Have this article read to you, listen to it like a podcast
On the eve of the release of its remake, let us delve into Jack Hill’s original Spider Baby from 1967, or the Maddest Story Ever Told: the movie that almost wasn’t. A special film with Lon Chaney Jr. at its heart, it almost didn’t get made with him or released at all, and when it finally did, it took several decades to find its audience.
Despite being shot in just 12 days in August 1964 (on a budget of $60,000) Spider Baby wasn’t released until December 1967. Why? It sat in a vault for three years due to ligation after its producers went bankrupt. After the anticipation of its release and its ensuing purgatory, everyone involved in the production began to doubt that it would ever be seen.
Even before its making, the $2500 they had budgeted for their lead actor (the other actors received $100 a day) put their casting in jeopardy. The pedigree of Lon Chaney Jr., star of The Wolfman, amongst many other Universal horror films he made in the 1940s, even towards the end of his career still commanded more that this flat rate, so his agent initially said no.
The film was director Jack Hill’s, a disciple of Roger Corman’s, first feature. Admitted Hill later, “Most of the time I was scared to death somebody would find out I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.”
When the film was finally released, it quickly came and went with little notice. It wasn’t until years later, with the birth of home video, that it started to slowly build up a cult following that’s completely snowballed in the years since, making it the cult favorite it is today.
“Every five years we get a whole new group of fans for this film,” said Sid Haig, who plays Ralph, back in 2013.
Hill felt the movie was, at its core, about unconditional love, and theorized that was why the teenage girls who have continually approached him at conventions in the decades since its release are drawn to it. He thought the model of a family where however “naughty” you were, you still received love and protection was something they were drawn to.
That could be one reason for its popularity amongst this demographic, but I would wager they were also drawn to the image of teenage girls who simultaneously have sexuality and power. The horror trope that as a woman, if you display any sign of sexuality, you must be punished or stalked and killed is reversed here. In the game of cat and mouse we so often see play out in horror films, the teen girls are the cats. (Or rather in this instance, they are the spiders and other people are “bugs,” as they call them.) Which might be cathartically satisfying for teen girls watching who suffer from a lack of control in their own lives.
The onscreen teens in question have their individual appeal, but there’s probably also something fetching in general about teen girls roaming through a spooky old house in strappy nighties, wielding knives while wearing gleeful expressions.
They are played here by Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn, and their images and general auras are arguably the most visually arresting in the film, although there are not just two but four lead female characters in all: unusual for a Hollywood system which historically allows for just one.
The two girls have different acting styles. Banner, who studied acting at the Hollywood Professional School but had no prior film experience, feels gripping and completely naturalistic here as Virginia.
Said director Joe Dante, a fellow Roger Corman mentee, “Banner was something special. You can’t watch this movie without being riveted by her. She’s gorgeous and she’s got this mystique about her.”
Banner was only 17 years old at the time and completely hid her involvement with the film from her friends and family. Stated Hill, “I guess she was very concerned about what people would think of it.”
Fascinatingly, she became Marlon Brando’s girlfriend during the last 14 years of her life. He later claimed, despite his multiple marriages, that she was the only woman he ever truly loved. She died in a tragic auto accident in 1982 at the age of 35. Said Hill sadly, “PCH [Pacific Coast Highway] has been the end of more than one talented actress.”
Washburn’s performance as Elizabeth, the other sister, feels more calculated: with the polish she had as a 20-year-old, Emmy-nominated child star who had been in the business since she was three. While Banner’s Virginia is wispy, wide-eyed, and naturalistic, with a delightfully homicidal bent, Washburn’s Elizabeth is the kind of girl who tears the corners off of puzzle pieces in order to make them fit where she wants them, regardless of where they belong, and overenunciates while grinning in a way that suggests she’s about to cheerfully snap,
Originally titled Cannibal Orgy, the movie itself feels like it contains influences while simultaneously being quite influential. A few elements, taxidermy birds to name but one, feel like a vague homage to Psycho, which Hill admits was in fact an influence on the story, particularly its opening scene.
There are also sly references to Chaney’s biggest starring role as the Wolfman, and to the Universal horror canon in general, though here Chaney must battle wild external forces rather than his own internal condition.
One gets the feeling David Lynch saw this movie before becoming a filmmaker, and at times, it even feels like a deranged episode of The Munsters, with the “normals” visiting this eccentric gothic family.
Sid Haig, mentioned previously, is almost like a silent comedian in the film, in terms of his outlandishness and the comic relief he provides. A member of the Pasadena Playhouse who studied under Dorothy Arzner, he’d previously played King Lear.
“King Lear and Ralph have something in common, I guess?” laughs Haig. “There is the insanity part.”
Haig, who obviously took his role seriously, studied how primates interacted at the zoo and then went to playgrounds to watch children, making his Ralph character into some combination of the two.
Joked Haig, who passed away in 2019, “Kids at play and primates are pretty much the same.”
Playing the eldest child under the care of Lon Chaney Jr.’s Bruno, Haig’s Ralph’s affliction is the most advanced. He, Elizabeth, and Virginia suffer from a genetic condition which causes them to mentally and physically regress beginning in late childhood, eventually reducing them to an animalistic state.
Another actor involved in the film is Mantan Moreland, who had a thriving comedic career in the 1940s that changed when the types of roles he played were deemed racially demeaning. He lost his career as the result but was overjoyed to be working again in Spider Baby.
The stunning Carol Ohmart is sexually, splendidly unhinged in Spider Baby and was a known actress in television and film who, at that point, hadn’t worked in a while. Reportedly she asked Hill, “Do you think this could get an Academy Award?”
Mary Mitchel is wholesomely sexy in this and had also worked with Roger Corman previously in Dementia 13. He humorously told her that she was “the perfect victim.” She responded, “I hope you don’t mean in my life!”
Quinn Redeker, who passed away late last year, stars as “Uncle Peter.” His character seems to have a heart of gold, which only allows him to see the good in the children and not their freakishness, sometimes at the expense of his own safety. There is an incredibly sexy scene where Virginia ominously ties him to a rocking chair (Hill’s grandmother’s antique, which tragically did not survive the ordeal). He naively thinks they are playing a game, and Virginia, as the “spider” who seems to want to seduce him (despite him being her uncle), pouts, “I guess bugs don’t like spiders very much…” He mutters in response, “I like spiders. I like spiders,” and it feels as though he’s saying, “Yes, I’m turned on by young girls, but look, I’m trying to exercise some restraint here!” All a bit daring for 1964.
Another star of the film is of course: the actual spiders. Commented Hill on their agreeability on set, “It was very tricky: trying to get tarantulas to do what you wanted them to do. They didn’t take direction very well.”
Although many of these characters and their wants and needs are diametrically opposed to each other, everyone in the film is likable in their own deranged way. Perhaps this is the element that provides the film with its heart, with Chaney, who gives an emotionally charged performance, at its center. Whatever you might think of the remake, it’s worth revisiting the place where it all began, if not just for the lovability of its players.
The remake of Spider Baby screens Tuesday, October 31st.