THE JACK HILL FILES: PIT STOP (1969)

After toiling on more Roger Corman-produced stitch jobs in which he directed additional footage that was subsequently pasted onto existing projects, writer/director Jack Hill set his sights on the exploitation-friendly world of stock car racing with the 1967-shot, 1969-released Pit Stop (originally titled The Winner). Dressed in juvenile delinquent clothing and featuring the delivered-on promise of insane figure-8 track racing, the film explores much deeper themes of competition, sportsmanship, greed, and disillusionment and contains what is probably Sid Haig’s greatest and most nuanced performance of his life. And in a brief career of highly entertaining and smart genre films, Pit Stop gives the rest of Jack Hill’s oeuvre a run for its money.

Any simpler and the plot of Pit Stop would unfold itself. Hot shot Palmdale drag racer Rick Bowman (Richard Davalos) falls in with local L.A. car-enthusiast stakehorse Grant Willard (Brian Donlevy) who introduces him to the world of figure-8 racing where he tangles with charismatic Hawk Sidney (Sid Haig) and others as he climbs the professional ladder.

From that description, you couldn’t drag me to the theater to see Pit Stop even if you were paying and throwing in five pre-rolls in the bargain. When one’s favorite film regarding car culture is David Cronenberg’s Crash, you know that there is little interest to be had in checkered flags or intake manifolds. But the standard story of the novice who works his way up through the ranks is bejeweled by the attention to detail, the smart casting choices, the strongly drawn characters, and the punchy, no-nonsense dialogue all of which breathe such a life into the film and makes it all impossible to resist. I mean, “Is there any place left in this world where there aren’t any old beer cans?” is a line that is so poetic that it makes you forget you’re watching that was something that was supposed to play on a double bill in a drive-in.

In terms of the looks of the picture, Hill balances crisp and clean dramatic compositions with a great deal of documentary-style, on-the-ground footage of the figure-8 racing which is such a disorienting spectacle of twisted metal and dust that it becomes clear that keeping your bearings while racing on one of these tracks is of the most utmost importance. With the aid of cinematographer Austin McKinney, Hill is also able to pull off a lot of great filler moments like the montage of Rick working among the wrecks in the junkyard. What could be standard is elevated to high art in creative shots showing Rick scouring the yard for pieces while bouncing off hardtops and hoods as if he’s skipping over a bunch of crowded stones in a riverbed or when he climbs a mountain of junk silhouetted against a setting California sun. But magic is most especially generated in a sequence that documents an off-track gathering of dune buggies and ATV’s as they crawl through the high desert, defying gravity as they emerge from the natural, yawning divots in the sand-packed landscape all of which is set to a pulsating, rocking good score by The Daily Flash and John Fridge.

The performances by Brian Donlevy and Richard Davolos are both very good, but special mention has to be given to Sid Haig and Ellen Burstyn (here credited as Ellen McRae). Going from arrogant cock-of-the-walk to sympathetic minor-hero, Haig brings equal amount of swagger, energy, and heavy-lidded pathos to a role that could have been forgettable in a lesser actor’s hands. As Ellen McLeod, the wife, business partner, and assistant mechanic of racer Ed McLeod, Burstyn’s balance of frustrated spouse and professional functionary is done with deft, sympathetic execution that adds multiple dimensions to an otherwise rote and throwaway role. And Beverly Washburn, back from Jack Hill’s remarkable Spider Baby, is both soulful and bubbly as a button-cute, pixie-cut hanger-on.

As stated before, Pit Stop would hardly be memorable if it was all about the text. What makes it soar is the brooding and sobering subtext some of which is found early on in the junk man’s speech to Rick about how the racer makes the short money and generally ends up in a wrecked body while the lion’s share of the dough goes into the pocket of the promoter/manager. This is the kind of wisdom that can be extrapolated to virtually any vocation in which one’s body is used as a kind of currency for the wealthier folks pulling the strings above. And in fact Brian Donlevy’s Grant Willard is a true snake and one who makes no bones about it. He’s a man who has a piece of so much action on the race track that he can pit driver against driver in the hopes that one of his cars wins and that the crashes in the intersection on his track are gruesome enough to generate crowds. Racers like Rick and Hawk are just chattel.

