When it was released in 1967, Spider Baby (or the Maddest Story Ever Told) barely made a ripple. And that’s probably a generous assessment. Just about no one saw the Jack Hill-written and directed exploitation thriller. Even the presence of an older Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolf Man) had little impact. Of course, Chaney was over 20 years removed from his best years playing The Wolf Man. And no one really understood that movies like Spider Baby, Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill, and Blood Feast would eventually define a cheap, but influential, style of movie-making. Exploitation movies eventually beget Grindhouse cinema characterizing a grimy era of B-movies that would influence filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth, and Rob Zombie.
Spider Baby Feels Like an Proto-Predecessor to Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
One of the most immediate influences of Spider Baby that emerge are its impact on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Few horror movies are as revered or as influenced as Tobe Hooper’s 1973 classic. Horror fans can see its fingerprints on dozens of rural, or hillbilly, horror movies. Yet Hooper clearly took some notes from writer and director Jack Hill’s little B-movie mix of horror and dark comedy. One of the most obvious parallels is the subversive take on family dynamics. While Hill’s Merrye Family are dysfunctional and depraved, there’s a protective bond shared amongst them. And Chaney’s ‘Bruno’, while enabling the bizarre behaviours of his adopted wards, shows a strangely sweet devotion to them. Moreover, the simplistic loyalty shared amongst the Merrye Family contrasts with the duplicitious and underhanded behaviours of much of their extended family and other characters.
Yet Hooper clearly took some notes from writer and director Jack Hill’s little B-movie mix of horror and dark comedy.
Arguably, the most immediate impact of Spider Baby can be seen on Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Both movies prominently feature bizarro families housed in a dilapidated rural home tucked away from mainstream society. Each movie features awkward confrontations between conventional society and the rural ‘deviants’ with the major difference being the sheer horror inflicted on ‘normal’ society by Hooper’s cannibal clan. In contrast, Spider Baby somewhat humanizes the Merrye Family, particularly in the relationship between the siblings and Chaney’s ‘Bruno’. Several years following The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wes Craven similarly contrasted the conventional family with the deviant ‘rural family’ in The Hills Have Eyes.
Spider Baby Marked a Transition from Old-Fashioned Drive-in Cinema and 70s Exploitation Thriller
Following from the above discussion, Spider Baby, and its legacy, may be most obvious in its role influencing hillbilly, or rural, horror. Like many subgenres, no one movie makes all the rules, tropes, or narrative devices in one sitting. Furthermore, Spider Baby sits in a strange spot in between classic horror and the more contemporary horror that would soon follow. With its 1940s star, Lon Chaney Jr., Hill tells a lurid tale couched in the confines of old-school filmmaking. Filmed in black and white, Spider Baby lacks the overt violence and sexuality that would soon define exploitation movies and rural horror. Hill never hints at incestuous relationships but teases a violent sexual assault offscreen. And Hill’s bizarro B-movie came out long before explicit gore and violence was commonplace.
Filmed in black and white, Spider Baby lacks the overt violence and sexuality that would soon define exploitation movies and rural horror.
Nonetheless, Hill establishes a handful of common tropes that define rural horror today. Several elements of Spider Baby immediately stand out as precursors to the subgenre today. At its core, the most obvious precursor is the bizarre Merrye Family that clearly anticipates bizzarro horror families from the Sawyers to the Firefly clan. The idea of a genetic flaw contributing to the violence and a monstrous appearance – most evident in Sid Haig’s ‘Ralph’ – is a hallmark of the genre. Hill’s story borrows quite liberally from early criminological positivism. Whether it’s the idea of a regressive gene or Haig’s demented appearance, Spider Baby anticipates the ‘Born Criminal’ narrative defining most rural horror. Some defining elements – like the awkward dinner between rural and ‘conventional’ – are more explicit.
Spider Baby Offered Lon Chaney, Jr., His Best Role Since The Wolf Man
At the time of the release of Spider Baby, Lon Chaney Jr.’s career was in its twilight, which is a polite way of saying he was long past relevancy. Prior to Hill’s 1967 B-movie, Chaney’s most relevant starring role was in the 1958 drive-in thriller, The Alligator People. A smaller role in western classic High Noon probably marked the last time Chaney featured in any sort of prominent way in a good movie. When the Universal Monsters era ended, Chaney’s career as a box office star likely ended with it. While it barely made a ripple with filmgoing audiences in 1967, Spider Baby marks Chaney’s best role and performance since the classic The Wolf Man. He’s the flawed, but surprisingly sympathetic heart, to this B-movie.
While it barely made a ripple with filmgoing audiences in 1967, Spider Baby marks Chaney’s best role and performance since the classic The Wolf Man.
Other elements of Spider Baby stand out thereby making it a significant exemplar of early exploitation cinema. For instance, Ronald Stein’s eccentric score sets this strange thriller apart from the dozens of other drive-in B-movies the defined the 1960s. Though it’s not quite as memorable as the score for Carnival of Souls, Stein’s soundtrack was odd enough to catch the attention of Rob Zombie. As part of a collaboration with Waxwork Records, Zombie has helped re-master the film’s score for a fancy, colored vinyl LP release. Spider Baby marked an early introduction to Sid Haig (The Devil’s Rejects). Somewhere in between 50s and 60s drive-in cinema and the 70s Grindhouse era, Spider Baby also bridges a gap.
Spider Baby, An Obscure 60s B-Movie, Justifiably Earns Its Cult Status
Years after its obscure release, it’s not hard to see the impact of Spider Baby on hillbilly horror. Obviously, you can’t ignore the impact of Psycho, Peeping Tom, or Night of the Living Dead. Each of these movies nudged horror into the contemporary direction it took in the 1970s. Nevertheless, several elements of Spider Baby are evident in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Later filmmakers, including David Lynch and Rob Zombie, clearly took notes from this exploitation thriller. The subversive storytelling, memorable performance from Chaney, and the role it played in cementing the legacy of cult cinema set apart from other B-movies. Throw in an infectious and eccentric film score and Spider Baby has emerged as an unlikely cult fan favorite.