Specters of ’68: Spider Baby

imdb_virginia_knife_spider_babyI meant to get this out a month ago for Halloween, but here’s a (delayed) review of one of the great, deranged, unsung horror classics of 1968, and one which by virtue of totally refusing to put its finger on the pulse of that year, seems to encapsulate it all the more so. 

So many horror films from the late 1960s feel prepackaged to unpack the fluctuations and transformations of the era for us, as though hyper-conscious of and possibly imprisoned by their self-regarding ability to divulge the hidden truths of time’s passing for us. They read and tease out the machinations and contortions of the era with a self-conscious precision. Their symbolic maneuvers and eloquent gestures of barbed analysis are so clearly and elegantly primed to scrutinize and inspect, statically, what was in reality lurching around them in media res. Some of the hungriest films of the genre produced at that time, namely Night of the Living Dead, still quiver with unassuming dementedness, but many of the otherwise-sharp films from those years exert so much energy monumentalizing the time-period – arriving at the thesis that sums up the time period –  that they reject the lower registers of the time period’s insanity for clear-eyed, and thus, somewhat surface-bound, inspection. They order and explain away the tumultuousness so much so that they risk missing the period-specific chaos around them, and where that chaos might take them if they were to listen to it.

That’s certainly understandable.  Explanatory potency and acumen are essential features of the cinema, not to be neglected. But they don’t arrive at their conclusions without casualty, and Spider Baby is one of those casualties. Compared to, say, Rosemary’s Baby, released in the same year and a little too aware of the-already canonized importance of that year in some ways, Spider Baby feels positively anti-canonical, unadorned and unalloyed to any critical sensibility consciously informing the material. It’s not as precise as those other films, by virtue of that fact, and it so overtly dismisses the offer to comment on the era that it often seems to be doing absolutely nothing with the heritage that it’s been bequeathed with. It doesn’t feel as predetermined to mythologize any era of horror, in fact, almost as though it exists blissfully unaware of the passage of time around it. Instead, Spider Baby simply convulses, entombed in and liberated by its mania. The young directors of the New Hollywood were cineastes, as inclined to think cinema as to feel it; Spider Baby simply exudes it. It’s Old Horror passing before our eyes like a ghost rather than New Horror studiously dissecting the corpse.

The story of the final three Merrye siblings, Virginia (Beverly Washburn), Elizabeth (Jill Banner), and Ralph (Sid Haig), and their apparently unrelated caretaker Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.), and the story of the vaguely-related couple who try to insinuate themselves into the family in hopes of stealing their land. The three siblings, we’re told, are on their way out, in the final stages of a syndrome that afflicts their family and causes them to progressively regress into a demented infantile mental state from roughly their tenth year onward, such that the three siblings, although in their teens now, act like mutant toddlers of indecipherable but possibly murderous intent.

When the couple, Peter Howe (Quinn Redeker) and Ann (Mary Mitchell) arrive, the conceptual contours are immediately set up: the rationalized, get-rick-quick insanity of the cold modern world pitted against the off-the-beaten-path insanity of out-of-the-way places, each carving each other up. Technically, the film covers that subject matter, but the manner in which it “covers” anything is vague and uncertain indeed. Rather than honing in, Spider Baby shapelessly distends itself, engaging in trail-offs and detours and indulging broken interruptions. It certainly recalls some of the more scruffy B-pictures from the decade, not to mention Roman Polanski’s earlier, wryer, less self-worshipping poisoned pens, but the overall sensation watching it is sheer uniqueness, of a film stranded in its own muck without the benefit of comparison, disfiguring its and our noblest intents rather than fulfilling or concluding any of our prescribed theorizations of the period.

The centerpiece of the film is Lon Chaney’s Bruno, a warped but genuine soul desperately clinging to his only (adopted) family and quietly reconciling his position in the world. Chaney’s guileless acting sensibility, less a calculated performance than an embodiment of weary soul-death, essays Bruno as a man who is witness to his own guilt, seemingly both aware of the limits of his actions and totally unable to commit to changing them when the latter would probably wreck his very semblance of self. Not so much sketching as scrawling the harsh transformation of more gentle, moralistic classic horror into the more vicious exploitation cinema of the ‘70s, the film traps Bruno’s genuine values, his emphasis on family and the retention of compassion, in a vise, forcing him to reckon with the modern world encroaching in and the violence condoned by that old world, festering under that moral visage.

At one point, Peter and Ann jokingly reminisce about old Universal Horror films. When they mention the Wolf Man as a kind of trifle to be enjoyed, Chaney, that role’s signature conjurer, croaks “There’s a full moon tonight”, as if the encroaching presence of some unknown future has suddenly dawned on him, the actor registering portents of the future in his face that the film has not yet picked up narratively and is not entirely prepared to deal with. In this sense, while Spider Baby carves up and wryly disrupts old Hollywood horror by perverting it and stirring its latent psychosexual dimensions, this maddened concoction still acknowledges that it can’t but travel in classic horror’s wake. As it does with Lon Chaney, Spider Baby traps Old Hollywood in its web, and finds itself trapped in return.

Another wayward, long-lost soul adorns Spider Baby, wandering in for the intro and meeting his demise before his scene is done. Mantan Moreland, a patron saint of Golden Age Hollywood cinematic comedy and distressingly emblematic of the paradoxes in African-American humor from that era, meets a kind of final fate in the opening of this film, as though the film is self-consciously putting the nail on the coffin of old horror. In the B-classic King of the Zombies, from twenty-five years before this film, Moreland played a black servant to a white (nominal protagonist) who uncovered a Nazi plot to zombify the world on a Caribbean island, to essentially rebirth the slavery of the old Caribbean plantation.

More importantly, Moreland’s character, zombified in that film but still capable of speaking knowing asides to the camera, spent so much of that film wryly commenting on the narrative and exposing America’s tacit complicity with Nazi whitewashing, as though registering his awareness of a more complicated, curious film than the edifice around him could admit to otherwise or fulfill.  Moreland and Chaney embody that paradoxical spirit of Old Horror, its mixture of mercenary incuriousness and probing seriousness that sometimes exists almost in spite of the film. It’s worth mentioning that Spider Baby uses Moreland in a deracialized manner, so it doesn’t have much to say about race (at least not that I can decipher), but it does introduce him to the canon of Old Horror icons (even if it grants relative privilege to Chaney) in the process of metaphorically and literally seeing them along to the grave.

Ultimately, Spider Baby is the kind of film that isn’t – that can’t be – “about” anything, but by virtue of this fact, it breathes, if not more fully, then at least more astonishingly, wheezing and guffawing and huffing and puffing and cackling and croaking while other films focus on cleanly uttered syllables and controlled breathing. In the ensuing fifty-one years, horror films have matured and become more meta-textual and self-critical in the process, whereas Spider Baby seems to have been left in the corner going mad. It feels like it wandered in from some weird Chthonic corner of Hollywood, a thoroughly demented vortex that staggers around an abyss of cinematic indecipherability, like some cracked-mirror portal into some cinema elsewhere, a frighteningly other film. Its closest comrade is probably Herk Harvey’s phantasmagorical Carnival of Souls, which like any good phantasm seems both old and new, ephemerally passing by in the shadows without even a moment’s notice and being passed down, haunting us forever.   In this sense, Spider Baby bears witness to the passing of an old era, and hasn’t the slightest clue how to even begin wrapping its head around that fact. At the very least, it seems to feel, quite like Boris Karloff once said, that it (and “we”, as in the collective Old Horror) belongs dead, and it is this very soul-death that gives it such life even fifty years later.

Score: 8.5/10 (although a number really isn’t appropriate for this film)



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