Column: The Vault of Secrets: Spider Baby (1967)

By Orrin Grey

Spider Baby (1967). Directed by: Jack Hill. Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Carol Ohmart, Sid Haig, Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Since it’s Halloween this month, and Halloween is our favorite holiday here at the Vault of Horror, we thought we would dust off something a little special. Prior to watching it, everything I knew about tonight’s film came from the Fantomas cover of the wonderful Spider Baby theme song. That should have been enough to sell me all by itself, but it took my friend, Trevor Henderson, drawing parallels to Shirley Jackson to finally get me to bite. While the most memorable thing about Spider Baby is definitely the wonderful score by Ronald Stein (The Terror, The Haunted Palace, Dementia 13, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, and countless others) – especially the aforementioned title theme, “sung” by Lon Chaney Jr. himself – there’s a lot more going on in the film than just an odd exploitation flick with some catchy music.

Directed by Jack Hill, who had done uncredited work on prior Roger Corman pictures and went on to make cult-famous exploitation films like Foxy Brown and Switchblade Sisters, Spider Baby was originally shot in 1964 under the title, Cannibal Orgy, but wasn’t released in theaters until 1967. Even then, its title hadn’t fully settled down and it was released in drive-ins under the Spider Baby title, as well as The Liver Eaters (when it was paired with Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors). Jack Hill also wrote a treatment for an unfortunately-never-produced sequel to be titled Vampire Orgy.

The most memorable thing about the movie may be its score, but most interesting is the way in which it acts as an almost perfect bridge between the past and the future of horror cinema. While Peter Bodganovich’s Targets is a thesis on the transformation of the horror film, Spider Baby is nothing more or less than past and future flowing together as one, partaking of equal parts creaky Gothic chiller and the coming wave of more brutal, morally ambiguous horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or House of 1000 Corpses. (Having literally watched The Devil’s Rejects for the first time the same day I also watched Spider Baby, I think it’s easy to see Rob Zombie’s Firefly clan in the Merryes – and not only because of Sid Haig’s involvement in both.)

Pretty much everything in Spider Baby has one foot planted in the creaky Gothic movies that were its contemporaries and one foot in a more gruesome future that the film seems to prefigure, almost uncannily. Anchoring the film to the past are things like an aging Lon Chaney Jr. in one of his last film roles and Carol Ohmart, whom we’ll all remember as Vincent Price’s wife in The House on Haunted Hill. As if the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing, there’s even a discussion around the dinner table about horror films, in which the characters discuss “Frankenstein, Dracula, and even the Mummy.” The film’s introduction showcases its place between two worlds. It starts with the usual “We assure you, this is true” opening narration that was virtually obligatory in movies of the period. This is then followed by a cold opening, of the sort that has since become standard, but hadn’t yet at the time.

There’s a lot more to be said about Spider Baby, I’m sure. I haven’t said anything at all about the wonderfully off-kilter central performances by Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn, for instance. But our time is almost up and tonight’s film might be one that’s better experienced for yourself than summarized. Even if Spider Baby isn’t your thing – and I’ll be honest that I’m not 100% sure it’s mine – it’s a fascinating look at a (somewhat precognizant) moment in film history. For a master class in the way the horror film was changing from before the 1960s to after, watch this on a double feature with Targets.

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we stop in to see another somewhat dysfunctional family ….