Spider Baby: Director's Cut (1964) (NTSC)

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Released 29-Sep-2008

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Horror Audio Commentary-Feature length with director Jack Hill and actor Sid Haig.
Featurette-Making Of-The Hatching of Spider Baby (31:43) : 2006, 1.78:1, 16x 9
Featurette-Spider Stravinsky : Composer Ronald Stein (10:58) : 1.78:1
Featurette-The Merrye House Revisited ((7:35) : 2006, 1.78:1, 16x9
Additional Footage
Deleted Scenes-Extended sequence (4:04) : 1.66:1, 16x9
Gallery-Photo-40 black and white stills.
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1964
Running Time 84:21
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (70:40) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 1,2,3,4,5,6 Directed By Jack Hill
Studio
Distributor
Lasky-Monka
Umbrella Entertainment
Starring Lon Chaney Jr.
Carol Ohmart
Quinn K. Redeker
Beverly Washburn
Jill Banner
Sid Haig
Mary Mitchel
Karl Schanzer
Mantan Moreland
Case Amaray-Opaque
RPI $24.95 Music Ronald Stein


Video (NTSC) Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (192Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.66:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 480i (NTSC)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.66:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

   


    Umbrella Entertainment continues to bring some rare cult treasures to the local DVD market. Hot on the heels of the George A. Romero Collection comes the release of Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told, the first full-length feature made by writer/director Jack Hill. Produced in 1964 this film was not released until 1968, and Hill's most recent film remains 1982's Sorceress, although his name is attached to the in-production remake of Spider Baby. In the years between Spider Baby and Sorceress, Hill worked mainly with Roger Corman and achieved widest acclaim for his blaxploitation work, notably with Pam Grier in Foxy Brown. The four years' delay in the release of Hill's first feature resulted from the bankruptcy of its producers, the film physically locked in a vault for years, only seeing the light of day after some devious manoevering by Hill himself. Now fans of Spider Baby can own a director's cut, anamorphic print of this cult favourite to worship at their leisure.

    Uncle Peter (Quinn Redeker) is discovered sitting in a chair reading a Dictionary of Rare and Peculiar Diseases. He informs us of the dreaded Merrye Syndrome, a degenerative disease which results from inbreeding. This scourge leads to the gradual mental deterioration and regression of the sufferer until he or she reverts to a pre-natal state of blubbering cannibalism. Its name is derived from the infection of the Merrye family, but Uncle Peter assures us that it was "extinguished forever ... on that fateful day ten years ago". Flashback!

    Ill fated postal delivery man , Mantan Moreland, from 1940's Charlie Chan series, arrives at an isolated gothic manse to deliver a letter. After poking in his nose, or his ear, where it wasn't wanted, poor Mantan is rapidly despatched. We meet the inhabitants of the house, two young ladies, blonde Elizabeth (1950's child player Beverly Washburn) and brunette Virginia (unknown Jill Banner), two Lolita-ish nymph-weirdos, and their brother Ralph (Sid Haig), who seems to be an escapee from Tod Browning's Freaks. This delightful trio are in the care of their chauffeur, Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr) who had promised the deceased Mr Merrye to care for his soon to be orphaned children. Also somewhere unseen in the house are Aunt Clara, Aunt Martha and Uncle Ned??? We learn the contents of the letter being delivered by Mantan. A distant uncle and aunt are coming to assume guardianship of the children and to gather the spoils of the deceased estate. Also impending is the arrival of the lawyer, Schlocker (Karl Schanzer), accompanied by his  pretty secretary , Ann (Mary Mitchel of Panic in Year Zero!). These outsiders arrive, react to and interact with the peculiar residents and make arrangements for their night's accomodations. Aunt Emily (Carol Ohmart) and Schlocker, despite Bruno's protestations, are going to stay in the house - Anne in "Daddy's room" - while Uncle Peter and the cute and perky Ann are "staying at the inn". What ensues is a night of horror, terror, spiders, super weirdos in the cellar and some laughs, all tied up with a neat little coda that would have been more original back in 1964, but is still effective.

