Thursday, January 19, 2006

It Came from Netflix! Pit Stop (1969)

Few B-movie directors have had more impressive or diverse careers than Jack Hill, although his isn’t a name you hear bandied about much. Hill did uncredited helming on The Wasp Woman (1960) and The Terror (1963), before getting his first credited gig with the cult classic Spider Baby (1964). He really hit his stride in 1971 by contributing several of the most notable “women in prison” films, The Big Doll House and 1972’s The Big Bird Cage.

Both of those films starred Pam Grier, and Hill next went on to direct some of her notable Blaxploitation titles, Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). He then moved on to The Swinging Cheerleaders (1974) and arguably his greatest film, Switchblade Sisters (1975), a pulpy girl-streetgang-meets-Othello epic. (The DVD for that movie is terrific, and features a commentary featuring both Hill and the then at the peak of his fame Quentin Tarantino. Hill sounds bemused to be sitting next to one of the world’s most famous directors and having the guy rave about Hill’s work. Unsurprisingly, the typically rabid Tarantino seemed to have known more about the movie than Hill himself did.)

For whatever reason, and following perhaps the single greatest five year run in exploitation movie history, Hill stopped working. I suspect he lost a lot of heart when he realized the ‘Revolution’ wasn’t, in fact, coming. (Switchblade Sisters ends with an intimation that it’s on the cusp of occurring.) On the other hand, maybe he was just burned out.

In any case, he didn’t direct again until 1982’s Sorceress, a really bad/funny sword & sorcery flick. The film is most notable for a hilariously shameless scene involving the lead characters, barbarian sisters (played by Twin Playboy Playmates) who share a Corsican Brothers-inspired psychic link wherein they feel each other’s pain. At one point, one sister is deflowered by the studly hero, whereupon her distant sibling wakes up and experiences the whole thing vicariously. Being just out and out schlock, Hill found the experience of making the movie unsatisfactory enough that he took his name off the credits. He hasn’t worked directed a film since.

Pit Stop (or The Winner, which is the title that appears on the actual film print, if not the DVD packaging) was made before he hit his hot streak. As Hill explains on the commentary track, Roger Corman wanted him to make a movie about stock car racing, and Hill wanted to make an art film. They both got what they wanted, although the film was shot in black and white just as the market turned against non-color films, which kept the movie from being widely distributed.

There’s not much of a plot. Rick (Richard Davolas of East of Eden) is a bit of a hardass who gains the attention of race promoter Grant Willard (veteran heavy Brian Donlevy, who as usual plays a bastard extremely well) after a street race. Donlevy runs a figure eight racetrack, where you have to cross in front of the oncoming cars every time you do a lap. Obviously there are a lot of crashes. Imagine Nascar meets a demolition derby. There are zillions of crashes in the film, and nearly all of them were merely footage taken of regular races.

Rick hooks up with a proto-hippie chick, locks horns with the crazy current racing champion (played in a typically over the top fashion by Sid Haig, who was in nearly all of Hill’s films), and finally ends up in an affair with the wife of another race driver. One of the film’s claims to fame is that the latter is played by Ellen McRae, just before she changed her name to Ellen Burnstyn.

The film is gritty without seeming to strain after the effect. While the interior scenes are generally shot on very obvious sets, the exterior stuff shot on authentic locations lends the picture a rather effortless documentary feel. The actors do a good job of pretending that they know their way around cars and acetylene torches and such, and for most of the film you really do feel you’re just watching these people in their natural environments.

As the movie’s a character piece, there isn’t much to say about it plot-wise, and I don’t want to ruin the often unpredictable and surprising, yet never forced, personality evolutions several of the characters go through. The ending particularly has a lot of punch, but you can’t talk about it without ruining much of its impact, so I won’t.

Sorry I can’t do better than that, but again, I don’t want to ruin what is a very good movie for anyone. If you like well made exploitation fare, however, check it out. Aside from the movie itself, the disc features the aforementioned commentary, in which Hill is joined by cult icon Johnny Legend. It’s a pretty good one.


At 7:57 AM, Blogger Marty McKee said...

I agree, this is a really good movie. Good performances, decent action. The score is good too...dig that infectious bass riff. I believe figure-8 racing is now illegal, which isn't surprising considering how freaking dangerous it is. I'd like to see some. FIREBALL 500 has a figure-8 race, but it isn't nearly as cool.

One reason Hill may have disowned SORCERESS is because much of it was reshot by Jim Wynorski. I would bet the afore-mentioned twin-orgasm scene was a Wynorski original.

That Hill/QT SWITCHBLADE SISTERS commentary is entertaining, and, you're right, Hill sometimes seems bemused. My favorite part is QT raving about some graffitti on the wall and about what a genius Hill was for contributing that subtext, and Jack answers with something like, "Well, that was just on the wall when we got there. I didn't have anything to do with it." QT = pwned.

At 10:02 AM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Marty -- Thanks, I particularly forget to mention the score, which I agree is really very good. I really should write these up right after the movie.

There was an episode of Monster Garage where they built a car for Figure 8 racing, so it must still go on somewhere.

At 2:56 PM, Blogger BeckoningChasm said...

Hey, what's up with the Jabootu forum?

Or down, I mean.

At 9:08 PM, Anonymous Tork_110 said...

Ken was so excited by the upcoming release of Mother 3 that he took the week off!

Oh wait, he's into movies, not video games. Never mind.


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