Spider Baby, The Maddest Story Ever Told – Lon Chaney Jr, Sid Haig, and the Beauty of Schlock and Insanity

On Christmas Eve 1967, Jack Hill’s Spider Baby, The Maddest Story Ever Told (AKA Cannibal Orgy, The Maddest Story Ever Told) introduced us to the delightfully demented Merrye family. Elizabeth, Virginia, and Ralph are the last members of a wealthy, reclusive, and horribly inbred family cursed with a disease that regresses them mentally as they hit adolescence and turns them into murderous, cannibalistic beasts as they age. They are cared for by Bruno, the family chauffeur and devoted friend of the late Mr. Merrye, who does his best to cover up the murderous indiscretions of the surviving Merryes. He finds himself in a seemingly unwinnable situation when greed-driven distant relatives come to claim the children and their fortune.

If you’re looking for high art or some gory ’60s exploitation film, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. While there are plenty of scenes designed to entice the more prurient interests of viewers, the horror comes from the concept behind the story. An aristocratic family in decline, collapsing under the weight of its own terrible secrets and practices leaves its last three members in a state of mental decay and in the care of a man who is torn between doing right and honoring a pledge made to a dying friend. Add a group of greed-driven, ignorant distant kin into the desolate environment of the desert estate and dilapidated home, and it’s a familiar looking scenario to fans of the genre.

Starring Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolfman), Carol Ohmart (House on Haunted Hill) and a very young Sid Haig in a role that will parallel one of his most memorable performances (House of 1,000 Corpses), Spider Baby is the enjoyable sort of shocker that has dialogue and scenes that, despite the cheap nature of the film, are absolutely gripping. Virginia Merrye (Jill Banner) loves spiders and often “plays spider” with deadly consequences for the people who find themselves caught in her web. Meanwhile, poor Bruno (Chaney) is doing all he can to help the children as they gradually degenerate into monsters. The love he so clearly feels for his wards is evident and lends the film a very heartbreaking and poignant tone, despite the overall elements of horror, suspense, and even comedy that appear throughout.

Spider Baby, The Maddest Story Ever Told
The Merrye Family (Elizabeth, Ralph, and Virginia) with Bruno.

Meanwhile, it is uncanny how many elements of Spider Baby really shine through in House of 1,000 Corpses shot nearly forty years later, once again starring Sid Haig as a demented murderer. You follow an unsuspecting group of people traveling to a remote and decaying home in the desert for their own wants and desires. There, they find themselves pitted against a family of crazed, inbred cannibals who will do anything to protect their home and legacy from outsiders. With a ravenous, crazed patriarch sequestered beneath the home and a quickly unraveling tale of insanity and horror being laid out for the audience, I feel that Spider Baby would have been a bit more like the Rob Zombie classic had it been filmed and released a decade or so later.

Like I said, you have to look past some of the cheaper, low end B movie issues that the film suffers from, as well as the fact that it was shot in 1964 at a time, when even showing blood or the act of murder itself was still very taboo and unacceptable in the mainstream. Between the sexy women in scant clothing, murderous, incestuous degenerates thriving in the California countryside, the implied violence and depravity within the hearts of young adults and children and, of course, the ending that always let the imagination run wild as to the true nature of the curse of Merrye Syndrome… it was definitely unique for its time. Spider Baby is a classic worthy of any horror fan’s library or, at the very least, a quick view online just to say that you’ve seen it. It’s also worth it just to hear Lon Chaney Jr sing the film’s bizarre opening theme.

Spider Baby, The Maddest Story Ever Told
Let’s play spider!

This Christmas Eve, give yourself the gift of schlock and celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of this old school horror. Spider Baby, The Maddest Story Ever Told is currently free to stream through Amazon Prime.

About Danno

Dan Lee is a freelance writer, horror fiction author and independent publisher, and horror culture correspondent living in a small town outside a major Southern metropolis. His articles, interviews, editorials, and fictional works continue to run on several sites and publications. He is also one of the resurrectionists behind the return of the Nashville Zombie Walk (2017).

Check Also

Everything But The Monkey’s Paw! ‘DEATHDREAM’ (1974) – 4K UHD Review

You know the story. A wish is granted but brings terrible consequences. Despite the best …