Sunday, February 26, 2017

Spider Baby (1967) Retro Movie Review (Public Domain)

This was a lost film for most of its existence. Lost films happened in many ways. Nitrate film stock used before 1952 is flammable causing film fires wiping thousands of films off the face of the earth. Fox had a big fire in 1937 wiping out their film vault and MGM had one in 1967 taking out many early films. Most film buffs have at least heard of Metropolis (1927) which was lost but found early in the new millennium. Most studios didn't then have a way to monetize movies after their theatrical run until TV, home video and art houses came around. So there was little interest in preserving or storing them, even though a copy of every film since 1909 was to be preserved in the Library of Congress. Interesting to note Lon Chaney Sr. film London after Midnight (1927) is also on the lists of lost films even though through promo photographs they have reconstructed the entire movie from stills. Luckily for us, this movie miraculously was released on VHS in the late 90's, when an owner of a television station in Finland realized the rights had lapsed allowing him to sell copies of the reel he had.

Spider Baby Trailer YouTube

Spider Baby had a rough go of it from the start. Starting with a minuscule budget of $65,000. Causing it to be filmed in black & white. Even though since Technicolor 'Process 4' came out in 1932, color films had become the standard. Televisions since the mid-fifties had color available. For budget reference, The Night of the Living Dead (1968) had a budget of $114, 000. So Spider Baby was made for little over half of what George Romero scraped together. The interior scenes were filmed in a warehouse in Glendale California in the middle of summer with no air conditioning (studio was going broke). Which had the effect of making most of the actors look bat crazy between sweating and being a moment away from heatstroke. The viewers get the sense that Lon Chaney was going to mentally snap at any time. After the studio went bankrupt it sat for several years before being released with little fan fair. With several name changes The liver Eaters, The Attack of the Liver Eaters, Jack Hill's Spider Baby, Cannibal Orgy, Or the Maddest Story Ever Told it never had much of a chance and the lyrics in the opening don't make much sense unless the movie is named Cannibal Orgy.

At the time of its release, the most famous cast member was Mantan Moreland who starred in many early comedies as a house boy, manservant, or chauffeur playing a stereotypical character. Mr. Moreland broke many barriers for black actors but the style of comedy he was known for was quickly swept under the rug after the civil rights movements in the 50's. 

Lon Chaney Jr. was mostly known for low-budget horror movies and as the guy that played the Wolfman. Even though his father had taught him make-up, strict union rule prevented him from doing anything with it. Watch some of Lon Chaney Sr.'s films, the level of horror he brought to the screen with no help from CGI, modern camera tricks or sound is remarkable. There was a huge gap in the world of horror movies for make-up, from Chaney Sr. to Rick Baker in the seventies. A piece of horror movie trivia is Chaney jr. is the only person to play all four of the major Universal monsters on film.

Sid Haig gives a standout performance in this movie. Still very bald (didn't that guy ever have hair?). But wandered in bit parts as a heavy for forty years until Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie came calling. Looking at his list of credits he literally played a bad guy on every TV show in history Star Trek, Six Million Dollar Man, Dukes of Hazzard, and A-Team to name a few. But he, like the director, wouldn't be appreciated till many years later.

Jack Hill wrote and directed many of the well-known exploration movies in the seventies Foxy Brown, Coffy, The Big Bird Cage, Switch Blade Sisters and The Terror (with Jack freaking Nicholson and Boris motherfing Karloff). He said just as long as he put blood, violence, and nudity in the films the studios would allow him to add intelligent ideas and concepts in the films. Hill left movies all too soon cause the movies the studios green lit for him weren't exactly what he wanted. His student film 'The Host' (1960) is well worth watching. The only place to find it is a bonus feature on the Switch Blade Sisters DVD. Francis Ford Coppola said 'The Host' was a major influence on the last part of Apocalypse Now (1979).

The movie tells the story of a family chauffeur that made a death-bed promise to the head of the household to keep the family together and hide their dark secrets. A family that has skeletons in the closet, bed, basement, and dumb-waiter. Caused by a disease that runs in the maternal DNA that causes members to regress after the age of ten to a primitive state. The chauffeur played by Chaney is barely hanging on to his own sanity. Having to take care of covering up the transgressions of the household he is slowly being tasked with more and more hideous chores. When into the red with no warning, distant family members come sniffing around hearing rumors of a family fortune.

Spider Baby Full Movie Public Domain YouTube

There is a reason this film has grown a huge mass cult following, with only being available in the last twenty years, missing the building a fan base over most of its early life-like most films, it's very well done. Rated a seven on IMDB and 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. The 2007 release has some cool special features namely the early 2000's premier. Sadly Lon Chaney, Mantan Moreland and Jill Banner (played Virginia Merrye) all past a few years after the theatrical release of the film. Any aspiring filmmaker should watch this film to see what is possible with no budget and twelve days. It's entertaining from beginning to end. The only real knock is towards the end the make-up they used for Uncle Ned, makes it feel like they had no budget or time. Still not as bad as the tall alien at the end of 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' (1977) seriously what was up with that dandy long legs alien? That's not even the worst thing about that movie, family man Roy jumps on a spaceship and no one is like what about your wife and kids, he doesn't think to ask how long this trip to another galaxy is going to take or when his family should expect him home, Roy is clearly the villain of CE3K and a deadbeat dad. Have fun with this goody but an oldie and don't be a bug caught up in a spider web! Whatever you do, don't play the spider game........

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