• Spider Baby (Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack)



    Released by: Arrow Video
    Released on: June 9th, 2015.
    Director: Jack Hill
    Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Carol Ohmart, Quinn K. Redeker, Sid Haig
    Year: 1967
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    The Movie:

    Bruno (the late, great Lon Chaney Jr.) is a gentle man who makes his living as the driver and caretaker for the residents of the Merrye estate. Not only does he take care of the grounds but he also looks after the three Merrye children - Ralph (Sid Haig), Virginia (Jill Banner) and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn). Sadly, these three children are all afflicted with a condition so unique that it's been named after them, causing them to mentally regress to the point where they are, in many ways, quite primitive and prone to acts of cannibalism! Bruno swore to their now deceased father that he'd take care of them and try to shelter them from the rest of the world. After all, those in the outside workd really wouldn't understand them. However, all of this changes when the postman (Mantan Moreland!) shows up to deliver a letter and is killed when Virginia decides to 'play spider' with him.

    The letter, which Bruno reads, announces that a few distant relatives of the Merrye clan intend to visit the estate and take custody of the children from Bruno. Uncle Peter (Quinn Redeker) and Aunt Emily (Carol Ohmart) bring their lawyer, Mr. Schlocker (Karl Schanzer), and his assistant, Ann (Mary Mitchell), along for the ride. Soon enough, they wind up at the decrepit family home. If their intentions were honorable that would be one thing, but Bruno is suspect and it turns out that the new additions to the family are hoping that with the children will come a sizeable inheritance. Bruno's none too keen on letting them into the home for the night, but he relents only to find that Virginia is intent on playing another game of spider with the new house guests.

    Shot in 1964 but not released until 1968 thanks to some financial problems that the producers ran into, Spider Baby (also known under the more sensationalist titles Cannibal Orgy or The Maddest Story Ever Told) is a strange little film. Famed exploitation director Jack Hill keeps the action moving at a good clip and paces the film well but the script is smarter and a little more cerebral than your average drive-in horror film. Couple the more sensitive aspects of the storyline with great performances from Chaney (who also sings the opening song!), Haig, Washburn and Banner and we find ourselves with a horror film where we care more about the poor, sympathetic cannibals then we do about the other characters. It's an interesting little twist, with Chaney really standing out and doing a fantastic job as the 'genuinely nice guy.' Haig's performance is also quite interesting as it's very physical. He has very little actual dialogue in the movie but still manages to give Ralph a true personality of his own.

    Elements of black comedy run deep in the film and the quirky lead performances really fit nicely in the script's mix of shocks and laughs. It's amazing that it all works, when you consider that the film deals with incest, cannibalism and children suffering from a mental condition!

    The strange score from composer Ronald Stein fits the eerie locations and stark black and white cinematography very nicely, ensuring that the picture has the right kind of music to fit and compliment the unusual visuals. Hill sets the story up quite effectively so that what transpires actually has an impact on the viewer. This works because of some interesting character development and the effectiveness of the aforementioned performances from Chaney and the Merrye cast. Because of this, the scares and more shocking moments of the film happen for a reason, they never feel completely gratuitous. There are moments where the film seems to be repeating itself and this hurts the pacing a tad but thankfully not enough to really affect the picture in the long run. In the end the film isn't as gory or as crazy as you might expect, but instead it's quite clever and rather charming – all of this despite its unorthodox and (at the time) somewhat taboo subject matter.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Arrow presents Spider Baby in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.66.1 and it provides a pretty substantial upgrade from the last DVD release from Dark Sky Films (a disc which looked great for its time). Detail is considerably improved here and contrast looks just a bit more natural as well. Some minor print damage shows up here and there but there’s nothing too distracting and certainly nothing that takes you out of the movie. The black and white image shows nice depth and good black levels. Shadow detail is fairly impressive here and the picture is free of any obvious noise reduction just as it shows now evidence of compression artifacts or edge enhancement. This offers the type of high definition upgrade you want for a movie like this – a strong upgrade in texture and detail but not at the expense of the film’s original gritty aesthetic.

    Audio chores are handled by a PCM 2.0 Mono track in English with optional subtitles provided in English only. Audio quality here is good across the board. There’s a bit more depth to the dialogue but you’ll really notice the advantage of the lossless track in the score, which has considerably better range and presence here than it has in the past. There are no problems with any hiss or distortion, the levels are nicely balanced and generally things sound quite good here for an older, low budget film.

