Spider Baby (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD) is one of the greatest blasts of creative B-movie inspiration to hit American drive-ins and grindhouses. It was the solo directorial debut of Jack Hill (whose Coffy and Foxy Brown both recently hit Blu-ray from Olive), a low-budget film that was financed by real estate developers who wanted to get into the movie business and got stuck in limbo for years when the producers went bankrupt. Shot in 1964, it was finally released in 1967, by which time black-and-white films were no longer considered for first-run bookings. It was sold as a second feature and then fell into the public domain, where it became a cult movie a generation later, thanks to cheap videotape copies. Hill never made a dime on it, but he did belatedly get some attention for it. For all of its technical shortcomings and budget-related compromises, I still think it’s his most inspired film.
The final descendants of the Merrye family live in an isolated manor, hiding their curse from society in an old family home that could have been built as a vacation home by the architect of the Bates hilltop home. They suffer from Merrye’s Syndrome, a (fictional) malady causes all members of the family to regress mentally and emotionally with the onset of puberty. “The unfortunate result of… inbreeding,” explains Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr. in a warm, paternal performance), the chauffeur and guardian of the afflicted children of his old master. Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn in adolescent pigtails) and Virginia (Jill Banner), the spider baby of the title, are typical sisters playing (and tattling on one another) in schoolgirl frocks. Gangly Sid Haig as the bald, infantile Ralph, an older brother slipping into back into a pre-verbal state. Things are fine as long as no one comes around (pity the poor postman) but when distant cousins Peter and Emily Howe (Quinn Redeker and Carol Ohmart) arrive with a lawyer (Karl Schanzer) to contest the will, things get interesting.
Hangmen Also Die (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) is Fritz Lang’s fictionalized take on a real-life historical event: the only successful assassination of a major Nazi commander by the underground resistance in occupied Europe. Reinhard Heydrich, who earned the nickname “The Hangman” for his brutality as Reichsprotektor of Czechoslovakia, was attacked in 1942 and died of his injuries, an action that was met with terrible reprisals against the population.
For the film version, Brian Donlevy (one of the stiffest of Hollywood stars) is the assassin, a doctor working in the resistance who is forced to hide out with a Czech family when his getaway driver (Lionel Stander) is arrested and he is forced to find his own escape. The actual assassination takes place offscreen in the opening moments, which keeps the focus on the plight of the citizens under the boot of Nazi tyranny, and the message of the film follows in every scene: never inform, no matter how many die in reprisals. It’s a hard lesson for Nasha (Anna Lee), who misdirects the Gestapo soldiers during his escape and hides him when the area is cordoned off at curfew, then chooses to turn him in when her father (Walter Brennan), a scholar who clearly knows more about the resistance than he voices, is arrested as a hostage. Her very intention to go to Gestapo headquarters brings the boot down on her family and she watches one innocent after another sacrifice their own lives to protect the assassin’s identity. The lesson is clear: the only victory is in denying the Nazis any form of victory.
Lang fled Germany after equating a criminal mastermind and his organization of thugs with Hitler and the Nazis in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). When America went to war and Hollywood was given the word to twist its message to war propaganda, Lang sunk his teeth into the assignment with a conviction matched only by fellow European exiles. Hangmen Also Die was the second of Lang’s wartime trilogy of anti-Fascist—making a nice companion piece to Lang’s earlier Man Hunt (1941), released a couple of months ago in a beautiful Blu-ray edition by Twilight Time, and later Ministry of Fear (1944), which Criterion put out on a terrific Blu-ray edition last year and the most overtly political—and the most politically driven. Lang wrote the original script with Bertold Brecht (though John Wexley, who translated the script and rewrote the English version with Lang’s input, took screenwriting credit on the film) and pretty much took over shaping the film to his own desires once shooting began, which infuriated Brecht and led to his break with Lang.
Hangmen Also Die is, frankly, the least dramatically compelling of the three. It’s a sprawling story that leans heavily into the propaganda. The stolid Donlevy is a flat and uninspiring hero who barely changes expression and Anna Lee seems always on the verge of unraveling in panic. Where it’s most effective is when it plays the up to the heroism of everyday citizens, driven less by altruism than hatred for the enemy, and in the telling little touches strewn through the film, like the carefully sharpened pencils lined up like soldiers on the desk of a Gestapo officer, or the crates of beer from the collaborator’s brewery stacked up at Gestapo HQ. The mixture of patriotic drama, detective story and espionage thriller knits together in the second half and pays off in a climactic bit of poetic justice that is a fantasy, a kind of con caper played on the Gestapo, yet is oddly satisfying despite the terrific cost in innocent lives.
Though it’s been on disc before, this edition is mastered from a 2013 restoration, which uses numerous sources (including the original negative) to create a mostly beautiful and fully complete version of the film. There are a couple of rough patches from sequences taken from lesser source material but for the most part it is clean and clear, with sharp images and fine black and white contrasts.
Film historian Richard Pena provides the informed commentary and there is a 30-minute featurette with historian Robert Gerwath on the real life history of Reinhardt Heydrich and the differences between reality and the film’s portrait of events. The accompanying booklet features an essay by Peter Ellenbruch on the production of the film and the falling out between Lang and Brecht.
The 1955 British science fiction thriller The Quatermas Xperiment is a landmark film for a number of reasons. It was adapted from a live TV serial The Quatermas Experiment (1953) by Nigel Kneale, which is still considered one of the most important and influential British TV productions of all time. It was the most ambitious British science fiction film since Things to Come and the most intelligent and adventurous to date. And it became the biggest hit that Hammer Films ever had to that point, setting them on a new course of science fiction and, eventually, horror films that would define the studio.
For the big screen version, Hammer brought in Val Guest to direct and co-script the adaptation and imported American actor Brian Donlevy to play Professor Bernard Quatermas. The film opens with the crash landing of the first manned spaceflight out of Earth’s atmosphere, a mission that went awry. The ship (which sticks out of the ground of a rural British farm like an arrow, looking like a Flash Gordon rocket excavated in an archeological dig) has returned without explanation, still burning up from the reentry heat, too hot to open with killing the men inside. As the military cordons off the area, Professor Quatermas arrives, takes charge and finally orders the ship open, where he finds two astronauts inexplicably missing and the third (Richard Wordsworth) in shock, with a look of fear frozen on his face and an unidentified fungus-like growth on his arm. The scene takes place at night, with military spotlights cutting through the mist and casting hard shadows across the ground, and the sense of mystery and the unknown builds from there.