Who would have ever thought that like Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra, the name of Lon Chaney Jr. would be added to those actors who have sang the theme song for a movie they appear in over the opening credits. That’s just what we get for this Jack Hill directed film which also carries the subtitle ; The Maddest Story Ever Told.
Playing more as a black comedy than an outright horror film, Spider Baby involves a rare and peculiar disease known as The Merrye Syndrome. It attacks members of the family the disease is named after. The Merrye’s. The bloodline has almost run it’s course. There are three young adolescents remaining who live in an isolated mansion. They live with the family caretaker and overseer, Lon Chaney Jr. The disease results in the rotting of the brain and the host turning to murder and even cannibalism.
Way down in the pit of the basement is Uncle Ned, already crazed and dangerous.
Appearing in a cameo of sorts at the beginning of the film is Mantan Moreland as a postman who discovers just what playing Spider means with one of Lon’s charges, Jill Banner. I say cameo because by the end of the opening sequence, Mantan is to be murdered. Lon is quick to admonish Jill and her sister played by the much better known Beverly Washburn who appeared in numerous television shows over the course of her career. The third member of the family that Lon is responsible for is none other than cult figure, Sid Haig appearing in one of his earliest films. Sid would go on to star in plenty of films for director Hill including many of the Pam Grier blaxploitation titles of the seventies.
The somewhat tranquil existence of Lon and his brood is about to imposed upon when a distant cousin, his girlfriend as well as a lawyer and his secretary arrive to ensure the children are being cared for properly. An overnight stay is going to be a less then pleasant experience for all when the children become worried that they are going to be removed and taken away from Lon.
As creepy as the dinner party turns out to be you have to give a hearty laugh when secretary Carol Ohmart returns to her bedroom and gives us viewers a fashion show in lingerie. Much to the delight of nutty Haig as he crawls the outside walls to peer into her bedroom window. This will all lead to a chase through the shadowy grounds as Haig and his crazed sisters seek to quiet Ohmart. Permanently.
Just who is going to escape this madhouse by morning is anyone’s guess. Lon sees the dangers that lie ahead and promises the children that under no circumstances will he let them go. He’ll make good on that promise by the time the final reel plays itself out.
I’ve tried not to give away too much of the plot for this low budget creeper also written by Hill. It almost serves as a time capsule to an early version of something akin to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or other bloody films of the seventies that followed. Minus the blood but containing some very effective camera work from Hill and his crew. There’s a great shot of Washburn and Banner standing in the shadows of the basement stairway, butcher knives in hands as they descend to silence another victim. Easily the most effective scene in the film from the view point of outright horror.
Lon’s a whole lot of fun as Bruno the caretaker and Washburn proves she’s already a seasoned pro by this time at the age of 21. Included in the Dark Skys Films DVD and the recent Arrow Video blu ray are plenty of extras on the film and one statement that really grabbed my attention from Hill in one of the vignettes. He comments on the strange feelings of what were considered throwaway films at the time he was working on that have now achieved cult status while some of his friends were shooting studio flicks that are now forgotten.
If you’d care to listen in on Lon singing the creepy opening melody, give this youtube clip a hit.