Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Monday, April 12, 2010
You have to love a movie that was originally titled "Cannibal Orgy." I was first made aware of "Spider Baby" by my marvelously creepy Cousin Merricat,* who had a post about a screening in L.A. a few months ago. Although I couldn't make the screening, the movie sounded great. And then Stacie picked it for this month's Final Girl Film Club, and I learned it can be viewed in many places on the Internet, and "Spider Baby" and I were together at last!
And I do not think we will ever again be parted. What a marvelous film, and enjoyable on so many levels: creepy, funny, beautiful, oddly touching. It even has an excellent theme song, performed by star Lon Chaney Jr.
The plot concerns the three Merrye children -- Elizabeth, Virginia and Ralph -- the last descendants of a wealthy family. They live alone in a crumbling mansion, guarded by their faithful chauffeur Bruno (Chaney), who protects them from the world. But he can't keep them hidden from distant relatives Peter and Emily, who show up one day determined to claim guardianship of the children, and thus a share of the family wealth. But Peter and Emily do not know about the degenerative ailment that has left the children in a state of total savagery. They also do not know about the spiders in the furniture, or the skeleton in the bedroom, or the cannibalistic relatives locked in the basement...
True to their name, the three Merrye children just have a grand old time, and it's a blast to just kick back and watch them running around. Sure, they're killing delivery men and cutting off their ears, but it's just so much fun. Virginia in particular gets a tremendous kick out of throwing a rope web over people and pretending to be a spider; when she brandishes a pair of butcher knives like mandibles and runs at her prey, she suddenly goes from ludicrous to terrifying, and it's a fantastic frisson. And Ralph (Sid Haig -- aha, this is who he is) galumphs contentedly about like a great bald Irish setter. They have a totally sweet relationship with Bruno: he looks after them (is he protecting them from the world or the world from them?) and they trust and adore him.
They're a little old to be children; Merrye syndrome, we're told, sets in at puberty and regresses the sufferer to a "prenatal state" of savagery and cannibalism. So much for the Rousseauian ideal. Besides killing delivery men, they catch and eat cats, kiss their father's rotting skeleton every night, and attempt to saw the feet off a fetching secretary (Mary Mitchel of "Panic In Year Zero"). And when Ralph catches Emily (Carol Ohmart of "The House on Haunted Hill") in her lingerie....
Besides the madcap "Addams Family"-type escapades, though, there's a wonderfully dreamy atmosphere. Elizabeth and Virginia wander in their white nightgowns up and down dark stairs; Ralph navigates the house via a large dumbwaiter; tarantulas spill out of a rolltop desk. The house just feels familiar, like something you read about (the theme of two witchy sisters barricaded against the world is very Shirley Jackson) or dreamed about a long time ago. "Spider Baby" opens the gates to you ... but be careful ...
*not an actual relation, alas
Thursday, April 01, 2010
Happy April Fool's Day, everyone! Last October I finally got around to seeing this 1986 classic (it was one of Cinefamily's wonderful slasher marathons, screening after "My Bloody Valentine" on a holiday-themed night). It's unique, all right. Every slasher movie is essentially a game, with bit players knocked out one by one, routes of escape systematically shut off, until the killer and final survivors meet for a final match. But this is one of the only slashers to make that theme overt: unbeknownst to the main characters, and to the audience (sorry, spoilers, but it came out in 1986 for heaven's sake), it really IS a game.
College student Muffy St. John (Deborah Foreman, marvelously creepy) invites a bunch of her friends to spend spring break on her island vacation home. It's April Fool's Day, and Muffy happens to love practical jokes, so the house is rigged with goofy paraphernalia like joke drinking glasses, joke doorknobs, joke light switches -- stuff that's dumb at first, but eventually Muffy's guests are going to NEED those doorknobs in working order, because it seems there's a killer on the island. Maybe even in the house! Creepy reminders of the guests' dark secrets show up in their rooms. People start to disappear. Muffy starts acting completely spacey and weird. Eventually, clever coed Kit (Amy Steel) and her boyfriend work out the mystery: Muffy has an evil twin sister called Buffy who's been locked away in an institution, but has escaped. Look out!
I can't tell you how weird it is, even knowing the ending ahead of time, to see Kit burst through a door and see Muffy standing there with all her "victims" alive and well. Audiences reacted really badly to this movie, and I can see why (I felt similarly after watching "The Village," although I still love it). Nobody likes being made a fool of, and poor Amy Steel still looks grouchy as it all ends.
There's some interesting tension in this movie between Muffy and another girl named Nan (Leah Pinsent). Nan seems to be particularly hurt by Muffy's weird behavior, and she comes in for some particularly vicious personal pranks involving a rumor about an abortion she may or may not have had. In a bizarre little coda, Nan gets Muffy back in kind for all the April Fool's behavior -- is something going on with these two? Or am I just thinking of lesbians because Amy Steel is here and she's so durn cute? I don't know. Either way it's a fun movie to see with a lively audience. Hooray!