Saturday, 5 September 2015

No.57. Sam Peckinpah: Part I: THE WILD BUNCH


(2008 Bluray ‘Director’s Cut’ version)

Sam Peckinpah emerged from the world of TV western series directing to carve a career that made him a controversial but unique talent in film. He would become an identifiable ‘brand’ in much the same way as Hitchcock; as famous as his actors for his particular style. His films often examined the same themes repeatedly, an unashamedly masculine world of bonding and a code of honour often defined by violence that is not only a solution but the true essence of a man’s fulfilment. There was a lot more depth and humanity to his work though than that narrow reading permits. Peckinpah would sadly find that later on his recognisable style would be as much a limitation as a blessing in his career, and this would take a disastrous toll on his behaviour and professionalism in his decline.

Sam Peckinpah’s movie directing career almost ended before it had properly begun. He made his feature film debut in 1961 with THE DEADLY COMPANIONS and then the highly-regarded RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, but the Charlton Heston/Richard Harris historical epic MAJOR DUNDEE (1965) was beyond him in its grandiose Hollywood scale. It almost scuppered career. His drinking and erratic behaviour (which hinted at the storm to come) concerned Columbia heads so much that they cut short the filming schedule. Heston, who initially had a very fractious relationship with Peckinpah, soon took to defending him and gave up his salary to enable the beleaguered young director to finish. The final film was a disaster and has since appeared in multiple versions. Peckinpah went from this to being fired shortly after starting work on THE CINCINATTI KID; producer Martin Ransohoff thought he was ‘vulgarising the picture’  with such creative choices as shooting it in black and white.

It took three years before another studio would give him a chance, and this came with THE WILD BUNCH through Warner Brothers in 1968. Peckinpah co-wrote the screenplay with Walon Green. Simply put, it concerns a group of hard-drinking, whoring outlaws hitting their retirement and still pulling their final scores. They are led by Pike (William Holden), along with Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Jamie Sanchez as Angel – and Edmund O’Brien as grizzled old man Sykes. After a bloody and failed robbery in Texas, they venture across the border into Mexico at the time of the Mexican Revolution in 1913. When Angel sees his lover with General Mapache of the Mexican federal Army, he becomes enraged and shoots her dead.  Pike mollifies the General by offering to rob a train shipment of rifles in return for gold coins. Meanwhile, they are being pursued by Deke (Robert Ryan), Pike’s ex-partner, with a team of bounty hunters. Fearing a double-cross, Pike parcels out the rifle crates in multiple transactions. He gives Mapache a Howitzer in good faith. When Mapache discovers Angel kept a rifle crate for himself to use with revolutionaries against him, he captures and tortures Angel. Dutch escapes back to Pike and his men. Pike attempts to bargain for Angel with no luck. The turning point comes when the Wild Bunch decide to go in and rescue Angel, fatally risking their lives in a climactic machine-gun blood-bath for one of their own in a new understanding of conscience and loyalty. After the resultant carnage. Deke rides in and surveys the human wreckage. With a resigned smile, he agrees to take up new adventures with Sykes…

It’s a shame that MAJOR DUNDEE wasn’t Peckinpah’s second Hollywood film; the making of THE WILD BUNCH established real confidence on a larger scale and a definite statement of themes in his work that could have enabled that film to have been handled more surely. Peckinpah was a stern disciplinarian on-set this time around. One day, he was exasperated by the unprofessionalism of the outlaw group when he discovered none of them had learned their lines before the day, figuring they’d have time in between set-ups to do so. He slowly and calmly decreed that since he’s hired them as ‘ack-torrs’ he was giving them twenty minutes to go and off memorise their dialogue. Anyone who did not fulfil this “would be replaced”. No-one dared call his bluff. Wisely so, as on future films he’d have one of his assistants permanently equipped with bus tickets to dish out, with the instant instruction that the offender was fired and being sent back to Hollywood. If he could have applied the same rigorous discipline to himself in later years, the director would have enjoyed a longer and happier life.

This is not to say that Peckinpah was rigid in his creativity. Usually, he would not decide what to shoot until the day, when he would discuss the scenes with his director of photographer, the great Lucien Ballard. The iconic long walk of the four outlaws as they resolve to go to Mapache’s compound for the final shoot-out was originally just referenced in three lines of the text. On the hoof, Peckinpah demonstrated a genius for improvisation, carving a visual path for them to their fate which his team had to hastily to build in extras and atmosphere, to create a highly-effective and boldly dramatic lead-in,

Filming of THE WILD BUNCH began in Mexico in March 1968 in a town that was so antiquated that the production was able to pay the townsfolk to delay by six months their long-overdue electric power supply. Filming ran smoothly, even in the complex stunt that involved blowing up the bridge with Deke’s men upon it.  Despite ensuring it was a balsa-wood structure and that that they’d waited patiently until the water level below was high enough to cushion stuntmen and horses, when it came time to shoot there were strong winds that created an unexpected current in the river. However, the  single ‘take’ was perfect, prompting effects supervisor Bud Hulburd to observe with justified pride: “ I’ve just had the opportunity hang a Rembrandt. It’ll probably never happen to me again”.

