Before his death, the patriarch of the Merrye family left the care of his three children, Elizabeth, Virginia and Ralph, in the hands of the family’s ever faithful chauffeur, Bruno. Bruno does the best he can to raise the three children, but his task is made all the harder by a rare and unique familial affliction causing the afflicted family members to regress into primitive states, both physically and mentally, eventually turning them into violent maniacs. Left alone to care for the house and the children, the property begins to decay as Bruno alone tries to follow the wishes of his former master and keep the dark Merrye family secret hidden from outsiders with only marginal success. But when a couple of greedy distant relatives and an unscrupulous lawyer show up and try to find a way to confiscate the Merrye assets and lock away the children, Bruno realizes that what little control he once had over the situation was tenuous at best.
If they ask you to ‘play doctor’ say no.
Spider Baby is a 1967 horror dark comedy that stars Lon Chaney Jr., Carol Ohmart and Sid Haig. The movie was originally filmed in 1964, but legal issues kept it in limbo for a couple years, after which it was released under a variety of names, including The Liver Eaters, Attack of the Liver Eaters, Cannibal Orgy, and The Maddest Story Ever Told! None of those titles actually properly encapsulate the content of the film (neither does Spider Baby, come to think of it, though it may come the closest), but I suppose it was hard to come up with a title for a movie that’s basically a more light-hearted Texas Chainsaw Massacre with an Adams Family sense of humor.
The film starts off with Lon Chaney singing a ‘Monster Mash’ style intro that’s immediately meant to inform the audience that though the film may have some dark content (and there is some hella dark content) it’s also not meant to be taken too seriously (The hand-drawn opening credits help too). You’re going to sit there and have fun with this demented family, and considering the house is filled with a bunch of kooky maniacs who eat spiders and have unfettered access to sharp knives, you genuinely do. Sure, Virginia kills a hapless mailman within the first five minutes, but the way her sister and Bruno scold her feels more like how Morticia Adams might scold Wednesday for trying to blow up her brother. They’re murderous, but not necessarily malicious, because the kids, despite being into or close to adulthood, view the world through the eyes of a 10-year-old. They mug for the camera, they crack jokes, and all they want is to keep their little family together. It’s just that their methods regarding that last point end up in mayhem and murder. Tis all in good fun!
The performances in the film really help to sell the whole package. Everyone here basically dove into their character with genuine gusto. This is one of Chaney’s last roles and he turns in a surprisingly heartfelt performance, one that may very well be one of his best. Bruno is honest and earnest, and though it’s clear he’s complicit in everything the murderous family does, there is also no doubt that at his core he is a good soul with good intentions. He genuinely loves this family, but years of keeping the Merrye’s dark secret have also taken a toll, and it’s that weariness and compassion that make him feel like a genuine human presence in a very inhumane film. The Merrye children are also uniquely charming in their own ghastly way. They may have the occasional murderous impulse that can’t be contained due to their affliction, but there’s also an air of childlike innocence to them, even in some moments when their actions are far from childlike or innocent. The rest of the cast also manage to be equally entertaining. Karl Schanzer’s Mr. Schlocker is about as overtly slimy as a slimy attorney can get. Quinn K. Redeker’s opportunistic cousin Peter may be a greedy SOB, but he does manage to treat the children nicely and also seems delightfully bemused by the whole situation his equally greedy sister seems to have dragged him into. And the lovely Carol Ohmart is not only delightfully evil, but also pulls double duty by adding an element of disturbing sensuality to the film.
I question why they added in a random dance in black lingerie… but I won’t complain.
The film is shot in black and white, which seems fitting for this gothic tale of a canabalistic family’s story of murder and mayhem. Everything looks nice and crisp, with the shadows becoming more prominent as the movie progresses, and the interior of the house is suitably disheveled to add to the grimeiness of it all. So while this may be a low budget affair, it all looks professional…the one exception being some random production guy showing up in the reflection of a car window. When you shoot a movie in 12 days you miss stuff like that I suppose.
I thought he was supposed to be a ghost at first….Guess not. Whoopsie.
The film’s big downside is that it’s not what one would now consider PC friendly. One of the children rapes a woman, causing her to snap and go into a homicidal rage, essentially turning the whole thing into a joke. And then there’s the side plot that basically suggests, if not outright states, that developmentally disabled individuals are, in general, monsters. I know such attitudes weren’t exactly uncommon at the time, and such views have greatly improved since then (though certainly not nearly enough), but it still bothered me that it was implied that all such individuals were dangerous, rather than just stating that the members of the Merrye family were the ones who were dangerous.
No! Bad Ralph! Not funny!
So, Spider Baby ends up being a pretty fun ride. It’s by no means perfect (see paragraph above), but it looks good, sounds good, and the acting is excellent. It’s clear from watching it that everyone involved had a fun time. It’s dark, it’s moody and despite that it still manages to be a little funny with all the insider winks and nods. It’s a nice little film where you can just sit back and enjoy, yet at the same time it still manages to pose the question of who is more horrifying: the crazy, murderous family that just wants to be left alone? Or the greedy, ‘normal’ relatives who want to lock the remaining family members away so that they can steal their inheritance? Of course, the horrible irony of the situation is that the greedy relatives ultimately end up being right. Despite his best intentions, Bruno isn’t capable of maintaining control of his inherited brood, and the whole thing ends with disastrous consequences that probably could have been otherwise avoided if the children had been sent away, which makes the outcome of the Merrye family feel all the more tragic. But hey, at least it was a fun ride along the way.
Spider Baby is available to watch on several streaming services, including Amazon, TubiTV, Vudu and Youtube.