Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Jills of Jack Hill (Part 1): BLOOD BATH, MONDO KEYHOLE, PIT STOP, SPIDER BABY






It's hard to say if Jack Hill 'gets' women. The grandfather of Pam Grier WIP (Women in Prison) films, he's never shied from lurid sex-sensationalism, but at the same time never belittled, demonized, or completely objectified his female characters, even the villains. Hill's films almost always balance retribution, vengeance, and character growth/catharsis over egregious insult. Sex in a Hill film is positive, empowering, and social change is always in the works while 'morality' and 'the law' fall apart under the knife. In a morally restrictive / excessive country like America, he's forward thinking, his little murderous cannibal nymphettes are the real heroes, the grabby lawyers and bitchy older sisters are the evil.

Either whether all this makes him a feminist or counterrevolutionary chauvinist, Hill is one of the all-time great drive-in auteurs and stands tall with initial mentor Roger Corman in delivering the drive-in's biggest array of empowered female characters. His oeuvre stretches through two decades of variable budgets with many films long available only in shit condition. But life... can be beautiful, and this has been the golden retrospective summer of the mighty Hill. This summer alone Arrow has given us PIT-STOP (racing), SPIDER BABY (carving), and BLOOD BATH (painting) in black and white. And in bleached color but with vivid reds and greens, SWINGING CHEERLEADERS (pouting) and SWITCHBLADE SISTERS (sticking) - Go ladies go!

So many of his films were released on Blu-ray these last two years, courtesy DVD labels like Arrow, Shout, Scorpion, etc. that we now the entirety of the Jack Hill oeuvre available, cleaned up in--mostly--HD sparkle, and fit to marvel at. Many of these discs feature great Hill-Drenner commentary tracks, too. In case you're unfamiliar with his work, AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE director Elijah Drenner makes a great interviewer, knows lots about the genre, and is as a big fan of Hill's, bringing a perfectly balanced blend of reverence and analytical curiosity that doesn't muddy over into pompousness the way, say, Peter Bogdanovich in his Hawks commentaries do. I know Bogdanovich loves Hawks, and he knew Hawks, but his explaining 'little jokes' in EL DORADO as if they're some pithy New Yorker cartoon being explained to a bored 12 year-old, sucks the wind out of them, like shellacking a souffle. Drenner conveys his love for Hill's films without that kind of deflation, so that licking over to the commentary track during a Hill Blu-ray is like watching it with the pair of them on the couch, never straying from the events on screen (too far) rather than enduring a lecture at the end of a hard day in a classroom with overhead lighting where, by the end, you never want to see the film again.

The DVD company Scorpion put out SORCERESS from 1982 this summer, too, Hill's last film, for Corman or ever, and if you're Hawksian then you're also Carpenterian and thus a Hilliard too, because if you add Carpenter and Hill together you get Hawks, more or less, and if ever a man was holding a bull by a tail, you're it.

Well, I'm too frazzled with excitement to clarify that enigmatic uttering, so I'm gonna just lay it all out in the grand style of the canon forefathers, chronologically. First this entry for his first four features (in black and white), then, later, the color. And then when the smoke clears and the flying tiger bat god of SORCERESS disappears back from whence he came in the sky, we will know... if Hill truly 'gets' women.

BLOOD BATH
(1966) - ***

It's not perhaps a coincidence that this approximation of a "movie" comes out on Arrow the same summer as their long-awaited remastered BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964). Mario Bava's seminal color-drenched protean giallo quasi-masterpiece, BABL "speaks to" the idea of art's pinnacle being the killing of a beautiful woman - sex and violence so commingled as to be inseparable. Strutting along the line between lurid exploitation and self-aware qua-feminist statement, riffing on the world of the California beatnik artists ala Corman's 1959 epic BUCKET OF BLOOD and prefiguring Argento's groundbreaking BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1968). It's more interesting in its larger context perhaps, but BATH can finally be appreciated both within and without its context, the by-now legendary story of how one movie became four - and all four presented. (So far, I've only seen BLOOD and TRACK if you're keeping... uh, that). Famously it was a Hungarian - Corman joint, with two versions being shot at the same time, one by young Francis Coppola. Then back home, Hill took that film, and shot more stuff to make BATH. Then, later, Stephanie Rothman shot more so it would fit in the TV slots, and it was TRACK.

