By PATRICK McCRAY
Lon Chaney Jr. and sex.
Read your mind, didn’t I?
In fact, I could probably probe your mind while reading any essay and you’d be thinking the same thing?
Well, the two are on my mind. At least when talking about SPIDER BABY. I promise. That’s it. That’s really the only time I think of those things together. And I don’t mean sex with Lon Chaney, Jr. or Lon Chaney, Jr. having sex. I mean those as two different ideas. But they both leap to mind when I think about SPIDER BABY. Separately.
(Hey, look, I could have started the piece with a definition of California Gothic, but we’ve all been spared and I suspect you’re still reading. And if you are, the combination lock on my Knoxville storage unit opens when you dial in “carl.” If those reels of STAR WARS get stolen, I’ll know the book’s a success.)
Notice how this goes in all directions, but you’re still paying attention? SPIDER BABY accomplishes the same thing. Only much, much better. And that’s only one of its many amazing attributes.
Thanks to a botched release and legal mumbo-jumbo, SPIDER BABY has been unseen for much of its history since it first came to the screen in 1968. Had it found better distribution, I think its fame would be on par with PSYCHO, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and DR. STRANGELOVE. In some ways, it combines the best of all three with a healthy dose of THE LOVED ONE thrown in for good measure.
But, like THE LOVED ONE, it remains a strange jewel, often hidden until one fan hands it down to another.
That certainly was the case with me. My dear friend Tobin Fields, a man infinitely smarter than I’ll ever be, with the unerring taste to prove it, worked diligently to get me to watch the movie for years. But I found the title unappealing and was enough of a chump to think, “Lon Chaney. So what?”
Yeah, I admit it. Not proud, but it’s part of the narrative. I assumed it was some grainy bore and passed.
But then I discovered Jack Hill. COFFY. FOXY BROWN. THE BIG DOLL HOUSE. THE BIG BIRD CAGE. He amazed me as a director. Hill is able to satisfy the most base and basic of an audience’s desires and be literate, urbane, witty, wry, and often very honestly touching. Watch FOXY BROWN or COFFY to see what I mean. The motivations and range of Pam Grier’s characters are as deep and as honestly written as anything Horton Foote might have conjured. And then there’s a severed penis in a jar, too.
Having been forged in the same grindhouse furnace as his one-time (and I’ll argue inferior) contemporary, Francis Ford Coppola, Hill was fully ready to seize his first opportunity at a feature. You would never know that it was his first. Or that it was made with only $65,000 in twelve days. Like all of Hill’s movies, it looks and feels much more expensive than it is. Part of that was his training under Roger Corman. Part of that is that Hill’s movies are always carefully constructed from the ground up to never feature anything that isn’t reasonable on a budget. You don’t miss anything because it’s not required by the story, and because Hill’s dialog is so sharp.
I have always said that good writing is the cheapest ignored resource in Hollywood. You can make a smart movie that satisfies the most base and basic needs of the audience at the same time. I know, since my tastes are largely base and basic. Despite this, I like all of SPIDER BABY.
The story? A ramshackle mansion in the middle of Nowhere, California has been inherited by a distant relative of the Merrye family, square-jawed, bright Peter Howe. (God, I love the passive voice.) This should be no problem, except that the Merrye clan has an odd problem in one strain… due to inbreeding, we’re told. The current residents will be difficult to relocate, as Peter soon learns. They should be ordinary college kids, but they are far from average. Virginia, Elizabeth, and Ralphie (the latter of whom is played in a brilliant, method performance by a young Sid Haig) occupy the house under the watchful eye of their weary, nervous, and loving caretaker, Bruno, played by Lon Chaney, Jr. All but Bruno (a hired hand) suffer from various stages of the Merrye Syndrome, which strikes in adolescence and causes mental maturity to reverse as the sufferer ages. Oh, and it makes them psychotic cannibals, too. Bad combination.
In short, chaos erupts! Not only is there the looming threat of death, but of even more twisted fates, since the Merrye kids’ post-pubescent libidos are too hardwired in to evaporate. And they sort of know it. Dressed in weird pinafores but flirting with a sugary directness, both ladies set their eyes on Peter ... more to kill than to mate, but that seems on the agenda, as well. Worse is Ralphie, clad in a perverse Buster Brown outfit, zooming around the house in a dumbwaiter, and moving like the lovechild of a chimpanzee and a crab, and leering at Carol Ohmart. Ohmart sashays about in an amazing corset-and-stockings ensemble that’s shocking in a 1964 film and has the same impact today. It’s as if Elmer Batters had taken over the costuming and provided the sort of outfit that men point out to girlfriends as sexy before they pick out flannel jammies, instead.
Back to SPIDER BABY. Bruno, knowing that his situation with the children has been exposed and that authorities will be contacted, demolishes the kids, himself, and the house in a — you guessed it — BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN moment of, “We belong dead.” Unlike Karloff’s heartbroken plea, Chaney’s moment at the plunger has an almost impish shrug. One more game for the kids?
I had never been a big fan of Lon Chaney. He was miscast in almost everything Universal did. Even as Frankenstein’s monster, he seemed suspiciously plump. This got even worse when he played the Mummy. Those are some incredibly robust reanimated corpses. As the son of Claude Rains? Even stranger. Lenny in OF MICE AND MEN? That’s more like it. And just as Hill wrote to make his budget look great, he also wrote in the same way for his actors. In SPIDER BABY, Chaney’s sweaty, gruff, gentle American everyman is the perfect core of humanity for the rest of the characters to spin around. Half are insane. The other half are bewildered. And Chaney’s in the middle, trying to keep everyone on his best behavior.
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The greatest and most unexpected element to the character of Bruno is his enormously loving heart. Despite their madness, Bruno not only loves them, but please for them to love each other. It’s his ardent belief, I sense, that their capacity for love might ultimately outweigh their capacity for murder. When he learns that this will never be the case, he does the only loving thing that he can; he saves them from themselves, atones for his naiveté, and protects others from them as well. His smile and shrug at the end? It says all of those things. And more.
It is impossible not to see the classic monsters — even well-cast — as anything other than friends. They speak to the outcast in all of us. Despite the wonky casting early on, that awkwardness saves Chaney’s Universal outings from disaster and makes them strangely endearing. In SPIDER BABY, he goes out as the ultimate outcast, and the wise uncle to us all. There is a lot of wry humor in SPIDER BABY.
Hilarious moments. Those are swell. But it’s the sense of empathy and affection that I remember best. It grows every time I watch it. This is Jack Hill’s love letter to Lon Chaney as much as it is anything else. When a movie has enough wild elements, we can forget that it’s the sense of heart that makes them truly memorable. Beyond anything else, SPIDER BABY has heart. Even if the main characters eat it from time to time.
PATRICK McCRAY is a comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.