Peckinpah invested whole-heartedly in THE WILD BUNCH. He related to the outlaw gang, feeling a great kinship with them. The recurring theme of the ‘man out of time’ (depicted visually in the film by the advent of the motor-car) who is hard-living and has a strong moral code of loyalty was one that chimed with him and would echo in his later films. In fact, his mission statement was first summed up beautifully in RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY by Joel McCrea: “All I want is to enter my house justified”. In Peckinpah’s world, a man must live a life that fully represents the best of his nature. Early in the story, Pike is stoic and overly harsh, such as when he orders Angel to come to terms with the loss of his woman: “Either you learn to live with it – or we leave you”. He sternly dictates to his men “When you side with a man, you stick with him – and if you can’t do that you’re like some animal!” When the gang leave Angel’s village, the ceremonial leaving scene (also spur-of-the-moment) filled with a lovely song by the villagers allows us to peer into the souls of these men as the light of humanity warms them a little more than before. By the time Pike resolves climactically to go back with his men and rescue Angel, imperilling their own lives, it is a noble sacrifice that was all too long coming. He knows this; that’s why he welcomes the chance to possibly die acting on his conscience. His men share this purposeful kamikaze bravery. As the Bunch consider their chance to depart from Mapache’s camp unscathed after Angel is murdered by the General, Dutch giggles, his eyes twinkling with delight at the sudden deliriously crazy notion of going full-throttle to death, taking as many men as possible with them. This is violence in support of a higher cause, a selfless act of redemption here, all the more potent and primal for being willingly embraced.

The intense violence in Peckinpah’s films has always been a difficult subject for many to resolve, but I see no problem in morally justifying his methods. Critics condemned his films for portraying blood-shed irresponsibly as suggesting it’s the only way a man should solve his conflicts and for him to truly reflect his masculinity. Firstly, as writer/director he has never sought to de-humanise his characters into being blood-lustful kill crazy monsters. He is careful to build causes and a moral code behind these awful actions – as well as repercussions for growth afterwards. As for the frequent accusations of going too far in on-screen carnage, is it not more irresponsible to sanitise violent actions, to pull the punch, to hide the result of a bullet-hit? Much as we detest violent resolutions to problems, since it does go on, by hiding the consequences we lie to ourselves and those old enough to be allowed to see them. That is the real ‘crime’. THE WILD BUNCH doesn’t finish with the battlefield deaths as though it’s a rousing air-punching high-point to be savoured. Look at the pacing and tone of the closing scene that follows. Robert Ryan is shown in lengthy quiet close-ups, allowing the audience time to de-compress from the intense brutality of what’s just happened. We may read regret or resignation into his wonderfully characterful lined road-map of a face.

A further defence of the violence that shows how out-of-touch its critics are is the sad reflection of what happened when Peckinpah left such controversial material out of his films, such as in his later THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE and JUNIOR BONNER. He complained:
I am always criticised for putting violence in my films, but when I leave it out nobody bothers to see them”.

This is not to soft-soap the cumulative impact that the body-count and blood-splatter has. Indeed, when THE WILD BUNCH was re-submitted to the American MPAA board in the mid-1990s, it still received an ‘X’ rating, reserved only for pornography and extremely violent content. This would have been disastrous had theat been the film’s first release as many publicity outlets like newspapers refuse to carry advertising for ‘X’ rated films.
As we will see in the rest of this blog series, Sam Peckinpah had much more to offer both within the exploration of controversial material and without it, before his private weaknesses got the better of him. The candle still had a lot more bright burning to do…

Friday, 4 September 2015

No.56. IF... (1968)

IF… (1968)

Early in 1968, whilst France and America were in the grip of different youth riots, counter-culture director Lindsay Anderson made his brilliant rebellious film IF in England. Set in a fictional boys’ public school, it’s a partly dream-based attack on societal institutions, traditions and imperialism and caught the anti-establishment themes not only of the period but timelessly for every generation that follows.

‘College School’ here is used as a microcosm of British and western society as a whole, serving the same role of a complacent training ground for obedient cogs in the machine of the adult world in the film as public schools do in real life. Here the set-up though is not to sentimentalise them favourably like in GOODBYE MR CHIPS, but to brand them as outmoded breeding grounds of discontent within their aged fabric.  There are boys of all ages from pre-pubescent to circa eighteen, each level having its own restrictions and privileges as you earn your way up through seniority of age and merit. The very youngest are treated as servants to their elders, barked at to run at speed through the corridors to perform their duties of meal-fetching and toilet-seat warming among other indignities. This is an accepted rite-of-passsage, tolerable only because later you will pass on the same serfdom role to your own juniors. This is just one of the traditions Anderson keenly observes in the screenplay based upon David Shewin’s own experience at Tonbridge School.

This is an enclosed world of ‘rugger’, cold showers and endless rules punishable by beatings for infractions. The casting and performances are excellent at clearly showing how this world shapes the next generation of, for example, cabinet ministers and civil servants’ behaviours, frames of reference and resentments. Robert Swann is terrific as Rowntree, the imperious Head Prefect of the sixth form. When he pontificates about the mission statement of “this house” he may just as easily be speaking about the House of Commons. Also, Hugh Thomas’s Denson is an effectively sour prefect counterpoint, seemingly loathing everything and everyone including Rowntree’s “homosexual flirtation – so adolescent”, he snorts.

The nucleus of the cast is made up of three winning portrayals. Richard Warwick is a decent, warm-hearted and athletic Wallace, concealing a discreet, tasteful homo-erotic relationship with Philips (Rubert Webster). David Wood is an affable and clubbable Johnny.

