Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Jills of Jack Hill Part 2: BIG DOLL HOUSE, COFFY, SWINGING CHEERLEADERS, SORCERESS, BIG BIRD CAGE, FOXY BROWN



At last, the color portion of my promised Hill oeuvre, celebrating the mountain of Hills now available on Blu-ray, framing the golden question of whether Hill "gets" women or just loves them - whatever the difference is, and if a single filmography can answer it. Thanks to great work of the mighty Arrow video, and Scorpion releasing; most everything Hill did is on Blu-ray or at least DVD (see part one of this series, the Hill black and white era). Next to the great JC, he's the premiere Hawksian of the drive-in era. Cherish him.

The following have always been in print and written about quite a bit, largely due (I think) to Quentin Tarantino and Pam Grier, so just a quick pass through of their pros and cons as I have mixed feelings about them.

PART II: THE GRIER YEARS
THE BIG DOLL HOUSE
 (1971) ***

Made during the Philippine film industry boom (a time when life--that of stunt men, crews, and extras-- was cheap), when Corman's New World youth brigade (Hill, Hellman, etc.) operated down there like a bunch of film school Col. Kurtzes, BIG DOLL HOUSE updates of the Women in Prison genre for a new 'sexually free' generation. Shoring off the 50s gang deb's big hair for straight blonde or afros, changing her switchblades for machetes, and adding erotic nudity, lesbian amor (as opposed to just suggesting it via some lip-smacking bull-dyke guards), horniness, political upheaval, nymphomania, opiate withdrawal, sisterhood, corruption, systemic sadism (The infamous Stanford Experiment was conducted the same year), xenophobia (racism), and existential ennui, using the foreign locale to emphasize the powerless terror any sensible American has being caught in the gears of a corrupt, brutal third-world regime. If that wasn't rough enough for you: Hill stock character actor Sid Haig shows up in a sombrero. Wherever Hill is there, so too the wildman Haig. It is written.


The cast is a veritable All-Stars of New World hottie talent, not only introducing Pam Grier (as the lesbian) but Judy Brown (as the newbie); Pat GIRLFRIENDS Woodell (as the guerrilla); Roberta Collins (as the tough blonde); and Brooke Mills (as the strung-out junkie). They'd all be playing nurses, strippers, thieves, or feminists all through the New World 70s drive-in canon. Here they race cockroaches, fight in the mud, shower, and get it on while the sadistic head guard (Kathryn Loder, left) conducts nightly torture sessions for the pleasure of the mysterious Colonel Mendoza (the kind of character who watches from behind two-way screens --only his cigarette holder and riding crop discernible in silhouette); eventually the girls escape, and all hell breaks loose as they race to join the rebels, machine guns blazing a path through the jungles. Libertad! Wait, what country is this supposed to be again?

Pros: Despite the copious grime and systemic abuse, Hill keeps a nice pro-feminist stance, though the final shot is a downer for sure. Some cathartic violence during the escape; sexy star wattage from a roster of capable talent in their prime; Grier's dynamite song "99 Years."

Cons; The Philippines never look good on film to me -- that vegetation just feels claustrophobically damp, the vegetation waxy and a thin sheen of sweat over everyone and everything, flat gray-white sky outdoor days both hot humid and oppressive even out of doors, with ugly buildings and the ghosts of horrible Japanese soldiers still haunting bullet-ridden ruins, and so forth. Some of the torture is unpalatable (like that 'swirly' trick Hill's so fond of). Still, *** because for what and where it is, it's damned solid.

THE BIG BIRD CAGE
(1972) **1/2

The Doll House was such a hit that Hill and Grier had to go back to the Philippines and crank out another; this time there's more comedy, more rebels, and a bigger budget (a whole summer camp-style compound is blown up, searing even the celluloid). Now the showers and catfights are outdoors on muddy sloping hills, which is slightly less depressing, and there's even more of a revolutionary angle as Grier's boyfriend is rebel leader Sid Haig, and the plan is to get his lonely rebel troops some girlfriends by liberating the women's work camp. That's all fine, but the real selling point is the the amazingly slender-hipped huge-haired mega-babe Anitra Ford as a free-spirited nymphomaniac named Tory, whose bedding of important political figures has landed her 'on ice' and becomes Grier's sparring/bonding partner.  I dug this the first time I saw it with my socialist rebel Argentine espouse; didn't like it the second, alone and disheveled.


Pros: Grier and Ford are both dynamite with their bad attitudes and skimpy prison attire (Ford may have the best mid-riff in the history of the genre) and Hill is much more about escape, sisterhood, am machine gunning your way to freedom than he is about seeing women tortured (though there's plenty of that too - alas). Grier and Ford are a great team, and--even though he's rocking a misplaced accent--Haig's the man.

Cons: It's a personal thing, but I find the sweaty Filipino foliage claustrophobic. The gay mincing guards (the film's most dated element) are much too flouncy, and there's a wearying amount of suffering and abuse prior to the revolt. Me, I like ten pounds of vengeance to an ounce of provocation, not vice versa. As with the next two films Hill seems to get meaner the second time he covers the same ground (venting subconscious anger at Corman for trying to pigeonhole him?)

COFFY
(1973) - ***1/2

Grier rocketed to stardom as the queen of blaxploitation films with this big cult hit-- capably stepping out from her ensemble work in the Philippine prisons and into the big leagues. She's a hardworking nurse out to avenge her smack-addicted 11-year-old sister by waging a one-woman war on Los Angeles' drug/prostitution racket after her cop friend Carter (William Elliott) is beaten up for not being crooked. First step: go undercover as a high-class Jamaican prostitute for King George (Robert Doqui), a super mack-daddy pimp with big-time heroin connections; Grier's white bathing suit is divine, her body bedazzling, her cape delicious (she has a cool cape with her nurse's uniform, too), her hair huge, her accent hilarious. King George as a cape too, and a scepter in addition to the requisite feather in his hat. What's up with capes in this film? Who cares, we love it. But then old King George is being dragged from behind an Oldsmobile by Arab henchman Sid Haig while Coffy swims up further and further up the sleazy heroin dealing/prostitution pipeline looking for Mr. Big. If it all starts to get too grimy and Diane Arbus-style ugly/heroin despairing, Diane's real-life husband, Allan, shows up as a sleazy sheik to put it all in grungy perspective. MASH fans are bound to be pleasantly unnerved by the sight of their beloved shrink Sidney laying back on a bed trying to be sensual while beckoning Coffy unto him saying, "come here, I'm going to hurt you." Booker Bradshaw is Coffy's tall, dark, and handsome politician boyfriend, whose slick-ass roadster is so low he has to step down to get into it. Through it all, Grier keeps her character tough and glamorous like hammered-down nail polish, hard candy shell, warm, sensitive center, even when wielding a sawed-off shotgun.

It's temporarily good to be the 'King'

Cons:
 The Olive Blu-ray is barebones and in its widescreen HD reveals something not as immediately apparent on VHS, just how cheap the sets on this movie are, something the full screen VHS I used to have obscured. Here we can see the far edges of the cheap plywood walls in mid-warp/decay from the swampy heat of the soundstage lights, every surface has that sad under construction look. The bars and apartments have an airless, sweaty claustrophobia. As for the actors, their wigs appear crooked and misshapen, their make-up runny; it's like a giant basement of Arbusian freaks (or was I just really strung out on cough medicine last time I watched it?); even the outdoor scenes have an existentially oppressed vibe. And just because he's a pimp doesn't really mean King George (above left) deserves to be betrayed and dragged around behind a car like Angelo in WILD BUNCH. Or the fellow stable whores deserve to be all cut up or otherwise abused so Coffy can get her vengeance. She's just slumming but this is how they make their damned living!

Pros: In the end, though, none of that shit matters, because that score by Roy Ayers is so damned funky, so tight, so on point, and sounds so full and badass in the Blu-ray digital that if you watch this with the stereo connected, you'll be blown clear of all tawdry visuals. And despite the bad wig factor, the actors are sublime: Grier, especially, is in a class by herself. And, more tellingly, the tawdry atmosphere works to make all the junky longing for release perfectly understandable. Hill can't convey the way an arm full of opiates can make a heaven of ghetto hell, but he sure has a handle on the look and feel of withdrawal. The whole COFFY mise-en-scene seems as if its an aesthetic reflection of a crucifixion cruise, i.e. the endless slog through pain and despair that is hustling on the street, so desperate without opiates in your system you'll sell your soul for a moment's respite.

And there's a badass catfight between Coffy and another girl at one of King George's cocktail parties, where we learn Coffy keeps razor blades up there in her weave.

courtesy Art of the Title


FOXY BROWN
(1974) - **

Paid homage to by directors from Spike Lee to Quentin Tarantino, this is the title Pam Grier is known for/by even though it's COFFY they're thinking of. Originally set to be a sequel Here Grier is a tougher, more jaded and bitter version of her same vigilante character, as if all her killing from the previous film only made the ghetto streets even worse. Drugs and gang violence have so destroyed her neighborhood that when her undercover cop boyfriend (Terry Cotter) is gunned down in the middle of the afternoon and no one comes forward as a witness. Her skittery junky brother (Antonio "Huggy Bear" Fargas) might know who did it, though and so--uniting with a local "neighborhood action" group--Foxy goes undercover as a call girl for the neighborhood's drug czar/madame played by the charisma-deprived Kathryn Loder, to get the goods on the whole operation. Way too much screen time is spent watching Loder sadistically abuse her girls and dote on her pretty boy gigolo and not nearly enough watching Grier kick the shit out of people.

Eventually Foxy travels as far as the poppy fields of the Philippines (where else?) in her quest, but all she finds are rapists, forced heroin injections (which is always--it seems--how the bad guys get the girls submissive, uninhibited and dependent) and barely enough revenge to pay back the catalogue of wrongs. Highlights include a lesbian bar brawl and Foxy's sexual belittling of an old white judge, but even that goes sour when the girl she encouraged to participate (Sally-Ann Stroud) winds up tortured and murdered after Foxy leaves. How emblematic of America's involvement in third world power struggles! 

Pros: A great lengthy rattletrap scene of Foxy shaking down a junky lesbian, who's afraid her dyke girlfriend is going to come home from work and find her with another woman, a clear influence on "The Bonnie Situation" in PULP FICTION (which had Grier in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo as Bonnie); the insane afros and gorgeous-slick outfits Grier wears throughout; a badass lesbian bar brawl; the crazily colored opening credits, which feature Grier boogying down in all sorts of super-sexy outfits to the Willie Hutch theme. Best of all, of course that Hutch funk score. As with Roy Ayers score on COFFY, worth the price of admission all by itself.

Cons: Unrelenting urban blight, sexual abuse, and aesthetic degradation. Foxy seems to think turning tricks, getting shot up, raped, harassed, shot at, and leaving the people who help her to be tortured or killed, is small price to pay for --what, does she get anything for her troubles? SPOILER ALERT: She doesn't even kill the evil Loder at the end, as if her endless ugly egotistical sadism--which by then has grown as soul-crushingly wearisome as that of Alan Ormsby in CHILDREN SHOUDLDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGs or Michael Gambon's Peter Grant-ish thug in THE COOK, THE THIEF, THE WIFE AND HER LOVER--death wouldn't be enough. This was Hill's last in the subgenre anyway. Urgh! It's been almost 20 years, and I'm still mad. Maybe I should see it again. But life is short and even more sensitive now than I was. Can you tell?


PART 3: Centaur and SORCERESS

He'd break out from Corman's wing a bit next to form Centaur Releasing with John Prizer and two quick punchy films in the female ensemble vein, one would rake in a small fortune, the next would lose it. After a lengthy hiatus he went back to Corman (eight years later) for one more film, would fight a bit with him on it, and then that would be it. Well, how else do you graduate from the Corman school unless it's to fight with him about some creative issue and off you trundle, most likely into the abyss? Sadly, times changing and Hill's disinclination to work in direct-to-video or TV led to him doing just zero more films after that. He's still around though! Never say never.

THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS 
(1974) - ***

Following the tried-true three girls at work-and-play ensemble formula, this brings Hill's cunning mix of sexy feminism, cathartic violence, deadpan wit and covert liberal politics to bear in a sexy comedy-drama form. Radical journalism major Kate (Jo Johnston) goes undercover to expose outdated mores and institutionalized sexism within the college's football cheerleading team, but instead she finds she these girls are cool, and it's her wild-eyed radical underground newspaper editor boyfriend Ross (Ric Carrott) who's the rapey dick. Besides, the handsome quarterback Buck is played by Ron Hajek, his teeth white and straight enough he's worth stealing from the bitchy, manipulative cheerleader squad captain Mary Ann (Colleen Camp). Sulky Ross takes out his anger by publishing Kate's expose (after she tried to scrap it - realizing, as do most of us viewers ready to trash this film as a puerile snickering douche fest, that looks can be deceiving), thus turning the team against her, and then later inviting his sicko friends over to "break in" the virgin cheerleader (the doe-eyed Rainbeaux Smith). Mary Ann's dad, the dean of the school, is meanwhile embroiled in a plot to "fix" the big game, along with the coach, and a black professor (Jason Sommers) who is having an affair with another cheerleader (Rosanne Keaton, one of Playboy's first black centerfolds).

Pros: Hill keeps the action flowing in surprising ways. I'll confess I have a low skeeve threshold when rapey jocks start snickering and egging each other on like so many dickweeds needing their graves spit on even in supposedly benign sex comedies (like the odious misogyny benchmark PORKY'S). So I like that here the jocks are sensitive and serious and the radical underground journalist is the rapey swine. (Hill reports that a Texas audience one burst out of the seats applauding when the jock beats up Ross- so did I!)

Cons: I liked it the first time I saw it, and kind of fell for Johnston in those shorts. Now, a decade or so later, she just terrifies me--those eyes seem wild and unhinged, the mouth grinding as if from a line of badly-cut coke snorted fifteen years ago but still lodged behind her eyeballs. And I should know, I've been there. Am I just talking about myself? I guess that's what they call 'maturity.' I know it goes without mentioning in a more enlightened era, but what sticks out now isn't that there's a black main character --there were more than a few at the time (as in 1970s' BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) but that it's a reminder of the miscegenation taboo: that no black woman and white man or vice versa can ever be attracted to each other in these movies, so if you're black woman at a predominately white school, there will be one or two black men showing up, and you'll be bound to have an affair with one or both. As a kid in the 70s I wondered if that was just some instinctual thing. Now of course I know the truth --racist southern distribution mores. Nowadays, though it actually seems conspicuous: there are three black people in the cast, one is a homewrecker, one a no-good dual-level cheater, and the other a knife-wielding maniac and they're all, so to speak, in bed together.

The main thing I can't stand about it all though, is the Scott Joplin rag underscoring the big climactic brawl at the warehouse. It's aged... not well, and hangs anachronistically around all through New World nurse and AIP's beach party catalogues so I'm sorry Hill had to lug it with him.



Pros: The black professor has a ferocious tough-as-shit black wife (Mae Mercer), who drops in on our terrified cheerleader in the film's most surprising powerful scene--even if you've never been verbally threatened by your lovers' spouse--either by knife-point or just over the phone--then you too will get a queasy pit of your stomach thrill. I've been on all sides of that equation and let me tell you, Hill gets it right and Mercer is a powerhouse never losing our sympathy even as we're terrified to the point of shitting our finest cheerleader slacks. As for the 'sweet one,' Rainbeaux Smith glows with a mix of doll innocence and angel sublime grace; she was pregnant at the time (as we learn in the Arrow Blu-ray's generous extras). I like too how Hill doesn't even bother with the big climactic game at the end, nor even deign to mask the terrible emulsion damage and faded color on his stock footage (is there even a single football?)


SWITCHBLADE SISTERS
(1975) Dir. Jack Hill
****

SPIDER BABY's my favorite Hill but this is the second, a complex but highly re-watchable tale of feminism and short-shorts. Doll-faced, sweet voiced, crazy-eyed Robbie Lee, is Lace, leader of the gang, the 'Dagger Debs.' New girl in town Maggie (Joanne Nail) is the newcomer, and not adverse to whipping her chain belt and/or grabbing a switchblade to defend herself at the burger place. Lace's one-eyed Iago, Patch (Monica Gale), sees the writing on the wall re: her beta status. Lace just thinks Patch is jealous of Maggie's cool gutsy charm, but ole Patch is right; the sparks between Lace's boyfriend, the Daggers' leader, Dom (Ashner Brauner, doing a great Ralph Meeker impression), and Maggie are real enough, even breaking into her room to rape her can't change that, nor Lace getting pregnant, to which he snorts and tosses her cash for an abortion.

Pros: a big roller rink massacre; an attack coordinated with a feminist black militant coalition, with machine guns and a badass armored Cadillac, the heavenly blonde Daryl Hannah jawline of Janice Karman as Bunny; the badass 70s funk score, great hair.  --Hill gives us all that and more. See it when you're super furious at the world or just strung out with the shakes because your dealer never showed, and bask in the cathartic powers of the fabulous legs of Joanne Nail, the way Robbie Lee's eyes widen and dilate, then contract into a glowing glaze when she talks. And savor Nail's final rant to the fat cop, her face streaked with blood, eyes wide and maniacal, it's a shocking Cagney-by-way-of Lorre raving mad closing monologue (maybe my favorite ending in all schlock cinema). Joanne Nail would be back all right... in the fascinating 70s all-purpose drive-in capstone, THE VISITOR! (1979) Not much else, alas. (Fuller review here).


SORCERESS
(1982) Dir. Jack Hill
***

Wild-eyed sorcerer Traigon (Roberto "the Mexican Martin Holden Wiener" Ballesteros) needs to sacrifice his firstborn child to his crazy Reptile goddess to keep his magic strong, but his hot young wife has twin girls and won't tell him which one came first. If he gets the order wrong, he's screwed. A wild-haired noble wizard strides forth to zap Traigon into a 20 year-long period of oblivion, but too late to save the mom from Traigon's swordy pique. Naturally, the wizard brings the twin girls to a farmer off in the wild to raise in secret (disguised as boys), imbues them with latent magical abilities and drops back in, Merlin-style, twenty years later. By then the girls have grown into beautiful Playboy playmate twins, Lynette and Leigh Harris, who don't even know how hot they are or that they're girls. Traigon comes back too, of course, and resumes the hunt. His guards scour the land, and assault and murder the farmer family while the twins are out fishing or duck hunting or something. Vengeance is sworn with the help of a hearty viking Baldar (Bruno 'the Mexican shorter John Goodman' Rey) and his horny satyr (who baas like a sheep). During a remarkably large scale market town square scene they meet up with Roberto (The Mexican taller Roger Daltrey) Nelson as lusty roustabout Erlick and the four of them launch a market wide donnybrook against a mob of angry cheated gamblers after Erlick and angry guards after the twins, who do a pretty good job as a kind of tag team bo staff whirligig. Ensuing are hair raising escapes, magical spells, god-wars, apes with druggy fruits (if you'll forgive the expression), twin-connection remote orgasms, and undead warriors culled from their crypts.


Long unavailable in any format, SORCERESS has just enough of Hill's dry Hawksian wit to stand apart from other sword and sorcery "epics" of the 'shot in Mexico or Argentina' New World post-CONAN era. The script is serviceable, the monsters are hilarious. The injury slight, the humor always well inside the boundary between dry deadpan wit (ala Big Trouble in Little China) and self-aware camp (ala Not of this Earth).

Pros: One of the lead guards has a crazy helmet that seems lifted from the 1936 FLASH GORDON. There's also a genuinely spooky crypt scene where the vertical dead in rows of alcoves slowly shamble to life out of the darkness. Baldar's a great wingman ("that's Erlick all right" he says watching the other twin writhe by the fire). The Scorpion Blu-ray that just came out and is gorgeous. The girls is hot and the grimoire stocked. What can go wrong? Can you do less?

Cons: It's sad to learn this was Hill's last movie, mainly because he got in an "enough is enough" spat with Corman over the editing. Why couldn't Hill have just let Corman cut the movie up? Corman's judgement has always been--to my mind--pretty solid. Why did he have to raise a ruckus which caused a falling out resulting in Hill needing to look elsewhere to make his movies and resulting in..... no more movies? To all out detriment and loss.

But I understand, I ain't the same anymore either. Age and experience brings wisdom at the expense of exuberance. And ET was coming along to make decadent deadpan larks like this -- too dirty and weird for the young kids and too cheap for the adults-- left to lurch along with the 16-20 year-old males at the video rental store and even they could be confused. There were many more films in this style for New World to come, and a good number of them are pretty great, I think (like the first two Deathstalker movies), full of the wondrously paradoxical Corman mix of feminist empowerment and bared breasts, knowing wit and thunderous idiocy we crave when relaxing in a late Saturday afternoon or early-early Sunday morning stupor. Sorceress's release year 1982 was a high point for A-list sci-fi and horror/adventure and amidst that year's B-list, SORCERESS is-- finally, thanks to Scorpion's gorgeous Blu-ray (replete with detailed extras)--made eternal. The twins are real (in all senses); the little ape monster masks have facial movements; the satyr leads a charge of real sheep at the climax; and the effects are all of the charming 'painted on the celluloid' variety. CGI was still ten years away; the tactile earthy effort of it all--its solid mythic arc and florid array of weridness--floats past its limits


CONCLUSION

So in short, to answer my question from part 1, does Jack Hill 'get' women, the answer is clear: fuck you for asking, you third wave guerrilla!

Sorry, all that violence has me snappy and so does the state of the nation, and higher-ed, and the environment, and zzzz. We must realize too the era involved, and the 'waves.' Hill's women are from the second wave when it was called women's lib and involved a certain amount of sexy strutting and sensual freedom that would now be considered a male-imposed fantasy today, but whatever, it's a complicated mess, and third wave sense of sulky humorless privilege hasn't found a very cinematic alternative, other than preachy documentaries and the harsh avant-garde. The difference is like air conditioned hang-out with fun if impressionable undergrads vs. a sweltering administrative office full of self-righteous grad students who consider deodorant and air conditioning to be toxic insults. Maybe they are right, man, but that don't make it fun. That's why I'm here, man.


Oh shit I'm becoming the very critic I was just critiquing, like being beaten into a coma by my own copy of Sexual Personae. Actually, I never did read anything bad about the Hill oeuvre. Unless I wrote it about Foxy Brown. Still, I haven't watched Foxy since that bad experience in '99. Why would I? I'll just watch Switchblade Sisters for the dozenth time, or Corman and Angie's Big-Bad Mama, or The Lady in Red, by Lewis Teague and John Sayles, but it'... The era is full of badass women who 'tag ya back' in ways unthinkable in today's noxious clime. And we can either glumly point out they were made by men or we can act like them and take out the trash! Up with the Hill! Most of them with commentary by himself and Elijah Drenner, or in Switchblade, (if you have the Rolling Thunder DVD) Quentin Tarantino. Let the games of spider begin, and let Robbie Lee, Jill Banner, Beveryly Washburn, Joanne Nail, Lynette and Leigh Harris, Mae Mercer, and ---oh yeah, PAM GRIER... run into the blazing light of eternal replay.
---
PS, Beware a movie with Linda Blair directed by the semi-odious Jim Wynorski--also called Sorceressfrom 1987-- it sounds awful, though I do love that he just reused a title on which he already had credit (the 'original' story of Sorcreress). Had he forgotten? Does he just love that word? Jim, if you're listening, you're a dog, sir. A dog! PS - Loved Deathstalker 2!

3 comments:

  1. HUGGY Bear, Erich. Huggy Bear.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. thanks buddy! Not sure why, except I didn't trust Paul Michael Glaser, but I never was into that show -only Charlie's Angels which came on after.

      Delete
  2. I went to elementary school with this kid whose dad owned a racing shop/garage in Corpus Christi. He was always getting rides to school in hot rods or corvettes that his dad was flipping, and we were all jealous, but cool with it, like, at least somebody is getting to ride in these badass cars. The morning after Starsky and Hutch premiered, his dad drove him to school in a replica hot rod Red Gran Torino, same stripe, same mags. He gets out smiling, walking towards the rest of us, and we were all, Fuck You, Pal. He and his "cool" dad way overplayed their hand, went from comfortable showoff surrogate to Being Better Than Us in one cocky move. The show was another funky Super Nixon Cops non PI show, but I still love that car.

    ReplyDelete

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