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Jack Hill: king of cult carnage

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The little known director who transformed the face of movies, found a fan in Tarantino and brought black power and tough heroines to the mainstream

Taken from the July 2009 issue of Dazed:

How can a director invent the female action heroine, change Hollywood’s attitude to race, launch the career of a future Oscar winner and yet still remain anonymous? These are questions that have troubled fans of exploitation genius Jack Hill for years. Pick up a copy of Halliwell’s highly-regarded Who’s Who In The Movies and you will not find an entry for the filmmaker, yet his debut offering, 1968’s Spider Baby, has recently been turned into a musical and is also lined up for a remake, while at the same time Halle Berry continues to express interest in updating his blaxploitation classic Foxy Brown. Recent retrospectives of Hill’s work in Belgium, France and Los Angeles, and a fanbase that includes Hollywood luminaries such as Quentin Tarantino and Joe Dante, would indicate that he is a man who is about to be appreciated by a wider audience. Having retired from the motion picture industry in 1982, the low budget maestro Tarantino once called “one of America’s greatest living directors” has found his acclaim, and recognition, slow in coming…

Born in 1933, Jack Hill studied filmmaking at UCLA alongside his close friend Francis Ford Coppola and the two even worked on each other’s student features. Interestingly, Hill’s effort – dubbed The Host – would end up being recycled by Coppola as the third and final act in the iconic Apocalypse Now (1979). 

“A guy called Steve Burum was my cameraman on The Host and he also did the second unit work on Apocalypse Now,” says Hill. “He told me that he and Coppola were out in the Philippines joking about how they were doing Jack Hill’s student film.” Indeed, Tarantino was so impressed by The Host that he paid to have it finished, re-mastered and released to the general public (it was finally included on the DVD of Hill’s 1975 girl-gang epic Switchblade Sisters). However, just as Hill would inspire Coppola, it was the future Godfather director that got his classmate his first big break. When the young Coppola was hired by Roger Corman, he took Hill along with him – and the two would work together on outings such as 1962’s 3D sex romp The Bellboy and the Playgirls and 1963’s tawdry terror opus Dementia 13. However, when he was finally let loose to make his own productions, Hill would discover new talent and instigate new trends at the box office. For example, his 1967 film Pit Stop, which is set in the competitive world of figure-eight racing, gave Ellen Burstyn her first leading lady role – allowing her to catch the eye of Peter Bogdanovich, who would break her into the big time with The Last Picture Show (1971).

“Jack Hill is the greatest ... His scripts are very funny, he is a really talented man and I am a big fan of his work. He was the Howard Hawks of exploitation filmmaking” – Quentin Tarantino on Jack Hill

“Peter was at the premiere of Pit Stop because I personally invited him,” explains Hill. “That was how he discovered Ellen. I was happy with Pit Stop but I did not really want to do a movie about car racing. I was just handed assignments and did the best that I could with them.” Certainly, as a journeyman director it was always Hill’s intention to try and subvert the material that he was given. 

“I had the freedom to improvise,” he says. “I feel quite fortunate that I worked in the low-budget sector because it meant I did not have to deal with committees who wanted to impose their ideas and prejudices on my material. I had a free hand – much more so than I would have had if I was working for the studios. As long as you put the elements in there that producers like Corman knew they could sell, such as sex and violence, you could raise the picture a little bit higher than they expected and give the audience something intelligent to chew on.” 

It was Hill’s discovery of Pam Grier – who was cast in The Big Doll House (1971) – that really cemented his place in history. Aside from the fact that The Big Doll House would kick-start the decade-long interest in shamelessly sexy “women-in-prison” pictures, it also gave the statuesque Grier an imposing and intense supporting role – one in which she easily overshadowed everyone else onscreen. “Pam’s part was not written for a black actress,” says Hill. “I just wanted to find an ensemble that worked well and I remember how Pam walked into the audition. Even though she had never done anything before, she impressed me with her personality and authority. Of course, she was also a great-looking woman and had all of this enthusiasm. She worked very hard – she was thoroughly professional and was totally dedicated to her craft.”

“I feel quite fortunate that I worked in the low-budget sector because it meant I did not have to deal with committees who wanted to impose their ideas and prejudices on my material” – Jack Hill

Hill began to write parts specifically for Grier (they did four films together in total, most famously the brutal action opus Coffy (1973)) and in doing so the director launched the first international black sex symbol. Grier represented a new breed of heroine – tough, resourceful and politically aware (in 1972’s The Big Bird Cage she plays a Marxist revolutionary), the actress paved the way for cinematic females who made their male counterparts look like big girl’s blouses. The fact that it was a black woman acting in this manner made it all the more mind-blowing for 70s audiences. 

“Back then there was still a lot of discrimination,” laments Hill. “I remember when I began working on Coffy, I made a real effort to find black technicians. There were not many of them because it was a union film and there were not a lot of black people in the union. But we found a guy called Bob Minor – we gave him an acting part in the movie and he also did the stunt work. He learned on the job and eventually became one of the best in the business. Now he works as the stunt coordinator on blockbusters such as Charlie’s Angels and National Treasure. We also hired a black assistant director on Coffy. We made a major effort to get black people into the union and give them work.” 

What was so outstanding about the thrillers that Grier and Hill embarked on together was that the they were giving the audience a femme fatale they could relate to – long before Sigourney Weaver in Alien or Jodie Foster in The Silence of The Lambs. To all intents and purposes, the rampaging nurse who Grier plays in Coffy was nothing more than an ordinary, white-collar worker driven to destruction after some local drug dealers kill her sister (it is also worth noting that Coffy predates the similar, city-based vigilante-action of Death Wish and Taxi Driver). “The remarkable thing about Coffy was that it pulled in a crossover audience,” says Hill. “It was very, very popular and it attracted a large white audience. Pam Grier represented the idea of black power. That was quite subversive back then. With Coffy I wanted to create a character that used her wits to get out of dangerous situations – she had to be someone that the average woman in the audience could relate to. And when you saw a black audience standing up on their seats and cheering at the screen it created a great feeling. I could never have predicted that sort of reaction.”

He may have changed the way that Hollywood perceived women (typically relegated to the role of passive sex symbols prior to Coffy) but Hill still wasn’t granted access to the A-list. “The general feeling was that these were just ‘black’ pictures,” sighs the director. “It didn’t matter to the studios that Coffy had reached number one at the box office. To them it was designed for black people to enjoy and some of the majors had quite a racist attitude towards these movies. I remember being told, ‘You might have had a big hit but it was with a black picture, so it does not really count.’” As a result, the filmmaker moved on to make 1974’s college sex comedy The Swinging Cheerleaders – predating the likes of Porky’s and American Pie and opening up the market in teen-orientated, coming-of-age satires. However, it would take years before Hill was considered a forward-thinking trailblazer. 

“Jack Hill is the greatest,” enthused Quentin Tarantino back in 1995. “Pam Grier was Marlene Dietrich to his Josef von Sternberg. I think that Hill is a really terrific director. His scripts are very funny, he is a really talented man and I am a big fan of his work. He was the Howard Hawks of exploitation filmmaking.” 

The man himself is just happy that – nearly three decades since he last stood behind a camera – a new generation is finally seeing how important his work was. “I always wanted people to feel positive at the end of my films,” he enthuses. “I was always careful to try and juxtapose humour with the violence and tragedy. I think I accomplished that, and perhaps that is why a generation or two later my films are still popular and in-demand while many of the mainstream movies I was up against at the time and, truth be known, I was quite envious of, are now forgotten.”