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Despite the best efforts of celebrity fans like Quentin Tarantino, writer/director Jack Hill is one of American Cinema’s best-kept secrets. He came into his own alongside other Roger Corman acolyte/wage-slaves and USC/UCLA film school grads, like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, but never ‘escaped’ from the exploitation game with a big mainstream hit. Still, Hill’s respectability grew quietly, following a small collection of cult and grindhouse classics, including writing and directing duties The Big Bird Cage (1972), a watershed Women in Prison (WIP) flick, and early Pam Grier vehicles such as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). Before that, he paid his dues with two more personal, independently produced black & and white features – Spider Baby (1967) and Pit Stop (1969).

Jack Hill Double Feature

Spider Baby


The Merrye Syndrome is a rare genetic malady in which sufferers mentally regress to a condition of ‘pre-human savagery and cannibalism.’ The syndrome is named after the one family in the world that carries it. The Merrye children—Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), Virginia (Jill Banner) and Ralph (Sid Haig)—all live in the old family mansion under the cautious guardianship of a family chauffeur named Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.). Every once and a while some poor sap wonders into the Merrye web and find themselves dead, but Bruno runs a relatively tight ship. Things go awry when a pair of distant cousins and their sleazy lawyer visits the house and set their sights on the family fortune.

Shot in 1964, but not released until 1968 (and, even then, just barely), Spider Baby (aka: The Maddest Story Ever Told, Cannibal Orgy, and Attack of the Liver Eaters) is something of a proto-cult movie. Though it might appear to be the product of an earlier era, it is more of a reaction and homage to those films. The (mostly implied) perversions marks it as a modern variation, as does the portrayal of its child-like ‘villains.’ The ‘victims’ are judgmental antagonists and worthy of victimization. The survivors, Peter (Quinn Redeker) and Ann (Mary Mitchel), endure, because they’re good-natured and similarly innocent. This dynamic, where well-behaved people survive horror movies, became a popular trope during the late ‘70s/early ‘80s slasher boom. Ironically enough, while poking fun at bygone genre traditions, Hill was helping to create new ones, which would become the basis of a different genre satire – Wes Craven’s Scream (1996).

Spider Baby is also remembered as a sort of prototype for Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), which itself became a prototype for the next several decades of horror. They were inspired in part by real-life monster of Ed Gein (or at least Gein’s influence on Hitchcock’s Psycho, 1960) and feature inbred, (implied) cannibalistic family units that are infiltrated by unwelcome, contemporary nuisances. More superficial similarities include the elaborate interior decorations and mood-setting dinner table sequences. Both films were plundered by Rob Zombie for his feature debut, House of 1000 Corpses (2003) – a fact that was not lost upon critics and fans when Spider Baby was re-released on special edition DVD.

Spider Baby has a more violent edge than many movies of the time (though it was made after Hershel Gordon Lewis’ taboo-smashing gore-fest, Blood Feast), but it’s always wide-eyed about the more shocking story elements. And, though it plays the suspense straight, the violence is almost always played for laughs (as he is murdered, the lawyer shouts that ‘this isn’t right’ and that ‘these things need to be properly litigated’). Ham and camp are integral elements, but, like the best William Castle or Roger Corman horror comedy, the satire extends to cheeky dialogue and broad physical comedies. Hill and the actors acknowledge the audience’s recognition of the tropes, even directly recalling other horror movies, like Scream did three decades later.

Spider Baby was ‘rediscovered’ in the ‘90s when it enjoyed a brief theatrical ‘midnight movie’ run before eventually being restored for VHS via Anchor Bay/Video Treasures in 1997 (which was when I first discovered it). It was then released in ‘director’s cut’ form on non-anamorphic, 1.66:1 DVD by Image in 1999, followed by an anamorphic 1.66:1 special edition from Dark Sky in 2007 and Arrow Video UK’s remastered Blu-ray in 2013. This US release utilizes the same 1.66:1, 1080p transfer, which was transferred from a 35mm original camera negative of the theatrical version with additional director’s cut scenes taken from Hill’s own 35mm answer print. Hill supervised the project. The image quality is stunning – more impressive than even some major studio releases of popular black & white from the same era. Details are tight, depending on focus and darkness, including well-defined edges and a surprising degree of fine texture. Grain levels are prevalent, but are also quite fine. There aren’t any particularly chunky bits or notable artefacts, aside from some little white flecks. Black levels are deep (DCD versions were too light), contrast levels are even-handed (there are many different levels of gray), and the gradations don’t lead to notable posterization effects. The previously deleted footage (some of it was cut for time and some for censorship purposes) isn’t too easy to spot, but the most violent scenes have a fuzzy quality that might signify deletion.

The original mono soundtrack is presented in uncompressed 2.0 LPCM. The sound design is (of course) limited, which is problematic, especially from a noise-reduction standpoint. The brief outdoor scenes have issues with hissing ambient noise that gets in the way of otherwise clear dialogue (it’s likely wind hitting the boom mic). Once the film is relegated to interiors and sets, the sound floor drops pretty low and everything is normalized. The house creaks and moans during the spooky sequences without the similar jitter or fuzz. Ronald Stein’s music is used sparingly, but really comes to life during the sequence where actress Carol Ohmart is chased into the forest.

