The Father of "Spider Baby"
By Devin D. O'Leary
SEPTEMBER 14, 1998: The late '60s and early '70s were a different time for movies. The elegant dream palaces of the 1930s and '40s were gone; the mega-screen cineplexes of the '80s and '90s were still around the corner. The ruler of the day was the drive-in theater. In order to compete for their share of the teenage moviegoing dollar, films had to be cheap, flashy and packed with plenty of trash appeal. It was the era of the exploitation film. Filmmakers like William Castle (The Tingler) and Roger Corman (Attack of the Crab Monsters) had started the trend in the 1950s with their gimmicky shot-on-a-shoestring genre flicks. Into this world of car chases, teenage monsters, bug-eyed invaders and scantily clad bikini girls came writer/director/producer Jack Hill.
Jack Hill grew up around movies. His father was an art director for Warner Brothers and a designer for Disney studios. In the early 1960s, Hill attended the University of California. Originally, the future filmmaker intended to be a music composition major--but as today's fiftysomething Hill recalls, "I wanted to learn to score film, so as a minor I got into the theater department." Before he knew it, Hill had abandoned playing music in favor of writing, directing and editing.
After graduation, Hill hooked up with legendary z-grade filmmaker Roger Corman, whose work for AIP studios had ruled the 1950s drive-in market. By the mid-'60s, he was achieving great success with a string of Edgar Allan Poe-inspired horror films (House of Usher, The Raven, Pit and the Pendulum, Premature Burial). Corman had all but exhausted Poe's repertoire by the time he began work on The Terror in 1963. Horror legend Boris Karloff and unknown hippie actor Jack Nicholson starred in this tale of an injured soldier from Napoleon's army recovering at an eerie castle. Hill co-wrote the film with character actor Leo Gordon and did some (uncredited) second unit directing. "I didn't do any real directing in the sense of directing scenes," admits Hill. "I directed the dialogue replacement--Jack Nicholson and the other people. I shot a lot of bits and pieces--what we call inserts and pick-ups."
After cutting his teeth in the feature film market, Hill was hooked. Around that time, Hill and fellow UCLA classmate Francis Ford Coppola collaborated on a couple cut-and-paste softcore nudie flicks, Tonight For Sure and The Playgirls and the Bellboy, before combining their efforts for Coppola's feature film debut Dementia 13. Shortly after that, Hill began putting together plans for his first writing/directing effort, the cannibal comedy Spider Baby.
"Karl Shanzer, who played the lawyer in Spider Baby, was working for a private investigator as well as being an actor. He was also one of the actors in Francis Coppola's nudie cutie Tonight For Sure. That's how I met him. He was doing some investigations for some fellows named Lasky and Monka who were credited on Spider Baby as being the producers. They were in the real estate development business, and they had been at UCLA the same time that I had been there. ... It was their ambition to produce movies, and they were using real estate development to raise the money. They wanted to start by making a low-budget horror picture. They had read many, many, many scripts and not found anything they liked. Karl told them he knew somebody who might have something for them. I had, at that time, just written an outline (for Spider Baby) and didn't know quite where to go with it. So (Karl) brought me together with (Lasky and Monka). And even though it was not a screenplay, they liked it so much that they contracted with me to write the script and went on to make the movie."
The legendary horror star Lon Chaney Jr. was recruited for a featured role. "He was sort of the obvious first choice. We contacted his agent and when his agent found out it was a horror picture, he wanted a lot of money. Basically we could only offer $2,500, because (Lasky and Monka) had a $50,000 budget. So (Chaney's agent) said, 'No, he's not gonna do it.' So we said, 'Well, let's go for John Carradine.' It turned out that the same agent represented John Carradine. By this time Lon had read the script, and he really very badly wanted to do it. His agent was just trying to hold out for more money. So when Lon found out we were going after Carradine, he said, 'Grab it!' because he wanted to do the movie. So we got him for 2,500 bucks!"
Hill remembers his work with Chaney fondly. "He was wonderful. He was just a total alcoholic at that time. And he loved the script so much and wanted so badly to do a good job on the picture, he really put his heart into it, and he stayed on the wagon for the whole shoot up until the last night. I think he scheduled himself a half a glass of beer at three in the afternoon so he could make it through the day."
Throughout the '60s, Hill continued to shoot or write many uncredited sequences in low-budget horror flicks. By 1971, Hill was ready to helm another feature of his own. The film was The Big Doll House, the latest addition to Corman's successful women-in-prison series. While auditioning for Doll House, Hill made a modest discovery--'70s superstar Pam Grier.
"The first time I met her, I was casting Big Doll House, which was sort of a female ensemble cast. We cast a very wide net out, asked agents to send out anyone that they thought was really talented, promising. So we interviewed many, many actresses and had them read because I wanted to assemble an ensemble of contrasting personalities that could play well together. ... She just walked in on kind of a cattle call. She had never done anything other than a walk-on in a Russ Meyer movie (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). But I was immediately struck by her physical presence. I'm talking about her, what we call, authority. She was just this striking personality. And even though she had virtually no experience at all, I just had the confidence that she could do it."
Hill's next three films were all written specifically for Pam Grier. "The reason I returned to her was because she practically stole the show in the first one. And so I wrote it specifically for her, the second picture." The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, Coffy and Foxy Brown helped make Pam Grier a star and cemented the blaxploitation genre as an integral part of 1970s history.
Hill ran into Grier most recently at the Los Angeles premiere of Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown--a film directly inspired by Jack Hill's Foxy Brown. "She's the kind of player that if you really want to make her work, you've got to write for her, because she has certain specific personality traits and talents that can be quite strong on the screen--if you understand her. You see, I wrote specifically for her, and that's why I think she was much more successful in the films that I did for her than in any of the ones that she did after that. ... Quentin did that also (with Jackie Brown). Although, to a certain extent, she was sort of shoehorned into a role that really didn't quite fit her, but he tried to write it for her. There's a few moments in the film when you really see the Pam Grier that we all love come through."
In 1975, Hill shot his last drive-in flick, Switchblade Sisters. It was the only one of his films to not turn a profit. The movie industry was changing. Over the next few years, films like Jaws, Star Wars and Alien would snatch the genre films from the maws of low-budget filmmakers and make exploitation the bread-and-butter of mainstream Hollywood.
"You know what really started it off in my mind was Alien. It's a perfect example because Alien was originally a script submitted to Roger Corman, and he passed on it because he thought it would be too expensive. So that kind of set the trend, showing that there were big bucks in well produced, well mounted movies that would formerly have been considered below the level that major studios would be interested in doing."
What ultimately killed off the exploitation movie, though, was the changeover from drive-in movies to home video. According to Hill, the drive-in theater "was a place where people could go and cut loose and have fun and bring food and bring the family and cut up, which you couldn't do in a theater. In those days, the drive-in was the main part of the market. (By the late '70s) theaters were closing all over the place. Just like The Last Picture Show. When home video came in, instead of going in your car to the drive-in, you could have the same experience at home. You could have your friends over and cut up and have fun. So that pretty much killed the drive-ins."
Normally, that would have been the end of Hill's Hollywood history--a drive-in director lost in a sea of forgotten filmmakers. But something ironic happened. The very thing that helped end his career--the dawning of the video age--also helped revive it. A whole new generation of fans, too young to have appreciated Hill's work when it played the drive-in circuit, were seeing his works in the comfort of their own home. "It's wonderful. I mean, so many movies that were made like that have been lost. The general idea was you play one summer, and if you had a really strong movie, you might bring it back a second summer in certain territories and then that would be the end of it. It would be just forgotten and lost and people wouldn't even know where the negative was. Home video and the revolution that it would create was just unimaginable at that time. So to be able to have some of my films that I thought would be forgotten forever resurrected and finding a whole new audience--generation after generation--is, of course, very satisfying."
One of those young vidiots was a Southern Californian video store clerk named Quentin Tarantino. "I first met him when they were having a retrospective of some of my movies from AIP here at the NuArt Theater in West L.A. We were screening Coffy, and he came to the screening and was very anxious to meet me. I was quite impressed because, although I'd heard his name, I really didn't know anything about him. He was complimenting me on my dialogue, and he quoted a line of dialogue from Coffy which greatly impressed me." Last year, Tarantino convinced Miramax Films to re-release Hill's Switchblade Sisters through his Rolling Thunder label. Soon after, Hill and Tarantino collaborated on a joint audio commentary for the Criterion laser disk release of Switchblade Sisters.
Thanks in no small part to Tarantino, today's Jack Hill revival has started the once-retired filmmaker thinking about his career again. "I started getting invited to film festivals all over to introduce my films. And that led me into contact with people in finance and production. So now I'm getting this project together that I've been trying to do for 20 years." Hill is currently searching for a star for his first writing/directing project in nearly two decades. Described as "a parody of 1940s Warner Brothers movies," the romantic adventure tale Tangier could be the first new Jack Hill movie since the close of the disco era.
Look for it at a drive-in theater near you.
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