[Image description: a black and white photo of three teenagers and an older man sitting in front of a house. From left is a girl with blond pigtails and a sundress with white stripes. On her right is a girl with long, dark hair wearing a headband and another sundress, with sleeves that come a little past her shoulders. On her right is a man in his 60s, wearing a black suit and tie, holding a letter which he is reading. The girls’ faces are focused on him. Behind all three of them, visible between the dark-haired girl and the older man, is a man who is completely bald and looking with one eye at the letter in the older man’s hands. It’s hard to tell how old he is by looking at him–late teens, early twenties, perhaps.]
There is one, and only one, film I’d like to see remade.* It’s a little movie, made by cult filmmaker Jack Hill between working for Roger Corman and meeting Pam Grier. He says lots of interesting things about disability in it, more even than I think he’s aware of saying, and I’d love to see what disability activist filmmakers and actors could do with the material. The movie has three or four titles; Spider Baby is the one it’s best known by.
Made in 1964 but released four years later because of problems with the production company, Spider Baby is the story of three teenagers–Ralph, Virginia and Elizabeth Merrye–and their guardian, a chauffeur named Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr., who also sings the theme song). The Merrye family are known for two things: their immense wealth and a genetic syndrome so rare that they’re the only people in the world who have it. What is Merrye Syndrome, exactly? Bruno calls it a “rotting of the brain” beginning at age 10, whereby a Merrye regresses toward a “pre-natal level” of murder and cannibalism. Naturally, the teens have all got it.
Did I mention the distant relatives who are trying to pull a Count Olaf and steal their fortune?
I know what you’re thinking. Why would someone interested in disability rights like this movie? It combines all the worst stereotypes about mental illness with ones about developmental disability that are just as bad: “Aww…he’s just a big kid!” says Uncle Peter to Ralph, who is nonverbal and the oldest Merrye sibling. But Spider Baby manages to be about something much bigger than the stereotypes it contains. It’s really a story about love, which keeps it from being just another me-too killer kid movie like The Bad Seed or Village of the Damned.
“Ralph! Ralph-Ralph-Ralph-Ralph-Ralph!” shouts Virginia (17-year-old Jill Banner) when her brother comes back from the doctor. Ralph (cult favorite Sid Haig) laughs, jumps up and down and flaps his hands. They do this happy dance again once the guests arrive; I get the feeling that they always do it after being separated. Some of this joy is probably real: Sid Haig says that he and the girls would play games together during breaks from filming so that they could bond together as if they really were siblings.
The Merryes’ condition binds them together in ways that not even Bruno can break. “I wanna watch Uncle Ned!” Virginia demands, and Elizabeth, always trying so hard to be normal, reminds her what Bruno said: “You’re not supposed to!” (Uncle Ned and several other Merryes are locked in the cellar–what Bruno calls “a more suitable institution”–where they eat the people the kids kill). Merrye Syndrome colors the siblings’ thinking, their language, their values. There’s something cultural about it, like being Deaf or autistic.
Meanwhile, Bruno’s busy trying to keep his wards from being what they are. He’s shut them up in the mansion to protect the neighbors from their dangerous games, and to protect the teens from the dangerous attention of their neighbors. He corrects them (“Elizabeth! Just because something isn’t good doesn’t mean it’s bad!”), and gives them responsibilities like helping make dinner for their guests. He latches onto Uncle Peter’s comment that they are like “big kids” and dresses them accordingly: he puts pigtails and giant bows in the girls’ hair and Ralph in a Buster Brown outfit that’s about 5 sizes too small.
But like Ralph’s suit, Bruno can’t force the siblings into such a confined space. He can’t make young adults into children and, try as he might, he can’t take their power away.
For the Merryes know that their guests are bad people. They know these strangers will tell others about them, which will bring more strangers to take them away from this house and each other. And this, in the immortal words of Bugs Bunny, means war.
“Kill him!” shrieks Elizabeth when she and Virginia find the relatives’ slimy lawyer in the basement. “Kill him!” Then they and Ralph chase their aunt Emily through the woods near the house, where Ralph rapes her–“big kid,” my ass–and from him Virginia learns that she can use sexuality as a weapon against those who’d harm her family. (Writer/director Jack Hill doesn’t seem to think that Ralph is somehow younger than his sister just because he’s more disabled than she is. More people should understand that). She ties Uncle Peter to a chair with a spider web of string, climbs into his lap and asks in her sexiest voice, “Do you like…me?”
I think Uncle Peter (Quinn Redeker, perfectly cast in all his clean cut golden boy hotness) does like Virginia, all things considered, and I know I do. All the Merryes are lovable, and their fight is ours. We want them to drive away the interlopers, to live forever and ever in the house that’s rightfully theirs.
As for the relatives, their greed is sometimes expressed through politically correct platitudes about disabled people that they don’t even believe. “The days when we hid our insane behind walls of shame went out with that old car of yours,” the lawyer tells Bruno. Not only is he sadly mistaken; he’s also trying to get Bruno to hand over the “insane” so he can boot them out of their house and take their money. The relatives (and Bruno, for that matter) are dripping with ableist privilege, and I only wish that Jack Hill and his actors had examined that ableism more closely. At least they appreciate the irony of being stereotyped as dangerous and childlike at the same time. John Steinbeck couldn’t do that.
Spider Baby manages to convey something else that award-winning films like Million Dollar Baby and The Sea Inside didn’t care to: that impairment causes far fewer problems for disabled people than do prejudice and not getting the things they need. Some reviews comment on the “irony” of the Merryes’ surname, but they really are merry until their obnoxious relatives show up. Aunt Emily, Uncle Peter and their cronies are the ones who think the siblings are unable to live in their house. And it isn’t Merrye Syndrome that destroys the kids. It’s Bruno, who commits murder-suicide because he doesn’t want to see the Merryes hurt or taken away from him. This kind of toxic love is seen in some parents and caretakers of disabled people, and again, I wish the film had actually examined it. But even after they die, the Merryes strike a major blow against genetic conformity. Although Uncle Peter gloats that “there is no Merrye Syndrome anymore” and that his branch of the family is too distant to be affected by it anyway, he’s wrong on both counts.
Is Spider Baby, a.k.a. The Maddest Story Ever Told, a.k.a Cannibal Orgy, a.k.a. The Liver Eaters the most perfect movie about disability ever made? No, especially since I don’t think its makers meant for it to be a movie about disability in the first place. Jack Hill originally conceived it as a story about “two evil little girls,” and it seems like the genetic syndrome angle was an afterthought. And why, oh why does Virginia have to kill the mailman, who just came to deliver a letter and is the only person of color in the whole movie? Nevertheless, I do think Spider Baby raises a lot of interesting questions about natural diversity, disability as culture and the collective power of disabled people to get things done. These are questions that, 40-odd years later, are still way ahead of their time.
(If anybody’d like to see Spider Baby–and who wouldn’t?–it comes on Turner Classic Movies’ weekly cult movie feature Underground from time to time. (Most recently, TCM’s website says it will be showing on March 28, 2008 at 6:30 pm Eastern time). Dark Sky Films have also given it a nice, shiny Director’s Cut edition on DVD).
* Actually, Spider Baby was recently made into a musical, and rumor has it that Night of the Living Dead 3D producer Jeff Bradstreet is producing a remake. But no one is telling the story from a disability studies perspective, as far as I know.