Monday, April 12, 2010

Final Girl Film Club: 'Spider Baby' (1968)


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

2 comments:

Emily said...

Amen! Glad you too found it to be so cuddleworthy!

Chris said...

This really is a treasure of a movie. Elizabeth has sort of an odd middle role, but I love their viciousness in the pursuit of tattle tales (tellers?). The picture you have of Virginia is great! Don't you just want to hug her? Except for, you know, the stabby-stabby.

Also: my word verification for this post: "macabity". Awesome!