Friday, March 07, 2008


Had this very low budget comedy-horror film been released when it was shot, in 1964, it might have had a reputation of being ahead of its time--it anticipates NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, except with an antic "Addams Family" mood and a lot less gore. The film opens with someone reading to us from the Directory of Rare and Peculiar Diseases about a condition, named after the inbred Merrye family, in which, as the person ages, his or her brain regresses back through childhood into "prenatal" savagery. The rest of the film is a flashback showing what are apparently the last remnants of the Merrye family living in isolation in a dilapidated house out in the sticks. A delivery man (Mantan Moreland) pops his head through the window only to get hacked up by one of the crazy daughters (Jill Banner) who likes to play at being a spider, swinging knives about in both hands. Also living in the house is a slightly less manic sister (Beverly Washburn), a severely retarded brother (Sid Haig) who looks like a cross between Zippy the Pinhead and Riff-Raff from Rocky Horror, and two barely human relatives who live mostly unseen in the cellar. They're all taken care of by the faithful chauffeur (Lon Chaney Jr.) until two cousins (Carol Ohmart and Quinn Redeker) arrive with a shyster lawyer named Schlocker (with a chubby face and a Hitler mustache) to take the estate and send the kids off to an institution. Chaney tires to protect the kids (and protect the visitors from the kids), but when the visitors decide to spend the night, the fun starts. A cat is served for dinner, another spider game (this time mixed with a misguided seductive intent) is played, and cannibalism rears its ugly head before all is said and done.

According to IMDb, this is being remade as I write this review, and it will undoubtedly be much more graphic, but the charm (if that's the right word) of this film is in the low budget atmosphere and lack of gore. We see a severed ear (patently fake) and an apparent rape, but otherwise the horrors are more suggested or glimpsed in the background than shown, which is what allows the comic tone to work. Practically none of the characters are sympathetic, though we are meant to root for Redeker and the lawyer's pretty secretary (Mary Mitchel) who fall for each other during the course of the long night. Chaney gives one of the better performances of his career here; unlike in many of his 50's and 60's films, he actually has dialogue and a relatively well-rounded character to play and he's quite good. There are some sly WOLF MAN references in honor of Chaney, I assume. Moreland, who played countless pop-eyed butlers and porters in the 30's and 40's, puts in basically a cameo. Ohmart, looking a bit like a low-rent Meryl Streep, does a nice turn as the villainous cousin who prances about, alone in her room, in a negligee, for no particular reason except that the hideous Haig can hang upside down and leer at her. Today, little of the movie would seem transgressive except for Ohmart's rape by Haig, which then makes her lust after him. The print shown on TCM (and, I assume, on the new Dark Sky DVD) was absolutely pristine. Chaney sings the title song--not a memorable one, though my partner had me singing "Spider Baby" to the tune of "Santa Baby." Junky and a little gross, but quite watchable. On screen subtitle: "The Maddest Story Ever Told." [TCM]

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