Spider Baby (1964)
aka Attack of the Liver Eaters
aka Cannibal Orgy, or The Maddest Story Ever Told
Directed by Jack Hill
The plot concerns the remaining survivors of the Merrye Family, cursed with a mysterious affliction that causes them to regress into a childlike state that for some reason is accompanied my murderous impulses and cannibalistic tendencies. Starring Lon Chaney, Jr. in one of his last roles (and director Hill swears Chaney stayed off the sauce for nearly the entire shoot), as the chauffeur/caretaker for the family, Spider Baby is packed with slightly campy, slightly awesome performances by everyone in the cast. Jill Banner plays Virginia, the girl who likes to "play spider" by tying her victims up in a "web," taunting them with real tarantulas, and then slicing them up real good. Beverly Washburn (who starred in Old Yeller as a child) plays her sister Elizabeth, who appears to be the picture of politeness until her psychotic spoiled-brat side comes out.
Then there's irrepressible Sid Haig as brother Ralph, who is the oldest and "youngest" having degenerated into a human-flesh-eating man-child. Haig in particular puts in the performance most deserving of cult status the guy makes Michael Berryman seem like Michael Caine.
After Virginia kills a mailman (former vaudevillian Mantan Moreland, capping a showbiz career with, um, grace?), the family learns that a couple of cousins will be arriving with a lawyer and secretary with the intention of seizing the estate and putting the kids into the loony bin.
Predictably, but with unpredictable results, the evening is filled with demented behavior and strange events not the least of which is the revelation of what is in the basement.' The dialogue is priceless, and even the groaner lawyer-jokes are hilarious. Chaney in particular is almost poignant in a very odd role, and he even sings the theme song (a rip-off of "The Addams Family.")
The video (Video Treasures/Anchor Bay Entertainment) also includes supplementary footage of a cast and crew reunion hosted by uberfanatic Johnny Legend at the first theatrical screening of Spider Baby in thirty years. Jack Hill comes off as confused as to why people like Legend over-value the film so much; Sid Haig comes off as pathetically enjoying a few more minutes of "fame"; Washburn and Carol Ohmart (the secretary) come off as being somewhat frightened that people are into films like this, although they muster up a bit of flustered pride. It's a bit awkward, but in a good way.
Hill, of course, is a legendary cult director (he later made Switchblade Sisters among many others), and this was his first effort. It's a great movie, truly "alternative cinema," but with none of the ensuing film-school smarm. For its obvious low budget, the movie is actually well shot and very visually interesting. The acting is incredible and the dialogue very quotable. Not what you'd expect from the same year that produced "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
Review by Pretzel Adams