Halloween Havoc!: Lon Chaney Jr in SPIDER BABY (American General 1964)

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SPIDER BABY is probably my favorite horror-comedy ever, and I include ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN in that statement. This gruesome tale almost didn’t see the light of day, as the original producers went bankrupt, but independent auteur David L. Hewitt (THE WIZARD OF MARS, MONSTERS CRASH THE PAJAMA PARTY) picked it up for his American General distribution company in 1968. Hewitt then used it as the second half of double feature bills. Known variously as CANNIBAL ORGY, THE MADDEST STORY EVER TOLD, and THE LIVER EATERS, SPIDER BABY has become a cult classic.

We learn in the beginning that the descendants of Ebeneezer Merrye are dying out due to the dreaded  “Merrye Syndrome”- a rare affliction causing it’s victims to regress to a sub-human, cannibalistic state. The always welcome Mantan Moreland is seen delivering a package to the creepy old Merrye house. Mantan does some of his tried-and-true “scaredy cat” schtick while looking around the deserted joint. He sticks his head in a window….and then the window slams shut, as young Virginia Merrye (Jill Banner) pops in, brandishing a net and knives. “I got you”, she gleefully yells, then procedes to hack and slash the hapless messenger to death. It’s a jolt, as the viewer expects Mantan to see a ghost or something and do his “feets don’t fail me now” routine. The violence immediately grabs the viewer’s attention, letting us know this isn’t your garden-variety horror spoof.

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Virginia’s sister Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) enters the scene. “Look what you did!”, she taunts. “You’re bad, bad! Bruno’s gonna hate you!” Just then an ancient Dusenberg pulls up to the house. Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr) is the family chauffer/caretaker. Elizabeth rats out her sister, telling him Virginia was “playing spider” again. Virginia dashes to the car to greet her brother Ralph (Sid Haig), a bald, mute, drooling man-child. The exasperated Bruno calmly explains to Virginia it’s not nice to “play spider”, people will talk. Ralph discovers the message near Mantan’s corpse, causing Bruno more concern. It’s from a lawyer named Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) stating two distant relatives of the kids are coming, seeking legal guardianship.

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Emily Howe (sexy Carol Ohmart) and her brother Peter (Quinn Redeker) are Merrye cousins, and greedy Emily is looking to take control of the Merrye fortune. Peter waits in the car while bitchy Emily goes to the house. When she comes face-to-face with Ralph, she hightails it back to her brother! Bruno has picked up Schlocker and his secretary Ann (Mary Mitchel), but they’re delayed by the Highway Department “blasting” their way to a new road. Now everyone gets to meet the children, and Bruno explains about Merrye Syndrome. “It’s a regression of the brain”, he solemnly intones, “The unfortunate result of inbreeding”.

Schlocker tells Bruno the plan is to spend the night, then put these “retarded” Merryes in an instituation. Bruno objects, but is outnumbered. The kids concoct a dinner of bugs, weeds, a dead cat, and possibly poisonous mushrooms. All the guests pass save Peter, who’s pretty oblivious to the bizarre goings-on. Dinner conversation turns to horror films, as Ann and Peter discuss their favorites. “Dracula, Frankenstein..I love The Mummy. Step, scrape, step, scrape”. Chaney as Bruno is hilarious as someone mentions the Wolf Man. Looking out the window, he echoes his Larry Talbot character, warning, “There’s a full moon tonight”.

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Peter and Ann head to a local motel since there aren’t enough beds available. Emily and her lawyer stay, thinking the whole thing is a hoax. Later that evening, Emily strips down to some sexy lingerie and dances alone in her room, unaware that Ralph is spying through the window. Schlocker takes a look around the house and finds a secret passageway to the basement. Things take a definite turn for the worst, as the children commit murder and mayhem. Peter and Ann return, and are placed in danger. They’re allowed to go free as Bruno has scored some dynamite from the construction site, promising the kids they’ll be together “forever and ever”. Bruno’s final solution blows the Merrye mansion and its occupants to smithereens, and the curse of the “Merrye Syndrome” is gone forever. Or is it??

Lon Chaney Jr. gives a poignant performance as Bruno. He’s gentle and kind to the demented children, loyal til the end. Chaney’s funny in the role, too, proving to his critics he wasn’t just a one-note actor. This was his last good film, as the remainder of his career consisted of B Westerns and Grade-Z crap. While Lon was on his way down, director Jack Hill was on his way up. A former UCLA film student, Hill became friends with fellow student Francis Ford Coppola, who introduced him to Roger Corman. Hill directed parts of The Terror  for Corman, then debuted with SPIDER BABY. After shooting four Mexican horror movies with Boris Karloff, Hill ushered in the “Women-in-Prison” genre with THE BIG DOLL HOUSE. His 70s Blaxploitation films with Pam Grier, COFFY and Foxy Brown are classics of the era. spider5

SPIDER BABY is that rare low-budget gem where everything works to perfection. The kids are genuinely scary in their roles, and Hill gets a moving performance from the declining Chaney. The rest of the cast shines as well. It’s unlike any horror comedy before or since, and should be on everybody’s Halloween watch list.

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