Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Review: 'Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told' Blu-ray


Earlier this year I reviewed Christopher Workman and Troy Howarth’s Tome of Terror: Horror Films of the 1930s. I gave the horror movie guide a deserved good write up, but I privately took issue with one statement the authors made: “While the 1930s do not represent the birth of the horror genre, the decade does represent the genre at its most formative. Not until the 1970s would it see another such year…”

I disagree. Just look at what happened to the genre in the 1960s. That’s the decade horror really had an impact throughout the globe, producing enduring classics in France (Eyes without a Face), Russia (Viy), Japan (where do I start?), Italy (ditto), and the UK (double-ditto). It’s when horror got truly gory (Eyes without a Face in the art houses and Herschell Gordon Lewis’s movies in the grind houses), when the devil came home (Rosemary’s Baby), when Romero reinvented the zombie once and for all, and when the small screen finally made room for monsters (“The Munsters”, “The Addams Family”).

The sixties was also when the horror film became truly self-referential and ironic, largely thanks to Roger Corman. The producer is famous for turning out big star directors, such as Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and Martin Scorsese. All those guys went on to distinguished careers with work barely traceable back to Corman’s rubber-suited monsters and kooky campiness.

One of Corman’s first collaborators, Jack Hill, was a different story. He too was successful, but exploitative fare like Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Switchblade Sisters was much more in keeping with Corman’s wild sensibility. So was Hill’s first movie, though drive-in dwellers would have to wait four years to see Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told, because financing delays kept it from being released closer to its 1964 production. When the movie finally surfaced in ’68, cheap-o horror fans had to have been impressed by the flick. They had to have! That crazy premise (the inbred Merrye clan regress as they get older, behaving more and more like children…and more and more like psycho killers!)! That totally far-out, totally committed cast (special nods to Jill Banner, Beverly Washburn, and Sid Haig as the Merrye kids and Lon Chaney, Jr., giving what may be his best and most moving performance as their adoring caregiver)! Hill’s witty, gross, offensive script that never stops winking at us! Alfred Taylor’s atmospheric photography, which casts an artful shadow over the whole production! Spider Baby may have even bested Corman classics like A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors, and for a cheapy cult flick many of its fans label “bad” (it isn’t), the movie has certainly had legs (eight of them, I’m sure), influencing filmmakers like Joe Dante and Rob Zombie and spawning a stage musical version.

A true cult classic with charms every cult movie fan does not necessarily recognize, Spider Baby was a prime candidate for British cult home video distribution company, Arrow Films, which has developed quite the cult following of its own. Indeed, Arrow released a region B edition of Hill’s movie as a blu-ray/DVD combo in 2013. Earlier this year, Arrow launched a U.S. branch, and wisely selected Spider Baby as one of its first stateside titles. This excited me because I’ve been waiting for the right title to introduce me to Arrow, and I can think of few righter than Spider Baby.

I am not disappointed, although reasonable expectations are still required. Keep in mind that this is a low-budget movie shot in twelve days that hasn’t exactly been preserved as if it was Citizen Kane. Crispness is inconsistent. There are some bad elements here and there (you won’t miss the blurry, unstable shots of a character tied to a chair). The sound is fairly tinny. But one cannot really expect this movie to look or sound any better considering how it was made and how it has been preserved. Overall, the picture looks really good and natural, and Taylor’s images remain bold and atmospheric.

Spider Baby also delivers in the extras area, several of which have been carried over from Dark Sky’s 2009 DVD. There’s a nice half-hour documentary that trots out most of the surviving major players, including Hill, Taylor, Washburn, and Haig (as we’re sadly reminded, Jill Banner died in a car crash in 1982, and obviously, old-timers Chaney and Mantan Moreland have been gone for decades). Carol Ohmart is the only notable no-show. Hill and Haig contribute an audio commentary, and there are additional featurettes on the Merrye House and Ronald Stein, who composed the memorable score, including the fun theme song “sung” by Lon Chaney; a stills gallery; an alternate opening credits sequence with the original title Cannibal Orgy; and an extended version of the scene in which all the outsiders arrive at Merrye House.

The two major extras unique to Arrow’s blu-ray are “The Host”, a Jack Hill student short boasting Sid Haig’s film debut, and a 2012 panel discussion featuring Jack Hill, Beverly Washburn, and Quinn Redeker (Uncle Peter). “The Host” is a 1960 western based on James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. It has atmosphere and a star-quality star, but the addition of a cheesy synthesizer score clashes with the period mood. For those looking for that old Jack Hill touch of schlock, there’s a little gore and the truly ridiculous impersonations of Mexicans that Haig’s costars perpetrate. The panel takes a while to get started, so we only spend 23 minutes of its half-hour with the director and actors (though the MC’s extended description of other programs running at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences FILM-TO-FILM festival made me wish I could travel back to 2012). Then we get to heartfelt remembrances of Banner and Chaney from Washburn, quite a bit of capering and one provocative comment about The Beatles’ fondness for Banner from Redeker, and some background on the film from Hill that touches on the stage musical version and Hill's own unproduced sequel. Im keeping my fingers crossed that that one might still happen...

Get Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told on Amazon.com here:
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