Monday, April 12, 2010

Spider Baby

Its that time again when Final Girl Stacie Ponder calls all her minions and admires to pay tribute to a film of her choosing. That's right its Film Club Time! After being unable to find a copy of Uzumaki to participate last month there was no way, I was missing out on Spider Baby too. The problem with this is that I have to review Spider Baby, a film that as you will see I've got some strong feelings about which means I'll probably be as much as a party killer as a Tarantula on a slice of wedding cake. Still if you want to read a great alternate take on the film I recomend Erich Kuersten's who writes about the film I wish I'd see when I watch Spider Baby.

Calling a movie “unique” “one of kind” “like nothing you’ve ever seen before” or worst of all “You have to see it to believe it” is often a lazy critical contrivance. Code for, “This movie is weird and I’m not really sure how to describe it.” Odds are given the vast amounts of films that have been made that there is probably something somewhat like the film that’s you’re describing that’s been made before.

Spider Baby is one of the exceptions to the rule. Let me tell you, this movie is the genuine article. Nothing like it has been made before or since. It’s a genuine mutant of a film so beyond the pale of narrative convention, taste, and just basic common decency that I am confident that nothing this genuinely odd will ever come down the pike again. The tagline boasts it’s the maddest story ever told and I believe it. Spiderbaby is simply put one of the strangest motherfucking movies ever made.

The film’s cult has endured for a number of reasons. It’s the first film of Jack Hill, arguably the greatest director to never break out of the AIP farm team into the big leagues. Hill has enough innate talent and visual instinct to keep the movie from being dismissed. It stars Sid Haig and Lon Chaney Jr. two names that hold plenty of weight in film freak circles. And its influence on modern directors like Rob Zombie who have been unshy about name checking the film, has kept contempary audiences interested as well. But mostly it’s the film’s notoriety and relative scaricity that keeps it alive, like a modern day Freaks it has the reputation of, and once again to forgive the hack phrase, “Something that has to be seen to be believed.”

The easiest way to describe, Spider Baby is that its like a horror film that was written, filmed, edited and then watched with a raging case of the DTs. There’s something about it that just feels wrong. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it appears to be less something made then found.

Spiderbaby tells the story of an unlucky family who have a rare genetic disorder that makes them mentally regress as they get older. Some greedy distant relatives come to try to claim some inheritance or something and shit predictably hits the fan.

Things get off to a strange start with a theme song and illustrated opening credits that, don’t worry, have absolutely no bearing on the film. With lyrics that sound like the song writer had the plot described to him by the producer while both of them where very drunk and then written in a white knuckle panic and delivered to the singer (Chaney) in a similar state of inebriation. The bar of incompetence has already been set by, and a band perversely unable to keep tempo.

Then the film itself opens like a Stephen Fetchitt skit gone horribly awry(er). A black mail man, bug eyed, shuffling and stopping just short of murmuring to himself about “Dabt ole Dark House.” (The fact that this film was directed by Hill, AKA the Sternberg to Pam Grier’s Dietrich, is bitterly ironic). The broad tasteless comedy soon runs into broad tasteless violence, when the postman caught in the least convincing trap I have ever seen is killed by the titular Spiderbaby. Nothing else captures just how jaw droppingly awkward Spiderbaby is, then this attack. Which juxtaposes Spider Baby brutally hacking at her victim with a knife, with shots of the victim’s legs comically helplessly bicycling in the air as like he’s fucking Winnie The Pooh lodged in Rabbit’s hole. If it has not occurred to you by now the endless parallel cutting between those two shots will sent the thought “What the fuck were these people thinking?” rocketing to your head.

Here’s empirical proof of everything I just described in the last paragraph. Tell me I’m exaggerating.

Soon Lon Chaney comes and gently chastises the girl for her brutal murder. He’s the guardian of these children and he is really awful at his job. If there is one thing that keeps me from enjoying Spider Baby as a harmless kitschy oddity from the drive in era, no better or worse then Vampire Hookers, its Chaney’s performance. It goes beyond, merely grotesquely funny like some of John Carradine’s later booze soaked performance, and crosses the border into genuinely pitiful. Chaney’s booze swollen features are like a Greek mask and add undeserving pathos to the movie. He looks like he’s in genuine agony in every frame of the film. You can’t even laugh, its too real pathetic and sad. You just want to get the poor guy into an AA meeting.

This is all before, Sid Haig shows up in a diaper.

Spiderbaby isn’t a movie that’s watched its endured. As a result its place among cultists as a secret handshake is in some regards, earned. Say what you will about Spiderbaby but no normals are going to make it through. Its for the true believers only. But lets not kid ourselves. There’s nothing here more worthwhile then a particularly seedy, sad, geek show. All the subversive edge in the world can't help but make the chicken blood dribbling out of the corner of its mouth more then a little tawdry.


Franco Macabro said...

I think this film might have inspired Texas Chainsaw Massacre a bit, it even has the strange dinner scene with the whole family of whackos on the table, and the one or two "normal" folks who are freaked out.

It has the dad that tries to keep the crazy family under control, but fails horribly at it...the similarities between the two films are endless when you look at it.

deadlydolls said...

Oh Bryce. So this is it huh? This is what ends us as phrends in the Interverse? I'd shed a tear but any man who heaps such attack upon one of the most joyful genre films of all time just doesn't deserve one.

And you Film COnnoisseur! You can join Bryce in a corner filled with tarantulas, degenerating uncles, hungry Sid Haig, and Lon Chaney Jr.'s empty bottles.

Rant over. Emily sad.

AE said...

"There’s something about it that just feels wrong. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it appears to be less something made then found."

This is such a perfect description -- this movie is like a bizarre object you come across beside the road or at a flea market or in your grandmother's attic, and you just stand there turning it over in your hands, feeling vaguely unsettled, thinking "What IS this thing?" Except I liked that about it!

Bryce Wilson said...

@ FC you're right I hadn't though much about it beyond the weird vibe.

@ Emily :' ( Oh Em I'm confident our phrendship will survive this roadbloack (or is it IED?) Bringing out my whacking stick brought me no pleasure.

@AE thanks AE! Its funny this kind of funky (in the original sense of the word vibe) is normally the quickest path a movie can take to my heart. This time though it got detoured at my spleen.

Franco Macabro said...

Hey Emily, I never said I hated this movie, just that it had some similarities with TCM, which it does.

But aside from that, I found it entertaining, in fact I own this movie, I remember thinking that the opening sequence was kind of weird, very 60s.

And also, for some reason the movie reminded me of The Munsters, because its a creepy family, different from everybody, and then suddenly they get visited by "normal" folks who end up getting completely freaked out by everything they see. This type of scenario used to happen all the time in The Munsters t.v. show.

Bryce Wilson said...

It really is The Munsters if the Munsters occasionally ate people.

deadlydolls said...

My apologies Film Connoisseur, I got a little trigger happy after Bryce's WRONG review. Or maybe I was just angry that you didn't jump in to defend the film as well! ISn't everyone supposed to agree with my opinions at all times? I thought that's what happens when you go on the Internet! Where's that manual...

AE said...

So true about the Munsters... and Emily, I want to hang out in the corner with the tarantulas and the degenerating uncles! I bet there are some dregs left here at the bottom of Lon's old bottles...

The Groundskeeper said...

Wow. Never could I have anticipated such vitriol being leveled at one of horror and cult cinema's greatest and most joyful offerings. You make your points intelligently and articulately but I'm afraid for all your verbal artistry I cannot follow you into this uncharted territory.

I choose love.