The family siting at the center of Spider Baby is a more-functional version of the tight-knit cannibals of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, as equally eager to kill but better able to repress their instability, like how the killers in Scream concealed their true identities up until the end of the film. Then they’re allowed to turn into spitting, cackling maniacs. As Spider Baby's directed by Jack Hill, it almost reaches the heights of a great-for-its-kind movie, only to lose its footing and drown in its own filth by the end. If only it had the wit of Scream and the bizarre terror of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre — then we’d have a macabre B-comedy a little more in tune with themselves and a little less desperate to be likably quirky.
Lon Chaney Jr. headlines as Bruno, the caretaker of the infamous Merrye mansion, where, rumor has it, deadly secrets hide and murder runs amok. As this is a low-budget shocker, the rumors are true: the Merrye family carries an unfortunate genetic sequence that causes their brains to decompose around the age of ten, after which they begin to morph into murderous monsters who, when not killing, act like tiny tots. Bruno, strange but sweet, is in charge of caring for the long-dead Merrye father’s children, Virginia (Jill Banner), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), and Ralph (Sid Haig), all of whom sharing an infantile mental state combined with Leatherface madness.
Bruno wisely likes to keep them locked up to ensure that they don’t harm the public, but his safety net is suddenly ripped open when the mailman (whom Virginia stabs to death) brings news that distant cousins, Emily (Carol Ohmart) and Peter (Quinn K. Redeker), are planning on stopping by to collect any money left over in the family estate. Unsuspecting and blinded by their own greed, the guests invite themselves to stay the night, leading to a ghastly series of events set to the darkness of the witching hour.
Spider Baby is above average in terms of premise and execution — it is vaguely astute (it appears to know full well just how ridiculous that Chaney “sings” the song that hovers above the opening credits) and attempts to be as off-kilter as a horror comedy can be — but it's not a successful film.
As is the case with most of Hill’s features (Coffy, Switchblade Sisters), discerning drollery is not as prevalent as it thinks it is; it remains slight as it attempts to jump to the high peaks of Russ Meyer levity. But Chaney is a lovable bear, and the actors portraying his quasi-adopted children are similarly genially peculiar. Spider Baby is as good as someone seeking a low-budget horror comedy might expect it to be; let’s just hope expectations are low and experience enhancing supplements are