellar to be consumed by aunt and uncle.


However, there are more visitors. Distant relatives Peter and Emily Howe, along with a overbearing lawyer (Schanzer) and quiet secretary (Mitchel) arrive and inform Chaney and the Merrye brood that they'll be moving soon, to be institutionalized. Naturally, the Merryes are less than enchanted by these developments, and the sleepover the visitors experience turns into an experience of terror. Chaney, in what must have been a first in his career, warbles the title song to Spider Baby. It's sort of a singsong rap, delivered in such kooky fashion, that it's worth the price of the film itself. The cast, with the exception of Karl Schanzer's smarmy lawyer, are all in fine form. Besides Chaney, the best actor in the film is surprisingly Jill Banner, who plays the psychopathic toddler teen Virginia. Only 17 when Spider Baby was filmed, Banner conveys a disturbing sexuality; she's best described as a psychotic Lolita. The scene where she ties up visitor Peter Howe (Redeker), decides to seduce him and then just as quickly decides it would be better to kill him is very chilling. Had there been cable, video and dvd in the 1960s, Banner likely would have achieved notice for her role. As it is, she is best known for occasional appearances on the 1960-70s show Dragnet. She was killed in 1982 in a car wreck while developing scripts for Marlon Brando. To sum up, Spider Baby is a must for cult fans of quirky 60s black comedies.


Notes: Spider Baby cost $65,000 to make. It was tied up in bankruptcy court. Once released in 1968, it hardly played in theaters, mostly serving as the second half of double bills. It was finally re-discovered and played the midnight movie circuit in the 1990s. Director Jack Hill, a protege of Roger Corman, later directed several Pam Grier "blacksploitation" films, including Coffy. Chaney Jr., known as a severe alcoholic, only fell off the wagon once during filming, according to Hill. The veteran actor died several years after the film was completed. In 1993, the film was re-premiered in Los Angeles. Guests at the post-film party included Hill and actors Haig, Washburn and Mitchel. Actress Ohmart starred in the 60s cult shocker House on Haunted Hill. The subtitle, The Maddest Story Ever Told, was a film joke parody of the monster-budget Bible film, The Greatest Story Ever Told, which came out at about the same time. In the last year or so, Spider Baby has finally received a DVD release.




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