    Spider Baby is a strange film to say the least. The plot and characters are are at times like a Tennessee Williams version of a haunted house tale. Williams' Baby Doll has numerous echoes here, with an oddball mixture of teenage erotica and humour. Hill's plot moves quickly enough and the odd antics on screen leave little time for boredom. However, the restrictions of the budget and less than two weeks shooting schedule are frequently apparent on the screen. Neighbouring rooftops are clearly visible in some shots taken around the "isolated" old house, and the exterior sound recording is extremely poor at times. Much of the dialogue is weakly written, and the supposedly humorous references to the Wolf Man puerile to say the least. Much of the acting, particularly from the twisted sisters, is of a pantomime standard, more at home in a silent movie. I must admit that when Jill Banner entered and performed her initial "spider dance" I was quite impressed. It was reminiscent of a scene from Mata Hari or Intolerance and I was optimistically looking forward to some inspired touches with cinematic references to the past. They were not to come. Maybe this was one of those fortunate "accidents" that are referred to in the commentary. Only Quinn Redeker (Finders Keepers), Carol Ohmart (The Scarlet Hour) and Lon Chaney Jr (Of Mice and Men) perform like professionals. Mr Chaney, playing probably the only "normal" character in the film, has some touching moments and gives the film a great opening with his rendition of the title song. Other positive aspects of the film are some very good camera work from Alfred Taylor and an amusing score from Ronald Stein, often adding more aural comedy than there is on screen.

    It is not hard to see why this film has gained such a devoted following. It is fun, and so bad at times to be enjoyable for that in itself. There is, despite all this, a sort of ingenuous innocence to the bizarre goings on, personified in the downright sweetness of Chaney's portrayal. I am sure that there are screenings where genuine fans chorus along with Jill Banner when she goes into her muderous mantra of "Kill ! Kill! Kill!" or the dire prophesy "She'll tell!" At various stages of its evolution this film was also called The Liver Eaters, Attack of the Liver Eaters and Cannibal Orgy, or the Maddest Story Ever Told.
    There was to be a sequel called Squirm!

    Note : The Umbrella slick incorrectly states that this NTSC format disc is in "colour". Spider Baby was definitely filmed in the full glory of black and white.

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Transfer Quality

Video

         
    This is the version of the film released in the United States in 2007 by Dark Sky.
    The feature is presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and is 16x9 enhanced.
    Taken from the original 35mm negative, this is reputedly the best transfer yet of this cult classic.

    
    Generally the black and white transfer is clear and sharp, although there is a considerable amount of grain. At times the grain adds to the atmosphere of the film, lending it some of the  visual quality of early Universal horror films.
    
    Detail is generally good, with the close-ups looking sharp and clear.
    Shadow detail is satisfactory in the numerous dark scenes, and the blacks are generally deep and solid.
    There are a few sequences that lack contrast, while at the same time losing sharpness. This is particularly evident in Carole Ohmart's "seven veils" sequence in her bedroom (47:05) and occurred later in a single shot of a tied up Quinn Redeker (76:00).
    
    MPEG artefacts were rare. There was some aliasing in the credits, on the running board of the car (10:00) and the top of the windscreen (18:22). This problem was only spotted again once later in the film, on a bird cage (50:14).
    Considering the checkered history of this film, the source is in remarkable good condition. There were only very slight instances of film artefacts, with a couple of very minor scratches (22:45) and an occasional instance of flecking. There appeared to be evidence of some damage with an abrupt cut at 47:13.
    
    The disc has English subtitles which were sampled and found to be accurate.
    The disc is dual-layered, with a momentary freeze at the layer change (70:40).

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    There are two audio streams:   Dolby Digital 2.0 mono encoded at 192 Kbps;
                                                   Commentary track which is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono encoded at 192 Kbps.
    
    Both tracks were auditioned in their entirety.
    
    The overall sound quality was that of acceptable mono.
    Dialogue was perfectly clear and easy to understand, with no sync problems, although some exterior dialogue was not of the quality of that recorded indoors, with some strange ambient sounds creating problems (13:00).
    There were isolated instances of crackle (09:40 and 31:00), but no pops or dropouts.
    The major problem was a rather odd intermittent electric buzz that started around 45:46, coming and going for about ten minutes. The worst section occurs in the lengthy sequence without any dialogue as "Schlocker" prowls around the house in the dark (46:18 to 55:33).
    The musical score by Ronald Stein was quite well reproduced, and adds much to the film - particularly effective in its humour beginning with the early oboe passage (06:56). Not so successful is the rather dated chase sequence later in the film (64:15).
    Special mention has to be made of the title number "sung" by Lon Chaney. As we used to say, "Worth the price of admission by itself".

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

   

 



There is a very satisfactory collection of extras on this disc, though a little limited in number and depth. Too short, but praisworthy for their originality, are the two brief featurettes on the return to the location of the old gothic house, and the work of score composer Ronald Stein.