William Campbell (STAR TREK's go-to fop) stars in Hill's version a crazed painter / reincarnation of an infamous descendent who was burned at the stake based on the testimony of his insane (and insanely hot) model/muse, who danced around the fire and laughed as he burned alive, his entire bloody oeuvre providing the kindling. The horror not just of dying but of being assured your work will indeed not live on, is rather terrifying. In the best scenes he tries to paint various local babes and sees this crazy anima/muse laughing and sneering at him from inside the canvas' wet black background. In classic Freudian projection, he kills his the local babe currently posing for him, douses her in wax (which he keeps bubbling below his pad, so he can just lower them down and raise them up like candle dipping) and poses them (mostly the babes just pose or lie around and try to look motionless while wearing what looks like a few dabs of oatmeal on their faces and arms). Meanwhile his "Dead Red Nude" series (painted before or after) sell like hotcakes to the local elderly down in Venice Beach beatnik coffee house frequented by a trio of beach bum types, their eyes agog at every new misogynistic abstraction. 

More so even than BUCKET it's the deconstructing/deflowering of art as misogyny even with this (relatively) decent beatnik trio that foretells what will later be best in the Hill tradition: "you're a little naive when it comes to men," a fellow expressionist/ballet dancer puts it to Sordi's virginal girlfriend (Lori Saunders), but she's the only one. Marissa Mathes all but devours little William Campbell at his studio (he gets the better of her only via drugged wine); Sandra Knight pursues Campbell until he turns into a big blonde Czech and pursues her, and the demoness laughing in the painting taunts him, all the while he's seen as a weak, deranged lunatic, driven to kill by his amok demon shadow anima. 

This patchwork recycling of objects and identity all obliquely connects to the openness to the moody old world European footage woven in from Operation Titian/Portrait in Terror: dark ornate tower chimes and long cobblestone shadows are deftly spliced in to the deserted Venice Beach streets. So as beautiful Yugoslavian women are killed by a burly blonde vampire in stylish artsy tableaux that are clearly not in California, we also get the nonlethal version back in Venice, as Corman/Hill beatnik regulars Sid Haig, Karl Schanzer, Fred Thompson and Jonathan Haze ponder each other's abuse of their girlfriend models. Haig smears paint all over his girls' face and rubs it around on a piece of paper. Mathes has to endure Max shooting her portrait in the face, with his 'quantum painting' gun. When she pours a bunch of wine on his head though, all he and his friends can do is marvel at its effect on the paper in front of him.  It's a Hill film all right, sisters might get abused but they don't go docilely onto the next beat.  Sisters be takin' back the power!

Say what you want about these cats' misogyny, it's unconscious and they really do love art. I've been that crazy - all zonked out, manic, and beholding every random splatter as if its bold newness is polishing the knobs of your soul.  And when push comes to shove these three are the only ones the endangered girls can depend on for help against the weird vampire/Walter Paisley concoction that is William Campbell. There's no cops in the film and when girls in the burly blonde vampires' sights (i.e. Sandra Knight) try and beseech locals for help said locals are all too drunk and dismissive to help. Knight's futile beseeching of a party of masked revelers who just to try to dance with her and even try to push her into the vampire's arms recalls a similar scene in Lewton's Seventh Victim.

 I've had very few disturbing nightmares from childhood appear in movies, but this is one of them that really casts a mood, conjuring deep dreads associated with being a kid trying to convince adults around you someone is really hurting you or chasing you and them so locked up in their idiotic unconscious snide doltishness that they can't or won't recognize you're in real danger. The only time they snap out of it is when she tries to jump off the carousel, then they all but throw her back into the arms of her killer before blithely skipping off to their own doltish fates. It's a harrowing, brilliantly executed nightmare-like sequence that marks Hill as a real auteur in the works. One wonders why he made so few horror films. Really this and SPIDER BABY are the only ones! 