Together they support the firebrand of the ‘Crusaders’ as they are known, Michael McDowall, in a spell-binding performance that would make him a name and bring him to the attention of Stanley Kubrick to play the perfect Alex in CLOCKWORK ORANGE. He is Mick Travis, a radical schoolboy idealist possessed by a death complex and a fascination for untamed revolutionary zeal in all its forms. His walls are full of magazine cut-outs of gun-toting African freedom-fighters and he regularly plays the ‘Missa Luba’, the Congolese re-setting of the Latin Mass. For him, Africa seems to represent a primal vision of man and armed insurrection. When he and Johnny bike it to the café in the second half, it’s no coincidence that Mick’s tussle with the sexy waitress is to the sound of tigers fighting. There is a lovely touch when as Mick goes to put the Missa Luba on the jukebox (a highly unlikely selection in a transport caff!), Johnny genially places Mick’s saucer over his cup to keep it warm, knowing his friend will be lost, transported by the reverie of far-off exotic revolution. Mick dreams of a rebellion, hinting at the film’s climax: “War is the last possible creative act”.

Mick also has the soul of a romantic poet; when his pals lust over a nude model’s photo, he declaims that the only thing to do with a girl like her is to “Walk naked into the sea together, make love once…then die”. He also elegantly dismisses Rowntree’s tyranny by referring to the bullying from his “..frigid fingers for the rest of your frigid life”

Mick invites trouble in school, his insouciant attitude continually conflicting with the established order designed to crush individuality, to inculcate a team spirit at all costs. Everywhere, the system seeks to reinforce the need for loyalty and tradition, all staff having drunk the communal Koolaid of conformity. Even Matron on the sidelines at the rugby match hollers: “Fight fight fight college!”. Mick, however, constantly provokes the rigid, preposterous hierarchy, deriding the badges of petty authority conferred on the ruling year above him: “You mean that bit of wool on your tit?” he scoffs at Denson. Inevitably, a sound thrashing is given to him in the gym. McDowell wonderfully brasses it out to begin with, opening the doors with a grand sweep before entering. After a series of whips to the arse accompanied by absurdly long run-ups by Rowntree, the scene is accorded a strangely touching ending; Rowntree extends his hand in the quaintly formal gentleman’s hand-shake. Mick takes it, quietly shattered and tear-streaked. There is no heroic gesture of defiance here - he is cowed containment – for now.

It’s not only Mick that seethes with repressed emotion. Amongst glimpses of the private lives of the staff, we see Mrs Kemp, wife of the Housemaster, whose sexual frustration is almost palpably boiling over. When the boys are out on military training exercises, she wanders dreamily through their bathroom stark naked, savouring the wickedness of private abandonment while she can. Her husband (Arthur Lowe, in a rare and welcome woolly and kindly part) has a penchant for singing dull hymns in his pyjamas before bed while she accompanies him on a flute. . No wonder she has flights of erotic fantasy.

The rest of the school staff are superb character portrayals of smug authority and cruel/benevolent dictatorship. Graham Crowden is a delightfully breezy history master, cycling into the classroom singing ‘To Be a Pilgrim’, throwing open the classroom windows, tossing the boys’ essays to them like a dismissive postman then immediately sitting back and orating forth on auto-pilot with his hands behind his head. He is probably the only affectionately detailed teacher in the place. The most disturbingly well-played one is Geoffrey Chater as the Chaplain, a man of largely religiously-suppressed sadistic urges who nevertheless indiscriminately smacks boys about the head and rummages under Jute’s blazer to adjust his tie. (At least I think that’s what he was doing. Even after re-winding it, disconcertingly I still wasn’t sure…).

Ultimately, after a blood oath between the Crusaders, “Death to the oppressor!”, there is a  blistering climactic siege with the three friends and Philips massacring all and sundry with machine-gun fire from the rooftops on Founder’s Day. The possibility that this is all a dream sequence is hinted at in an earlier surreal scene of the non-fatal shooting of one of the masters by Mick during military manoeuvres. The master is shown later alive and well rising up out of a drawer in the Headmaster’s study. The stylised shoot-out involving seemingly everyone suggests it is part of Mick’s fantasy insurrection daydreams, but whether or not it is reality doesn’t actually matter. It happens for us and him and is a great rousing finale to a thought-provoking and exciting anti-establishment crowd-pleaser.

Structurally, it’s worth mentioning the interesting segmentation of the film into titled chapters (for me this gives a feeling of momentum towards the final battle) and also the use of black and white for certain scenes, albeit without clear reasons why. Anderson was inspired in the style and themes for his film by Jean Vigo’s 1933 French classic ZERO DE CONDUITE (ZERO FOR CONDUCT).

IF spawned two follow-ons rather than sequels teaming up Lindsay Anderson and Malcolm McDowell again, in 1973 with O LUCKY MAN! and BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (1982) the first of which I’ll also cover here in the blog. The former in particular centres once again around the further adventures of Mick Travis into adulthood but this is the only real connection between the three films.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

No.55 SUGAR HILL (1974)


In 1974, AIP released a Blaxploitation horror film that cashed in on the voodoo horror theme that made the Bond film LET AND LET DIE such fun (itself capitalising on Blaxploitation’s popularity). This synchronicity of influences benefitted SUGAR HILL as it’s well-made and great fun, directed by Paul Maslansky, later the producer of the POLICE ACADEMY series.

