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06 March, 2010

DVD Review: SPIDER BABY Director’s Cut

Title: SPIDER BABY Director’s Cut

Year of Release—Film: 1968

Year of Release—DVD: 2007

DVD Label: Dark Sky Entertainment/MPI Entertainment

Jack Hill’s quirky masterpiece is definitely one of the oddest films you’re likely to see, but it’s also one of the most entertaining, too. Shot in 1964 but held in limbo until four years later, SPIDER BABY or, THE MADDEST STORY EVER TOLD to use its proper title, stars Lon Chaney Jr. and Carol Ohmart amidst a cast of lesser-known actors, including a very young Sid “Captain Spaulding” Haig. The story revolves around the Merrye family, the descendants of which develop an incurable mental regression as they enter puberty. This regression causes them to become mentally deranged, psychotic, and cannibalistic. This is one of Chaney’s best performances from late in life, and his job as Bruno is matched by several equally impressive performances from the rest of the cast. Chief among these are the aforementioned Haig, as Ralph, the oldest of the Merrye children; the gorgeous Jill Banner as his sister, Virginia; and Quinn Redeker as their distant relative.

This film, which came so close to being lost forever, has become a cult favorite since the advent of home video. Finally, after twenty plus years of fading VHS tapes and poor quality bootleg DVD-R’s, Dark Sky Entertainment/MPI Entertainment, working directly with Hill, has put out the definitive SPIDER BABY disc.

For those who’ve not had the pleasure of watching this movie yet, there’s very little I can say to describe it without revealing too much of the plot. Suffice it to say that it is a unique film for it’s period, both in subject matter and in quality, especially in view of the limited resources available to Hill. It’s very reminiscent of Mario Bava’s early work, particularly when comparing Hill’s skillful use of camera angles to cover-up the obvious shortfalls in the available location, the subject of one of the many special features. This is one of my favorite films of the ‘60’s, and I’m glad that it’s finally getting the attention it’s long deserved.

While Dark Sky Entertainment/MPI Entertainment does a credible job on this disc, the packaging leaves something to be desired. This company’s efforts usually come off looking bargain-basement, though I’ve always found the quality to be superior. This disc is no exception… to either rule.
Both the audio and video quality is far superior to the worn-out VHS in my collection, and the addition of subtitles, as always, is greatly appreciated. While I wish that Dark Sky invested a little more effort into the package design, I sure as hell can’t fault the product inside.

And as befits this long-awaited disc, Dark Sky has loaded it down with special features, the best of which is the documentary THE HATCHING OF SPIDER BABY, a look at the making of this movie. The genesis of this film, and the difficult path it took to it’s ultimate recognition as such a terrific little movie, is a fascinating story, especially when told by those most intimately involved with it. Who better to tell it than Jack Hill himself, along with the surviving cast members?

Also included is SPIDER STRAVINSKY: THE CINEMA SOUNDS OF RONALD STEIN. One of this great composer’s many scores was the unique music of SPIDER BABY, and this biographical piece is informative and interesting. The third documentary included is THE MERRYE HOUSE REVISITED, a trip back to the house used for location shooting of the film. Contrary to appearances, the house was far from isolated; instead it is located in a busy residential neighborhood of Los Angeles. Hill’s direction, and the beautiful camera work by Alfred Taylor, combined to photographically isolate the house from it’s surroundings.

Add in the excellent commentary track, featuring both Jack Hill and Sid Haig, an extended and alternate scene section, and a still gallery, and you have a truly superb collection of features for an equally superior DVD.
While this is not a cheap disc, the SPIDER BABY Director’s Cut nonetheless earns a definite Buy recommendation from me… in fact, it came within a tarantula hair of beating out THE MONSTER SQUAD for my DVD Release of the Year award. If having a pristine print of one of my favorite films wasn’t enough to guarantee that, then the wealth of behind the scenes information on the film’s production certainly does.

This is the type of DVD release that fans want to see for the films they love, and Dark Sky did not disappoint us. At a list price of $29.99, it’s well outside the range of what I consider impulse buying… that’s ok, though. This is one you should plan to add to your collection—and soon.

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