THE HILL EDGE: INTERVIEW WITH CULT DIRECTOR JACK HILL Image

Jack Hill comes from the school of Roger Corman, he’s one of those directors who knew how to economize, and save, and improvise and he surrounded himself with people who practiced the same method. And over the years, Hill has re-emerged much like his friend Sid Haig, as a cult favorite. Do you want the best in blaxploitation? Grindhouse fans need look no further than one of my favorites, “Coffy.” Want to see its classic sequel? The box office hit “Foxy Brown,” yet another thriller starring the immortal Pam Grier.

Hill was a man who once endured his own form of prejudice as a white director who found himself directing two of the biggest cult classics of all time starring a predominantly African American cast, which includes Hill veteran Sig Haig. Then Hill went on to direct a pure fantasy exploitation trash film and another of my favorites “Switchblade Sisters,” an inner city Othello involving a clawing female gang battling for power, all of which were films that claimed sheer praise thanks to re-releases and special editions.

Then there’s possibly my all time favorite cult classic, “Spider Baby.” Up until fifteen or twenty years ago, Hill found his low budget horror comedy about to be forgotten. Not only was it forgotten, but it was generally held in the film vaults after his producers went bankrupt, and the prints were rendered completely unattainable by Hill due to legal issues; that is until he finally decided to take action and reclaim it once and for all and seek distribution after its newfound popularity as a horrible print in the bootleg circuits.

Thanks to a film collector named “Johnny Legend,” as the DVD explains, Hill was able to revive “Spider Baby” (also thanks to the advent of VHS), and “Spider Baby” was reborn. About two years ago, if you were lucky, you could get the “Spider Baby” DVD on Ebay for about fifty to a hundred dollars, and perhaps you could find the import for about forty dollars.

Thanks to the folks at Dark Sky Films, however, all hardcore fans of “Spider Baby” who could never obtain their own copy can now, with the new DVD release. As a hardcore fan of “Spider Baby,” it’s a thrill to finally have my own copy to watch over and over. Thanks to Hill’s relentless journey, I can watch Virginia play spider with hapless victims whenever I please. I recently had the honor of interviewing Mr. Hill in celebration of the new DVD release, and we discuss his films, his career, and his successful venture in restoring his film back to its luster.

Hello, Mr. Hill, thanks for agreeing to the interview, this is a big honor.
It’s my pleasure.

Does it still surprise you that a low budget horror comedy like “Spider Baby,” which had problems from beginning to end, has become such a widely revered word of mouth cult classic?
I can’t say it’s really a surprise at this point, since the popularity of the film has been growing steadily for the past twenty years or so, and especially since I was able to access the original negative and create a VHS of good quality. But, yes, I must say that the magnitude of the phenomenon is a pleasant surprise.

To what do you attribute the wide success and praise from its fan base? Do you think the advent of home video helped “Spider-Baby” grow, or was it just too ahead of its time?
Without home video, of course, I’m sure the film would be virtually unknown, as its popularity is solely through word of mouth. I don’t know if it was ahead of its time. It just didn’t get much of a chance to find an audience at the time it was made. Well, I should mention that when I told an elderly publicist that I was making a “black comedy,” he said, “You mean it’s got colored people it it?” Enough said.

Those many years it was locked away and unreleased, did you spend a lot of time trying to get it back, or did you just focus on other projects?
I had long since given it up as forever lost, until I learned that there were awful quality pirated tapes on the market. Then I resolved to somehow get access to the negative to get a good quality tape so that people could see what it really looked like. I should say, though, that the new MPI/Dark Sky version is far superior, making use of the latest HD technology.

I agree, the fact that it’s in widescreen, and has some great cut sequences really helps the replay value. You noted on the DVD release that Mantan’s career pretty much ended after “Spider Baby” when these characters were no longer considered entertaining; did you keep in touch with Moreland after shooting?
No, I didn’t, for which I’m sorry. He was really a great guy, and so happy to be working, even for such a small role.

In the DVD, you talked a lot about Johnny Legend and his mission to bring exposure to “Spider Baby.” Has he contacted you since this new DVD release?
Oh, I’m in more or less contact contact with Johnny. He’s a real friend.

Did you ever set out to direct the types of films we consider cult classics, or were you just doing what you love and inadvertently became a cult director?
Well, nobody sets out to make cult classics, if they’re in their right mind. At the time, there wasn’t even a concept of “cult films.” That only grew out of the advent of home video, other than what we used to think of as “experimental films,” like the work of, say Kenneth Anger, whose films were shown in odd little theaters.

Did it take much convincing to get Sid Haig in the (as Haig calls it) the Lord Fauntleroy outfit in “Spider Baby”?
No. And it was actually a Buster Brown suit. Sid was game for just about anything, which has always endeared him to me.

What are your thoughts on the latest resurgence of Haig and his wide popularity with a new generation of movie goers?
He well deserves it. And I’m very happy for him. He is such a versatile actor; when I first met him he had just been playing Othello at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Did you ever seek to have the old Merrye house as a monument like you hinted at in “Revisiting the Merrye House”?
No. People have been living there quite nicely for many years now. Although I do think the current owners have been considering have it declared a historical site, or whatever.

What was the experience apprenticing with Roger Corman like?
Most valuable! But frustrating at times, as he was a rather mercurial personality, to put it conservatively. Main thing I learned from Roger was how to create maximum of effect with minimum of means. He had a great formula for success that has also served me well: “Something has to happen in every reel.”

What did you learn in the ways of economic filmmaking in your career that other independent filmmakers that read Film Threat can take from?
Trust your own instincts — especially in casting — and don’t waste precious time on unimportant matters. And most important: try always to look at your work with a fresh mind, as if you’re looking at everything for the first time, as the audience in the theater will see it.

Which one of your films would you consider your favorite?
Well, it’s like asking which of my children is my favorite, and I can say I don’t have a favorite. But if I had to choose one, I’d say “Spider Baby,” the way you tend to have a little extra fondness for your first-born, no matter how wayward that one may become.

Are you considering coming back to film to direct? I know fans of yours are anxious to see what you can bring us next.
I’m working these days on several new projects. My talented wife and I have written a few new scripts, I’ve done a new update/rewrite on a sequel to “Spider Baby” that I wrote back at the time I had just finished the film — it’s called “Spider Baby II: SQUIRM.” And also a four-picture package of remakes of the four so-called “Mexican” horror films that I did with Boris Karloff just before his death.

After many years, and with the medium of film completely changing with the advent of the internet, viral marketing, and stylized directors, do you still think an old school great like you could win over new fans?
I’m winning new fans every day. It’s amazing. So many people ask me when I’m going to do a new film. Well, hey, it’s just a matter of getting financing, which isn’t easy. Too few projects chasing too few bucks.

If given the chance, what type of films would you make?
An easy question. My wife and I have written a really beautiful romantic comedy that I think is Academy Award material. That’s where my heart is, these days, although I’d also be happy to do a classy horror film or suspense-thriller. Actually, we do have another romantic comedy/suspense thriller that has a bit more of what my friends call the “Jack Hill edge,” whatever that may mean; rather kinky, if that’s the right term (I’d say so).

We at Film Threat would like to thank Jack Hill for taking time out of his busy schedule to take part in the interview. The back in print Director’s Cut of “Spider Baby” can now be found in stores on DVD.

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