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

William Friedkin’s The Exorcist

I saw William Friedkin’s The Exorcist for the first time the other night and it definitely lived up to its reputation, while also being totally not what I expected in a good way. I think that if you go a long time not experiencing a piece of art that is iconic and referenced everywhere in pop culture you kind of project your own image of what it’s going to be like and just assume, and then when you finally get around to it you’re sort of blindsided by the product itself. That happened here with a horror film where I’d seen so many memes, editorials, parodies, pastiches, reworking and ripoffs that when I finally got around to it I was pleasantly surprised at the result.

The main thing that augmented my expectations was pacing; I always Linda Blair’s Regan was to be possessed right from the get go and to see that famous establishing shot before the credits, then have the story progress from there. The film takes its time building character, that of Regan, her mother (Ellen Burstyn) and Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), the deeply unsure and fragile priest hired to do the deed. I enjoyed the fact that her mom was a famous actress working on a film and felt some touches of meta there, as well as a spooky prologue set in Africa where we meet Max Von Sydow’s Super Priest Lancaster Merrin.

So, did it live up to the hype of being one of the scariest films of all time? Well… that’s a complicated question and gets to the roots of what irks me about how we view horror films back then and now. Yes, this was a terrifying film and all the recognizable scenes of Blair being possessed still hold potency and crawl along the spine. They’re also placed well enough that you don’t necessarily expect them and as distill more shock. I’m not talking about a cheaply orchestrated jump scare, but simply cutting back on buildup or discernible beats and letting the disturbing imagery seem more organic. The head spinning around is a kicker. Thing is, this film was made in 1973 and there have been a thousand and one horror movies made since then that had this as a barometer for the envelope to push. So.. *back then*, yes, this would have been the scariest shit to grace the screen, but we gotta update our way of thinking and take into account what’s come since, and how our favourites have become dated whether we like it or not. Is it one of the *best* horror films ever made, scare-o-meter aside? There’s certainly a case for that, I found it to be an extremely well crafted, atmospheric, unnerving piece and for one that *was* made back then, definitely scary. I also appreciated the discussions had by characters around the concept of an exorcism and how science relates to theology, bringing it’s central premise into thematic conversation as opposed to simply framework for horror. One thing I was disappointed by though is the lack of that spider crab running down the stairs thing she does that I’ve scene in so many SyFy movie of the week promos. I’m guessing there are different cuts out there but that is a barnstormer of a scare moment and I’m not sure why they wouldn’t include that in every version.

-Nate Hill

Neil Labute’s The Wicker Man

You know the funny thing about The Wicker Man is that I actually found it really scary and disturbing. This was when I saw it at a younger age and the film has now since become a legend among legends among bad movies, something people use for meme stock, draw examples from on how to make a wretched flick or put on simply to laugh and throw rotting produce at. But there was just something about helpless Nic Cage stuck on Bowen Island (lol) with a bunch of creepy cult chicks who resent a man being on their turf and some fucked up rituals that he gets to witness first hand that. The isolation and hopelessness of this scenario really got to me but I’m not sure if it would still have the same effect, it’s been over a decade. In any case this is a shit film, full of bizarre performances and not even just Cage either. He plays a cop looking for an alleged missing girl on the island, on which his ex wife (Kate Beahan) coincidently also lives. There’s obviously some foul play around and he becomes consistently more frustrated, freaked out and lets his inner Cage come out to play. Ellen Burstyn must have not had her reading glasses on when passed the script because she’s actually trying here as the affable but slightly sinister matriarch of these neo-pagan kooks. Others are played by solid actresses like Leelee Sobieski, Frances Conroy, Mary Black and Molly Parker but none make impressions beyond caricature. I’ll tell you who I do remember though is James Franco and Aaron Eckhart in virtual walk on bits, it’s bizarre seeing them in roles so tiny, Aaron as a random diner patron and James as some off duty Sheriff. Wonder what the story behind the scenes is there, maybe they both had a multi picture deal, both saw the dumpster fire on the horizon and loopholed their way into inconspicuous participation. This film is a mess and ends in an unpleasant, bloody cascade of ugliness and violence, but it’s also hilarious in how heavy handed and tone deaf Cage’s performance is. He spends much of it simply running around the island in a suit yelling at people. Everyone always goes on about the “not the bees!!” scene and it is admittedly gold, but my favourite moment has to be when Cage, finally good and fed up with everything, calmly marches into a room, stares one of the sisters straight in the eye and spectacularly one punches her out cold. It’s an out of left field moment of volcanic hilarity worth a few rewinds or immortalization in GIF format.

