Class Of 1968 Extra Credit: Spider Baby and the Heart of Horror Comedy

*******Spoilers for THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, and a bunch of Rob Zombie movies probably.**************

The look on Boris Karloff’s face when he realizes his “Bride” wants nothing to do with him in Bride of Frankenstein. The relationship between Shaun and Ed in Shaun of the Dead. “Bette Davis Eyes” in The Final Girls. These are some of my favorite horror comedies of all time, and when I think about them, those are the first things that pop into my head. Not the gore. Not the jokes. But the heart. That’s what sticks with me and elevates those movies in my mind.

Get ready for a HOT TAKE: I think An American Werewolf in London is a pretty great horror comedy. I think it might be the best horror comedy of all time, and what draws me to it is its heart. The two main characters, David and Jack, are kind of dummies, but they’re also funny, enjoyable to hang out with, and most importantly, they care for each other and their friendship feels authentic. These two guys and their relationship reminds me a lot of friendships that I’ve had throughout my life, and that authenticity makes it hurt that much more when David loses Jack early in the movie. Their friendship is the heart of An American Werewolf in London, and it helps the movie glide back and forth between horror and comedy seamlessly.

Spider Baby is a movie that has a lot going on. The movie alternates between kitschy family comedy, classic horror, and cannibal film with moments of self-referential comedy thrown in to the mix. For everything going on in the film, it handles its tone remarkably well, and the main reason it’s so successful is the film’s anchor, Lon Chaney Jr.

Lon Chaney plays Bruno, the chauffer for the three inbred, and demented, children of the Merrye family. The Merrye family is afflicted with a disease called “Merrye Syndrome”, which is an affliction that begins at 10 years old, and reverses the child’s cognitive capabilities as they age, eventually leading them into cannibalism. I have done over three minutes of research on this disease, and from what I can tell it’s not very common, but that’s probably because it’s completely made up.

The Merrye family lives in a dark, decrepit mansion away from the rest of society, kept there by Bruno because he doesn’t trust their interactions with the normies. It turns out that the Merrye family is sitting on a fortune, something that is desired by the family’s greedy cousin Emily, who travels to the family mansion along with her brother, Peter, her lawyer, Shlocker, and his assistant, Ann. It’s after their arrival at the mansion that things go downhill.

The Merrye kids each have their own set of weird inbred quirks: Ralph (Sid Haig!) is essentially a caveman who grunts and growls when he becomes sexually aroused by the visiting women. Elizabeth is just kind of creepy in general from what I remember. And Virginia is the titular Spider Baby; a young woman who likes to eat bugs and trap unsuspecting victims in a makeshift spider’s web and then stab them to death. Oh, she also likes to cut off people’s ears and keep them in a match book, which is nice. At least she’s collecting them and not just tossing them in the trash, I guess.

Rob Zombie has talked about Spider Baby being one of his favorite movies, and it’s easy to see why. Much like the characters in a Zombie movie, these people are societal outcasts, kept away from the outside world for society’s own good, but also for the good of the family. Also, like in Zombie’s movies, particularly The Devils Rejects, Spider Baby presents the main family in a sympathetic light. I felt bad for the Merrye family. It’s not Spider Baby’s fault. She’s just doing what she knows. Spider Baby things. It’s tough. I think the main difference though (Other than the fact that none of the characters say stuff like, “Shitfuck Dirtrat, cockfucker, dickstain etc.), and the thing that makes Spider Baby work on a different level than Zombie’s work so far, is its heart. And that heart belongs to Lon Chaney Jr.

I’ve always liked Lon Chaney Jr. On my own personal old horror icon favorites list, I would probably rank him behind Karloff and Price, but just slightly above Lugosi. I just like him. He seems so nice. There is a warmth to him. A sweetness. And those things shine through in a lot of his films, with the obvious example being The Wolf Man. In The Wolf Man you connect with him, and feel for him, so it breaks your heart when he transforms. It’s the same thing in Spider Baby, and maybe even more so due to him being older in it. You really want him to control these kids, even though you know that he’s doomed in the end. In their own way, the kids are a lot like the curse in The Wolf Man.

Chaney is phenomenal in Spider Baby. He wears his years on his face. Worn down and tired looking, he looks like a man who has been beaten down by having to round up this motley crew for years now without any help.  His eyes are what tell the story of Bruno. He constantly looks like he’s on the verge of tears in this movie. It’s heartbreaking. This is also one of Chaney’s final performances, as he would pass away a few years later in 1973, and the movie works pretty well as career capper for Chaney. The Merrye clan can be looked at like a representation of the films he starred in; They’re weird, quirky, and sometimes pretty terrible; but they are his, and that’s what matters.

Later, the movie reveals a group of cannibalistic basement dwellers who are fed deceased bodies by the kids, and Ralph proceeds rape Emily, who in turn begins to exhibit signs sexually aggressive and murderous tendencies following. It’s at this point that Bruno decides he’s lost control and enough is enough, so he proceeds to burn down the house with the family in it. The family is no more and the syndrome is defeated. Well, probably not. The final scene is of Pete in his house with his new wife, Ann, as their daughter plays in the yard. The film closes with their daughter staring at a spider in its web, suggesting that the syndrome will live on in her.

Spider Baby was shot in 1964, but not released until a few years later due to the original production company falling into bankruptcy. In the time since, it has become a cult classic, and its influences can be seen on several different films including, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and really any Rob Zombie movie. I love Spider Baby. It’s a weird mix of black comedy, wacky family stuff, and moments of real horror; and it balances all of that perfectly. But like a lot of horror comedies, it’s the heart of the movie that makes it work, and that heart belongs to Lon Chaney.

Yearbook Superlatives

Best Nickname – Spider Baby. I like this nickname for a number of reasons. 1) It reminds me of something Marvel would put together as a spinoff one-shot series in the same vein as “Peter Porker: Spider-Ham” and the X-Babies. 2) There’s a kitschy 60’s quality to the name, where it’s kind of goofy but still works within the context of the film. So, two reasons, I guess.

Shyest – The cannibals. I didn’t even know they were there! That has to be pretty tough for anyone, especially cannibals. I imagine they grunt and moan a bunch when they’re hungry. I don’t know for sure though, I’ve never met one.

Favorite School Lunch – There’s a really funny scene where they eat a salad made of insects and grass in this movie. Spider Baby turns into this wacky comedy of manners during this dinner scene, and it’s pretty wonderful.


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