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New World Pioneer

By Louis Black, Fri., March 12, 1999

Photo of Jack Hill

Yesterday someone asked me why SXSW Film had chosen to honor Jack Hill and just who he is. To me, the only question is, "what happened?": Why, after directing six terrific pictures in six years, did he disappear? Why, after coming up in a group of new directors whose members included Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Kaplan, and Peter Bogdanovich, was it Hill, who was among the most talented yet was not really heard from again? Admittedly, when you tell people the titles of Hill's best work, they think you are joking. The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, Switchblade Sisters,and Coffy are not on most people's lists of American classics, but they sure are on some people's. Besides being great fun, these films had significant impact.

Over the years, film directors have earned major studio projects in a variety of ways. Currently, the most established routes are either through television or making low-budget independent films. During the Teens through the Thirties, it was often through directing two-reel comedies. The late Sixties and early Seventies saw the first significant influx of film-school graduates into commercial filmmaking. Many of them, as well as many who didn't go to film school, found their first work in low-budget, drive-in exploitation films. Especially influential was Roger Corman, the master of schlock, the guru of commercial low-budget filmmaking.

In 15 years, beginning in 1955 with The Oklahoma Woman, through 1970's Von Richthofen and Brown, Corman directed such films as It Conquered the World, Bucket of Blood, The Little Shop of Horrors, The Masque of the Red Death, X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes,and Bloody Mama. While making these films as well as producing others, Corman gave early breaks to a generation of talent, including actors Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, Charles Bronson, Bruce Dern, Robert De Niro, screenwriter Robert Towne, cinematographer John Alonzo, directors Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, and Nicolas Roeg. In 1970, he graduated from directing to running New World Pictures, his own studio. The graduating class from this venture is impressive: Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Kaplan, Martin Scorsese, John Sayles, Ron Howard, James Cameron, Joe Dante, and Allan Arkush. Lest this list suggest that Corman was sexist, he also mentored directors Stephanie Rothman, Barbara Peters, and Amy Jones when there were very few female directors working in the industry.

These were exploitation films, which is a technical industry term referring to the economics rather than the politics (as it's commonly misinterpreted) of the filmmaking. They were made to be shown at drive-in theatres and certain inner-city theatres. Made for a certain price, they had enough guaranteed distribution that they were assured of breaking even. One thing this meant was that these films could be junk. Directing one was the break two or three generations of American filmmakers were looking for, and they took these projects seriously. They wanted to make good movies but they also wanted to do work that might get them bigger pictures. Yes, there were the mandatory breast shots, violence, and sex. What is surprising is just how good many of these films are. Crazy cinematic joyrides, they offer wild jazzy riffs -- Caged Heat, Death Race 2000, Jackson County Jail, God Told Me To, Cockfighter, and many more.

These new directors were hip to cinema, they watched the French New Wave and the Japanese masters, they had seen Twenties German cinema and New York avant garde. They were driven by Corman's punk sensibility: Tear down baroque Hollywood cinema! Not so much for aesthetic reasons but because there was a cheaper way to make movies, a way that allowed Corman to make money from movies that didn't cost very much to make. If something interesting happened along the way, so much the better. This generation learned how to make movies in this low-budget world, and they took the lessons they learned with them when they graduated to studio features.

All these talented filmmakers affected each other, but one of the most influential was Jack Hill. A few years after graduating from college in 1957, Hill began taking courses in the film program at UCLA. One of his fellow students was Coppola, and they worked on each other's student films. He followed Coppola to Corman, for whom he served as second-unit director on Coppola's Dementia 13 and worked on the screenplay of Corman's classic The Terror. In 1964, he directed Spider Baby, his first feature. He continued working in film in almost every area, writing, directing, editing, etc. In 1967, he wrote, directed, and edited Pit Stop, which introduced Ellen Burstyn. Also, he worked on Boris Karloff's last four films.

The Seventies turned out to be Hill's decade. 1971's The Big Doll House, which was shot in the Philippines, was Corman's first or second release through New World Pictures. It not only introduced the modern women-in-prison genre, which continues to this day (though now largely on video), it established Corman's company. The film made $6 million at the box office, a phenomenal sum for an exploitation film. Hill followed with The Big Bird Cage in 1972. After watching these two films, look at Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat to see the influence Hill had on other directors.

Scene from The Big Doll House

The Big Doll House

Coffy (1973) kicked off the blaxploitation films with a strong woman as its hero. A dynamic movie, it made Pam Grier a star. Coffy, made on a half-million-dollar budget, was the number 11 grosser of the year on the Variety chart. Still, Hill couldn't get a studio project because he was regarded as a blaxploitation director. He followed with Foxy Brown in 1974.

The same year also saw the release of The Swinging Cheerleaders,which did very well at the box office. The following year, Switchblade Sisters was released, which didn't do as well. After that, except for a few writing credits and 1981's Sorceress, Jack Hill disappeared from the film scene.

Hill's movies are exploitation films; don't go expecting French New Wave masterpieces. What is striking is the vitality of his cinema and his inherent generic understanding. He tells great elaborate tales, moving the action forward with stylish camerawork and bold editing, alternating from tense drama to outrageous cartoon action. While some of the other exploitation directors got a bit flashy or self-referential, Hill was focused on two-fisted storytelling. His grasp of the basics and strong sense of style influenced a generation of low-budget filmmakers. In Hill's film, cinematic vision triumphs over economics and basic story.

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