The Merrye family is exhibiting some odd behavior—the Merrye Syndrome, which is an age regression so far back it goes prenatal, at least psychologically, which apparently leads to “savagery and cannibalism.” The last of the bunch are teenagers Virginia (Jill Banner) and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and their older brother Ralph (Sid Haig). They haven’t yet achieved the level of backwardness of their Uncle Ned and Aunt Clara (who live in the basement, eat corpses, and look like they’re in the Broadway show Cats); the girls are childish, wearing baby doll dresses and bows in their hair, while Ralph is more like a baby—he sucks his thumb and doesn’t speak. They’re taken care of by their kindly chauffeur Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.), who made a promise to their late father that he wouldn’t let anything happen to them. Their idyllic lives are disrupted by money-grubbing Aunt Emily (Carol Ohmart) and her lawyer Schlocker (Carl Schanzer). She, along with her friendly brother Peter (Quinn K. Redeker), plan to take custody of the kids and the family fortune. However, the children want to stay where they are, and aren’t afraid of a little murder—in fact, they rather like it.
The opening credits of the film, with its goofy cartoons and theme song (sung by Chaney) belies the violence to follow. I was shocked multiple times, even on my second viewing. I had no idea that in 1967 a movie could be released that involves incest and cannibalism. There’s a scene when the Merryes serve up a cat for dinner, pretending it’s rabbit. It’s also ahead of its time in horror movie clichés. There’s a Black guy who dies first, and then there’s a woman in lingerie and high heels running around in the woods.
In between shocks I appreciated the acting. Haig is adorable, Jill Banner as Virginia is very creepy, and Chaney is at his least whiny. Despite the serious subject matter, there is quite a bit of humor, my favorite being Schlocker’s lawyer-talk as he’s being attacked: “There are proper procedures…” Today I wouldn’t call it by its alternate title, “The Maddest Story Ever Told,” but it is indeed pretty off-kilter.