Jack Hill’s Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told (1968) is first and foremost an oddity. It’s exploitation schlock horror that revels in its own schlockiness, and seems perfectly aware that it’s—in normal terms—a bad movie. Aspects of it are crude to the point of being amateurish. The film is clunky enough that it looks like a bargain basement offering from about 10 years earlier (granted, it was made four years before it was released). Yet, either in spite or because of these things, Spider Baby has an irresistable charm. This, after all, is not only a movie in which Lon Chaney, Jr. gives the best performance (roll that around in your mind), but one for which he sings the title song (don’t think about that too long). It also features a young (already bald) Sid Haig as a maniacal quarter-wit who dresses like Buster Brown—and if that’s not enough it has a guest appearance by the great Mantan Moreland. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make good use of Mantan—he ends up dead and minus an ear in short order—but at least he’s in there. The only other notable cast member is Carol Ohmart, best known as Vincent Price’s faithless wife in the 1959 House on Haunted Hill.
The story details the tragic plight of the Merrye family—a clan who are cursed with a strange degenerative brain disease that causes them to become simple-minded and murderous. All is moderately well—apart from the occasional murder (see Mantan Moreland)—since the old family retainer, chauffeur, and general factotum Bruno (Chaney) has honored the wishes of his late master (whose corpse is still lying in his bed) to take care of them. They live all tucked away in one of those old dark houses that proliferate in movies like this. Unfortunately, a distant relative (Carol Ohmart), her brother (Quinn K. Redeker), a venal lawyer with a Hitler mustache (Karl Schanzer), and his pneumatic cutie of a secretary (Mary Mitchell) arrive with an eye toward getting their hands on the estate. Predictably, various forms of mayhem and cheesecake ensue. It’s all delightfully deranged and silly. What more could you ask from a movie like this?
This week also sees the start of a new serial—Bela Lugosi in Shadow of Chinatown (1936), a 15 chapter piece of the cheapest cheapjack melodrama as you’re ever likely to encounter. That, of course, is the appeal. The film marked Lugosi’s first encounter with then-fledgling shoestring producer Sam Katzman, who would go on to give us the Lugosi’s infamous “Monogram Nine” in the 1940s. Their first encounter is…somewhat less remarkable. It’s all about mad Eurasian scientific genius Victor Poten (Lugosi), who is hired by Eurasian businesswoman Sonya Rokoff (Luana Walters) to disrupt the tourist trade in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Pretty exciting, huh? Well, Poten has ideas of his own—namely to destroy both the white and Asian races and start a new race of his own. (He is nothing if not ambitious.) It’s charmingly silly—and underbudgeted and stunningly clunky. Unfortunately, the only print known to exist is the battered 16mm one from which this copy was taken, and it’s far from pristine. Chapter One “Arms of the God” starts this week at 7:30 (subsequent chapters are shorter and will start at 7:40). Don’t miss it if you can!
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Spider Baby Thursday, Apr. 3 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.