When it comes to the tasteless but enjoyably bad blaxploitation horror films of the 1970’s it seems like the lion’s share of the attention always goes to Blacula and its sequel, Scream, Blacula, Scream with a little attention left over for Ganja and Hess, since it features the African American hero from the original Night of the Living Dead in one of his few screen appearances.
In honor of the Halloween season Balladeer’s Blog will take a look at some of the neglected blaxploitation horror movies, all of which deserve to have a larger audience than just me and my fellow bad movie geeks. It’s in the spirit of my recent list of The Eleven Most Neglected Bad Movie Classics For Halloween, but for this list I’ll go in descending order:
1. BLACKENSTEIN (1973) – This was one of the first flicks to try and cash in on the coattails of the surprise hit Blacula. A mad scientist named Dr Stein is conducting unspeakable experiments in human genetics. A Vietnam vet who has lost both arms and both legs in the war is Dr Stein’s next guinea pig. He restores the man’s limbs but unintentionally turns him into a mindless, shambling, violent monster with a squared Afro. Yes, a squared Afro.
Blackenstein gets revenge on the V.A. hospital orderly who always tormented him when he was helpless, but then goes rogue and kills everybody he encounters. Liz Renay herself plays the victim whose guts look like bloody play- doh when he plays with them after killing her. After several disjointed, poorly edited scenes of our monster racking up a body count, a police van pulls up – attack dogs pour out the back, rip Blackenstein to pieces, then pile back into the van. The End. I’m serious.
The distributors of this flick redefined chutzpah by later reissuing this same film under the title The Return of Blackenstein and marketing it as a sequel. The things cheapjack movie companies could get away with in those pre- internet days!
2. DR BLACK AND MR HYDE (1976 ) – This Bicentennial Year treat was, as the title would suggest, a blaxploitation version of Creature From The Black Lagoon. I’m kidding! Obviously it took its inspiration from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This movie features a humanitarian African American physician in Watts caring for the disadvantaged until assorted pseudo- scientific experimentation causes him to periodically transform into an evil white-faced Mr Hyde.
Many commentators and critics reflect on the social commentary implicit in this premise: black persona – good …. white persona – bad. If this film had been better made it could have been a biting social satire that gained a reputation for making audiences of all races uncomfortable. Unfortunately, since this is a 70’s blaxploitation cash -in movie all it does is entertain viewers for the wrong reasons.
For starters in his white persona our protagonist looks like an Edgar Winter doll, or, for younger readers, like a guy who took a bag of flour in the face. Dr Black and Mr Hyde is bad in that very special 70’s way and features tacky clothing, mismatched scenes, campy interludes of violence and dialogue that is self- consciously “with it” and “happening”. In the finale, Mr Hyde is riddled with bullets and falls to his death from the top of Watts Tower, just like in the original. I’m kidding!
3. ABBY ( 1974) – This blaxploitation anti- classic has also been released under the titles Disco Exorcist and The Blaxorcist, which should tell you what movie it was based on. Creature from the Bla – oh, wait, I used that joke already. Carol Speed stars as Abby, an African American woman who becomes possessed by a demon from the Yoruba belief system.
Under the influence of this infernal entity Abby goes from being a sweet lady singing in the church choir to being a foul-mouthed, discolored and intermittently vomiting abomination. In my favorite scene she gives it to her preacher right where it hurts. You go, girl!
There’s plenty of chills and violence, plus, since this is a William Girdler film, we naturally never leave the city limits of Louisville, KY. As one of the alternate titles of this bizarre movie suggests, the actual exorcism takes place in a disco where Abby has been unleashing some Carrie– level mayhem. Abby‘s reputation in blaxploitation flicks is cemented by the fact that the exorcist who saves our heroine is played by Blacula himself, William Marshall.
4. THE ZOMBIES OF SUGAR HILL (1974) – In most cases Sugar Hill refers to a famous place in Harlem, but in the case of this movie it’s an attempt by the filmmakers to be oh-so clever because here “Sugar” Hill is the name of the movie’s heroine. The film is set in New Orleans and Marki Bey plays Sugar, a feisty woman whose boyfriend is killed by white gangsters led by Robert Quarry, famed for playing the vampire Count Yorga in 70’s B- movies.
Sugar does not take this lying down, however, and seeks out an elderly voodoo priestess, played by the thoroughly hateable woman who portrayed Mother Jefferson in early episodes of The Jeffersons. The priestess conjures up Baron Samedi, one of the most well- known figures from voodoo stories, and he in turn helps out Sugar Hill by providing her with an army of zombies to do her bidding.
He does this by restoring life to a large group of African American slaves whose Louisiana owner drove them into the bayou to drown in the mud and slime. The owner did that because the slaves were diseased and he didn’t want them infecting the rest of his “stock.” Say what you will about these movies, they had the balls to go into territory that main- stream filmmakers would have shied away from back then.
Anyway, these zombies are a bit more lively (so to speak) than George Romero zombies because they move at a brisk pace and even laugh when dispatching their victims. They prove very efficient at slaughtering the gangsters, and Sugar provides Baron Samedi with Robert Quarry’s dumb blonde moll to thank him for his trouble.
5. VOODOO BLACK EXORCIST (1974) This is not so much a voodoo movie or an exorcist movie as it is a mummy movie. Said mummy is Gatanebo, a Caribbean voodoo priest who gets revived accidentally on board a cruise ship. Just go with me on this. When he’s not beheading cruise passengers and eventually land dwellers after the ship docks, he periodically reverts to his shriveled up mummified form. Rest assured he’s always back to being buff in time for the next death scene.
If laughable editing, the most ridiculous looking fake heads this side of The Lift and red tinted flashbacks repeated ad nauseum are your idea of a fun time, by all means check this baby out. The most legendary instance of ineptitude (and there are so many to choose from in this cinematic turkey) is the scene where the film crew can be seen in the mirror in a room where the mummy is preying on his latest victim. Beautiful!
The movie also uses the tired cliche about the monster refraining from killing one particular woman because she reminds him of his long- lost love. Yaaaawn. The ending is absolutely hilarious. The mummy, with live, unwilling female in tow, is being pursued through a subterranean cavern. When he confronts the pursuers, who are armed with a flamethrower, viewers naturally expect a lull while the good guys try to talk the mummy into setting down the woman he’s carrying. Surprise! They simply let loose with the flames, burning the mummy AND the woman alive, with her death- cries rendered unintentionally funny by the blase, non- plussed looks on the pursuers’ faces. The End. Once again, I’m serious.
Honorary mention goes to The House On Skull Mountain, a blaxploitation variant on the “haunted house full of potential heirs who start getting bumped off ” theme …
to JD’s Revenge, about a 70’s street hood being possessed by the spirit of a vengeance- seeking African American gangster from decades earlier …
and to Lord Shango, as in the voodoo and Yoruban god.
They just don’t make ’em like this anymore! Aren’t you glad? (P.S. As I stated, this was strictly about 70’s blaxploitation horror films, so don’t bother asking why Black Devil Doll From Hell wasn’t featured)
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