Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told (1968)

Spider Baby (1968)‘Is playing ‘Spider’ a lot of fun, Virginia?’

The family chauffeur finds himself head of the household when the older members succumb to their hereditary family illness. All is going along pretty well, until some distant relatives and their lawyer turn up; intent on acquiring the family fortune.

Black horror comedy from independent producer Jack H Harris that stars Lon Chaney Jr in his last significant role. Although ignored at the time (filmed in 1964, it took 4 years to get a release), the film has picked up a cult following in recent times, probably because its edgy, macabre humour is more in step with modern attitudes and sensibilities.

The setup is simple enough; the Merrye family all regress to mental infancy once they reach maturity and so old family retainer Chaney is left to look after things once the older members are no longer compos mentis. This involves dealing with the family finances and the upkeep of their dingy old mansion but, by far his hardest job is keeping teenage sisters Elizabeth and Virginia and brother Ralph out of trouble. Not that easy as Ralph is pretty far gone already, frightening innocent visitors and serving up members of the local feline population for lunch. But things are quiet enough (apart from the local postman getting hacked to pieces) until the shady mouthpiece turns up with the long lost relations. They decide to hang around for dinner (bad idea) and then stay the night (an even worse decision).

Spider Baby (1968)

Let’s play ‘Spider’!

What follows is pretty funny; the uncomfortable family dinner being a particular highlight and probably inspiring a similar scene in ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (1974). The cast throw themselves into things with a vengeance; Jill Banner & Beverley Washburn having a ball as the psychotic sisters and Sid Haig deliciously creepy (and very bald) as brother Ralph.

An early highlight features Manton Moreland (Charlie Chan’s comedy chauffeur in the 1940s!) playing a game of ‘Spider’ with Virginia that ends with him losing his head (and various other extremities).

Although the screenplay doesn’t deliver a consistent stream of laughs, the cast pick up the slack with consummate ease. Special mention need to made of those in the less showy parts, particularly Carol Ohmart (Vincent Price’s nasty missus in ‘The House On Haunted Hill’ (1958)). In the leading role, Chaney proves what an underrated talent he was; displaying a fine touch with both drama and comedy; never becoming overshadowed by the more grotesque aspects of the proceedings. In fact, he almost steals the entire show with his emotional speech at the climax.

This may not quite be the classic that you’ve been led to believe, but it’s still a fine testament to both independent filmmaking and the abilities of an excellent cast, who were obviously all in on the joke. Recommended.

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