The cackle of Lon Chaney Jr. shatters the silence, and so begins Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told. Cute cartoon caricatures begin to pop up, smiling ear-to-ear like they were made for a bubblegum wrapper. Chaney sings about cannibal spiders, ghouls and skeletons, the song lilting up and down like a bumpy forest road. Illustrations of hearses, spiders, and creepy kids start to pull this parade into Addams Family territory, but even the Addams’ classic jingle doesn’t include the line, “This cannibal orgy is strange to behold in the maddest story ever told!” Cannibal Orgy happened to be the film’s original title, because director Jack Hill thought that sounded funny. In stark contrast to these cartoon cavalcades, a man is stabbed in the eyes in the very first scene, two kitchen knives plunged into his skull by a little girl.
Spider Baby is a sadistic film – for 1969 or for present day. It was one of the first features from exploitation legend Hill, who would become better known for his action movies Switchblade Sisters and Foxy Brown, perhaps due to the limited release of his madhouse slapstick horror. Spider Baby’s release went into a four-year limbo after its producers, who made their money in real estate, went bankrupt. When it did play its reach was limited. Spider Baby would eventually be rediscovered on home video, and good thing too, because this movie is just too bonkers to end up being forgotten.
“I just wanted to let the viewers know from the start that this was going to be partly comedy,” said Hill. Spider Baby is an unholy combination of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and The People Under the Stairs. Chaney plays Bruno, an adoring, exhausted and probably far too liberal guardian to three mentally stunted adolescents: Elizabeth (Old Yeller’s Beverly Washburn), Ralph (an extremely young Sid Haig) and Virginia (first time actor Jill Banner), the latter of whom has an unusual hobby of springing a net on unsuspecting individuals before stabbing them to death. The story kicks off when some snooping cousins try to inherit the family’s estate, only to learn that the manor and its current residents are way more than they’ve bargained for.
The film is vicious but extremely goofy. Before descending into bloody mayhem, Ralph readies the visiting family a feast made of bugs, weeds, and a cat he killed. While spooky stories about strange families were popular in the late 50s and early 60s, Spider Baby not only outguns them with violence but a jet black sense of humour – a contrast established by those big drawn grins in the opening sequence.
Designed by EIP (who still remain a mystery, and Hill cannot recall), the opening sequence to Spider Baby treats the approaching acts of dismemberment and perversion with all the gravity of a Hanna Barbera cartoon. To dissuade anyone from getting the wrong idea about the scruples of anyone involved with the film, Spider Baby establishes that this is all one nutty punchline, serenaded by a song composed by Ronald Stein (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Haunted Palace), which mentions werewolves and mummies as if the ditty was at one point meant for the animated Mad Monster Party. “We just went into a recording studio and [Chaney] knocked it out,” said Hill. “He had a great time doing it.”
Title Design: EIP
Music: "Spider Baby" composed by Ronald Stein and sung by Lon Chaney, Jr.