Merrye Syndrome is a rare disease known only to afflict descendants of Ebenezer Merrye. And this disease is where it all begins in the movie Spider Baby, the feature film debut of the celebrated cult-film director Jack Hill.
Merrye Syndrome is an unfortunate condition developed from generations of inbreeding, causing a mental regression and deformity beginning in late childhood. It is believed the victim of Merrye Syndrome will de-evolve to a pre-human state of savagery and cannibalism. This ailment cast a shadow of shame over the wealthy family for many years, prompting them to live in seclusion as the bloodline dried up.
The patriarch, Titus W. Merrye, dedicated his life to hiding the family curse from the world. This included his brother Nedrick, their two sisters, and his 3 children. Devoted servant, Bruno, gave a solemn oath upon Titus’ death to protect the skeletons in the Merrye closet.
Emily Howe and her brother Peter are distant cousins and the only other known living heirs. Emily, hungry for the family fortune, intends to become the legal guardian of the Merrye children. They arrive at the unkempt mansion on short notice with her lawyer, Mr. Schlockier, and his secretary, Anne. Catching Bruno off guard, just as he was cleaning up another unfortunate mess created by the “kids”.
Children, We’ve Got To Keep Some Secrets Today
The Merrye siblings are actually young adults with the mental faculties of unpredictable children. Ralph is the nonverbal oldest child. With gangly limbs and brute strength, he crawls through the dumbwaiter shafts of the dilapidated house. Elizabeth is more put together, often called upon by Bruno to look after her brother and sister. The youngest, Virginia, is especially peculiar with an obsession with bugs and spiders. Often playing dangerous games with butcher knives and keeping pet tarantulas in a roll top desk.
When the unwelcome guests insist on spending the night, Bruno quickly hatches a plan in hopes of deterring them from seizing control of the estate, plotting to host an unsavory dinner party for the outsiders and spare the Merrye children from becoming the object of public scrutiny.
Hanging over Emily and her lawyer, he divulges the intimate details of the children’s austere lifestyle. He does this serving up a roasted cat Ralph had caught, toadstools and weeds foraged by Virginia, and pickled insects.
Anne and Peter are unfortunate victims of circumstance and seem to pick up on Bruno’s subtle cues. Peter teases his sister, hoping she’d change her mind about staying the night, sparking a self-referential conversation with Anne about horror movies.
The pair coquettishly gush about their favorite monsters, but when she mentions the Wolfman, all the color drains from Bruno’s face. Dripping with sweat, he gravely warns them, “There’s going to be a full moon tonight.” The pair sheepishly glance around the room, making eye contact with each Merrye child. Devious grins cross their faces, like mocking portents to the dangers that lie ahead.
Just Because Something Isn’t Good Doesn’t Mean It’s Bad
Hill shot the movie in the summer of 1964 with the original title “Cannibal Orgy or The Maddest Story Ever Told” as a joke. Due to bad press, the producers cut the film up in a panic. They halted the release for 3 years, as they were involved in real estate development and went bankrupt. Independent producer, David L. Hewitt, saved the movie from being lost forever by acquiring a theatrical print for distribution in 1967. Changing the title to “Spider Baby”, though it was alternatively billed as “The Liver Eaters” in drive-in double features. Jack Hill admits to writing a script for a sequel called “Vampire Orgy,” which followed surviving characters, Peter and Anne, on their honeymoon.
As for the the Spider Baby movie cast, Sig Haig plays the mute Ralph Merrye. Though he had no dialog throughout the film, his wild facial expressions made the monstrous man-child a loveable character.
Haig appeared in many of Jack Hill’s films, including his debut in Hill’s UCLA student film, The Host. Haig is most beloved by younger fans as Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects.
Beverly Washburn plays the oldest Merrye daughter, Elizabeth. Washburn had also appeared alongside Sid Haig in Jack Hill’s Pit Stop. But the biggest star of the Spider Baby movie is Lon Chaney Jr. as the family chauffeur, Bruno. Veteran of several Universal horror films, Chaney appeared as the Mummy in three pictures, the monster in Ghost of Frankenstein, and the titular Son of Dracula. However, he is best remembered as the cursed Larry Talbot who would transform into The Wolf Man.
Many horror fans are quick to notice the similarities between the movie Spider Baby and House of 1000 Corpses, beyond the casting of Sid Haig. The Firefly clan is presented as a more perverse version of the Merrye family. Residing in a decaying house filled with trap doors, taxidermy specimens, and crucified ragdolls. And 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was also influenced by Spider Baby. Mirroring cannibalistic themes and relatives mentally unravelling while trying to cover up sins of family. Even the oldest of the Sawyers met a fate similar to Titus W. Merrye.
Finally, The People Under The Stairs also takes direct inspiration from Jack Hill’s film. A rich and incestuous family reside in a big creepy house with a basement of mutants. Even the character Roach eats up every scene, in spite of being completely nonverbal just like Ralph Merrye.
Well Beyond The Boundaries of Prudence and Good Taste
Murder and mayhem running rampant through the night, the Merrye children have stirred a chaos that is no longer capable of being kept secret. Bruno has prepared for this moment for some time but never expected it to arrive so soon. He sets out to retrieve a “toy” that will put an end to the madness and protect the Merrye legacy.
Peter and Anne manage to escape as a menacing version of “Itsy-bitsy Spider” plays in the background. The pair marry, inherit the family fortune, and have a daughter of their own, named Jessica. She looks nothing like either of her parents with big dark eyes, wiry limbs, and a long face that lights up when she spies a spider outside. Not too unlike her presumably distant cousins; Elizabeth, Ralph, and Virginia. Perhaps the rare Merrye Syndrome, though believed to be extinguished from humanity, lives on in the next generation.
And read about the Spider Baby remake coming in consultation with a number of the original creators of this film.
Last Updated on July 21, 2023.