Arrow release shows how much the company have gone all out on their latest Blu-ray release, the worldwide premiere of Jack Hill’s (Foxy Brown, Coffy) Spider Baby. A beautiful black and white picture, its journey to digital restoration is a long one. It was originally shot over 12 days in 1964 on a really tight budget and was edited by Hill himself. After an initial screening of the film, the producers (who had assets tied up in property) demanded a re-edit which saw the film became an incoherent shadow of Hill’s original idea. The film was eventually shelved when the producers lost money in a property crash and after it failed to attract any potential distributors. Sitting on a shelf for nearly half a decade and presumed lost, Hill tracked down a print during the home video boom when he found out that pirate videos were circulating of a poor quality transfer from a 16mm print. Hill found an original print and eventually made a video transfer of it, the negatives of which Arrow have digitally restored under Hill’s supervision. The result is a stunning release that has been well worth the wait and does the film justice.
Spider Baby (originally titled Cannibal Orgy) tells the story of three orphaned children, the Merrye children, who suffer from a genetic condition called ‘Merrye Syndrome’, causing them to mentally, socially and physically regress backwards. Kept hidden away in an old run down house, they are looked after by their custodian and chauffeur Bruno, who seems to have one hell of a time looking after them. Not only do they have a condition, but they also happen to be a little mad too, with more than a few murderous tendencies thrown in for good measure. One morning, the postman delivers a letter from relatives laying claim to the house and their arrival later that day threatens to expose the crimes of the three siblings. One night and a simple dinner could in fact be the hardest night Bruno has ever had…
At the centre of this classic piece of cult cinema are its small but terrific cast. Leading the way as the custodian of the Merrye children is Lon Chaney Jr (The Wolf Man) in his last ever on-screen role. Chaney is simply wonderful to watch, expressive and full of sympathy and love, helping to ground the audience in a story the director called ‘the maddest ever told’. The most human and endearing character of them all, Chaney also provides the vocals to the film’s title theme, a cute and creepy song by composer Ronald Stein, which fits the tone of the feature perfectly. Sid Haig (House of 1000 Corpses) is good fun as one of the three Merrye children, who makes instant impact in his first scene where he quite literally spills out of the family car. Rounding off the siblings are Beverly Washburn (The Lone Ranger, Pit Stop) and Jill Banner as the beautifully unhinged sisters Elizabeth and Virginia. Washburn was, by this point in her career, quite a veteran and Banner had done very little, yet the two play off of each other ridiculously well managing to be gorgeous to look at it whilst being deceptively disturbing. One only has to watch the film once to see the influence it must have had on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, whose dysfunctional family make a great counterpoint. Very rarely do a cast work so well together and watching the group on-screen makes for a real treat.
The release is a great package with some brilliant extras that really do make it worth buying. I’ll be honest, recently Arrow have disappointed me with the few extras they have put on some of their recent releases but they have really done Hill and the film justice here. An informative commentary by Hill and Haig is top of the list, as well as some interesting featurettes with the cast and crew which shed much light on the film’s production and its cult appeal (there are some great stories that the cast give of working with Chaney). A well deserved feature plays tribute to the films composer Ronald Stein, whose score is audibly delicious, and a small feature returning to the house that they shot at makes for a sweet nostalgic treat. Rounding off the selection is a gallery of photos, an alternate title sequence (under the films original title) and an extended scene. Also included is Jack Hill’s 30 minute short The Host, made in 1960 and featuring Sid Haig in his first leading role.
And whilst I’ve already said it, it is worth repeating that the picture looks nothing short of beautiful. Arrow really have done a good job on the restoration and what makes it nicer is that cinematographer Alfred Taylor is interviewed in the extras talking about his approach to the film. After watching him talk, one really can appreciate the way he composed each frame and his lighting choices which all add to the films atmosphere (he also recounts an inspiring story in which he recalls lighting a scene using reflectors to manipulate sunlight as they had no lights available on the day).
If you’ve never seen Spider Baby, now is the time and this really is the release to fork money out on. One that does not disappoint; a sublime piece of kooky cinema with complimentary extras that do it justice, this is a must-have for any cinephile’s home collection.