Extras include:
  • Audio commentary with director Jack Hill and actor Sid Haig – This fact-filled, nicely-paced commentary first showed up on Dark Sky’s special edition DVD.
  • The Hatching of Spider Baby (31:40, SD) – This retrospective featurette also appeared on Dark Sky’s DVD release. It includes interviews with Hill, the cast, DP Alfred Taylor, and fan Joe Dante (director of The Howling and Gremlins).
  • Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein (11:00, SD) – A look at the career of composer Ronald Stein, including interviews with friends, family, collaborators, and cinema experts. It was also part of Dark Sky’s DVD.
  • The Merrye House Revisited (7:40, SD) – In the last of Dark Sky’s featurettes, Hill returns to the L.A. house where the film was shot.
  • Panel discussion from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences FILM-TO-FILM Festival (33:10, HD) – This first Arrow exclusive extra was recorded in September of 2012. It features discussion with Jack Hill and stars Quinn K. Redeker and Beverly Washburn.
  • The Host (29:50, HD) – A short film from Hill’s UCLA Film School days, starring an even younger Sid Haig. The opening title card points out similarities to Apocalypse Now.
  • Alternate opening title sequence (1:50, HD)
  • Extended scene (4:00, HD)
  • Trailer
  • Image gallery


 Jack Hill Double Feature

 Jack Hill Double Feature

 Jack Hill Double Feature

 Jack Hill Double Feature

 Jack Hill Double Feature

 Jack Hill Double Feature



Jack Hill Double Feature

Pit Stop


Rick Bowman (Richard Davalos) is a street punk who winds up in jail after a street race goes wrong. Bailed out by race promoter Grant Willard (Brian Donlevy), Rick is put in the deadly track where he comes up against maniacal winner Hawk Sidney (Sid Haig). (From Arrow’s original synopsis)

Hill followed up his feature writing and directing debut co-writing/directing the US-bound sequences in four horror films that Boris Karloff made for Mexican producer Luis Enrique Vergara – House of Evil (1968), Fear Chamber (1968), Isle of the Snake People (1971), and The Incredible Invasion (1971). Between them, he made another independent black & white film; this time about the hard-livin’ figure-8 stock car drivers. Though it had a slightly more substantial original release than Spider Baby, Pit Stop (aka: The Winner) is an even more obscure production. Like Spider Baby, it is a throwback to ‘40s and ‘50s genre movies, but isn’t entirely anachronistic and doesn’t cheekily reference past glories. It is a more mature movie – better directed (the racing scenes are convincingly spliced between footage of the actors and stock footage of real races), more tightly edited, and soberly written.

The performances, which include appearances from Spider Baby alum Sid Haig (who is fantastic) and Beverly Washburn, as well as a very young Ellen Burstyn, are dramatically naturalistic. This is pretty unusual for Hill, who was usually attached to projects that required exaggeration. Some of the dialogue is awkwardly on-point in terms of unnecessary exposition, but the narrative tone is loose and neutral enough to fit the upcoming New Hollywood model. Extended (sometimes overlong) race sequences aside, the listless, slice-of-life structure has more in common with George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), and especially Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), than some of the later Roger Corman-produced car crash movies, like Charles B. Griffith’s Eat My Dust! (1976) or Ron Howard’s Grand Theft Auto (1977). Hill doesn’t press the boundaries as far as the more famous filmmakers that followed his lead (Hill verifies that at least Bogdanovich saw the film), nor did he completely embrace the cinéma vérité motifs, but Pit Stop should certainly be mentioned in discussions about the post- Easy Rider era.

Pit Stop first appeared on DVD via Anchor Bay in 2000. The way out-of-print anamorphic, 1.66:1 version is hard to find, so I’ve never seen it. It doesn’t really matter, because this 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer looks so nice that I can’t imagine a comparison would be necessary. Arrow remastered the film from Hill’s own 35mm answer print (the original negatives were lost) and took pains to restore/improve the image by using minimally invasive digital alterations. The results remain true to the qualities of the source material – stark black & white imagery, blooming light sources, and harsh shadows – without losing vital detail and texture, even during the darkest outdoor sequences. Grain levels are, again, prevalent, but not abrasive, and print damage artefacts are minimal, including white flecks, small scratches, and an occasional vertical line streaking across the screen. A handful of dirty splices are easily forgiven.

The original mono soundtrack was also restored and is presented in uncompressed LPCM 2.0 sound. This particular soundtrack requires a lot more mixing and editing than Spider Baby, due to the rumble and rev of the racing sequences. Those scenes are certainly loud without any notable distortion, but the clarity of the largely location-set dialogue sequences is actually more impressive. Unlike the Spider Baby disc, there aren’t any notable drifts in the sound floor, nor is there any caustic hiss, aside from a few minor aspirated consonants. The throwback rock ‘n roll score, provided by members of psychedelic jam band The Daily Flash (the group had apparently disbanded before the film was made, but still used their old name) sounds full-bodied and is widely set, despite the lack of stereo enhancement.

Extras include:
  • Commentary with Jack Hill moderated by biographer Calum Waddell – This newly recorded track is a mix of screen-specific discussion and Waddell’s interview questions. The information is solid (I preferred the interview approach a bit) and fills the time without a lot of blank spaces or long pauses. Hill’s modesty is charming and Waddell’s knowledge base offers quite a bit of critical dissection as well.
  • Crash and Burn! (15:30, HD) – An interview with Hill on the making of the film. The director discusses the support he got from Roger Corman, the way he twisted Corman’s requirement that the hero wins the final race (he wins the race, but loses his soul), and writing characters around his cast.
  • Drive Hard (16:50, HD) – Another new interview, this time with Sid Haig, who offers an actor’s perspective on the guerrilla production.
  • Life in the Fast Lane (11:40, HD) – Producer Roger Corman offers his version of the film’s parentage and his final days at American International Pictures, before leaving for more liberal pastures.
  • Restoring Pit Stop (3:50, HD) – A restoration demonstration with technical supervisor James White.
  • Original trailer


 Jack Hill Double Feature

 Jack Hill Double Feature

 Jack Hill Double Feature

 Jack Hill Double Feature

 Jack Hill Double Feature

 Jack Hill Double Feature

 Jack Hill Double Feature

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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