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A view on Blu-ray by Gary W. Tooze

Spider Baby aka Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told [Blu-ray]

 

(Jack Hill, 1968)

 

 

Review by Gary Tooze

 

Production:

Theatrical: American General Pictures

Video: Arrow Film

 

Disc:

Region: 'B' (as verified by the Momitsu region FREE Blu-ray player)

Runtime: 1:24:26.978 

Disc Size: 41,897,052,690 bytes

Feature Size: 20,240,625,216 bytes

Video Bitrate: 27.94 Mbps

Chapters: 13

Case: Standard Blu-ray case

Release date: June 17th, 2013

 

Video:

Aspect ratio: 1.66:1

Resolution: 1080p / 23.976 fps

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC Video

 

Audio:

LPCM Audio English 2304 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 2304 kbps / 24-bit
Commentary: Dolby Digital Audio English 192 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 192 kbps

 

Subtitles:

English (SDH), none

 

Extras:

Isolated Music and Effects track
Audio commentary featuring Jack Hill and star Sid Haig
The Hatching of Spider Baby Interviews with Jack Hill, Sid Haig, star Mary Mitchel, fan Joe Dante and more on the making of the film (31:43)
Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein The composer of The Terror and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman among others is remembered by Harlene Stein, Jack Hill, American Cinematheque s Chris D. and others (10:59)
The Merrye House Revisited Jack Hill revisits the original house that was used as the main location in the film (7:38)
Alternate opening title sequence (1:50)
Extended scene (4:04)
Panel Discussion (33:09)
The Host (1960) Jack Hill s early short film featuring Sid Haig in his first starring role (29:09)

Gallery

• Trailer (1:03)
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humpreys
Collector s booklet featuring new writing on the film by artist and writer Stephen R. Bissette, classic articles and more, illustrated with original stills and artwork

DVD of the Feature

 

Bitrate:

 

 

Description: This was the first solo feature by Jack Hill (Coffy, Switchblade Sisters, Foxy Brown), whom Quentin Tarantino dubbed the Howard Hawks of exploitation filmmaking, and it remains one of his wildest and weirdest.

The credits dub this the maddest story ever told , a promise that s well on the way to being fulfilled in the opening scene alone, when Virginia traps and kills a hapless deliveryman in her makeshift web. She s one of three siblings who suffer from a unique genetic disorder that causes them to regress back to childhood, while retaining the physical strength and sexual maturity of adults.

Lon Chaney Jr. gave one of his most memorable late performances as Bruno, their guardian and protector, who has managed to cover up their crimes until two distant relatives lay claim to their house. When they insist on moving in, Bruno has to cross his fingers and hope that the children behave towards their new guests...

 

 

The Film:

Exploitation titan Jack Hill, who went on to make such cult favorites as Switchblade Sisters, The Swinging Cheerleaders, and Foxy Brown, made his solo directorial debut with this fascinating, offbeat shocker. The three surviving children of Titus W. Merrye, who represent the end of his family's line, live in a dilapidated mansion where patient servant Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr.) watches over the increasingly eccentric Virginia (Jill Banner), Ralph (Sid Haig), and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn). All three Merrye siblings suffer from the same rare disease that felled their father and the other members of his family -- "Merrye Syndrome," a neurological ailment that begins to manifest itself at the age of ten, causing the brain to slowly decay and sending its victims into an alternately violent and infantile state. Bald, inarticulate Ralph is supposed to be a vegetarian, but "can eat anything he can catch," while Virginia, who seems to be in a perpetual dream state, imagines herself as a human spider and catches people in her "web" (a large net) and then kills them. While it might seem best to let nature to take its course and allow the family's sad legacy to die out, the Merrye siblings have two distant cousins, Emily Howe (Carol Ohmart) and Peter Howe (Quinn K. Redeker), who are interested in laying claim to the family mansion and any money remaining in the Merrye Estate. But not long after they pay a visit to Bruno, they start to have serious regrets about their decision to see the family. Shot in 1964, Spider Baby sat on the shelf until 1968, when it was briefly released as the second half of a horror double-bill on the drive-in circuit. But after it appeared on home video in the early '80s and was the subject of an enthusiastic essay in the book RE/Search: Incredibly Strange Films, the film began to develop a potent cult following and is now regarded as a minor classic of '60s horror. The film has also appeared under the misleading titles Cannibal Orgy and The Liver Eaters, as well as Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told.

Excerpt from MRQE located HERE

A caretaker devotes himself to three demented adults after their father's death. When a telegram announces the arrival of heirs, the guardian suspects that his wards are to be confined in an asylum and detonates the paternal estate, destroying himself and his charges.

Excerpt from TCM located HERE

Image :    NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were taken directly from the Blu-ray disc.

Spider Baby gets an impressive transfer to Blu-ray from Arrow Films in the UK.  The 1080P rendering has a supportive bitrate for the 1.5 hour feature. The black and white visuals showcase rich contrast and textured grain. It looks very film-like with some minor depth in the, original, 1.66:1 frame.  It's pristinely clean showcasing some hi-def detail and there are really no flaws (noise, inconsistencies) with the rendering. This Blu-ray probably looks like a solid representation of the theatrical version of the film and it supplies a rewarding presentation.

 

CLICK EACH BLU-RAY CAPTURE TO SEE ALL IMAGES IN FULL 1920X1080 RESOLUTION

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audio :

The audio comes in the form of a linear PCM 2.0 channel track at 2304 kbps. It seems to support the film authentically but is relatively unremarkable. There are some, oddly catchy songs, and the composer, Ronald Stein has done more than his share of exploitive 'B', Drive-In flics (She Creature, It Conquered the World, Not of This Earth, Dementai 13 etc.). There are optional English subtitles and my Momitsu has identified it as being a region 'B'-locked.