    Lots of extras here, many carried over from the previous Dark Sky Films DVD release, starting with a great commentary track courtesy of director Jack Hill and star Sid Haig. Anyone who has heard Hill speak before knows that the man has got a sharp memory and is a veritable treasure trove of information and this track is no exception to that rule. He and Haig speak quite candidly about their work on the film, the talk about some of the effects work, the location shooting and tell stories about some of the other cast members. It's a fast paced and enjoyable track that contains some good information relayed with a casual and relaxed attitude which makes it fun to listen to.

    From there, check out The Hatching Of Spider Baby which is an interesting half hour documentary on the history of the film. This is a pretty extensive piece which explores how the film was put together as well as the impact and influence that it's hard in certain circles. Look for on camera interviews with Hill and his cinematographer, Al Taylor as well as Carol Ohmart and fans Joe Dante and Chris D..

    A second featurette, Spider Stravinsky: The Sounds Of Ronald Stein, is a look back on the life and times of the late composer who not only scored this film but also many other classic exploitation pictures like Dementia 13 and The Terror. The third and final featurette, The Merrye House Revisited, is an interesting look at the house that was used for the primary location in the picture courtesy of Elijah Drenner who tours the abode with Jack Hill in tow. It's kind of fun to compare the house then to how it stands now and note what has changed and what has not.

    New to this release is a video of a panel discussion that took place at The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences Film To Film Festival in September 2012. In attendance at the festival were director Hill along with actors Quinn K. Redeker and Beverly Washburn. Here they talk about their experiences making the movie after a screening took place, sharing stories with the audience about working with Lon Chaney Jr., the locations and conditions under which the film was made and more.

    Also new is The Merrye House Revisited, an interesting featurette in which we accompany Jack Hill on a trip to the house that was used as the primary location in Spider Baby and get a chance to see what it looks like these days, or at least when this was shot in 2006. The house is still there and it’s interesting to see how it’s changed and not changed in the decades that have passed since Spider Baby was made.

    Another plus for this release is the inclusion of The Host, a short film that Jack Hill made in 1960 that was his first collaboration with Sid Haig and Haig’s first starring role. It’s a weird low budget western movie that Hill made as a student film and so it’s a bit rough around the edges but it’s fascinating to see it, particularly as it shows Haig doing his thing here at a very young age. In the film, a criminal on the run from the law arrives at a shelter where he has to take out some gunmen. Things get odd when, after all of that, he tries to leave. There are elements of Twilight Zone style weirdness worked in here that make this more than just another low budget western – interesting stuff.

    Rounding out the extra features on the Blu-ray is the alternate Cannibal Orgy opening titles sequence, a brief extended version of the scene where the Merrye kids meet their relatives, the film’s theatrical trailer, a still gallery of promotional materials, animated menus and a chapter selection option.

    As this is a combo pack release we also get a DVD version of the movie included in the case alongside the Blu-ray disc. Arrow have also provided some slick reversible cover art with the original poster art on one side and the new Graham Humphreys art on the opposite. Also included inside the keepcase alongside the two discs is a full color booklet that contains an excellent essay and appreciation of the film by comic artist/writer Stephen R. Bissette, a reprint of an article that was originally published in Filmax that contains some cast and crew interviews, credits for the disc and the feature and some nice archival artwork.

    The Final Word:

    Spider Baby is as strange now as it was when it was made, time has not diminished this in the least. It’s a dark and twisted movie, but not one without its own bizarre sweet side to it – as Bissette points out in his essay, in many ways it’s a movie about true love. Arrow have rolled out the red carpet for the Blu-ray, carrying over all of the extras from the already stacked DVD release and not only giving us a much improved transfer but throwing in some interesting new supplements as well.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!




















    Comments 4 Comments
    1. Newt Cox's Avatar
      Newt Cox -
      Is this region locked?
    1. Ian Jane's Avatar
      Ian Jane -
      It's a domestic (US) release. Just a port of their UK disc from last year.
    1. C.D. Workman's Avatar
      C.D. Workman -
      When I was in Great Britain last year, I almost picked this up but finally decided against it because the price was so high. I'm now glad I did; I can just pick up this domestic release instead! Nice review, Ian.
    1. Newt Cox's Avatar
      Newt Cox -
      Thanks for the info Ian. I am adding it to my birthday wishlist.