Thursday, May 17, 2007

Spider Baby

Why does this creepy gem merit only two stars at Netflix? It would seem that the folks who'd rent it would be likely to appreciate it. I liked it.

Spider Baby (according to IMDB it's subtitled "The Maddest Story Ever"; 1964) is about the Merrye clan, a degenerate family of blithe murderers. The tone is consistent, yet unorthodox. It's a bit funny, a bit horrific, and a bit bitter sweet.

I don't recall the location ever being stated, but the feeling is definitely Southern Gothic. The Merryes live in an delapidated manse not unlike the Radley house, with the occassional deranged shut-in peeping out the front window. Ah, but sadly, there are no scruffily sweet children playing outside to touch the remaining heartstrings of these monsters.

The Merrye clan is: sisters Emily and Virginia, brother Ralph, guardian Bruno, and a couple of aunts and an uncle who are kept in the basement (more a sub-basement, technically; or perhaps simply a pit). They all, except Bruno, who entered the clan as a chauffeur, suffer from an eponymous syndrome which causes their minds to revert to childishness, and on into infanticism and ultimately, inhumanity (marked by cannibalism).

Emily and Virginia are the stars here. They're crazy in a fun way. Virgina is a bit like Wednesday Adams sans self-control. She likes to fancy herself a spider, and unfortunate strangers are her bugs. Emily is highly concerned with good and bad, but you never doubt which way she'll go when the pressure is on. Ralph's condition has progressed to the point that he's essentially a wordless infant in a man's body.

Bruno doesn't have the family's disease, but years of living amongst them has clearly cracked him. He sincerely cares for them, and has a strong (perhaps too strong) loyalty to them. He is played by Lon Chaney, Jr., who gives an affecting performance. One scene in particular stands out. The girls have dispatched with a visitor to the house ("she would have told" afterall), and are afraid that Bruno will be angry with them. "Now you'll hate us," they cry, yet he assures them that no, he will never hate them, never ever. It could have played ridiculous, or arch, or cruelly ironic, but it plays sincere--mad, yes, but heartfelt.

The disc i rented is a Special or Aniversary Edition, and as such, much spiffier than your average b-movie release. The images are crisp, without any obvious (to me, at least) damage to the film. It's even presented in its theatrical aspect ratio. That was a pleasant surprise, since a lot of old movies only exist in the pan-and-scan versions that were made for TV.

It's definitely worth a viewing if you like classic b-movies, horror, or black comedy a la Charles Addams.