Spider Baby Blu-ray Review
Written and directed by Jack Hill
1968, Region B/2, 81 minutes, Rated 18 (UK)
Blu-ray released on 24th June 2012
Lon Chaney Jr. as Bruno
Carol Ohmart as Emily Howe
Quinn K. Redeker as Peter Howe
Beverly Washburn as Elizabeth Merrye
Jill Banner as Virginia Merrye
Sid Haig as Ralph Merrye
Arrow Video is a phenomenon. Try as I might, I can't think of any company that has managed to make its products as much a cause for celebration. Being THE distributor of cult movies AND accompanying their digitally restored gems with richly generous special features makes every single film in their library a treasure to own. So it is no surprise that the first waves of releases attracted a huge following, and, like a drug, once you've had your first, you start thinking about your next fix.
I have to confess that initially I only intended to own the classic Argentos (Tenebrae, Inferno) and the Fulcis (The Beyond, City of the Dead), but slowly got hooked into the Romeros (Dawn/Day of the Dead), the Bavas (Mario AND Lamberto) and the Henenlotters (Frankenhooker) and ever since, collectors have started posting and comparing their extensive hoard on Arrow's Facebook page. It wasn't long before it became a free-fall into a full-on addiction.
Now the newest wave of cult titles are hitting the shelves, breathtakingly restored, beautifully commissioned covers and a feast of features ready to inject straight into the display cabinet (placed chronologically, alphabetised by title or separated by director; whichever is your preference).
Spider Baby, a horror comedy directed by exploitation maestro Jack Hill (Foxy Brown, Switchblade Sisters) was first released in 1968 (though it was actually made 4 years earlier). Starring the original Wolf Man Lon Chaney Jr as Bruno, a chauffeur burdened with the task of caring for his deceased employer's three children, Ralph (Sid Haig - The Devil's Rejects), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn)and Virginia (Jill Banner) who all suffer from a genetic disease that causes them to mentally regress into a more feral state the older they get. For Bruno the situation has been fairly manageable until, out of the blue, the kid's legal guardians turn up, just as Virginia's murderous instincts take form.
As the lawyers and beneficiaries make themselves comfortable it becomes obvious that they have no idea the situation they are in or the fate that awaits them.
On paper this black and white classic reads like an EC comic. In practice however, due to its age, it feels a little more like Addams Family Values with a higher mortality rate. Regardless, it still has some fantastically creepy moments. The buildup to the lawyer's death is shot hauntingly with incredible control over the lighting (credit to cinematographer Alfred Taylor), while Virginia's murderous entrance is definitely a memorable one, but above all Sid Haig shows that, even without the iconic and much quoted Rob Zombie scripts, he can make any scene feel like a ticking time bomb.
Sid's use of body language and facial expressions makes Ralph an intimidating force; his eyes burning into you with equal parts childlike curiosity and predatory instinct. But let's not forget that this is a comedy and the victims of the film are no wallflowers either. Fantastically written for great effect we have the impossibly charming and naive Uncle Peter (Quinn Redeker) delightfully innocent horror fanatic Ann (Mary Mitchel - Dementia 13), secret garter loving prude Aunt Emily (Carol Ohmart - House on Haunted Hill) and diminutive solicitor Schloker (Karl Schanzer - Blood Bath) whose final words spoken are probably the greatest ever put to celluloid. The glue that keeps the whole film together is the great Lon Chaney who unconditionally loves the children for who they are, but is expected to leave everything behind giving this 'maddest story ever told' its emotional conclusion. But to say he's the star of the movie is unfair to the fantastic ensemble cast. Everybody from the beautifully nutty Virginia to the postman she catches in her 'web' (Mantan Moreland - King of the Zombies) each character makes Spider Baby a delight to watch and may have iconised many staple horror elements like the 'dinner table scene' way before the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It also has more than a passing resemblance to Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses.
Video and Audio:
Though the film was purposefully made in black and white it definitely enhances the movie rather than limits it. Because during filming the light and shade was manipulated to full effect, the restoration makes every shot look glorious presented in its 1.67:1 aspect ratio. Most impressive is the clarity in the darker, indoor and outdoor shots. At no point do you feel lost in areas of pitch blackness.
The sound quality is as good as can be achieved in 2.0 mono. The voices, music, sound effects and ambiance negotiate perfectly with each other with no loss of clarity.
First things first: This is an Arrow title so has an extremely high standard to meet. Arrow releases are in a whole different league from other distributors mainly due to the care and attention that goes into the overall package and this particular title, rather than being 'no exception', raises the bar. It has a commentary with Director Jack Hill and Sid 'Captain Spaulding' Haig with some genuinely insightful reminisces. There is a nostalgic documentary on the making of Spider Baby, interviewing surviving cast, crew and critics followed by a short featurette on the film music career of Ronald Stein, a revisiting of the house and a cast and crew panel interviewing Director Jack Hill, Quinn Redeker and Beverley Washburn at the Linwood Dunn theatre where they reveal their project to restore 400 films from the Academy of Motion Picture archives. There are some little unique tidbits like a photo gallery, trailer, extended scenes and an alternative opening sequence with the original title Cannibal Orgy. The most generous bonus however is the inclusion of Jack Hills’ first short movie, made while still a student and also starring Sid Haig. Together it makes another exceptional title in the collection and places Spider Baby as one of the most jam-packed releases so far, making it a real challenge for any future titles to beat.
In addition, as with all arrow titles, there will also be a collectors booklet and a reversible cover though you'll have to see it for yourself as frustratingly these weren't available for review so I'm going to have to buy a copy for myself.