Lon Jr.’s finest performance
Through the years, your perspective changes. In the ’80s, when I first saw Jack Hill‘s “Spider Baby,” I cavalierly lumped it in with other low-budget fare that was sometimes creepy, sometimes laughable. Back then, you’d be hard-pressed to find a decent print of “Spider Baby,” which presents the story of a family of murderous siblings in a moldering homestead overseen by a jittery caretaker played by Lon Chaney Jr. I could only find “Spider Baby” on the jumpy, blurry VHS format. Later, in the ’90s, Hill (who also wrote and edited the film) was self-marketing his pristine personal print. “You haven’t seen ‘Spider Baby’ until you’ve seen this print,” he told me.
I recently watched a crisp print of “Spider Baby,” and I have seen the light. “Spider Baby” is a brilliantly cast, thoughtfully shot, one-of-a-kind black comedy, almost a parody of “The Bad Seed.”
This movie has a lot going on. The spotlight it gives Chaney alone is a movie miracle. In his later onscreen years, Chaney often played monsters without makeup. His sweaty, deteriorated condition was monster-ish enough. (I’m thinking of films like “Dracula vs. Frankenstein” and “Hillbillies in a Haunted House.”) Chaney seemed to not to have been irked by these — how to say it? — dialogue-free roles. (This dates back to the ’50s, even, with films like “The Black Castle” and “The Indestructible Man.”) He did have a good role in Roger Corman‘s “The Haunted Palace,” and he was very good in it, but it was still a small supporting part. In Hill’s film, Chaney gets, and deserves, top-billing. Also, there’s a gratifying “meta” moment during the dinner-table sequence, when a character references Chaney’s flagship movie, “The Wolf Man” (1941).
The movie also helped introduce the world to the great Sid Haig, whose contributions to the horror and blaxploitation genres are legend. Chaney was already a giant when he made “Spider Baby.” Haig became one since.
In the story, the “children” — actually young adults suffering from a rare regressive condition named for their family — are threatened by outsiders who wish to claim their house on legal technicalities. Haig, Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn are fantastic as the “kids.” (Haig does his entire role in pantomime.) The interlopers are Quinn K. Redeker as the naive “hero” type (more like a spoof of horror-movie heroes); Carol Omhart as a bossy, conniving relative; Karl Schanzer as their cigar-chomping lawyer; and Mary Mitchel as his hair-sprayed secretary (who enters a flirtation with Redeker). It’s great to see Mantan Moreland again (especially given his and Chaney’s 1940s genre omnipresence) in a cameo.
Alfred Taylor‘s cinematography is off-putting, in a good way. (Taylor worked with Hill earlier, in 1963’s “Blood Bath.”) The cherry on top is Ronald Stein‘s foreboding score. His opening electric-guitar thrum is reprised with horns as a ramp-up to the climax, creating anticipation and excitement while bringing the movie full-circle aurally — a trademark of Stein’s. He also coaxed a spirited, funny vocal performance out of Chaney, who “rapped” over the opening credits. As he has with many low-budget genre films, Stein made “Spider Baby” a bigger, better movie.
Most important of all: I believe “Spider Baby” is Chaney’s best work, and I’ll tell you why. The role has subtleties. As Bruno, Chaney “code switches” depending on whether he’s addressing his mentally challenged charges or the inheritance-grubbing interlopers. In doing so, he keeps everyone in the dark, including we viewers.
Bruno, you see, is faced with a problem. He made a solemn vow to his late employer never to expose the children to the outside world. But, given this sudden intrusion by strangers, that promise has become impossible to keep. When Bruno sits the children down and explains how he will fix the situation, Chaney cries real tears. Some of this blubbering is probably related to the actor’s real-life alcoholism. But as Chaney cries, he uses it. He never breaks character. It becomes part of his performance. Laurence Friggin’ Olivier couldn’t have done it better.
Subtitle: “The Maddest Story Ever Told”
Starring Lon Chaney Jr. as Bruno; Carol Omhart as Emily; Beverly Washburn as Elizabeth; Jill Banner as Virginia; and Sid Haig as Ralph
Cinematography by Alfred Taylor
Produced by Gil Lasky and Paul Monka
Written, edited and directed by Jack Hill
[American General Pictures]