The plot is simple enough and wastes no time in setting up a premise that invites you to sit back and vicariously enjoy the pay-off. Tim Kelly’s script is functional but contains some humdinger attitudinal trailer lines that this kind of film demands.
Diana ‘Sugar’ Hill (lusciously vampish genre star Marki Bey) has a club-owning boyfriend who is being leaned on to sell his place to thugs employed by gang boss Morgan (Robert Quarry, a star of horror films of the period such as THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES). Inevitably since he won’t sell, his integrity gets him beaten to death outside the club. Sugar vows unholy revenge. Her ex-boyfriend, torch-carrying Lt Valentine, the debonair Richard Lawson (SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM) wants to help but Sugar is impatient: “ If I knew who they were, I would fix it so I could see them die – slowly”.

This might just give her away as more than the routine prime suspect later on, but Sugar cares not - this is one bitter-sweet widow. She goes to ask for the supernatural help of a Voodoo priestess, the white-haired Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully), who prefaces the ritual by warning Sugar of the consequences of invoking the greatest of her Voodoo gods: Baron Samedi. Sugar understands that whatever bargain needed will be worth it. Also, like TV evangelists, he is seemingly not immune to earthly materialism: “He is a greedy god. Have you any money?”

Samedi is summoned – and what a character he is. LIVE AND LET DIE fans will be familiar with this spectral imp’s macabre elegance and here Don Pedro Colley is a wonderful flamboyant version, with infectious wide-eyed madcap glee in his top-hat and tails. He brings forth a strikingly effective army of zombies, silver-eyed and cobwebbed - more old Universal than Lucio Fulci, but highly memorable all the same.

Immediately, Sugar and Samedi go to work and the real fun begins. As we witness each of the gang members being dispatched in increasingly spooky ways, Bey is on hand each time to savour their demises in a stunning white one-piece suit with bouffant afro. Samedi disguises himself as a range of characters, such as a dodgy taxi driver, to facilitate the hoods’ entrapment, almost as a host. Morgan’s dock-land henchman, ‘Tank’ Watson, who demands kickbacks from his day workers in return for a shift, is the first to be killed by the zombies in a warehouse, Bey gloating: “I’m not accusing you. Honk. I’m passing sentence!” Since Sugar didn’t see the original murder of her boyfriend, it’s never explained how she knows the gangsters identities, but no matter. The pace is quick enough for us to let logic gaps slide.

Over the course of the film, subsequent goons are bumped off using ravenous pigs, a possessed chicken’s foot, Voodoo dolls and even a particularly creepy massage with the most ‘unhappy’ of endings; “I don’t like it” says the soon-to-be victim as undead fingers trail up and down his back – all inventive and hugely entertaining.

Morgan has a caustic bitch of a girlfriend, Celeste, whose vicious racism earns us a ringside seat to a bit of girl-on-girl fighting between her and Sugar. Meanwhile,  Valentine enquires about Voodoo mythology from an English professor of the occult.

As Sugar closes in to offer more than a spoonful of rough justice to Morgan, she goads him to meet her at the club. It is in her name now but she will not sell it after all. Morgan is not happy at this - “Your ass!!” he screams, highlighting just one of her many attributes. He can’t resist the trap laid out for him in his thwarted anger, one that includes the nice touch of a tableful of his now-zombified employees grinning at him. If you’re curious as to how he gets offed, well what is it that ain’t exactly mud and ain’t exactly water?

Samedi reminds Sugar that he is now owed a suitable fee for his living-dead services. As luck would have it, Celeste had accompanied Morgan to the venue. The Baron would have preferred the shapely Sugar, yet is content to scoop up the shrieking mobster moll and take her with him to Hell…
SUGAR HILL is a great example of what happens when Blaxploitation horror elements are put together with humour, a decent budget and talent. In fact, it’s such a promising piece that I’d even commit what would normally be sacrilege for me and suggest its’ ripeness for remake possibilities. Rather than the current vogue for re-doing what are perfectly realised horror movies already, I’d be intrigued to see what would result if someone took this and even amped up the pure horror content without the laughs. 

Regardless, SUGAR HILL is stylish fun and is rounded off by making great use of the Motown tune ‘Supernatural Voodoo woman’ by the Originals.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

No.54. THE MACK (1973)

THE MACK (1973)

In 1973 THE MACK was released, the story of the rise and fall of a master pimp in the ghettoes of Oakland, California. It went on to become the biggest box-office blaxploitation hit of the era and is hugely influential to this day on black urban artists from Tupac Shakur to Dr Dre to Jay-Z and beyond. Many have sampled it’s highly quotable dialogue, fashion style and attitudes.
This type of tale always suffer from predictability especially when the rise in the trajectory of the lead character’s fortune is so fast, but THE MACK is well-played and underscored with sassy funk/soul music by Willie Hutch to match the bad-ass interplay.

A ‘Mack’ is a pimp gifted with a particularly seductive way with the ladies and here he’s named Goldie, played by the classically-trained Max Julien, an actor whose pedigree included a number of films crossing the period’s genres, the psychedelic PSYCH-OUT (reviewed earlier as No.28 in my blog)  and writing the blaxploitation hit CLEOPATRA JONES, Goldie is an ex-con with an enigmatic mentor, the Blind Man (Paul Harris), who succinctly imbues him with the role and purpose of a primo pimp: “A pimp is only as good as his product – and his product is women…Anybody can control a woman’s body, but the key is to control their mind”.

