Monday, June 17, 2013

Spider Baby - Arrow Video Blu-ray/DVD Combo Review

Spider Baby
"You might call them...retarded"

Director: Jack Hill
Writer: Jack Hill
Stars: Lon Chaney Jr., Carol Ohmart, Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner, Sid Haig
Year: 1964, 1968
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Studio: Arrow Video
Region: B
Alternate Titles: Attack of the Liver Eaters, Cannibal Orgy

Jack Hill's cult favorite Spider Baby makes it's Blu-ray debut today (roughly 49 years after being filmed) thanks to UK based label Arrow Video. Originally shot over a 7 day period in the summer of 1964, the film was shelved until 1968 when it finally saw a limited release. This "maddest story ever told" tells us of the Merrye siblings, Ralph (Sid Haig), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and Virginia (Jill Banner), a group of adults who, as a result of inbreeding suffer from an ailment exclusive to their family called Merrye Syndrome. The syndrome causes their brain function to regress as their bodies age. So while they are fully grown adults in appearance, Merrye Syndrome causes them to act and think like a bunch of mentally retarded 4 year olds, albeit, some particularly dangerous and sinister mentally retarded 4 year olds. Ralph is a sexually aggressive bald mute giant that likes to kill cats. Virginia, the "Spider Baby" of the title is obsessed with spiders, she keeps them as pets, she even eats them. She also likes to play a game called "Spider" where she traps people in her web and stings them, and by this I mean she likes to throw a net on someone and then rapidly stab them in the face. At first glance Elizabeth seems to be the most together of the three, though she won't hesitate to kill a man with a Hitler mustache with a pitchfork if she feels threatened.

Attempting to keep this group of infantile psychopaths in check is Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.), the family chauffeur who feels obligated after their father's death to care for them and keep the family secret from being discovered. Aside from the usual bickering and antics of the children and an occasional mailman being murdered Bruno has things pretty well under control at the Merrye House. But soon a pair of distant cousins Emily (Carol Ohmart) and Peter (Quinn Redeker) and their lawyer Mr. Shlocker (Karl Schanzer) show up to take possession of the Merrye House, a house that they believe should rightfully be theirs. They decide to spend the night despite Bruno's best attempts to come up with an excuse why they can't. He eventually agrees to let them stays, but fails to inform his guests just how completely deranged and dangerous the kids really are. Or that several older and more mentally and physically deteriorated Merrye family members are living in the basement and are hungry for human flesh. Soon all of the adults find themselves in grave danger, leaving Bruno no choice but to do something unspeakable to stop the madness.

Spider Baby is one of my personal favorite horror films of the 60's. It's wonderfully macabre, darkly funny and at times quite scary. It's billed as a horror comedy, but a lot like Bob Balaban's Parents, another wholesome looking horror comedy which hints at cannibalism, there are several expertly crafted terror sequences to be found, resulting in a film that's actually quite a bit scarier than might've been intended - Emily's scream as she walks down the stairs to attack Ralph (see screen shot #8) is genuinely frightening. 

It's also quite a beauty of a film, with some masterful cinematography from Alfred Taylor. In my opinion the shot of Virginia and Elizabeth at the top of the basement stairs (shot #5 ) is one of the most striking in all of horror cinema. It's such a stunning shot that I'm working on a new site banner using the image. Really, this whole scene is a perfectly executed example of Gothic horror; the shadowy corners of the basement coated in cobwebs, the silhouettes of the girls with only a hint of light emanating from behind, and a hair raising cry of "Kill him!" from Elizabeth before racing down the stairs to attack an unsuspecting guest, it's just so wonderfully creepy and exciting, as is the chase scene that follows. Don't listen to other reviews that complain about poor acting, or the tastelessness of the film, Spider Baby is a great film with amazing performances from Lon Chaney, Sid Haig, Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner especially. I highly recommend Spider Baby and feel that everyone out there should see it at least once in their lifetime. You may not enjoy it as much as I do, but you'll certainly never forget it.

Things to watch for:
Death of a Mailman 
A Meal fit for an ALF
Talking Wolf Man with the actual Wolf Man
Skeleton Pajamas
Lawyer with Hitler Mustache

Blu-ray Screenshots - Click to make larger

As you can see from the screenshots, the transfer, which is presented in 1080p in it's original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and supervised by Jack Hill and looks remarkable. The gorgeously gothic black & white photography is one of the film's major strengths and the transfer really shows off all of the creepy little details, especially in the basement scenes. In addition to the stellar A/V presentation, the disc is absolutely packed with special features:

-Audio commentary featuring Jack Hill and star Sid Haig
-Panel discussion from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences FILM-TO-FILM Festival, recorded September 2012, featuring Jack Hill and stars Quinn K. Redeker and Beverly Washburn
-The Hatching of Spider Baby - Interviews with Jack Hill, Sid Haig, star Mary Mitchel, fan Joe Dante and more on the making of the film
-Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein - The composer of ‘The Terror’ and ‘Attack of the 50 Foot Woman’ among others is remembered by Harlene Stein, Jack Hill, American Cinematheque’s Chris D. and others
-The Merrye House Revisited - Jack Hill revisits the original house that was used as the main location in the film
-Alternate opening title sequence
-Extended scene
-Original Trailer
-Gallery of behind-the-scenes images
-The Host (1960) – Jack Hill’s early short film featuring Sid Haig in his first starring role [30 mins]
-Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys
-Collector’s booklet featuring writing on the film by artist and writer Stephen R. Bissette, and an extensive article re-printed from FilmFax: The Magazine of Unusual Film and Television featuring interviews with the cast and crew, illustrated with original stills and artwork

Absolutely my favorite of all of Jack Hill's work, this Arrow Blu-ray release has truly done this under appreciated classic justice. Even if you own the already fairly stacked 2007 Dark Sky release, the Blu-ray offers an improved, director improved transfer and several additional bonus features including a newly recorded commentary track and The Host, an early short film by Jack Hill starring none other than Sid Haig. The newly designed Graham Humphreys cover art is a thing of beauty, but if you're partial to the original artwork, that's on the flip side. A collector's booklet is also included, however my screener didn't include the booklet, so I can't comment on that, though Arrow's booklets are almost always a great read, I'm sure this will be no different. Pick it up from Arrow directly, or Amazon UK.

Sorry non-region free readers, Arrow's disc is Region B locked.

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails