Sometimes it is hard to fathom why some films flourish and increase in popularity over time, whilst other equally deserving works are left to gather dust on the back shelf of film obscurity. Spider Baby (1968) – also known under the alternative titles Cannibal Orgy and Attack of the Liver Eaters – has unfortunately fallen into the latter category. Watching the long lost debut feature of writer / director Jack Hill (who was later responsible for the blaxploitation classic Foxy Brown ), the viewer can’t help but feel that distributors have been missing a trick by ignoring a film which has survived the test of time due to its enduring sense of stylishly insidious menace.
In the safety of their secluded home, Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and Virginia (Jill Banner) Merrye and their brother Ralph (Sid Haig) live hidden from the outside world. Suffering from a genetic disorder that causes them to regress to childhood whilst retaining the strength and sexuality of a mature adult, the children are protected by their well meaning if misguided guardian Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.). Life continues undisturbed until the day that a distant relation Peter Howe (Quinn K. Redeker) and his sister Emily (Carol Ohmart) arrive to lay claim to the Merrye house with disastrous results.
They really don’t make films like Spider Baby anymore. In a contemporary cinema where horror films appear to depend increasingly on the lengths to which brutality can be shown on the screen – reaching its zenith recently with the graphic splitting of a character down the middle with a chainsaw during the climax of Evil Dead (2013) – inference seems a dirty word. However filmmakers like Hill – whether intentionally or due to budgetary constraints (Spider Baby was shot in only seven days for a total of $60,000) – had to rely on subtlety and suggestion, frequently creating a much more disturbing ambience as a result.
The story’s premise itself is not particularly original. The idea of a socially dysfunctional family protected from the world at large, and greedy fortune seeking relations in particular, has been seen in multitudinous variations both before and since. The film also shamelessly borrows imagery from a host of other horror sources, not least by referencing Psycho (1960) in the form of the stuffed animals and partially preserved bodies, which the hapless victims of the deranged Merrye family find dotted around the ‘Bates’esque’ hilltop mansion. However Hill, through his pin-sharp dialogue and snappy direction, and his team of filmmakers including cinematographer Alfred Taylor and art director Ray Storey, who had the knack of making something from nothing, imbued everything with a sense of pared-back minimalism giving the proceedings an individuality all of their own.
Promoted as a horror / comedy, Spider Baby fortunately does not succumb to the temptation which many modern films within this bracket regularly do – namely overdoing the ‘humour’ to the extent that the final product appears as little more than gratuitous slapstick. Here the comedic aspects are reduced to the occasional double-entendre or pained expression, which create humorous relief as much through their sheer unexpectedness as by actually being funny.
These aspects aside the film’s real magic lies in its characters, both human and manmade. Though Chaney receives top billing by dint of his legendary status, whilst Washburn, Banner and Haig (of House of 1000 Corpses  fame) as the mentally challenged siblings make their presence felt with the sheer creepiness of their performances, every member of the eleven-strong cast holds the viewer’s attention, giving the film an overall feeling of a group effort. Add to this the foreboding appearance of the aforementioned Merrye mansion which looms over proceedings with a baleful gaze from its cobweb festooned windows, and the film is imbued with an overriding sense of unspoken, lingering malice.
Spider Baby is a horror gem so packed with startling imagery that it easily warrants repeat viewing. As a result it beggars the question as to how any true fan of the genre could overlook or dismiss this criminally underrated masterpiece.
Spider Baby received its UK DVD premiere and worldwide Blu-ray premiere on June 24, 2013. A host of extras include interviews with the film’s director Jack Hill and its stars Sid Haig, Mary Mitchel, Beverly Washburn and Quinn K. Redeker. Also included is a fascinating short, The Merrye House Revisited, which follows Jack Hill as he returns to the house in Los Angeles which was used as the film’s main location.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.