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

THE JACK HILL FILES: BLOOD BATH (1966)

If I were a filmmaker, I would kill for the ad campaign American International afforded to Blood Bath. One could stare for hours at its gorgeously macabre one-sheet which overflows with all kinds of promise for the brave audience member who would dare pay a ticket to witness the horrors ahead. Maidens being lowered into a pit of boiling blood while others are chained to a wall amid a mass of skeletons and cobwebs all behind a wrought-iron portcullis? Who’s not up for that ride?

Naturally, it being an American International production, only some of the ad campaign for Blood Bath was going to be true. There’s certainly a pit into which maidens caught up in suspended net traps could be lowered but, unfortunately, they’d literally get a wax bath as there is no blood in sight. Nor, now that you mention it, are there any other maidens shackled to the walls. And you can totally forget the skeletons. Not sure what’s going with them in that one-sheet.

In fact, fuck the skeletons. One could hardly be faulted for not being sure what’s going on with anything in Blood Bath at all. For instead of it being the next feature in Jack Hill’s career after his remarkable debut, Mondo Keyhole, Blood Bath was a salvage job given to Hill and Stephanie Rothman, another budding young talent in Corman’s universe. A true Frankenstein’s monster of a film, Blood Bath, stands out less as a crucial piece of either Hill or Rothman’s resumes and more as its own summer college course on Roger Corman and how he could take a convoluted, middling art-heist thriller named Operation: Titian and turn it into three other movies, two of them vampire films.

I shall not spend the day going through the howzits and whyzits of the Roger Corman School of Preserve and Recycle that would chronicle the history of Operation: Titian and how it wound its way into first becoming Portrait of Terror, then Blood Bath, and, finally, Track of the Vampire. That story will never be better laid out than in author Tim Lucas’s fascinating and painstakingly detailed, feature-length video essay, The Problem With Titian, included in Arrow’s deluxe Blu ray release of Blood Bath. Just understand that Roger Corman was a man who was going to realize the maximize value of an investment, no matter what he had to do to realize that value and without the slightest regards to how ugly the vehicle that delivered the value looked. For, if he did, we would not be talking about Blood Bath at all and, instead, how Operation: Titian is a fine thriller that’s overly complicated and disjointed but not without some nice lighting and gorgeous Dubrovnik locales. The end.

But we’re here to talk about Blood Bath, the third attempt to make something out of Operation: Titian and, up until then, the most radical of the repurposing of the original footage. For out of Blood Bath’s paltry running time of 62 minutes, no more than 8% of it originates from Operation: Titian. Instead, it keeps a few moments of exterior architecture shots and reuses a few shots of Titian’s prowling, cape-adorned figure for its own needs, but all sprinkled throughout a fairly new narrative curiously of extensive reshoots by Hill and, later, Rothman.

Blood Bath chiefly rethinks William Campbell’s madman from Operation: Titian and Portrait of Terror. Where he was but an imposter to the Sordi name in those two films, he is part of the actual Sordi lineage in Blood Bath. In Titian and Portrait, Sordi was the patriarch to a cursed clan and commissioned the artist Titian to paint a portrait of his doomed wife. In Blood Bath, Sordi is transformed into an artist of historical note; just as popular as Titian but whose name was destroyed with his work when he was burned at the stake as a heretic. And according to Lucas’s video essay, Hill’s original film had Campbell succumbing to an obsessive madness which caused him to kill the models that would pose for him. Obsessed and possessed by the spirit of Melitza, Sordi’s black magic-riddled lover from the past, Campbell’s mania would eventually spin out of control by the end of the film as the spirits of his victims would emerge from their wax cocoons and overtake him in a moment that would predate Hill’s Spider-Baby by a couple of years and William Lustig’s Maniac by many more.

Some of this footage still exists in Blood Bath. But what also exists is a bizarre, left-field graft in which the Sordi lineage was ALSO cursed with vampirism, thus allowing William Campbell’s mad-artist to also dissolve into a prowling, cape-adorned (see above) vampire (who, it should also be noted, looks nothing like William Campbell). New characters are added to the mix as the vampire story, wholly a concoction of Rothman’s, created a new branch in the narrative that needed some exposition. And it goes without saying that Stephanie Rothman’s contributions to the film, no matter how well-intentioned or commercially necessary, sink the film. And this is even more the case with Track of the Vampire, the longer television cut of Blood Bath. Adding even more incongruous pickup scenes to the already wobbly story and placing Patrick Magee’s character, who appears rather puzzlingly only in corpse form in Blood Bath, back into the mix (through the magic of poor ADR and editing, he is transformed from the lethal art thief in Titian to a cuckolded husband in Track), Track of the Vampire is the sad, final end to the long journey of Operation: Titian.

