A Gentleman Off-Colour
“A monster he could not control / Had taken over his very soul!”
DR BLACK, MR HYDE, was actually shot as THE WATTS MONSTER, it seems, but after the success of the same director’s BLACULA, it became inevitable that the title would be a blaxploitation spin on a horror classic. And why not? The plot is. But one does wish they could have gotten it right. DR BLACK AND MR WHITE would have been recognizable enough, wouldn’t it? The fact that the eventual title lacks even an ampersand suggests they were just floundering.
But that would cue us for a sort of Jekyll-Hyde version of THE WATERMELON MAN, which this isn’t, quite. Dr Pryde, (Bernie Casey) who divides his time, rather like Fredric March in the Mamoulian JEKYLL, between lab experiments and charity work at a free clinic in Watts, self-tests a new formula to treat liver damage and mutates into a super-strong albino in a freaky Stan Winston makeup (actor and artist also worked together on the TV movie Gargoyles). Note the bulging brow, for some reason a genre staple: BLACKENSTEIN and ABBY sport the same look. But while some of the pimps and thugs Pryde encounters in this new form refer to him as “a white guy”, he doesn’t look white. He’s grey, with grey hair and a bulging brow and white irises. The Hyde figure has next to no dialogue, though Casey invests him with an impressive animalistic strut and some Frankensteinian gestures.
So the movie doesn’t do anything much with the race idea, after all. The white Hyde doesn’t represent whitey in any political way (white is just a colour in this film — which is TRUE…) Instead, he unleashes some of Pryde’s childhood traumas, manifesting in a hatred of prostitutes. He drives around by night in a silver Rolls (just like Hess Green’s car in GANJA & HESS), killing more like a beast of prey than a serial killer. A cop explicitly compares the resulting murder spree to the work of Jack the Ripper, a real-life killer whose career has several times been folded into the JEKYLL story (ie DR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE). The actor Richard Mansfield stopped performing his theatrical adaptation of Stevenson’s story at the height of the Ripper scare, stating “There are horrors enough outside.”
The name “Pryde” seems like a cue for an examination of the idea of black pride, but street girl Marie O’Henry criticises the protagonist for aspiring to whiteness. I think the name is supposed to imply scientific hubris, since Pryde not only tries his wonder-drug himself, he first tests it on a terminal patient, with unfortunate results —
The Rose Hobart good girl character here is smokey-voiced Rosalind Cash (who turned white herself in THE OMEGA MAN), a fellow medico this time rather than a mere fiancee/appendage, while the Miriam Hopkins whore is played by Marie O’Henry. Both are excellent, though the roles are a touch thankless. O’Henry is required to throw logic to the winds several times, just so Casey can stay at large long enough for a climax at Watts Towers, which throws KING KONG into the mix (further evidence that the filmmakers are not wholly on top of the whole racial sensitivity thing).
I was excited to see Watts Towers (a staggering piece of outsider art) used in a movie though, especially as I’d included a similar scene in a screenplay I co-wrote a while ago. DEAD EYE was about a private eye (and skilled marksman) who is killed but is given 48 hours to solve his own murder before his zombie body falls apart. And yes, I have seen DEAD HEAT. But my zombie detective movie would have been at least 4% better than that one.
At once point, a black detective, up until now characterised by his extensive vocabulary (while his white partner just says “fuck” a lot), declares that the hulking Casey monster must be a “haint.” There aren’t many films about haints, or other bits of American folklore. In particular, it’s regrettable that the blaxploitation craze never threw up a movie about the “Night Doctors” — that could have been really interesting.
Meanwhile, Limerwrecks finishes its accompanying series of supernatural blaxploitation odes here.