-Nate Hill

The Age Of Adaline

The Age Of Adaline shouldn’t work as well as it does or be as great as it is, but there you go. What really holds it together are two spectacular, well thought out performances from Blake Lively and Harrison Ford, who take material that could have come across as hokey and do something really special with it. The lush, garden themed cinematography by David Lanzenburg doesn’t hurt either. Adaline Bowman (Lively) isn’t your average one hundred year old woman. Due to some quasi-cosmic rift in reality, she has been stuck at the age of 29 for going on 80 years, and has amassed both a wealth of worldly knowledge and a charismatic gravitas one might imagine would accompany such an odd life path. When she meets and reluctantly falls for handsome Ellis (Game Of Thrones’s Michael Huisman), it’s a predicament as love has never seemed to really work out, given her condition. When she meets his parents (Ford and Kathy Baker) things get downright weird; decades ago, Ford and Adaline were lovers and the aghast look on his face when he sees her waltz in not only with his son but not a day older than he remembers, is truly something to see. Speaking of aghast, the guy they got to play young Harrison Ford in flashbacks is so uncannily similar to the actor in look and voice that I feel like the director just stole a time machine from the government for the film. It’s kind of like the world’s weirdest love triangle built upon a fantasy concept that’s thrown in from hard left field, and as ridiculous as it all sounds, it’s actually quite the subdued, affecting experience. Her name should be Blake Lovely because she’s just that, always a force of radiance in any role she takes (even as the Boston gutter slut in Ben Affleck’s The Town, an angelic vibe snuck through the smeared eye makeup and hoop earrings), she gives Adaline a dignified independence and occupies every second of frame with the character. This has to be one of Harrison Ford’s finest hours too, ditching the smirky roguish charm and going straight for the heart in a turn that’s both vulnerable and rooted in emotion. Ellen Burstyn does fine work too as Adaline’s daughter, now looking freakishly older than her. The story has none of the silliness you’d expect upon reading a synopsis, and if anything is more down to earth than most romantic films thanks to Lively and Ford, as well as the world’s gravest narration from Hugh Ross. The San Francisco setting is actually a cleverly disguised Vancouver, but plays a quaint role in the setting too. This one is a treat.

-Nate Hill

Deceiver: A Review by Nate Hill

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Deceiver is classic 90’s noir, with a dash of trashiness and a unique cast all suited to the bottom feeding material. It trips along in the same gutter as stuff like Basic Instinct, another film that is simultaneously aware and smugly indifferent to the fact that it’s scummy stuff. Almost every character is a reprehensible, unlikable twat, save for one surprise cameo. I may have just put you off the film, and to many who don’t see this type of thing as your cup of tea, please avoid it. But to those like me who appreciate a nice bit of grimy fun, well this is your ticket. Tim Roth plays Wailand , a wealthy and arrogent young heir to a textile mill. He is under suspicion for the brutal murder of a prostitute (Renee Zellweger) who was found in a park, cut in half. The two detectives who are tasked with hassling him seem almost as dodgy as he is, and when you look at the edgy character actors who play them it’s easy to see why. Detective Braxton (Chris Penn) is buried in gambling debt, owing a tidy sum to nasty loan shark Mook (Ellen Burstyn). Detective Kennesaw (Ann explosive Michael Rooker) is a rage fuelled whacko who is furious at his wife (Rosanna Arquette) for having affairs on him. Wailand has both the cunning nature to see this weaknesses in both of them, and the money to do something about it. This makes the detective’s job very hard, being stymied by their quarry every step of the way. Wailand also has mental issues including blackouts and strange episodes of personality alteration that Roth takes full advantage of in the scenery chewing department. It’s pseudo psychological mumbo jumbo that the actors play straight faced for a thriller that’s quite the endearing little flick. Rooker stands out with his trademark volatility that will put anyone’s nerves up to defcon 4. Roth has a ratty, evil looking face. Nothing against the dude, he just looks like he’d slit your throat in your sleep for a dollar. He’s great as suspicious characters, and has fun here being the wild card. Penn is his usual huff and puff self. Character actor Michael Parks has an awesome cameo as a psychiatrist with a monologue that almost lets the film wade out of cheese territory. Great cast, great flick.

WILLIAM FRIEDKIN’S THE EXORCIST — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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I’m not huge on horror movies. But The Exorcist is brilliant, and easily one of my all-time favorite films in any genre. This movie actually kind of scares me, every time I watch any portion of it, no matter the time of day. It certainly gets under my skin; it’s relentlessly thrilling and so ruthless in its force and skill that it’s become one of those films that I study in terms of the nuts and bolts of its construction. I’m not a believer in the idea of real-world demonic possession, but, the scenario certainly has made for more than a few memorable cinematic experiences, but William Friedkin’s beyond intense vision is truly the stuff of nightmares. Owen Roizman’s carefully measured cinematography puts you on edge immediately, as the nearly wordless opening 20 minutes plunges the viewer into an exotic world with very little context, as Max von Sydow’s priest character unearths something terrible out in the desert. Ellen Burstyn was sensational as the actress/mother struggling with almost every facet of her life, with her biggest problem being that her young daughter Regan, the show-stopping Linda Blair, has caught the eye of the Pazuzu, an ancient demon. Jason Miller’s tortured performance as Father Karras is some of the most emotionally affecting work in this genre that I’ve come across; admittedly I’m no aficionado of the horror world, but Miller’s acting in this film has always resonated with me, and has always seemed to be a cut above for this sort of fare, which can tend to be overplayed for big, obvious moments. There’s a reason this movie has endured as long as it has – it’s truly horrific in all the right ways, vulgar and nasty, never afraid to go to some truly dark and disturbing places, while still paying respect to classic genre tropes. The Exorcist feels perfect from scene to scene, with each performance totally nailed by the incredible ensemble, and all of the craft elements aligning to create one of the most visceral and truly horrifying visions of cinematic terror that’s ever been presented.

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