Saturday, April 16, 2011

30 Day Horror Challenge Day 16 - Your favorite childhood themed horror film

There are few more effective horror tropes than the creepy kid. A good creepy kid can really get your skin crawling. Gage in Pet Sematary, the Children of the Damned, the “Freddy’s coming for you” girls, Damian, Karen Cooper, and The Shining twins are all creepy as hell. What would happen though, if adults played those creepy kids? That has the potential to be cheesy and utterly stupid. In Spider Baby, however, it’s horrifying. Seeing an adult pull off a child role as well as these actors do has an air of “just not right” to it that makes this movie unsettling. It was plagued for many years by bad distribution and endless retitling (The Maddest Story Ever Told, The Liver Eaters, Attack of the Liver Eaters, Cannibal Orgy, etc), but in recent years this underrated flick was finally started reaching the cult classic status it deserves. It’s my favorite childhood themed horror flick hands down.

The movie deals with the Merrye family. Through generations of inbreeding they have developed The Merrye Syndrome, which causes them to mentally regress back into childhood, and sometimes beyond. Lon Chaney Jr. plays Bruno, the family’s chauffer who swore a solemn oath to the children’s father that he would watch over this last generation of the Merrye clan. When a couple of members of another, unaffected branch of the family come with their lawyer, making claims to the family estate, it threatens to break up their happy little home. We can’t have that now, can we?

The Merrye children appear to be in their early twenties, but the two girls behave like children and the oldest brother has the mind of a toddler. We all know children are innocent, but they are also capable of pure evil. They haven’t yet learned the constructs of society. They only know what they like and what they don’t. If they like hurting people, they will. The three actors playing the family really bring across that coexistence of innocence and violence. Jill Banner plays Virginia, the titular spider baby. Every night before bed, she kisses her father’s skeleton goodnight. She also likes spiders. A lot. She keeps tarantulas in her desk and eats bugs. She also likes to play spider, catching people in her rope web and stinging them to death with butcher knives. The image of her stabbing her victim over and over while cheerfully intoning “Sting! Sting! Sting!” is chilling in that while it is a cold blooded murder, it has all the innocence of a little girl playing make believe. For the record, she’s also freakin’ HOT! She looks like a young Barbara Steele. Beverly Washburn plays her younger sister, Elizabeth. Like any younger sibling, she’s the tattletale, brat, and loudmouth of the group. She spends a lot of time admonishing Virginia. She constantly threatens her with the childish but somehow creepy “Bruno’s going to hate you.” When it’s time to protect the family, though, she has no problem unleashing some murderous fury.

The Merrye family is a lot like the Firefly family in House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. They’re doing things which in any other movie would make them the villains. They are so charming and fun, and their motivations are so rooted in family values (twisted though they may be), that you can’t help but root for them. Spider Baby has something else in common with those movies, the incomparable Sid Haig. Those of us more accustomed to seeing him as Captain Spaulding will be amazed how young he is here. He plays the oldest brother Ralph. He is the most degenerated one of the family. He can’t talk, he acts like a combination of toddler and family dog, and hangs out in the houses dumbwaiter. He throws himself fully into the role, creating a skillful physical characterization. Then again, has Haig ever given a bad performance? I’ve never seen one. Remind me to tell you the Sid Haig 4 in the morning con hotel lobby story sometime.

As good as the actors playing the Merrye kids are, the movie belongs to Lon Chaney. He reportedly even got back on the wagon for the duration of the production. He made appearances in a couple of Z grade crapfests after this, but this was his last starring role and his last major production. It is a fitting swan song for the legend. He plays the type of role that made him famous in The Wolfman, a normal, quite put upon man with a heavy burden to bear. He plays the part of the caretaker of the children with a great emotional realism. He is unconditionally devoted to them, but the years of dealing with them show on his face. He lives in their demented world, and their madness seems to be beginning to rub off on him ever so slightly. He admonishes Virginia for killing a delivery man the way one would a child for drawing on the wall. You really feel for Bruno. He’s a truly good hearted man put in an impossible situation. My favorite joke in the film is all Chaney too. Two of the characters start talking about their favorite movie monsters and mention the Wolfman, an obvious nod to Lon’s star making role. If you don’t bust out laughing when he looks at them wide eyed and says “There’s going to be a full moon tonight” then turn in your horror geek membership card now. He also sings the theme song.

In Spider Baby, writer/director Jack Hill, who later made his mark in the Blaxploitation genre, made an unclassifiable movie. It’s too quirky to be a slasher. In fact, there’s no gore at all. There is one severed ear, but no blood. It’s too bizarre and dark to be a true horror comedy though. Whatever you want to label it as, Hill’s juxtaposition of childhood innocence and violence is quite effective. He plays upon the emotional responses we usually have in connection with childhood, turning them on their heads and using them to mess with the audiences mind. Plus, seeing the future Captain Spaulding in a Buster Brown outfit made to fit a 7 year old is just plain funny. Two severed thumbs up. Nathan says check it out.

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