Really wild stuff. Campy horror–in the mid-60s vein of the Munsters and The Monster Mash. The theme is set down immediately with the whimsically menacing song and cartoon-ish credits, and never lets up. The tone is a unique blend of deranged, macabre, and parody. Interestingly, the family is explained by a quasi-scientific ‘syndrome.’ So the various delusions, not to mention violent aspects of the Merrye family, has a serious backdrop. What Ralph (Sid Haig), Elizabeth (Beverly Wasburn), and Virginia (Jill Banner) do to amuse themselves is completely crazy and completely cool.
That the movie maintains this unique set of thrills throughout shows incredible wit and creativity. Virginia is maybe the worst offender, as she actually murders people. But it’s all fun to her; it’s as though all the mayhem is a manifestation of the teenagers’ refusal to grow up. They’re literally holed up in the past, clinging to childish personas. The house itself–a top-notch haunted house if there ever was one, especially inside–is the ultimate play-thing. Delapidated, dirty, lined with cobwebs, stocked with all manner of spiders, a pile of rodents, secret chambers, and a pit in the cellar, no less, plus spooky woods with a patch of giant mushrooms, and their dad’s very nasty corpse in bed; the siblings live in a timeless twilight zone.
The plot’s set in motion by normal types who threaten their gothic world; an aunt and uncle (Quinn Redecker’s Peter and Carol Omart’s Emily), and the Hitler look-a-like attorney Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) and his aide Ann (Mary Mitchell). Lon Chaney somewhat awkwardly plays a sort of go-between as the caretaker Bruno. All of these characters are crucial, not only because of their roles as outsiders (except Bruno), but also because they are witnesses, stand-ins for us as the audience. Luckily, they each react differently to the Merrye household, giving multiple perspectives. Schlocker, as his name suggests, is pretty much a buffoon. Ann falls for Peter, Peter himself kind of falls into the ambience of the family, and Emily becomes like another eccentric, scary sister. I was kind of disappointed by Chaney, as his Bruno doesn’t seem nutty enough to really fit into the household.
He’s definitely an enabler, the one who has kept the family secrets, and has maintained the kids’ ‘lifestyle’, and then demolishing the whole deal when he realizes they’re doomed. But his character isn’t very animated. He pales in comparison to the family: it’s hard to say who’s more interesting, Virginia or Ralph. Virginia relishes not only the spider fetish, but the murders, and everything in between. She’s hard not to watch; Ralph on the other hand, is hard to conceive of, let alone watch. His role has both the darkest humor and the most pathos. Undoubtedly a great performance by the actor; he’s scary for what he does, and what he represents. Ralph is the most childlike and the most mentally disturbed.
Thanks to Ralph’s ‘contribution’ the dinner scene is not to be missed. Offhand, I can’t think of a funnier scene: disgusting, disturbing, the pinnacle of dark humor. Slightly campier, if that possible, is the denouement in the cellar. There’s an actual Pandora’s of things crawling out; by this point, almost anything remotely sinister works. Considering that Spider Baby covers a lot of horror/psychological/bizarre/goofy territory it succeeds amazingly well. Very entertaining on a number of levels. 9/10.