For the longest time Hill's weird dysfunctional variation on time-worn Corman themes was confusedly mixed up with its original Eastern European cut, Operation Titian, the English version --partially mulled over by Coppola (to no one's satisfaction, as Portrait in Terror). After Hill's version came and went (on a double bill with a Bucket of Blood re-release), it reappeared  as part of a TV package, with footage added by assistant director Stephanie Rothman as Track of the Vampire. But now thanks to the scrupulous lovng work supplied by Arrow (and the amazing Tim Lucas), we can unpack it all, and note a fine example of how Coppola may be a genius but when he worked for Corman all he knew how to do was spend money and leave a mess for Jack Hill to clean up.  Hill's movie may not make a lot of sense, but it rocks so hard, bro, like the two other filmed-on-Venice, CA beatnik horror dream poems of the black and white era, Dementia (1955 ) and Night Tide (1961). So we can soak up the spell of that frequently filmed carousel, the strange buildings and cavernous space underneath the boardwalk, zones with rolling tides like the sands of time, and the infinite with seaweed-wreathed mermaids washing up dead in the nets and then appearing in a basement jazz club, playing out the drag of the current on the bongos, or whatever. Sorry if this review's disjointed - why should it be different than the film, man? Look at the sea under that boardwalk during the big sandy brawl with the vampire, that ocean is where Dennis Hopper was almost dragged to his death by Knight in Tide. She's also in this film, and was married at the time to Jack Nicholson! In short, now that we have Blood Bath so refined and fine, it's as if a crucial lynch pin jigsaw puzzle piece is in place.

 DVD Review: A+

MONDO KEYHOLE
(1966) - **1/2

If this was the first 60s skin flick 'roughie' you saw, you might think it was a pretty reputable and artsy genre. A film Hill made for flim-flam erotica producer John Lamb, it's in low budget black-and-white on a non-anamorphic disc but it still looks groovy. Even if it is about a skeevy rapist pornographer (played with no small amount of gusto by Nick Moriarty), it's never brutal or traumatizing. Under Hill's elegant style we're never quite sure if these abused girls (he meets them via personal ads or through the shoots he photographs for his various filthy magazines) are real or just the equivalent of a Penthouse Forum "true story." Either way, rather than being all Dragon Tattoo of Thrones it takes on the surreal impact of a post-sync sound dream art film (ala, say, Dementia or Carnival of Souls) to help us distance it more into some kind of perverse erotic fiction rather than a brutalizing Videodrome "sharpening up." Eventually our pornographer gets what's coming to him more or less, and his elegant wife (the very sexy and alluring Adele Rein)--up to this point so hopelessly bored and sex-deprived she winds up shooting heroin and making love to herself in the mirror (a very groovy scene)--winds up finding a big gross orgy (way less oppressive than the sterile dearth of imagination on hand in Eyes Wide Shut) to lose/find herself in. Aside from the fact that she arrives with guy dressed as Dracula and rocking perhaps the most terrible post-sync Transylvanian accent in the history of time immortal, she's the film's true victor. In his commentary Hill lets us know the actor's a helluva fella but seriously, that accent is almost as nauseating as the human salad bar or drunken shaving cream pool party.

Even so, ever on the look-out for that beatnik artistic arrest. Hill gets the night's reflection on the shaving cream coated surface of the pool after all the revelers have straggled off to bed and the ripples stop; its texture reflects the lights like some kind of murky 3-D ant's eye view of a flat ice cream soda idling in a midnight bus boy bin.

Despite it's issues, this is clearly a Hill film. Between the photography and the gorgeous Reine you're bound to find something you like, and if it gets boring you can listen to the lively commentary between Elijah Drenner and Hill, who explains Lamb's penchant for ripping off pornography mail order customers, as in his sex LPs (based on footage in the movie, it's clear Lamb's behind the mysterious Tortura album that used to be a tripping "favorite" in my old hippie house). Always a welcome presence on a lot of Hill commentaries, Drenner's adroit at keeping the focus on the action onscreen and the pair have a fine rapport. We learn Lamb shot the excellent underwater stuff with a camera he specifically designed as he was cuckoo for scuba, and big game hunting! What a man.

