Jack Hill is an incredible talent. Starting out under Roger Corman, he pioneered such exploitation genres as women in prison and blaxploitation. He launched the careers of Pam Grier and Sid Haig, as well as working with Universal Monsters alum in their later years. He is probably best known to horror fans for 1968’s “Spider Baby”, and to everyone else for “Foxy Brown”.
In October 2012, Hill took part in a 15-minute Q&A. Unfortunately, due to background noise, about 1/3 of that discussion is lost. Here are the segments that survived.
Q: Can you talk about how “Spider Baby” was first received and what has happened to it over the years?
JH: The film wasn’t really received at all when it was first released because by the time it came out theaters were showing almost all color films. But it actually did pretty well. We ran it one summer, and brought it back the next year as “The Liver Eaters” and ran it again. Exact same movie, different title. The original title of the movie was actually “Cannibal Orgy, or the Maddest Story Ever Told”. This was supposed to be a joke, because there was a film at the time called “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. The title “Spider Baby” is much better, and we came up with the advertising slogan “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, if the bloodsuckers don’t get you, the liver eaters must.” That’s genius. That’s about all I know.
Q: What was your inspiration for writing the film?
JH: (pretends to inhale) Being the 60s, much of the inspiration was drugs. But I don’t do that anymore.
Q: A lot has been made of the performances of Lon Chaney and Sid Haig, but Beverly Washburn had actually been a huge child star. What was it like working with her during a transitional phase?
JH: She was a professional, she studied acting and came into the audition ready. I don’t think she read the script, but she was ready. And along with Jill Banner, they just played off of each other so fantastically.
Q: At the time, Lon Chaney was going through some alcohol problems.
JH: He was, but he did great. The girls loved him, the whole crew loved working with him. The film is very, very low budget and only shot in 12 days. Lon was an alcoholic, but he wanted to act, and take some risks no one ever allowed him to do. He had an orange every afternoon, and it wasn’t until many years later that I learned his oranges were spiked with vodka. He never let it show.
Q: You directed Boris Karloff in his final picture, “Alien Terror”…
JH: Yes. His doctor didn’t want him to go to Mexico because he was dying, and this was a Mexican production. And on top of that, he was uninsurable, because you can’t insure a dying person. We had to write four scripts in such a way that they could be divided up and all of Boris’ scenes could be shot in Hollywood. So we shot all four parts, back to back, in four weeks, shuttling actors and sets between Mexico and Hollywood. Boris at this point was on oxygen and in a wheelchair, so he would quickly get up, say his line, and then quickly get back to the wheelchair and tank.
Q: The story goes he was grateful for this role.
JH: Yeah, he said he wanted to keep acting as long as people wanted him.
Q: Can you talk about your blaxploitation career and Pam Grier?
JH: Roger Corman and I were making a film called “Big Doll House”, which was the beginning of a series of women in prison films. We were shooting in the Philippines, and I hated the script so I basically rewrote it. We did auditions where we called in multiple women at once, just to see how they would contrast and work with each other. Pam came in to read, and she had only had one prior acting job, a bit part in Russ Meyer’s “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”. But she started reading, she nailed it, so we kept her and I put her in more films, like “The Big Bird Cage”. AIP assigned me a film where they wanted black actors. They didn’t know if they wanted Pam, but I did. This became “Coffy”, and it had a great crossover audience. Up to that time, films with black actors largely appealed to black audiences. A lot of white people came to see this one, so we did it again with “Foxy Brown”. So I have to give credit to Pam for bringing black style, black hair, to white people and into the mainstream.
Q: How do you feel about the longevity of films like “Spider Baby” and “Foxy Brown”?
JH: Really good. Because, of course, that’s the whole reason we make films, because we want people to enjoy them.