Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays, Film Reviews

Have a Freudian Field Day with ‘Spider Baby’

Spider Baby (1967), more formally known as Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, is a magnificent film maudit of exploitation cinema, a true American independent vision, and an eccentric triumph unappreciated (and in fact largely unseen) in its own time. Think of Lord of the Flies by way of Freaks, a mix of horror and comedy with a nod to Psycho and a dash of Freud. It’s one of the greatest blasts of B-movie creativity to get dumped into American drive-ins and grindhouses—and get rediscovered decades later in the era of home video by genre-movie mavens. (That’s how I first stumbled upon the film and fell in love with its invention and inspiration.)

This was the official directorial debut of Jack Hill, who apprenticed under Roger Corman (shooting uncredited scenes for Dementia 13 and The Terror), and went on to make his name in cult-movie circles with films including Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), both starring Pam Grier, and Switchblade Sisters (1975), a girl-gang picture that Quentin Tarantino rereleased under his Rolling Thunder banner in the late 1990s.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD

Blu-ray: Jack Hill’s ‘Spider Baby’ and ‘Pit Stop’

SpiderbabySpider 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.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews, Horror, Science Fiction

“Queen of Blood” and “Blood Bath”: Lessons from the Roger Corman School of Cinematic Recycling

Roger Corman is the world champion of cinematic recycling. Why waste the potential of a set on a single film when there’s a hungry young aspiring director ready to cobble together a second feature and shoot on the set in the days (and nights) before it’s torn down? A couple of good films (and a whole lot of B-movie fodder features) were created because Corman played every angle of an asset, whether if be a particularly lavish set, a couple of days left on an actor’s contract or an expensive stunt sequence that surely could be reused in another feature or three.

One of his favorite tricks was to buy up the rights to science fiction films from behind the Iron Curtain and have movies built around the special effects and/or action sequences. Two of these productions recently came out on the MGM Limited Edition Collection, one of the more robust MOD (manufacture on demand) lines currently pouring out its catalogue.

Queen of Blood (1966), directed by Curtis Harrington, is arguably the best of the Corman-produced recycling jobs and as fun a haunted spaceship film as there was until Mario Bava’s  Planet of the Vampires.  The special effects and alien ship came from a pair of big budget Soviet productions that Corman bought simply to cannibalize, notably Nebo zozyot (which a young Francis Ford Coppola previously turned into Battle Beyond the Sun, 1962, for Corman), and the plot reworks It! The Terror From Beyond Space (which provided the premise for Alien as well), with a green-skinned blood-sucking siren (Florence Marley) subbing for the marauding lizard of It! John Saxon, in All-American hero mode, is the leader of the three-person space mission that finds the ship floating in space and Judi Meredith and Dennis Hopper fill out the crew.

Harrington, who came to genre filmmaking via avant-garde films (including collaborations with Kenneth Anger) and the wonderfully spooky Night Tide, a mix of horror, fantasy, character study and mood piece, creates his own film out of these elements, which he shot in a brisk ten days. The delicious imagery of the Soviet films, from the eerie planetscapes to the dreamy shots of ships in space to the delirious color-drenched interiors of the derelict alien ship, give the film a sense of scale and detail that Corman couldn’t hope to provide. The American side of the production tends to skimp on the American spaceship and space station sets. Basil Rathbone delivers his role seated at a minimalist control center that makes the Star Trek TV bridge look absolutely epic, ordering the astronauts via  microphone (no view screens in this budget) to keep this specimen alive at all costs.

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