“Whatever Happened to… Spider Baby” asked the theatrical poster for exploitation auteur Jack Hill’s first feature film, shot in the late summer of 1964 but not released commercially until Christmas Eve, 1967. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane had been released two years prior to Spider Baby’s production, and had been a hit, made for just under a million dollars and grossing close to ten million theatrically. It isn’t difficult to see the echoes of Baby Jane in Spider Baby, which both feature baby-talking female ghouls in their titular roles, decaying mansions, and perverse familial dynamics. The exploitation film industry was still riding a teen wave in 1964, which saw the release of not one but two Frankie and Annette beach party movies, so why not adapt Robert Aldrich’s macabre masterpiece for a younger generation? I Was A Teenage Baby Jane Hudson.
It’s that basic B-movie borrowing trick that gives Spider Baby it’s terrifying power and it’s enduring status as a cult classic. First and foremost, Spider Baby is about adolescence, and its main characters live their lives inside a sort of teen angst daydream. What jaded fifteen year old growing up in the suburbs wouldn’t subscribe to the belief that the older you get, the stupider you become? And wouldn’t gleefully indulge in the fantasy of escaping to a big, old house where they could do what they wanted, kill anyone who annoyed them, and seduce attractive strangers, all far away from the prying eyes of boring mainstream society? “Teenage monsters in haunted homes” as the theme song says. By adding the nursery rhyme speech patterns, the tattered baby doll clothes, and the dead smile of Baby Jane Hudson to the living embodiments of teen angst at it’s most nihilistic, Spider Baby gave birth to a new kind of monster, and it would take less than two years after the film’s release for those monsters to come to life.
While the film is often cited as being the feature debut of Jack Hill and genre character actor icon Sid Haig, and for featuring a late career, surprisingly sympathetic, performance from Lon Chaney Jr, the films stars are undoubtedly Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner as sisters Virginia and Elizabeth Merrye. Washburn was an accomplished child actress with a prolific career in television, whose first screen credit was at age 7. Banner makes her big screen debut in Spider Baby, though she would appear in several other films before it saw its official release. Washburn is still working as an actress today. Banner got burnt out on the industry and moved to New Mexico to be a real estate agent. She died in a car crash in 1982, after moving back to Hollywood to return to show business. They’re the perfect duo together, Banner underplays everything and Washburn constantly turns it up to 11, leering like a maniac, her bug eyes pointing in all directions. With their wild tangles of hair, ratty second hand woman-child clothing, and insatiable lust for murder – especially if it involves inflicting multiple stab wounds – Virginia and Elizabeth Merrye were the Manson girls years before Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkle were going on creepy crawls and committing multiple homicides. Charlie called them “these children that come at you with knives,” and I can think of no better way to describe the two sisters at the heart of this movie.
Spider Baby may play as surface level creepy and kooky on first viewing, but keep looking and keep thinking about it. Be sure not to miss the baby doll crucified to a spider web hanging on the wall in the film’s most classically exploitative sequence. In the Merrye House, the cobwebs and rats and stuffed owls and all the other trappings of cheap B-horror are just that, smoke and mirrors that hide the film’s real terror — the vengeful specters of teen angst come to life, every suburban parents worst nightmare.