 

Extras :

Both the Blu-ray and the DVD feature all of the extras with the exception of the isolated music track which is only on the Blu-ray. Although director Jack Hill recorded a commentary for the 1999 Image Entertainment DVD release, he and actor Sid Haig recorded a brand new track for the 2007 Dark Sky anamorphic upgrade. That track has been carried over to Arrow’s combo edition, and it is a worthy listen. Hill and Haig affectionately recall working with Lon Chaney, Mantan Moreland, Carol Ohmart, and Jill Banner (who was killed in a highway accident in 1982). They point out small comic touches that might have gone unnoticed by first-time viewers, and offer a fresh assessment of the finer points of actor Quinn Redeker’s “straight man” performance, as well as the large contribution of production manager Bart Patton (who also did the casting). Besides offering anecdotes about his performance and interaction with the other actors, Haig also describes some of the artistry of cinematographer Al Taylor (including his use of reflectors, filters, and his impressive day-for-night shots).

Also carried over from the Dark Sky edition is the Elijah Drenner retrospective documentary “The Hatching of SPIDER BABY” featuring the recollections of Hill, Haig, actresses Beverly Washburn and Mary Mitchell, actors Quinn Redeker and Karl Schanzer, and cinematographer Taylor, as well as director/film historian Joe Dante and American Cinematheque programmer Chris D. There is quite a bit of overlap from the commentary track by Hill and Haig (although the latter does add that actress Jill Banner lied about her age to get the role), but their recollections are more heartfelt here with their focus on the questions rather than keeping their comments in sync with the film. Mitchell recalls being described as “the perfect victim” by Roger Corman and being enthused about the film by Hill’s own excitement and drive. Schanzer recalls not being able to find work as an actor and taking work as a private investigator, during which he was hired by the real estate agents who would become SPIDER BABY’s producers (who he would introduce to Hill). Washburn and Redeker affectionately recall working with Lon Chaney and interacting with him offscreen, while cinematographer Taylor recalls the challenges of shooting on location for the house exteriors, his lighting style for the interiors, and his affection for shooting in black and white. Drenner also joins Hill onscreen for a visit to the Merrye House as it stands today (the house was also utilized as a location in the slasher SILENT SCREAM). “Spider Stravinsky” is a profile on late composer Ronald Stein featuring contributions by film journalist Ted Newsom, Hill, Chris D., and the composer’s wife Helene that discusses his beginnings in Hollywood as an aspiring composer without any connections and his prolific work for Roger Corman and American International. Also carried over are the alternate CANNIBAL ORGY title sequence (the title card is the only difference) and an extended version of the early “meeting the family” scene which is non-essential but does provide some nice additional touches from Mitchell, Schanzer, and Redeker.

New to the package is an affectionate cast and crew panel discussion from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences “Film to Film” Festival screening of the film at the Linwood Dunn Theater (a double bill with CARNIVAL OF SOULS) featuring Hill, Washburn, and Redeker. Another welcome addition is the inclusion of Jack Hill’s 1960 UCLA short film THE HOST starring Sid Haig, photographed by Stephen H. Burum (THE UNTOUCHABLES), and also featuring later producer Frank Agrama (DAWN OF THE MUMMY) as assistant director. It’s an interesting mood piece that – like SPIDER BABY – hints at cannibalism, however the more recently added synth score does cheapen the atmosphere. A still gallery and trailer close out the video extras, but the thirty-eight page liner notes booklet is a fantastic read. Stephen R. Bissette contributes a lengthy essay which offers a sketch of the project’s conception, production, and muddled distribution history theatrically and on video formats (from the unauthorized Admit One VHS release to the Johnny Legend-sponsored official videocassette followed by the laserdisc and DVD editions). Bissette also ties the films themes of familial madness, inbreeding, and cannibalism within the context of other films and literature from the period from THE MUNSTERS and THE ADDAMS FAMILY to PSYCHO and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. The booklet also includes the reprinted 1997 article “Voices from the House on Spider Baby Hill” which includes comments by Hill, Haig, Washburn, Mitchel, and Schanzer as well as additional input from production manager Bart Patton (Mitchel’s husband at the time of the film’s production), art director Ray Storey, and Jill Banner’s mother Muriel Molumby and agent Stephen Stevens. The package also includes Arrow’s customary reversible cover (and the rendering of the original poster artwork on the reverse is simply exquisite).

 

 

BOTTOM LINE:
In one respect Spider Baby is quite an odd, amateurish film. But it's hard not to give over to its heavily macabre sensibilities. It is filled with weird situations, marvelous locales (accentuated by the black and white cinematography), awkward humor, and a foreboding sense of bizarre danger. Performances seem weak to me but the overall experience was a positive one - especially those keen on this genre type.  The Arrow Blu-ray provides an excellent a/v presentation - likely as good as it will ever get - and plenty of relevant supplements. Although the film won't be to all tastes we certainly give a thumbs-up for the package.  

Gary Tooze

June 13th, 2013


 

About the Reviewer: Hello, fellow Beavers! I have been interested in film since I viewed a Chaplin festival on PBS when I was around 9 years old. I credit DVD with expanding my horizons to fill an almost ravenous desire to seek out new film experiences. I currently own approximately 9500 DVDs and have reviewed over 5000 myself. I appreciate my discussion Listserv for furthering my film education and inspiring me to continue running DVDBeaver. Plus a healthy thanks to those who donate and use our Amazon links.

Although I never wanted to become one of those guys who focused 'too much' on image and sound quality - I find HD is swiftly pushing me in that direction.

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Gary W. Tooze

 

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