Arrow Films has released two thoughtfully restored, extras-packed Blu-ray/DVD combos of ’60s exploitation films written and directed by Jack Hill on absurdly low budgets. Both films were barely seen in their own decades, and have thrived underground beyond what their makers assumed were their expiration dates.
One of the most bizarre American films of the ’60s (or any decade), Spider Baby depends on the audience’s bemused disbelief at what they’re seeing for much of its effect. A cult has festered around it, not only because it is such a strange horror-comedy, but also because it’s been hard to see. Shot in 1964, it went unreleased until 1968, when it circulated haphazardly under various titles and fell into an oblivion from which it was partly rescued in the VHS era after being promoted in the book Incredible Strange Films. Even then, it was usually in lousy shape.
Its reputation has grown thanks to a 1999 Laserdisc and a 2007 DVD from Dark Sky. There’s even a stage musical. In 2012, the Academy Film Archive created a beautiful print from the negative and that’s the source of this Blu-ray, complete with commentary from writer-director-editor Jack Hill and actor Sid Haig. In footage from the Academy screening included as one of the extras, Hill thanks the initiative of Quentin Tarantino and Harvey Weinstein in securing the original negative for Hill’s control.
Shot under the title Cannibal Orgy, the story seems equally inspired by the Addams Family (if they really killed people) and perhaps Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, about a girl named Merricat and her sister. This film is about the Merrye family, with two sisters and a brother as orphans supervised by a family retainer, touchingly played by Lon Chaney Jr. as the sanest member of the cobwebbed household without having that mean very much. His presence leads to sly in-jokes about his famous role as The Wolf Man.
The inbred Merryes are subject to a unique syndrome that causes their mental age to regress as their bodies grotesquify. The sly, childish sisters are played with demented expressiveness by Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner, and their gibbering, mute, bald brother is played by Sig Haig as some kind of family pet. They’re vegetarians because meat encourages the disease, but the boy is allowed to eat what he catches.
It seems to be a scenario contrived expressly to shock or repulse viewers via morbid comedy, and into this Merrye crew arrives an attorney (Karl Schanzer) and a grasping cousin (Carol Ohmart) with her eye on claiming the family fortune. Also in the stew are a dangerously clueless but easy-going cousin (Quinn Redeker), who addresses the viewer by telling this story in flashback, and a secretary (Mary Mitchel) who becomes his girlfriend. Mantan Moreland opens the movie with a cameo as a delivery man, with his comic-relief persona setting the audience up for laughs (after the cartoony credits with Chaney singing the theme song) in a manner that soon turns unsettling. That’s a good word for the whole film.
Whether this movie is your cup of hemlock or not, the actors are memorable and sometimes very fine; a highlight is the scene where Banner sits on Redeker’s lap, and another is Chaney’s tearful monologue. Alfred Taylor’s black and white photography is superb, especially for pretty much working without a budget, and Ronald Stein’s mischievous music adds to the atmosphere of suspense amid queasy decay.
The making-of materials include Hill revisiting the house, now a historical landmark, where the film was shot; this was formerly on the Dark Sky disc. (The house is also in the recent film Insidious: Chapter 2.) The most interesting extra is Hill’s UCLA student film The Hole, starring Haig and made under the supervision of Hill’s mentor-teacher Dorothy Arzner, famous as the only woman to direct Hollywood films in the ’30s and ’40s. The existential, not entirely convincing short is a western of sacrificial pagan mythology (crossed with Christianity) in an Indian village. Hill was inspired by ideas in James Frazer’s history book The Golden Bough, and this film in turn may have inspired his classmate Francis Ford Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now.
Pit Stop (1969, dir. Jack Hill)
Also available from Arrow is a grainy but good-looking version of Hill’s 1969 Pit Stop, a Roger Corman production taken from Hill’s personal positive print. The onscreen title is The Winner, but it was changed to avoid confusion with an upcoming mainstream movie called Winning. Both were about stock-car racing, and I’ve never heard that exploitation producers wished to avoid confusion with mainstream titles, but Pit Stop was probably deemed a more exploitable action title, even though the plot has no pit stops.
DVD: Pit Stop
Film: Pit Stop
Director: Jack Hill
Cast: Richard Davalos, Brian Donleavy
Rating: Not rated
US DVD release date: 2015-06-23
Distributor: Arrow Films
Extras rating: 7
The ’60s was a popular decade for big-budget racing films, including Corman’s own The Young Racers and such big-budget items as Grand Prix and Le Mans. Hill’s little black and white movie, clocking in just under 90 minutes, beats most of them for excitement and character development. Too bad it mostly sank without a trace in a double-bill with a biker flick called Naked Angels and didn’t even play Los Angeles, according to Hill’s very informative commentary.
It’s a character study of drag racer and sometime jailbird Rick (Richard Davalos, James Dean’s good brother in East of Eden), a handsome, young, brooding, hostile loner with a pompadour who serves as a link between earlier cinematic rebels played by Dean and Marlon Brando and such future cranks as Jack Nicholson’s character in Five Easy Pieces. His career as a stock-car racer is manipulated by a merciless behind-the-scenes capitalist (Brian Donleavy, half glad-handing, half don’t-waste-my-time, all credible) while competing with a goggle-eyed hot dog (the magnetic Sid Haig).
You might assume the story is predictable, but as Hill observes appropriately, he likes to set up cliches and avoid them. One of the movie’s surprises is the terrific early performance by Ellen Burstyn (billed as Ellen McRae), who got spotted in this film by Hill’s colleague Peter Bogdanovich and cast in The Last Picture Show. Another Corman colleague, Martin Scorsese, would direct her to an Oscar in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
Rick’s girlfriend is played the same Beverly Washburn who was one of the sisters in Spider Baby, here a perky, dreamy tomboy who has a couple of great bedroom scenes with Davalos. Amid glamorous lighting, her character abruptly asks his religion. “I don’t have any. I believe when you’re dead, you’re dead and that’s it,” he says with a scowl. Looking beyond the ceiling and the viewer, she replies, “Not me. I believe in heaven. And I believe that heaven is this great big island in the sky where everybody makes love in the sunshine with no shame at all.”
Moments like that explain why this movie is more than perfunctory time-killing scenes in between the action, like most racing films. And the action is extraordinary because much of it is hand-held documentary shots of certifiably crazy footage of races on a figure-eight track, essentially a demolition derby (or “crash-o-rama” as the poster says). It’s key to the hand-held, in-your-face look of much of the movie, while the figure-eight system guarantees the crashes that the public wants to see, whether in the stands or at the drive-in–car culture commenting on car culture. This sign of futile infinity can’t help elevating the picture as both social document and symbolic art — with lots of good crashes.