Audiences looking for anything resembling a traditional Jack Hill film will likely find little to mine in Blood Bath. As mentioned before, the film’s ending has a surprisingly creepy vibe that is in line with Spider-Baby and the appearances by Sid Haig and Karl Schanzer all give it a lighter touch and familiar feel than what was served up in Operation: Titian or Portrait of Terror. Additionally, Hill’s dreamy, impressionistic desert flashbacks give the film the same kind of artistic edge found in the grime of Mondo Keyhole. But, unlike that film, there is a lack of interesting or strong female characters here. There is a hint of sexual progressiveness in Lori Saunders’s ballet dancer, Dorean, who wants to sleep with Campbell’s Sordi in the worst way, but he is impotent, a factor in his mania. This harkens back to the characters in Mondo Keyhole but without any kind of satisfying payoff in terms of the Dorean character. In Mondo Keyhole, the female protagonist broke free of her untenable and unhealthy relationship with an abuser and simultaneously found herself in a wild, celebratory orgy of free love. Here, Dorean gets rescued by Karl Schanzer’s character as if she were just a cliched damsel in distress.

In the end, Blood Bath was an assignment for the two fledgling filmmakers more than it was a movie. Both Hill and Rothman would go on to craft bigger and better things; Rothman moving on to make The Student Nurses, one of the better “Nurse Movies” for Roger Corman, and The Velvet Vampire, a fun AIP attempt at making a Jess Franco film. Hill would reassemble some of the cast for Blood Bath and move almost immediately to Spider-Baby which would become the granddaddy of all “backwoods family” horror films and further cement his legacy as a master of genre cinema with a little more on his mind than most.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE JACK HILL FILES: MONDO KEYHOLE (1966)

The “roughie” was a subgenre of sexploitation that mixed the kind of soft-focus, waist-up nudity with a hard and dangerous edge of violence of some sort. Invented (accidentally, probably) in 1963 with Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Scum of the Earth, the roughie gave audiences of a certain stripe the ability to indulge in a motion picture focused solely on their specific fetish, already a staple for pornographers who shilled their wares in the back of adult magazines and distributed stills and the like through the postal service. Jack Hill’s Mondo Keyhole is a mad slice of sexploitation that, like Scum of the Earth three years before it, wallows in the world of mail-order pornography. But despite ostensibly being a cheap-thrills quickie, Mondo Keyhole artfully subverts the audience’s expectations while also giving them what they came for (and then some).

Mondo Keyhole concerns the exploits of Howard Thorne (Nick Moriarty), head of a shabby, mail-order pornography clearing house that sends out still photographs, 8mm S&M films, and 33 LP’s containing ersatz sounds of Sadean pleasure. Thorne is also an inveterate rapist to whom it makes zero difference whether he’s committing his vile crimes while carrying out a nighttime home invasion or during a stalk-and-assault in the bright, mid-day outdoors. This generally leaves him retreating to his (impossibly cool) Hollywood Hills home totally spent and without anything left for his amorous wife, Vicky (Adele Rein), who has become addicted to heroin out of pure boredom and likes to meet him at the door while wearing a revealing neglige and a fright mask.

So far, this thing sounds typical to the genre and possibly boring. However, when the worm turns as the film enters its final set-piece, you can almost hear Keith Morrison’s voice in the back of your head saying “But this is exactly the point where things began to (pregnant pause) take a turn for old Howard Thorne. And not a pleasant one, either.” For in act one, Vicky reminds Howard of the costume party they have to go to the following evening. Act three is the party itself and… hooboy… it would be criminal to spoil it.

To be up front, this is very much an exploitation film. But while it’s not necessarily something I would recommend to my mother, I would be more than comfortable screaming about its virtues at the top of my lungs after a couple of glasses of wine among friends with likeminded taste. Primarily, this is very much a Jack Hill film and it reveals itself as such due to its female characters. If they don’t show up strong, they learn to become so. While the film sets the audience up to think the narrative is going to be all about Howard’s criminal misogyny, it smartly pulls the rug out from under by ultimately making the film about Vicky s journey out of her drug-fueled doldrums and into a sexual fantasia of personal agency and a more independent life. As Vicky makes love to herself in the mirror in a truly remarkable moment halfway through the picture, Mondo Keyhole shifts from a film you want to sneak home in a brown paper bag to a celebration of sex as a mutual adventure of understanding and unbridled joy. That’s Jack Hill all over; the guy who could make a trashy cheerleader movie do double duty as a sociopolitical treatise.

Not to oversell it but the orgiastic party at the end is one of the wildest things I’ve ever seen captured in a non-pornographic motion picture and it needs to be seen to be believed. Sure, it’s not exactly something that would see a lot of traffic on Pornhub and likely will be seen as pretty tame by most these days but there is a meditative quality to it as you realize that what’s unfolding in front of your eyes isn’t at all scripted. What kind of party is this? What are we not seeing that’s just out of frame? Except for those that we know are actors, this feels like a very real party thrown in the very large abode of the film’s producer where the lights of Los Angeles tinkle down below and god-knows-what kind of hedonism is happening behind closed doors and tall hedges, the warmth of the summer night fueling the notion that the endless possibilities of the time were all for the taking.

Mondo Keyhole is definitely what it purports to be but, due to the uncanny filmmaking skill of Jack Hill, it’s even more than that. It’s a slow-walk of genre material through a door and into a place where it could have deeper dimensions, loftier intentions, and artier craft, yet still remain wickedly entertaining.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain