Black Devil Doll From Hell (1984)

Black Devil Doll From Hell (1984)

director Chester Novell Turner
viewed: 06/27/2017

I’m glad to live in a world where such a film as Black Devil Doll from Hell exists. Really, the odds against such a thing are so incalculable. That could well be said about any shot-on-video horror films from the 1980’s, DIY projects with limited access to quality tools, techniques, talent, audience, and distribution, labors of love. Even more so, outside of even the realm of white America.

Black Devil Doll from Hell is unique, and yet like other bizarre samples of outsider art, feels like a missive from the collective unconscious of American culture.

Many critiques I read of the film fault its weaknesses in production, its unimaginative camera-work, its slowness. But I have to say, it’s such a fascinating artifact, that if anything I was drawn to its qualities, not its shortcomings, of its production. Consider a totally unschooled amateur artist working just simply from the bare tools available (not top of the line camcorder of the day) and zero training save Chester Novell Turner’s own experience of cinema.

The picture is psychologically dark. It’s the story of an abusive relationship, a young, inexperienced woman discovering her sexuality with a controlling and violent, foul-mouthed boyfriend. Only in this case, the boyfriend is a ventriloquist dummy with braided hair a-la of the day Rick James. As much as it fits in that strange subcategory of horror around living dolls and dummies, the story is as real a tale of abuse as any.

I’ve wanted to see this ever since I first heard of it. I don’t know how to classify it with a star rating, but it in no way disappointed in its glorious weirdness.

Foxy Brown (1974)

Foxy Brown (1974) movie poster

director Jack Hill
viewed: 03/15/2016

Two words: Pam Grier.

Two more: Jack Hill.

A few more: Originally a planned sequel to the 1973 hit Coffy, Foxy Brown is an attempt to up the ante on the blaxploitation action revenge film.  Only, in adding more far-out elements and a somewhat bigger scope, it’s pretty hard to improve on the magic of the first film, especially when you have to modify the flick into its own thing, no longer a sequel.

Still, it’s a lot of fun.  No  Coffy but a lot of fun.

Coffy (1973)

Coffy (1973) movie poster

director Jack Hill
viewed: 03/15/2016

Pam Grier is an undeniable movie goddess.  Maybe not of the classic Hollywood soft-focus glamorous starlets and icons, but goddess all as much in her own elements.  And it’s pretty doubtless that her fans love her all the more as a goddess from the other side of the cinematic tracks, whether you call it grindhouse, drive-in, exploitation, what-have-you.  She is as beautiful as any movie star, but tough and cool, righteous, fun and sexy.

For the night, I put together a mini double feature of Coffy and its follow-up 1974’s Foxy Brown, both starring films for Grier and written and directed by Jack Hill, who Quentin Tarantino aptly called “the Howard Hawks of exploitation filmmaking”.   Just as Hill’s prior films The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972) (both also starring Grier in smaller roles) would make a good double feature, Coffy and Foxy Brown do as well.

Coffy is a nurse set on revenge for the drug dealers that stocked the market which led to her sister’s addiction and ravaging by drugs.  She starts the film off seducing one dealer and blowing his brains out and then OD’ing his henchman, and from there she works her way up the chain of command.

It’s a glee fest of entertainments, with razor blades hidden in afros for cat fights, blouses ripping off at the slightest hint of tussle, and tons of charm and humor amid the action.  Hill’s cast might not be as name-recognizable outside of Grier and long-time collaborator Sid Haig, but they are all recognizable and able character actors in deftly-drawn roles, ensuring that every scene stands out for its own reason.

But it’s Pam Grier at her youthful perfection and sheer stardom that makes this so good.  I do have to say I prefer it to Foxy Brown by a smidgen or so.  Great stuff.

Boss Nigger (1974)

Boss Nigger (1974) movie poster

director Jack Arnold
viewed: 11/21/2014

I don’t know if Jack Arnold and Fred Williamson’s Boss Nigger is the most confrontational of blacksploitation films, but it certainly has the most confrontational title.  Still so much so, the film’s DVD release has been simply retitled Boss.  And while Boss would still be an appropriate title for the film, given the story, it somewhat denudes it of that brash black-empowerment cachet that pushes the film’s edginess to the far more dramatic.

Star Williamson, who had already appeared in a number of blacksploitation movies including Black Caesar (1972) and Hell Up in Harlem (1973), actually wrote the script of this revisionist Western.  And in one of the more unusual pairings in Hollywood, legendary 1950’s science fiction director Jack Arnold is the man in the directorial seat.