The lovely Vicky Wren (Reine) in their ultra hip 60s LA pad (dig the Brady Bunch style stone wall)
Psychotronica DVD review: B (non-anamorphic but redeemed with great Hill/Drenner commentary)


SPIDER BABY
(1964, released 1968) ****

Apparently this was filmed originally in 1964 but held up 'til '68 and subject to a rash of title changes, supposedly shot for $65,000. over 12 days, I mean shit, I'd pay that out of my own pocket just to have this film in existence I love it so goddamn much, and I know I'm not alone. I bought it on Blu-ray from Arrow and it was worth it even if I already had three or four different versions, from a fuzzy VHS duped it back in 1989, up through the regular VHS in '93,  the first DVD in whenever which wasn't so hot, and then the Hill approved DVD that looked terrific in whenever and now the Blu-ray and each time it gets frickin' better looking and more and more a classic of the macabre to put all horror macabre comedies to shame, to rival with the best horror comedies of all time, maybe the best. I only hope one day we'll see such a lovely restoration upgrade on other as of yet only semi-upgraded rarities in the zone like Old Dark House (1932) and The Ghoul (1933). What else? (See my piece on it back in the day, with Blu-ray update yonder, though I ain't never yet been able to write about it to my full satisfaction. (full review)

Arrow DVD review: A+


PIT-STOP
(1969) ***1/2

The second best movie about racing after Two-Lane Blacktop, this has sporadically slurring Brian Donlevy as a shadowy race promoter who sees something special in surly drifter Rick (Richard Davalos), to the point he even bails him out after Rick wipes out into a store window during a street race. Donlevy gets him a job at a junkyard where Rick can build something fit to get smashed up in Donlevy's 'figure-8' race track, a combo real race and demolition derby as the track crosses itself in the middle, necessitating traffic driving right through each other and many times not making it all the way without a smashup. Damn cool idea, especially if you find NASCAR incredibly boring.

Like Spider Baby (which was filmed in 1964 but didn't get released until 1968) the year before, this came out at a time when black and white was dying at the drive-in (unless --like Night of the Living Dead, it offered something shocking and new enough that the b&w worked for it, the way the found footage worked for Paranormal Activity) and its a shame too because now on this geee-yorgeous "director approved" remastered HD Blu-ray from Arrow, the full measure of what 35mm black and white film can do is revealed, putting it up there with Criterion's Blu-ray of Repulsion as far as capturing a late night surrealism that seems to shimmer holotropically. The dark of real night (for the most part) is beautiful, dark and deep (if you have a good HD TV or projector, especially).

As for the story, if you don't even like figure-8 eight racing there's a generic but effective bluesy rock score over montages of lovely little junkyard shots as tires are hauled in around and hoods and parts and bonding; the snotty Rick's character actually grows as he moves from combative and surly to the other drivers to being nice and joshing around, which is an an unusual character change within a montage sequence, a ballsy but effective strategy to consecrate a more fluid persona within both Rick Sid Haig's wild man racer rival. Sid Haig's girl (Beverly Washburn, his sister in SPIDER BABY), who goes on a date with Rick, so Haig beats the shit out of him and trashes his car - he's a maniac! But when Rick doesn't rat him out to the cops our Haig realizes he's misjudged our boy and apologizes. Little does he know Rick is keenly aware of the proper temperature for revenge. Meanwhile another rival racer's mechanic girlfriend is played by the future Ellen Burstyn (above). Billed as Ellen McRae, she's a wow here with a dry low key persona that suits Hill's equilibrium to a Valvoline-splattered tee, you can tell she's going to go onto big things (The Exorcist was just five years away). Their romantic clinches amongst the Imperial Sand Dunes are Hill's master class in how to use day-for-night without it looking ridiculous.


I'd go so far as it to say it's more Hawksian than Hawks' own RED LINE 7000... fuck yeah I'd say that. And it may be Haig's finest hour. Mind you it never claims to be better than it is. But for fans of the Hill, it's manna.

Arrow Blu-Ray - A+ - Another great Hill-Drenner commentary, gorgeous restoration, da woiks
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TO BE CONTINUED

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