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Thursday, June 20, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Not Yet Over The Hill -- Director Of Campy `Sisters' In Comeback

Seattle Times Movie Reviewer

Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, Jack Hill's reputation is on the rise again.

As part of his deal with Miramax Films, which distributed Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," Tarantino gets to release some of his favorite films through a Miramax subsidiary called Rolling Thunder. Earlier this year, he used Rolling Thunder to promote a contemporary Hong Kong movie, "Chungking Express."

For his second outing, Tarantino has gone back to the archives to restore and reissue one of the movies he discovered when he was working as a video-store clerk: Hill's lively, campy 1975 drive-in movie, "Switchblade Sisters," which its creator describes as a fantasy female version of "A Clockwork Orange."

"I'd always wanted to make a movie about street gangs, but it turned out to be the only box-office flop I ever made," said Hill when he brought "Switchblade Sisters" to the Seattle International Film Festival last month (it begins a regular run tomorrow at the Varsity).

"I originally met Quentin at a retrospective for American-International Pictures," he said. "He came up to have me autograph posters and stills from the movie.

"He'd obviously listened very carefully to it, because he was able to quote the most important line of dialogue. The central theme is jealousy. I'd always had the idea of doing `Othello' with the sexes reversed, and he picked up on that. Even the actors, including Joanne Naile, who's a Seattle actress who did Shakespeare, hadn't

realized that's what we were doing."

Hill did some research on street gangs before making the movie, "in order to get some reality into it, though you wouldn't know that from seeing the picture."

He picked Robbie Lee for the lead - a wild gang leader named Lace - because her energy suggested a female James Cagney. He's amused that some critics have called her the heroine of "a post-modernist feminist manifesto." Recent reissues

Coincidentally, Hill's Pam Grier vehicles from the same period, "Foxy Brown" and "Coffy," have recently been reissued in art houses as part of a series, "That's Blaxploitation!" They played the Varsity earlier this year.

Hill was miserable directing "Foxy Brown" ("the studio had such contempt for the audience they were making it for"), but he's proud of "Coffy," over which he had much more control. Ironically, he pointed out, "Foxy Brown" has become the cult favorite, while the only good print of "Coffy" is owned by a Stockholm film library.

The profits from Rolling Thunder will go into restoring other exploitation films. Among his own movies, Hill is especially fond of "Spider Baby," a horror comedy that will be released later this year in the form of a digital-stereo laserdisc.

"It was the first film I could really call mine," he said. "It was the only time I actually did a film that wasn't an assignment." He's been absent from the film scene for 15 years now, but says he's "ready for re-entry."

Hill got his start at UCLA film school, then worked with classmate Francis Coppola on several of his earlier pictures, including "The Terror," an infamously incomprehensible, mostly improvised 1963 horror film starring Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson.

"Roger Corman (the producer) invested only about $80,000 in it, and he made a lot of money," he said. "The script wasn't bad; it just didn't make much sense, partly because Francis forgot to tell the cameraman he was shooting night scenes. They needed to be day-for-night, and they were clearly day." Same with other Corman films

Hill had similar experiences on other Corman films, adding 20 minutes to "Wasp Woman" for television broadcast, though he had to do so without access to any of the original cast members. Usually he came up with some kind of framing story. Their last collaboration was a sword-and-sorcery Mexican production that was designed to have a lot of special effects. But Corman released it without the effects.

"He was always spending $5 to make 50 cents," said Hill.

Hill blames himself for what many critics regard as the fatal flaw of Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." When he finally saw the picture in a theater, he was shocked to discover that Coppola had borrowed an ending, complete with references to "The Golden Bough," that Hill had created for one of his UCLA projects.

Later he heard from a second-unit assistant on the Vietnam War epic that Coppola had joked that "We're shooting Jack Hill's student film."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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