Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Heath Holland On...Jack Hill's Mondo Keyhole

by Heath Holland
Sometimes greatness has humble beginnings.

Jack Hill is without a doubt one of the masters of exploitation. At least several of us here at F This Movie! worship the guy, and it’s for good reason: during a relatively brief time (the mid-‘60s to the early ‘80s) he worked in almost every exploitation genre, often elevating each one with his contributions. It’s him that we have to thank for some truly awesome blaxploitation films, including Pam Grier classics like The Big Bird Cage, Foxy Brown and Coffy. Jack Hill is something of a hero to a certain kind of movie fan. I’m one of them.

But before he was directing cult classics, he was making ends meet doing odd film-related jobs wherever he could get them. He worked with Francis Ford Coppola as the second unit director on Dementia 13, and eventually did cinematography and production work on a faux-nudist documentary called The Raw Ones which required him to photograph a bunch of male and female models on a nudist colony. The catch was that he also had to be nude himself, meaning he had to wear a little belt to hang all his camera equipment from. The Raw Ones is a golden example of exploitation hiding in the form of a documentary.
But in 1966, the year before he made the cult classic Spider Baby, Jack Hill wrote and directed what was intended to be a psychedelic little nudie picture called Mondo Keyhole. Unlike some of his previous work, Mondo Keyhole had a plot, and room for some artistic expression. The storyline as conceived by producer John Lamb is about a serial sex offender who just can’t quit with all the raping. This allows for lots of nudity and simulated sex, and was intended to be a “roughie,” i.e. a movie that depicts explicit and taboo sex as well as graphic violence. Jack Hill takes this premise and turns it into something memorable and interesting, and dare I say, artistic.

The first thing you should know if you haven’t seen Mondo Keyhole is that it’s kind of tame by today’s standards. It’s got nudity, but it’s almost all above the waist and you will probably see as much--if not more--bare flesh during your standard episode of Game of Thrones. Society has come a long way in the last 50 years, and the nudity, hardcore partying, and drug use seen in this movie feels kind of run of the mill by today’s standards. The reason to watch it is not to be titillated, but to observe the emergence of an exploitation master.
What starts out as a skin flick slowly turns into something much more. Jack Hill throws Dutch angles at us, weird light and shadow, obscured faces, and psychedelic daydreams loaded with subtext, subtle or otherwise. It’s also in black and white, which might have been a budget limitation, but lends itself to Jack Hill’s talents and allows him to elevate the film. The Seventh Seal this ain’t, but you can see that Hill was way overqualified for this job and was bound for greatness. I’ll give you an example: take a standard rape scene where a guy pursues a woman in a car chase, follows her into the Hollywood Hills, and drags her to the ground (as one does). While this violent crime plays out (almost laughably, with the man’s pants never coming off), Hill chooses to focus our attention on a frog watching the two people from a rock. As Hill says on the commentary, he wanted to make it clear that the crime had been observed. You may think you’re getting away with it, but someone sees. Again, not exactly John Ford, but you see the evidence that there’s more going on here than your average titty flick.

Mondo Keyhole also gives us a prototype of the Jack Hill heroine, a woman who has been victimized and ends up turning the tables on her attacker. We get Cathy Crowfoot as “The Crow,” a karate-chopping tough gal who can take care of herself, thank you very much. Before Buffy, before Lara Croft, before Coffy, there was “The Crow,” Native American hero and all around badass! She’s definitely not on the level that some of Hill’s later heroines would enjoy and actually isn’t in the film all that much, but you can see Hill’s mind working and the tropes he liked to work within taking shape. The final shot of the movie is absolutely…I’m gonna say it…iconic.
There’s little point in watching Mondo Keyhole for any reason other than as an appreciation of Jack Hill, which is probably why the first and most obvious play option on the DVD from VCI Entertainment runs the film with the commentary. The commentary itself is a revelation, offering a glimpse at behind-the-scenes tensions between Hill and John Lamb. Apparently the two had a falling out and Lamb took Hill’s film, cut out a lot of the nudity, and named himself as director. Thanks to VCI and their “Psychotronica” series of exploitation films, we have Hill’s original cut once again, some 17 minutes longer than Lamb’s bastardization. As a bonus perk (tee hee) the DVD also includes Hill’s faux-nudist documentary The Raw Ones in full color.

For fans of Jack Hill and his heroines, Mondo Keyhole offers a look at the filmmaker still being formed. It’s valuable in the sense that it allows us to see the director of some of the great exploitation classics before he had it quite figured out. In his commentary, Hill states that he probably shouldn’t have put in all the psychological and social commentary because it didn’t belong and ended up changing the film from a skin flick into something more thoughtful and weighty. I’m glad he did; it made something that would have been pretty forgettable into something that is anything but.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this nice review, Heath. I heard Jack Hill's name mentioned a few times during this weeks podcast, but didn't know who he was until now.

    It's funny, only a couple years ago, I was still associating movies with their lead actors...It's the new Leonardo Dicaprio movie, or that's Robert De Niro's latest hilarious comedy. Which is how most people view movies. Of course, preaching to the converted, the director sits in that high chair for a reason.