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Jack of All Trades: The Films of Jack Hill

In the pantheon of filmmakers and auteurs who sprung from the Roger Corman school in 1970s, Jack Hill probably wouldn’t make most scholarly recollections.

Indeed, while the likes of Cameron, Coppola, and Bogdanovich went on more mainstream critical acclaim, Jack Hill has endured as a pioneer of genre cinema in many cult film circles. However, his work has an even deeper layer, one of political and societal commentary that was often missed or ignored by critics at the time of his films’ releases. Furthermore, Hill is an adept cinematic chameleon, bouncing from genre to genre and melding each project he worked on with his own unique sensibilities, from Gothic horror to grimy women in prison flicks. Through and through, the Jack Hill signature bleeds through, a keen eye for subversive narrative and avantigarde direction.

Unlike his contemporaries at the Corman school, Hill, at least on the surface, very much appeared to me a workman. Many of his films were done on assignment, usually by Corman who gave him a list of criteria, a crew flown out to the Philippines, or some horribly salvaged stock footage from some foreign picture. Yet, despite all these burdens, Hill managed to churn out genuinely entertaining films.

In many ways, movies like The Big Bird Cage and The Big Doll House or Foxy Brown and Coffy are the same films respectively. The follow similar narrative structures, employ the same aesthetics, and generally don’t stray too far from what you might expect.

However, Hill’s scripting is where his cleverness shines through. The Big Bird Cage ends with nearly all the characters dying in the final prison shootout and The Big Doll House ultimately ends with the heroine getting captured again in a final twist of irony. Both of these suggest a nihilistic view of feminist revolt, one that ultimately ends in death and the structures of patriarchy reforming to literally imprison women again.

Foxy Brown and Coffy take this feminist view into a different direction.

Pam Grier, Terry Carter and Jack Hill on-set of Foxy Brown (1974) / Image via

Both Foxy and Coffy (both played by the brilliant Pam Grier) are keen to use their sexuality to their advantage, posing as prostitutes or harem girls to achieve their ends. However, they are also maternalistic, tending for their family as well as showing concern for the well being of the black community. This dual maternal, yet independent, female action lead predated the likes of Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, showing just how far ahead of the curve Hill was.

That’s not to say that Hill was almost entirely an action director. Indeed, some of his more interesting works could be found in the horror genre, particularly Spider Baby and Blood Bath. It’s these lesser known pictures where Hill’s directorial skills were actually given a real chance to flourish. Invoking the Universal horror pictures of the 30s and 40s, Hill puts a modern twist on these older sensibilities. Spider Baby plays out like a Universal take on backwoods horror of the 1970s, pioneered by the likes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. The contrast between the dilapidated rural manor and the eccentric urban elite underscores the darkly comedic lampooning of classism and old money types.

Blood Bath, however, remains a high watermark in Hill’s career, particularly when put into context of how the film came about.

Compiled from a Coppola project that Corman deemed unreleasable, Hill’s version was ultimately re-cut by director Stephanie Rothmans (The Velvet Vampire) into a vampire flick, Track of the Vampire. The film was ultimately edited so many times that 4 different version of the film exist, under different titles. Hill’s contributions to the project include the angle of the delusional, murderous artist who believes women’s bodies are the ultimate canvas for his work.

It’s essentially Hill doing a Jess Franco film, but handling the subtext a little more deftly. In perhaps the best shot in the film, we see a flashback of the artist standing alone in the desert with his easel. The camera slowly pulls back into a wide shot as he decreases in size within the frame and the papers begin blowing away in the wind. The composition creates a sense of isolation in his artistic madness, as his work is literally lost to the wind.

Unfortunately, Hill never really left the independent cinema circuit. He remained active as a writer until the early 80s on titles such as City on Fire and Death Ship, with his last directorial credit on 1982’s Sorceress.

Fortunately, his legacy has only grown over time, in large part due to his influence on many filmmakers today. Quentin Tarantino, one of Hill’s biggest acolytes, was responsible for re-releasing Switchblade Sisters under his Rolling Thunder Pictures label.

His 1997 film, Jackie Brown, is a direct reference to Hill’s Foxy Brown and along with casting Hill regular collaborator Pam Grier (and Sid Haig in a small cameo), the film soundtrack also uses several pieces from Coffy.

Jack Hill remains an important figure in cinema history, not only for his genre defining films, but paving the way for women and African-American led works at a time when these groups were largely relegated to supporting roles at best and poorly written stereotypes at worst. While these works may appear dated to a modern audience, they really do hold up as entertaining in their own right, even if their political subtext may seem obvious to our 2018 social sensibilities.

As Hill’s reputation only continues to grow, I hope more film fans and future filmmakers take a note from his book and strive to make genre films that not only thrill, but also impart something substantial.

 

 

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