Goldie has the ambition and the manner to do well and when pressed to help a hooker friend of his, Lulu (Carol Speed who played the title role in ABBY - also reviewed here  as No. 51), he takes the plunge and in a montage sequence of raining money and parades of clothing he is soon transformed into the brim-hatted, caned and cloaked uber-pimp about town with a stable of fine ladies. Lulu is only the first of the ladies who sadly don’t seem to value themselves as anything other than a commodity. When Goldie reconnects with her and discusses his plans, she reduces herself to being an ‘n-word’ and without and other viable opportunities in her view. She also is delighted rather than offended when his aim is to “get the hottest bitches I can find”. These are black citizens who feel that in the urban game of life there are only certain hands black people are dealt – so they will exploit these cards to the limit.

Goldie has a devoutly religious mother whom he vows to support and buy a nice house for (without telling her how it will be funded), and a brother, a pre-AIRWOLF Roger E. Mosley as Olinga, a black power activist but with a warmth to his social conscience. He passionately disapproves of the destructive message that Goldie’s means to wealth sends out. Goldie attempts to do his bit by encouraging the local children to stay in school, but while he is showing off his pimp-mobile and spoiling them with money, it’s a mixed and hypocritical ‘Do as I say and not as I do’ lesson whose materialistics trappings from crime alone will be remembered.

Our super-pimp anti-hero is hounded throughout the film by two bent cops played by the familiar genre player Don Gordon and William Watson, as well as the excellently sleazy gravity of George Murdock as his former drug-dealing employer, the Fat Man.

To help Goldie, if that’s the right word character-wise, there is the welcome sight of an early film supporting part for the young writer/comedian/actor Richard Pryor as his best friend Slim - a volatile schizoid turn of restless energy and humour. He veers from child-like fear and instability to Bond-like hard-nosed resourcefulness using a gun-concealing accordion to blow away the Fat Man’s goons when the villain is about to bump Goldie off. Pryor was regarded as ‘a maniac’ by some when considered in casting, but he proved very helpful in script tweaking with his background as a writer – in between coke binges that made him very difficult and unreliable in filming his acting scenes.
Julien also switches ably between personas, from the boyish charm with his mother and enticing the new ladies in his harem, to the cold glint of steel on the streets when his growing business empire is challenged. When Lulu stumbles, tearfully distraught, to his car after a ‘John’ has roughed her up and robbed her, he is stone-cold sans sympathy: “ I don’t give a shit about what happened to you’ he spits, before ordering her mercilessly to go back out and make good on the night’s loss.

Goldie gets away with cruel treatment of his ‘bitches’ by spell-binding them with such appeals as “I’m gonna be everything to you… your father, your friend, your lover..”  - as well as an impressively elaborate Planetarium show where he hires the venue and amidst the inter-galactic light show brain-washes the girls to chant in unison that they will “Confide and respect Goldie” amongst other commandments. When they repet their vow to honour “..a life-time contract”, it’s all becoming dangerously sub-Scientological in its cultish dominion over them.

Another lavish area of exploitation depicted In the film is the Mack of the Year dinner event, the Players’ Ball; like a Miss World for pimps, it’s an opportunity for the Macks to preen themselves in costume and celebrate their conspicuous ill-gotten riches in front of their peers. One of the runners-up in the awards is the charismatic Frank Ward, one of four real-life brothers in Oakland who helped director Michael Campus in achieving the veracity for the film (explored later on in this review).
It’s no surprise that THE MACK’s dialogue has been co-opted by so many rappers ever since. Robert J Poole’s script, and the improvisations of the cast during shooting spark off great attitudinal zingers. “I got too much much money for this shit!”. “I’m a rich n***er. I got lawyers!” Pryor calls one hood “You white n***er!” as he shoots him; Goldie threatens a henchman that if he ever threatens his supremacy as the new Mack again: “I’m gonna blow your heart outta your body, sucka!” before trapping him in his car trunk with a bag of white rats. The Fat Man urges him to reconsider working for him again with “You gonna go on playing Fagin?”. This is until Goldie and his cohorts administer rough justice by injecting him with battery acid, a grim excessive price for his own wealth funded by creating poison-dependent junkies.

The over-use of the ‘n-word’ in the movie though may perhaps have given Pryor some pause for re-thinking later in life; his trip to Africa sharing their proud citizens’ cultures caused him to renounce his own thoughtless use of the term ever again in his stage act.
Eventually, after the retaliatory murder of his mother (mirrored by Julien’s own mother’s death in 1972), Goldie is forced him into wiping out all his enemies on both sides of the cop/criminal fence and then opts for leaving the life. He bids his brother a sad farewell and departs on a Greyhound bus…

In the accompanying documentary on the DVD, ‘Mackin’ Ain’t Easy’, it becomes clear that THE MACK was a sincere partnership between the director Michael Campus, writer Poole and Max Julien to make a political and social statement with the film. Poole wrote the original treatment of the film in prison, based on what he learned about the psychology of pimps and their hookers and how they moved within the underworld economy of deprived areas. Campus’s background was as a documentarian who wanted to go to Oakland and explore the territory, and the aforementioned Frank Ward offered to open up the pimping world to him, a rich fountain of material. Campus was additionally leaned on by the Black Panthers and their leader Huey Newton while filming, who allegedly murdered Frank Ward during production due to what his lifestyle represented.

THE MACK began the blaxploitation sub-genre of ’pimp movies’. Goldie himself has become a much-loved character in the blaxploitation world and in wider black culture, an icon of style, ambition and excess, albeit rounded with an undercurrent of sadness and something of a ‘little boy lost’ air as he loses touch with his humanity in pursuit of the American Dream. The white fur coat became a copied symbol worn by many rap stars in conscious imitation of him. The film received heavy attacks by black and white critics alike for appearing to condone flash criminals as black role models, but as Julien pointed out, if he and Ron ‘SUPERFLY’ O’Neal had appeared in THE STING together, that might have been condemned as blaxploitation – and furthermore, there was no real backlash against THE GODFATHER for its supposed glorification of the white criminal underworld.

Watch THE MACK and enjoy a crucial and highly-enjoyable example of the urban crime blaxploitation genre. All those imitators can’t be wrong…

Tuesday, 1 September 2015



In 1973, to cash in on the Blaxploitation horror success of BLACULA, writer/producer Frank Saletri decided to do the same with the Frankenstein property. Unfortunately, whereas the former had class, humour, production values, style and money, this magnificently poor effort manages to get by on…none of them. BLACKENSTEIN aka BLACK FRANKENSTEIN) is irredeemably bad, made on an all-too evident disastrously low budget and fails on almost every level. No wonder the poster tries desperately to sell it on an incidental shot of an attractive and cynically exploited victim’s reaction before she thankfully is removed from the experience!

Dr Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone, a fitting Equity name for this inflexible actor) is a former student of Dr Stein (John Hart) and goes to see him to beg him to help her husband with possible pioneering limb replacement surgery after he is rendered paraplegic in Vietnam. We find all this out immediately as the abominable script has her pouring out a bin-load of exposition to him in one unsubtle and direly expressed chunk. Actually, if you think that’s unsubtle, listen to the resoundingly ominous music cue as she waits in the hall. It signals all manner of fateful possibilities but is completely out of any context with her patient waiting for Stein’s appearance. The score does this more than once, managing to draw attention to itself in a gleefully clumsily manner later on – for no plot reason.
Hart resembles a cross between BARNEY MILLER and Dick Van Dyke in DIAGNOSIS: TEDIUM but has none of their talent. He has however developed a technique of saying all his dialogue with a precisely-measured level of non-interest as though he’s running lines off-camera. Hart was a former Western actor; his lazy delivery may have been acceptable on the prairie but coupled with Stone, the oater and the non-emoter have clearly more in common than medical training. They are a symphony of somnambulance.

To enhance the shoddiness, director William A Levey obviously wanted to include as many reference points to the old Universal FRANKENSTEIN films as possible. The first is the lab assistant Malcolm (Roosevelt Jackson) who has the monotone of an Igor (unless I’m being too charitable and he’s simply crap). He conceals a burning desire (if you can tell) for Dr Winifred under that white-coated exterior, and when rejected by the good Doctor, hell hath no fury like a lab assistant scorned. Malcolm goes and secretly transfers what looks like hair dye from one bottle to another – the brute.
Come the operation, and we witness the entertainment factor of script, actors and near-zero production budget trying to conceal a total lack of any medical research. Stein talks about “My special DNA formula” (he supposedly won the Nobel Peace Prize for Genetic DNA code work). He tells his protégé: “The fusion looks excellent, Winifred” as he rummages, hidden, under Eddie’s sheet on the table  - but they’re not fooling anyone. When they can’t figure out why initially results aren’t more forthcoming, they confer: “The cell-match tests look alright”. Stein ruminates on the matter, concurring: “All the blood tests seems alright”.

Fortunately this blinding medical jargon is helped by regular wide shots of the lab equipment, an homage credited to the original Universal effects designer Kenneth Strickfadden. Sadly, the gear in this tawdry tribute looks like a museum exhibit room with the various static-electricity gizmos, tubes etc sparsely laid out, less than the sum of its parts. During the procedure, as crackling bolts of energy fill the screen, we are treated to numerous pans across the technical banks, in particular ‘Memory Data Register’ which will soon become as fondly familiar as those papier-mache rocks in STAR TREK.

Soon Eddie, played by non-actor Joe De Sue, (for those who might be impressed at how seamlessly he blends in with the rest of the talent) develops the classic hallmarks of the Frankenstein monster on the rampage: the flat head, the low groan and that outstretched arm sleepwalk - why do human monsters bother doing that by the way?. He also inexplicably has had time to put on his own natty ‘70s clothes before causing havoc – the ensemble includes a suit, roll-neck jumper and shiny Chelsea boots rather than the asphalt-spreader boots worn by Karloff in the old movies.
Now that he is suitably attired for a night on the town, Eddie goes homicidal, starting with the male hospital orderly who abused him in his recuperation there. In silhouette, he tears the man’s arm off behind a ward curtain and storms off. In the neighbourhood he runs amok, gouging out a woman’s entrails in her garden, and in a secluded spot when a young woman refuses the advances of a creep even more sinister than our revived soldier, Eddie kills her as well. Here the director attempts a Hitchcockian style gesture, filming his dragging of her body with her fallen glasses artfully placed in the foreground.

Meanwhile, back in the lab Dr Walker has tried to figure out the medical reason for their experimental catastrophe. She’s not above fiddling with bottles herself, staring meaningfully at one labelled ‘EDDIE – DNA’. Stein is taking this all very seriously (I guess) as he politely requests: “Winifred, I’d like to see you in the laboratory please”. The music builds in a sudden misplaced sweep like an epic high-point from GONE WITH THE WIND and…nothing happens.
In a nightclub, a band-leader tells an extended lame gag about a dog, presumably to help flog this poor almost dead horse to beyond eighty minutes. Outside, a smoking customer gives an eye-popping reaction on seeing Eddie that has to be seen to be disbelieved. This is when the poster-lady is dismissed by having her own entrails torn out and fondled externally. (Is this some kind of fetish with Eddie?).

Two cops appear at Stein’s place on the hunt for info about three local murders. The white one looks like a dodgy, pencil-moustached mafioso. The black Lieutenant, Jackson, seems normal until you hear his bizarre witness interview technique later in the club:
“Settle down and tell me exactly what you saw”.
“I’ve told you once”.
“Well, give me a description of what you saw then”.

Perhaps this is his idea of a Popeye Doyle confusion technique. Either way, after Eddie lamely attacks Stein back in the lab, and Stein equally lamely fights him off, Eddie oddly takes a woman hostage instead of killing her, and then kills her for trying to escape.  The cops are in lukewarm pursuit but they needn’t worry. Our reactivated veteran is savaged to death by two security Dobermans. He is left with a pile of suspiciously Butcher’s sausage-like entrails carefully piled in his chest - , an ignominious death to end a similarly shameful movie.
BLACKENSTEIN is stupendously awful, its dial firmly set to PLAN 9 levels of amusement radiation.

I’ll leave it to Karloff’s infinitely superior monster to sum up this tacky rip-off’s value from the end of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN:

“We belong dead”.

Monday, 31 August 2015



In 1969, outspoken black author Sam Greenlee wrote a satirical novel that was a cynical attack on America’s civil rights record and also a hard-hitting portrayal of emerging young black power factions such as the Black Panthers. Greenlee adapted his novel for the cinema with Melvin Clay, directed by Ivan Dixon for United Artists and it became an important film in black cinema.
 THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR is the story of Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), a black radical separatist who infiltrates the CIA’s training program, completes it as the token black agent, tolerating the patronising and overt racism within the organisation, and then leaves to train his own Chicago paramilitary groups (known as ‘blowback’) to disrupt the whitey-dominated fabric of American society. Along the way, he is challenged by the black ‘Uncle Toms’ within white politics and takes his uncompromising stance of war in the streets against the National Guard to the point of America being placed on National Emergency by the end. He raises a glass to toast his own efforts…

Sam Greenlee was a cynical and shrewd judge of his country’s ruling elite and their attitudes toward ethnic minorities in both his novel, film script and recent interviews I saw with him on Youtube before his death in 2014. He said the authorities didn’t think black audiences read books, based on the statistics of how many blacks went to the cinema. They made up 26% of the movie audience despite being only 13% of the population. “We’re solid movie-goers. That’s when it became dangerous” he observed. If that was truly the case, then through movies would seem to the most effective option to reach and challenge them in their acceptance of the status quo and the poor record of the USA in civil rights. This worked highly-effectively for Melvin Van Peebles in SWEET SWEETBACK (reviewed earlier in my blog) and equally so for this film. It cost one million dollars and grossed six, but not without some personal blow-back of its own. Greenlee had his mail intercepted and endured public character assassination including the spreading of gay rumours. He clearly got to the very types he wanted to shake up.

THE SPOOK has its flaws certainly. In an early scene, the ten black trainees are given a condescending speech about being ‘the best of your race’ by Carstairs, their training officer, and upon his leaving they immediately break into a celebration of fooling the agency as ‘spies’. This is unbelievably gauche of them and seems like crude exposition from the film-makers. It takes Freeman to point out correctly to them later that they are probably being bugged. Also, when the white senior agent has a drink with Freeman, he offers a preposterously imperious insult as part of his praise when he talks about the advancement of blacks as needing “a cultural gap to be closed – It’s a question of evolution. Of course it’ll take generations”. This speech sounds like something Sir Humphrey in YES MINISTER would say in the smug privacy of his gentleman’s club, but in public to a black trainee – without any repercussion or reaction from Freeman? At least Carstairs’s later Freudian slip in referring to emergency incarceration response as: “Concentra – detention camps” has the ring of truth that its being said in confidence to a white boss.

There’s no denying though the force of Greenlee’s acute perceptions about how easily the subservient black man can make use of his status if he is radicalised and focused enough. In a session with his own recruits, Freeman educates them not just on his new CIA skills in bomb-making and combat, but on stealth: “Remember, a black man with a mop, tray or broom in his hand can go damn near anywhere in this country – and a smiling black man is invisible”.
Greenlee also has caustic fun at the expense of the confused and self-serving white activists of the time who co-opted the struggle as though it gave them identity and recognition also. One of Freeman’s white original fellow freedom fighters insists “I’m black! I eat black. I live black!” without seeing the absurdity of his pose.

Characteristically, Greenlee was pessimistic in later years about his film’s ability to effect any real change. He insisted that Bourgeois leadership co-opts every revolutionary struggle to neutralise it. But the power of its uncompromising viewpoint is rare and sincere.

In 2011 a crowd-funded documentary INFILTRATING HOLLYWOOD: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR was made, the makers having access to Greenlee’s still heavily-redacted FBI file. In 2012 it was added by the Library to the National Film Registry, which is "a compendium of motion pictures that captures the breadth of American culture, history and social fabric, with the aim of preserving these fragile films for future generations".

Decades after its making, THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR is a worthy part of black cinema consciousness, and for me, films like it are important to mix in with the more trivial fun flicks when studying the Blaxploitation era…

Sunday, 30 August 2015

No.51. ABBY aka THE BLACK EXORCIST ( 1974)


It was inevitable that during the Blaxploitation cycle of the early 1970s, the Devil would try to possess some of the profits from 1973’s THE EXORCIST by association. American International Pictures rushed into production with ABBY, the tale of a black woman taken over by an evil African spirit.

Whilst the subject matter and some plot threads have commonality with THE EXORCIST, William Girdler, a later accomplished exploitation director of such films as GRIZZLY, managed to inject enough original and amusing elements for this beast to work its demonic charms as a stand-alone. Most obviously, ABBY features an all-black cast. The spirit’s host, as aforementioned, is also not a child but an adult woman, Abby (Carol Speed), the wife of a Louisville pastor Rev, Emmet Williams (Terry Carter). She somehow becomes the possessee after her husband’s father, the urbane richly-voiced Bishop Garnet Williams (William ‘BLACULA’ Marshall) releases it in in a cave in Nigeria. He opens a veritable Pandora’s Box containing Eshu, a demon of the Yoruba faith and the dust creates havoc, sending his assistants flying. Something evil has been freed.

The action inexplicably transfers to America, to Abby’s home in Louisville, Kentucky. We see the imp sneak up on her as a silhouette in the shower and penetrate her almost literally in a scene of quasi-orgasmic union for her and ‘it’. As Abby/Eshu later declaims; “Now the fun starts”. 

Abby begins to manifest symptoms of take-over, beginning with a coughing fit in church and an attempted kitchen knife self-harming accompanied by some absurdly lascivious lip-licking. The dead give-away is the deep rasping EXORCIST-style demonic voice Abby channels during her marriage guidance counselling work. A recurring mischievous kink of Eshu’s is that he likes to make his presence felt when her husband is there. There’s clearly only tolerance for one old time religion in the house now. During the Rev’s interruption of one of her couples’ sessions, Eshu spits abrasive profanities at him, culminating in “I’m gonna take George upstairs and fuck the shit out of him!”.
Such unorthodox treatment suggestions don’t go unchallenged, and after restraining his wife Emmet surprises us all by contacting his father. Based on the last time we saw him, this should have been via a séance, but no, Bishop Garnet is alive and well and continuing his work as normal, utterly unharmed. The worsening situation with Abby eventually forces him to catch a plane to Louisville. Getting the evil wind of this, Eshu/Abby spitefully mocks her husband: “I wanna thank you for callin’ that motherfuckin’ father of yours. Tell him I’ll be waiting!”. 

The Bishop tells Emmet and his son, police Detective Potter (Austin Stoker) that he is sure Eshu is possessing Abby to terrorise him. Assuming the spirit can’t control a man of God, wouldn’t it have tried to kill him underground in Nigeria? Or taken over someone else back there? We still don’t know why or how it bothered to come all the way to the USA. Maybe there’s a malevolent Fed-Ex service out there –or a Jiffy bag for ju-ju.

Well, the devil works not only in mysterious ways but sporadic ones. This little devil is only interested in part-time possession. Abby/Eshu can switch to the appearance of sanity in front of hospital nurses (where she’s hopelessly treated for suspected brain issues), and more worryingly with nightclub customers. Yes, she’s goes on the run and cruises for souls like a satanic bar-fly. Her first hapless conquest is a buttoned-up geek whose lover’s lane tryst with her ends in car-quaking doom and bursts of smoke out of the window. Serves him right for picking up (screw)-loose women.

Despite some sharp action editing and chilling sound design, the horror homicide sequences have two annoying style impositions; repeated freeze-frame scene endings as though Girdler doesn’t know how to finish, and an over-kill of incessant subliminal face-shots (another definite EXORCIST rip-off) of various fleeting demon images who nevertheless all resemble Munster family members.

Anyhow, hot on the unholy African's trail are Emmet, the Bishop and Det. Potter. Now, if you thought Eshu’s transatlantic trip didn’t make sense, wait till you see Potter’s law-enforcement mind in action. When told that his possessed sister has been spotted in a bar, he is hilariously obtuse: “What is she doing in a bar? She doesn’t drink!” He shows similar density when they case all the local drinking joints; when he shows a photo of Abby to a bar-owner friend, notice the insert shot of the photo. It looks nothing like her.

Still, even with this haphazard sleuthery, the intrepid trio track Abby to a bar for a low-budget climax where the Bishop performs various incantations while the others pin her down. He urges the men to “Remain calm in your Christ centre”. She tries all the EXORCIST tricks - appealing to each man with guilt-trip voices of their loved ones and even a spot of levitation. This culminates in the Bishop dealing mano-a-demon with the evil interloper, where he enrages it by insisting it’s an imposter: “You’re nothing but a minor spirit!” There is a speaking in tongues face-off and then eventually Abby foams at the mouth with supernatural toothpaste (no pea soup here) and the sinister squatter exits. Intriguingly, it’s left ambiguous as to who the demon was. Was it Eshu or a foul impersonator? We’ll never know. Abby and her husband leave for a plane at the airport in a badly-rushed closing scene. What, no open tease ending?

ABBY is an enjoyably silly film, which was doing very well at the box office to the tune of $4m in its first month till Warner Brothers slapped an injunction on it for alleged copyright violation, forcing it to be pulled from distribution and only re-surfacing in the last few years on DVD. The remaining prints are of low quality, supposedly due to Warner’s getting rid of all the decent prints they could find. I managed to get hold of one such DVD version, which has a couple of editing jumps and colour distorted moments but it’s still watchable.

Well-paced, illogical, batty and entertaining nonsense. Take possession of it for a few late-night laughs.