Main Menu:
Presented 1.78:1 and 16x9 enhanced. Black and white still with red blood splatter, with the title music used for audio.
Options presented are :
        Play       
        Chapters : Nineteen chapters on two screens
        Special Features : As detailed below.
        Setup : The options are : English Subtitles : On / Off
                                              Audio Commentary with Jack Hill and Sid Haig : On / Off
        
Special Features :

Audio Commentary : 

This is a  feature length commentary by writer/director/editor Jack Hill and star Sid Haig. After trying to make a joke out of "freaks/fans" three times in the opening minute, this settles down to be quite entertaining and pleasant, though  it is extremely repetitive and gives very little insight into the production. The shoot - all twelve days of it - sounds like an extremely haphazard affair, with anything that looks good on screen here credited to "accident" rather than intent. There are some ludicrous moments, such as when Haig as "Ralph" is compared to Caliban in The Tempest and Poor Tom in King Lear, while the two young female stars are described as "miraculous". There is one carelessly ungallant comment about Carole Ohmart, when Haig asks Hill, "How old was Carole then?" After receiving the answer "in her forties", Haig comments, "Easily". Actually Miss Ohmart was only thirty-six. The 60's were cruel to the female stars - just ask Marilyn Monroe. This too long ramble is full of mutual praise, and repeats much of what is in the far superior major featurette on the disc.

Featurette : The Hatching of Spider Baby (31:43) :
This first of three featurettes made by Elijah Donner in 2006 is presented  in a 16x9 transfer, with new interview material in the ratio of 1.78:1 and excellent quality, with scenes from the film 1.66:1, a little soft and low in contrast.
This is a fascinating featurette on the making of the film, originally titled Cannibal Orgy : The Maddest Story Ever Told, the title being a direct reference to George Stevens' biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told. With talking head appearances by Joe Dante, Karl Schanzer, Alfred Taylor, Mary Mitchell, Quinn Redeker, Beverly Washburn, Sid Haig and Jack Hill himself, we are given fascinating discussions regarding the film's origins, meetings with producers, casting, Lon Chaney's involvement and just about every aspect of this budget production. There are some touching reflections on Jill Banner's death and her association with Brando, and the final frustration of the producers' bankruptcy, resulting in the finished film being locked in a vault for five years. This itsy-bitsy-spider had some problems getting hatched. The film might be a "B", but this documentary gets a very big "A".


Featurette : Spider Stravinsky : The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein (10:58) :
Presented in the ratio of 1.78:1, in a 16x9 transfer, this 2006 documentary also has excellent image quality. Happily the audio is surround enhanced, so the musical extracts benefit greatly from sound superior to that in the film itself. Introduced by personable filmmaker/historian Ted Newsom, and with charming on-screen narration by Stein's widow, Harline, this is an all-too brief account of a considerable musical talent that was snuffed out prematurely. Mrs Stein traces her husband's life from his leaving the armed forces, through rejection from Fox musical legend Lionel Newman, on to his association with Roger Corman and American Internatioinal Pictures. This information and emotion crammed ten minutes underlines that there is always something new to learn about movies and their makers.Too short. I wanted to hear more of the man's music.




Featurette : The Merrye House Revisited (07:35) :
Same ratio, same transfer, same quality. This is an odd little 2006 return to the old gothic house location used in the film. Filmmaker Elijah Drenner drives Jack Hill through the L.A. streets for some minutes, chatting about the film and the contribution of Ray Story, the art director. Eventually they park, and stroll around the magnificent old house, still in excellent condition. We see 2006 shots around the house, juxtaposed with identical angles used in the film. A simple and effective idea. Obviously they could not gain entry, which was a shame. The two visitors discuss the tricks used to conceal, in the film, that the house was actually in a suburb with neighbours, and not isolated in the countryside. Of course, despite their devices, neighbouring rooftops can still be seen in the finished film.

Alternate Opening Title sequence (01:50) :
Presented 1.66:1 and in a 16x9 transfer, this opening title sequence has the original title, Cannibal Orgy or the Maddest Story Ever Told, and gives another opportunity to listen to Lon Chaney Jr "sing".



Extended Scene (4:04) :
Presented 1.66:1 and in a 16x9 transfer, this is a briefly extended version of the sequence in which the Merrye children first meet their visiting relatives.



Stills Gallery :
Framed by a blood splatter graphic, we are given forty very good quality black and white production stills.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

The Region 1 and Region 4 releases contain the same material.

Summary

    Like all cult films, non-believers should shut-up and attend a different house of worship. Still, this is fun, does not bore and has some amusingly bad moments. The condition of the print and its transfer, plus the standard of the extras make this a must for any fan of the weird and unusual.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Garry Armstrong (BioGarry)
Friday, November 14, 2008
Review Equipment
DVDOnkyo-SP500, using Component output
DisplayPhilips Plasma 42FD9954/69c. Calibrated with THX Optimizer. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080i.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to DVD player. Calibrated with THX Optimizer.
AmplificationOnkyo TX-DS777
SpeakersVAF DC-X fronts; VAF DC-6 center; VAF DC-2 rears; LFE-07subwoofer (80W X 2)

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Subtitles - James R