It’s only at the end do we see that Rick understood that brutal truth all along and just didn’t care. For in Pit Stop, winning is an ugly thing that is awarded only when one gives up their soul and spirit just for the simple pleasure of being first. For every ten audience members that would gasp when this inevitability plays out in the film’s final two minutes, there is probably one who fully understands why the movie plays it this way and nods in agreement as Rick and Grant drive off from the wreckage they’ve left behind.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE JACK HILL FILES: SPIDER BABY (1967)

While the reputation for Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre damn near drowns in its tangential relation to real-life serial killer Ed Gein, there is rarely a peep of recognition for Spider Baby, Jack Hill’s incredible film from 1967 which feels like more of a direct influence on the film than the legend of the backwoods monster from Wisconsin. Where only trace elements of Gein’s crimes were appropriated for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the juxtaposition of families both civilized and uncivilized duking it out in an isolated, dilapidated split-level where people quite literally eat other people is complete Spider Baby turf.

Stepping off on the right foot with a framing device in which Quinn Redeker’s Dudley-Do-Right square, Peter, breaks the fourth wall that feels like Criswell by way of Douglas Neidermeyer, Spider Baby spins a yarn regarding the creepy Merrey family, a rag-tag clan of inbreds who dwell in a large, dingy house behind a giant, iron gate that has long been overrun with dead vegetation. Suffering from a condition that takes its namesake from the family, each member is in a constant state of mental regression as they advance in age, eventually causing them to devolve into a pre-human state that leads to cannibalism. When a group of greedy relations descend upon the house to stake their claim to their inheritance, absolutely delightful chaos ensues.

I’m not quite sure if there was ever a horror film remotely like Jack Hill’s Spider Baby before it was made in 1964 (due to the producer’s bankruptcy, it didn’t see the light of day until 1967). It’s sick, perverse, truly creepy, and something of a cut above the drive-in and B-picture fare of its day. Aided by a truly sinister script by Hill and glorious black and white cinematography courtesy of genius-level pro Alfred Taylor, Spider Baby threads a careful needle between art and sleaze while never looking less than a million bucks. Also remarkable about Spider Baby is just how perfectly it balances horror and comedy. A lot of films work overtime to be horror comedies but they usually end up being unfunny and belabored half-assed neither-nors. In fact, so littered is the graveyard with subpar examples to the contrary, I can probably count the number of truly successful horror comedies on both hands with Spider Baby occupying the first thumb or digit (depending on your style of counting with your hand).

One of the things that further distinguishes Spider Baby is its sympathetic and humanistic central performance courtesy of Lon Chaney, Jr. As family chauffeur and protector, Bruno, Chaney brings the highest level of professionalism and emotional complexity to a role that most actors wouldn’t think necessary. A key moment near the end of the film becomes unexpectedly moving as Hill’s camera trains on Chaney’s face, observing Chaney as he heartbreakingly realizes what he must do to truly save the family from themselves, proving that Chaney was one of the most under appreciated of the Universal Monster players. There is also a sweet natured approach to the wild characters in the family and their ghastly actions as they are treated like Charles Addams figures come to life, albeit with a bit more teeth. But by casting the civilized people as the true monsters of the piece, Hill hits on a gold mine of subtext that continues to pay dividends today.

Aside from Chaney, Hill gets a lot from his troupe of actors, some of whom were part of his regular gang that popped up in various Roger Corman productions such as Hill’s Blood Bath and Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13 (which has enough footage directed by Hill to ALMOST count as a co-effort). Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner, and Sid Haig all have an utter gas as the doomed progeny and the aforementioned Redeker pitches his role as the sweet-natured dunderheaded hero perfectly. Also, big ups go to Carol Ohmart in what could have been a thankless turn as the stereotypical cold-hearted and impossibly greedy bitch. Ohmart ratchets everything up to eleven with her tongue in her cheek, finally spinning off into delirious greatness in the film’s final moments as her materialistic deceitfulness gives way to an amorously debauched and animalistic passion for a slobbering man-child Sid Haig. I mean… it’s really something to behold.

While it contains definite nods to Psycho (the bird taxidermy, the Edward Hopper-like house in the middle of nowhere, the preservation of the ghoulish remains of family members) Spider Baby takes a giant step forward in terms of tone, content, and style and ultimately stakes a serious claim as one of the most significant horror films of the sixties. There’s just nothing else quite like it.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain