Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Jack Hill's Spider Baby
(1967) will be showing January 24 - February 23 and Pit Stop (1967) will be showing January 25 - February 24, 2017 in the United States.
Quentin Tarantino, unsurprisingly a gushing fan of Jack Hill, once famously compared the exploitation specialist to venerable Hollywood icon Howard Hawks, presumably on the basis of his distinctly personal preferences and his unassuming, across-the-board genre dabbling. Of course, those genres explored by Hawks—from westerns to screwball comedies—were considerably different than those in which Hill excels, but the point is well taken: within his respective niches, Hill does it as well as anyone, with skill and without pretense. This includes quintessential Blaxploitation classics like Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), and some of the finest women-in-prison films ever made—yes, there are some very fine women-in-prison films—namely The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972). Lesser known than these often outlandish later features, Hill’s earliest films, by comparison, defy simple, singular categorization. Case in point would be Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told (1967), his first solo effort as director, a delightfully bonkers, unexpectedly sweet family drama-horror-comedy, and Pit Stop (1969), an energetic, existential, and enthralling Fast and the Furious/Rebel Without a Cause hybrid.
As Lon Chaney Jr. howls a spooky tune in the form of a child’s Halloween song, Spider Baby begins with animated cartoon figures amidst its opening credits. Quinn Redeker, playing mild-mannered Peter Howe, then addresses the camera, ominously setting up the flashback that contains the film proper (the narrative frame also letting us know that at least Peter survives what transpires). He tells of the ridiculously reasonable Merrye Syndrome, which apparently afflicts its victims with a mental and physical regression that starts around age 10 and reverts them back to a “pre-natal level,” potentially resulting in a portentous “pre-human condition.” And one can only imagine what that might be. The Merrye family for which this condition gets its name currently consists of sisters Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and Virginia (Jill Banner) and brother Ralph (Sid Haig). Their elderly caretaker is the family’s former chauffeur, Bruno (Chaney). These are not normal children, though; they are politely described as “backward” and their disorder is hinted to have possibly resulted from inbreeding. Through the years, their fitfully threatening behavior has been alarming the neighbors, likely with cause, as Virginia, for one, is particularly keen on “playing spider.” The first victim we see is a hapless messenger played by the celebrated African American comedian Mantan Moreland, whom the girl ensnares in her makeshift web. She then brandishes two knives and starts to slice and dice—she says “sting”—lobbing off his ear and ultimately dispatching the poor man.
Not long after—this maiming is glossed over rather swiftly by all involved—Bruno receives word that company is soon to come calling (at least Mantan got his message delivered). Merrye cousins Emily Howe (Carol Ohmart) and her brother, Peter, are on their way. With the legal assistance of the aptly named lawyer Mr. Schlocker (Karl Schanzer), along with his secretary, Ann (Mary Mitchel), the relatives seek to take over the property. It is when these visitors decide to spend the night that Spider Baby takes its superficial shape as a foreboding night of terror—this looks to be, for all intents and purposes, a “scary movie.” But this is also when Hill moves the film along some unanticipated turns, making it the truly exceptional work that it is.
Hill considers Spider Baby a “miracle of casting,” and along with his deft harmonizing of horror-comic tones, the performances in the film are indeed what distinguish it as more than a run-of-the-mill campy chiller (even if Emily is at one point pursued outdoors in black lingerie). As the most patently dangerous of the sisters, Banner, who changed her name and lied about her age to get the role, displays a twisted and twisting physicality, belly-crawling on the ground and mimicking the squirmy mannerisms of her arachnid inspiration. Washburn, as the more knowingly mischievous Elizabeth, seduces with a coy, lip-tonguing sensuality; she appears the least afflicted of the three children if only because she seems generally aware of her adult potency. As for Haig—Hill’s favorite actor and his most consistent collaborator (he first appeared in Hill’s 1960 student film The Host and remained a fixture in the director’s oeuvre up through Foxy Brown)—his characterization as the bestial brother is hilariously demented and unrestrained (his maneuvering was based on an orangutan’s). Ralph is “on his way out,” as Haig describes him, yet he manages to charm the persistently pleasant Peter, who sees the grunting gimp and joyfully comments, “He’s just a big kid.”
Banner, Washburn, and Haig; these three provide Spider Baby’s horror and its humor. Lon Chaney provides its heart. As the elder statesman on the set, the esteemed icon embodies the film’s essential theme: in Hill’s words, “unconditional love.” Aside from the mere fact that he has taken it upon himself to care for these children (and maybe a few other family members dwelling in the depths of the Merrye syndrome and the Merrye manor), his decency is evinced in his enduring compassion. Bruno never really gets angry with the antics of the children, or even Virginia’s murderous playtime traditions, taking Mantan’s slaying in stride with a sort of “she’s-at-it-again” acceptance of her compulsion. With the utmost sincerity, he stages an admirable attempt at a proper dinner, albeit with a less than appetizing menu (it includes a freshly caught cat presented as rabbit), and Chaney elicits a warm fatherly fondness toward the children, inviting sympathy and leaving the viewer willing to excuse their disease-induced homicidal tendencies, just as he does. His declaration, “Just because something isn’t good doesn’t mean it’s bad,” cuts to the remarkably sensitive core of Spider Baby, which concludes with Bruno enacting a tragic and touching last resort.
Following its brisk 12-day shoot, Spider Baby, originally called “Cannibal Orgy” (a salacious title that is misleading on both counts), was yanked from distribution after the production’s real estate bankroll went bust. David L. Hewitt acquired the rights and re-released the picture in 1968. From there, the picture languished as a lost oddity until bootleg videos began to surface and the film was given a second (or third) chance. As critics such as Stephen R. Bissette have pointed out, Spider Baby just missed being part of the domesticated horror vogue that first hit American airwaves in 1964, with shows like The Addams Family and The Munsters, but it did preview later, much harsher, fright-family features like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). In any case, Spider Baby is a wonderful movie, an underrated, underseen slice of cinematic quirk that is, quite simply, loads of fun.
There is also a family of sorts at the center of Pit Stop. Its own original title, “The Winner,” still appears in the credits, and like Spider Baby, it too presents a basic sense of what’s to come with its immediate opening. To music by The Daily Flash, their bluesy, bass-rock sounds providing a suitably spirited soundtrack to this revved-up, wild-riding world of drag racing and stock car driving, Hill introduces the brooding Rick Bowman, the titular “winner” of the film (an ironic designation given how the story ends). Played by Richard Davalos, the same year he appeared in Cool Hand Luke, Rick enters into the foundational street race with his sights on the challenging Chevy, as opposed to the potential cash prize. His focus on the vehicle and not the money indicates where his interests lie; he is in it for the love of the cars, for the thrill of the race, and for the reverence of the sport. This explains why he initially rebuffs the invitation of moneyman Grant Willard (Brian Donlevy—like Chaney, the seasoned veteran of the cast), who tempts the young man with the prospect of figure eight racing, a concept so ludicrous and hazardous it has to be real. “This isn’t racing,” contends Rick as he stares down the crossroads of crashes and debris. Perhaps not, but it’s an opportunity.
Corrupt though he may be, the scheming Grant is philosophically honest, recognizing the personality types that literally drive the sport of auto racing. “There’s a suicide born every minute,” he says, later musing, “You got a winner and a loser and nothing in between.” The regular winner in this particular brand of competition is madman Hawk Sidney (the pockmarked Haig in a more typically bombastic performance). Though successful, Hawk is roundly booed for his dirty tactics, something he confidently dismisses. He eats up the antagonism and instead touts the necessity of being a little “dingy” to race as well as he does. If nothing else, Pit Stop shines as a vigorous depiction of the intersection at passion and insanity. Something (somehow) of a lady’s man, Hawk’s arm-candy at the start of the picture is Jolene, played by the intensely attractive Washburn, this time with short black hair and first seen in short-sleeve sweatshirt with the words “Why not?” printed on the front. Though Haig and Chaney may be the more familiar faces in Spider Baby and Pit Stop, for those unacquainted with Washburn, she is the stunning discovery of these two films.
Rick has a rebelliously independent streak, channeling a Dean/Brando resistance to authority and order, but after an unsuccessful start in the figure eight debacle, which more often than not resembles a demolition derby than any real race, he studies the easily unnoticed strategy of the contest and begins to accept a group solidarity. He and Hawk grow increasingly combative, but when the two meet Ed McLeod (George Washburn, Beverly’s brother), a decent driver who mocks the “cheap crash-bang stuff” of this figure eight fiasco and instead has his eyes on a greater prize, a more cohesive family of racers develops. By Ed’s side is his wife Ellen (Ellen Burstyn, then billed as Ellen McRae), and under Grant’s financial and entrepreneurial guidance, Rick, Hawk, and Ed enter the big leagues against a collective opponent. All does not go as planned, though, and Pit Stop finishes with a genuinely shocking finale that sets up and leaves open a number of psychological and romantic dilemmas, not exactly the ethical quandaries one associates with a hot rod flick such as this.
Jack Hill did not care for racing, and it was only at the insistence of Roger Corman (his name was bound to turn up when discussing films like these) that he took on the project. Hill’s aim was to make an arty movie, one rising above the norms of the form, just as Pit Stop does, where “The hero wins the big race but loses his soul.” So, while he may have been no fan of this “car clique,” with Pit Stop, Hill perceptively taps into the experiential commonalities that unite these like-minded figures. Friend and foe alike assume a joint familiarity and express a shared value in their work. Correspondingly, Pit Stop is at its best when it comes alive with its mosaic of auto parts, the mechanic routine, and in the almost musical sequences of Rick and the others as they painstakingly piece together their lives and rides. From their car-crazy lingo to Hawk and his STP motor oil tattoo, Pit Stop successfully offers up a unique lifestyle, one that, while unifying, is also divisional. The men bond over the nuances of their pursuit, but for those even marginally on the outside, their devotion can become arduous. “This machinery owns us, body and soul,” complains the emotionally and physically neglected Ellen. Though listening sympathetically, Rick is himself guilty of such disengagement away from the track or the garage. He is driven but also detached. One need look no further than when he reads a car magazine and all but ignores a naked Jolene fresh out of the shower.
On the surface, Spider Baby and Pit Stop appear to situate themselves comfortably within their rudimentary genre zones, primarily through keynote visuals. Spider Baby has its house of horrors infested with cobwebs, creepy critters, skeletons, shadow play, and the always menacing proliferation of taxidermy, while Pit Stop is a gearhead’s delight, with motor part close-ups and dynamic images of spinning tires, tightly-gripped steering wheels, and junkyard montages. But then, these films become something else. The people begin to matter, the eccentric stories become engaging, and the situations, though alien to the average audience, become so fully realized they achieve widespread application. The basic generic tenants of Spider Baby and Pit Stop, while strong and effective, are also deceiving. They conceal a more poignant commentary and they betray their considerate characterizations. It is in this satisfying realization of substance beyond the exploitation style that one sees the double-bill brilliance of Jack Hill.