I’d always had a bit of a resistance to blaxploitation films, maybe because of Tarantino’s aggressive cheerleading, but also because stuff like SUPERFLY seemed to genuinely be championing an insensitive, violent, misogynistic and retrograde world-view, about as far from revolutionary as you can get. Even SWEET SWEETBACK’S BADASS SONG, which has real outsider art credentials and an authenticity that DOLEMITE can’t even dream of, still seemed somewhat… unpleasant. And my prevailing mental image of the genre is cherry-red stage blood dribbling down loudly patterned suits.
But something about the small cycle of black-themed 70s horror movies seemed slightly intriguing, and once I looked, I found quite a lot to enjoy. Not that BLACULA is RED DESERT or anything. It’s not even ABBOT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. But with my suitably low expectations, I found the films full of surprises, mostly pleasant.
Welcome to Supernatural Blaxploitation Week.
J.D.’s REVENGE is an odd, rather non-generic flick (arguably a better possession film than ABBY and a better split personality film than DR BLACK, MR HYDE). It gives with one hand and takes with the other. Which is to say, the interesting bits get kind of nullified at the end, but they’re still there.
The protagonists in supernatural blaxploitation films aren’t pimps and hos, or even private eyes, they cover a much wider, more representative social spread. So our hero, played by Glynn Turman (from TVs House of Lies), is a law student who drives a cab to pay his way through law school. On their one-year anniversary, his girlfriend persuades him to go out with her and some friends. They go to a strip show, which struck me as odd. But this is American International Pictures, and it is 1976. All the women, nearly, in this film, will take their clothes off. Or have them forcibly removed. I didn’t say the film was perfect.
Then, on impulse, they go to see a stage hypnotist — played by Jo Anne Meredith with such assurance I was convinced she was the real thing. As in STIR OF ECHOES, this brief encounter with hypnosis unlocks something in Turman’s mind, only here he starts getting flashbacks — not to a previous life, really, but to someone else’s life, and death. J.D. was a gangster type character in the forties, killed for someone else’s crime, and now he starts to possess our mild-mannered hero, transforming him into a boorish, strutting, raping streak of malevolence. Turman really does a great job with his second character, with sharp, spasmodic, brutal movements which suggest not only volatility, but also petulant confusion at his strange situation.
The movie isn’t interested really in the duck out of water AUSTIN POWERS possibilities of 40s-meets-70s, nor is it interested in exploring more deeply the possible metaphorical meanings of its hero’s transformation — the reason for that becomes clear-ish later. But the transformation IS interesting anyway, because the film devotes a good bit of time to charting how it affects his relationship with girlfriend Joan Pringle.
This could, for instance, be a film about alcoholism. Turman doesn’t drink too much normally, but possessed by JD he becomes a dedicated imbiber. His new sexual appetite surprises, disturbs, but also at first somewhat pleases Pringle, until he turns brutal. The changeover of personalities isn’t smooth, so much of the time Turman is playing in-between states, and only latterly does he get to go all Richard Widmark in KISS OF DEATH, a cackling, dancing, straight razor wielding maniac.
The film deals with the abusive relationship side of the story in a way that’s… well, certainly interesting. Turman sees his doctor as he’s starting to get weirded out. The doc prescribes less work, and says “Smoke a little weed.” When he beats his girlfriend up, his best friend congratulates him and says he needed to cut loose. Pringle takes him back, and it happens again, only worse. The cycle of abuse is pretty realistic for a fantasy film.
The trouble comes when the film wants to take its supernatural yarn at face value. JD wants revenge on the typically dynamic, charismatic Lou Gossett, the man who killed him, who’s now gotten religion and become a preacher (Gossett is far too young for his role, but his bald head is considered old age makeup enough). Things don’t go to plan, there are revelations, and the 40s backstory is resolved in a satisfying fashion, with some neat interweaving of time zones by editor George Folsey (later John Landis’s producer).
Fred Pinkard plays his entire role with the expression of a man inhaling a stale undershirt. Good call!
But now the film steps in to let everybody off the hook, despite the fact that all three survivors of the final bloodbath have committed murder, and the police have evidence. A preposterous happy ending is concocted, Gossett’s character is confirmed as a sincere man of God, and he gives a speech about the ever-present dangers of demonic possession. Of course, preachers are fond of the idea that bad stuff is caused by demons, because it gives them the perfect excuse when they get caught with their hands in the till or their dick in a rent boy. Nobody should ever take moral advice from anyone who thinks people do bad things for reasons other than their own bad impulses (however augmented by drugs, drink, madness or upbringing).
So what started out like a matter-of-fact paranormal thriller than just happens to have a largely black cast (ie not really “blaxploitation” any more than AVATAR is “bluesploitation”) turns into a rather simple, superstitious homily about the ever-present menace of the forces of (spiritual) darkness. A shame.
But worth seeing for the acting, Turman and Gossett in particular, and for its slow-burn, oddball narrative.