Friday, July 4, 2014

Spider Baby: Lon Chaney, Jr.'s Creepy Cult Classic

by Eric Brothers (C) 2014
Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.) comforts Virginia (Jill Banner, aka Spider Baby) in Spider Baby.

Merrye sisters: Elizabeth (Left, Beverly Washburn) and Virginia (Jill Banner).

Spider Baby was produced for $65,000

Shot in twelve days in 1964, Spider Baby was written and directed by Jack Hill. The budget was a paltry $65,000 and the investors/producers were Paul Monka and Gil Lasky, two real estate developers who wanted to get into the movie business. Unfortunately, the California real estate market crashed and Monka and Lasky found themselves in bankruptcy court which put Spider Baby in Hollywood limbo.

Jack Hill, writer and director of Spider Baby.

Movie had 3 titles and was in limbo for 4 years

Originally called Cannibal Orgy, the title was changed to Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told (the original subtitle) by promoter David Hewitt, who acquired it in 1968 when it first became available. In 1968, he couldn’t put a black-and-white feature at the top of a double-bill, so it ran as a second feature to a color film. In 1970 he renamed it The Liver Eaters and made a hefty profit on the drive-in theater circuit.


The Merrye Syndrome: "savagery and cannibalism"

Spider Baby is about a rare disease called the ‘Merrye Syndrome,’ which is only found in the Merrye family. The infected regress to a “pre-infantile state of savagery and cannibalism.” The family chauffeur, Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.), is the guardian and protector of the three Merrye children. Teenage Virginia (Jill Banner) believes herself to be a spider and enjoys eating insects and trapping and killing humans when possible. Her tattletale teenage sister Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) wears pigtails and dresses like a little girl. Their older brother Ralph (Sig Haig) is the most severely affected by the Merrye Syndrome. His entrance is unforgettable--he crawls out of the limousine on all fours like a psychotic toddler-puppy as he is fussed over by his sisters.

Ralph (Sig Haig) is most severely affected by Merrye Syndrome.
A letter arrives saying that two distant Merrye relatives and their attorney and secretary are arriving to claim their rightful share of the Merrye estate. It is Bruno’s job to make things around the Merrye house seem as “normal” as possible under the situation.

Chaney was director’s choice to play Bruno

Jack Hill wanted Lon Chaney Jr. to play the role of the paternal chauffeur. The actor’s agent, however, was stalling on Chaney’s accepting the part as an attempt to get more money out of the production. Hill said, “we just didn’t have the budget for it, and luckily, that same agent also represented John Carradine.” So when Hill asked to have the script sent to Carradine, Chaney immediately took the part and the $2,500 salary that went along with it. Hill tells us that Chaney “loved the script…it gave him a chance to do comedy.” The actor also did not want to lose a part to his professional rival Carridine.

Virginia enjoys a snack during Spider Baby.
Alcoholic Chaney stayed sober for the 12-day shoot

Chaney--an alcoholic for many, many years--was famous in Hollywood for drinking on the set during the shooting of his films. Director Hill, however, insisted that Chaney not drink at all during the 12-day shoot. Hill reports that, “he made a truly heroic effort to stay on the wagon during the shoot, allowing himself only one glass of beer” each day.

Carol Ohmart in a racy scene in the film.

Critical acclaim for Chaney Jr. and Spider Baby

Nate Yapp writes in his review, "Chaney turns in the best performance of the latter half of his career. His Bruno gently exudes compassion and duty....It's the kind of role Chaney does best--the affable guy with a terrible burden." Writes Bryan Senn, "Spider Baby is...a film that remains completely unique, one that simply can't be pigeonholed but must be seen to be believed--and enjoyed."

"Bottom line, Spider Baby is a first-feature, low-budget, imaginatively creepy movie," writes Rick "Ojo" McGrath, "that benefits from a generally offbeat cast and an obviously keen director."

Sources:

Svehla, Gary J. and Susan (Ed.) Lon Chaney, Jr. Midnight Marquee Actors Series. Midnight Marquee Press, Inc. 1997.
Smith, Don G. Lon Chaney, Jr. Horror Film Star, 1906-1973. McFarland & Company, Jefferson, NC and London 1996.
Yapp, Nate. "Spider Baby (1968). Review." 10-05-05. Classic-Horror.com
McGrath, Rick. "Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told. Review." 2000.