Williamson plays “Boss”, the black-leather clad bounty hunter, who with his amiable sidekick Amos (D’Urville Martin), hunt down wanted white men and bring them to justice, dead or alive.  When they find themselves in the small town of San Miguel with a notice allowing them to become the town’s sheriff and deputy, they lay down their own set of “Black Laws,” dictating respectful behavior from all citizens.

It’s easy to see that the character of Boss was a major influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), from the notion of a black bounty hunter in the Old West down to Django’s stetson.

Though the film has a few radical black power statements, dramatically delivered by Williamson and Martin, it’s not a deeply radical affair at heart.  Arnold keeps the violence to a bloodless, almost television-style minimum (which is an interesting tack in post-Spaghetti Western 1970’s action fare), and maybe that is to the film’s ultimate detriment as a political statement.

It’s still quite the radical thing in and of itself, made during the height of the Black Power movement, the simple placement of a black hero in the (arguably) “whitest” of popular American film genres, force-feeding anti-racist behavior to the frontier town’s folk, and headed by the tough and manly “Boss Nigger” himself, tips the hand of deep-seated white fears and wrestles self-empowerment into the hands of the movie’s heroes.

Some have suggested that Williamson’s portrayal is at play with parody of blacksploitation roles he himself had already portrayed in a genre/style that even by 1975, only four years after Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, was already potentially played into hyper stereotype itself.  On this point, I cannot say.  I’m still pretty junior to the whole blaxploitation period and oeuvre.

Blacula (1972)

Blacula (1972) movie poster

director William Crain
viewed: 10/13/2014

Ah, Blacula.  I really haven’t watched much blacksploitation since I’ve been doing this film diary.  Blacula is one of the few that I had seen long ago.  I guess it also fell into the area of my interest in horror films as a child, ones I’d read about.  I certainly understood it as a “black Dracula” but I don’t think I knew any “sploitations”.

This was a case of the TCM October horror slate offering “on demand” titles for a little while.  It seemed an apt addition to my month of the horror spectrum.

William Marshall might not be a Billy Dee Williams (especially when Blacula has all the extra facial hair and eyebrows to accompany his teeth), but he’s a smooth African noble who was duped by the real honest to God Dracula and then stuck in the basement until some gay furniture auction hunters pop up to send his groovy casket to L.A.  And oh how times have changed.

The bottom line for me on this flick is that it’s actually pretty good.

It’s kind of funny but the main this I remembered about the movie from when I’d seen it back in the 1980’s was how amused we were by was when Elisha Cook, Jr. (didn’t know it was him back then, though a recognizable face) answers the phone in the morgue, “Morgue!” and how we started answering our home phone that way for a while thereafter.

Well, not every notion about movies is all that significant or interesting.

Sugar Hill (1974)

Sugar Hill (1974) movie poster

director Paul Maslansky
viewed: 07/01/2014

Blacksploitation is a bit of a hole in my cinematic resume.  I mean, I’ve seen Blackula (1972), Shaft (1971), and Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) over the years but I guess that most of the period’s bulk I have yet to see.

For some reason, Sugar Hill has intrigued me for some time.  It’s a blacksploitation revenge film in which the methodology of revenge is eked out via an army of Haitian-style zombies.  Honestly, I think I imagined that it took place in Sugar Hill “way up in Harlem” for some reason.  It seemed like the right convergence of enough weird things to be truly intriguing.

It doesn’t disappoint.

This Sugar Hill, it turns out, is the name of the lead character, played by the incredibly beautiful Marki Bey, as the bereft girlfriend of a bar owner slain by some mafia toughs and their local capo.  Supposedly set in some Louisiana bayou parish, the film was actually shot in and around Houston (not Harlem), and features some classic figures of Louisiana voodoo culture like the old voodoo witch Mama Maitresse (Zara Culley) and the voodoo spirit Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley) with his coven of zombie wives.

The zombies are very low-fi but really kind of cool.  Draped in a nice sheen of cobwebs, they are supposedly the resurrected bodies of slaves who died of disease in transit from Africa, dumped in the swamps.  Their eyes are covered with some shiny, metallic something that offers nice light in reflection and still a deadness to it.  It’s one of those cases of “less is more”, I think.

There is an undercurrent of the revenge being spurred in part by racist remarks from the mostly white gangsters, giving the film a little more snap-back to its bloody revenge.

The film’s dialog isn’t all bad but hits its lows in the mouth of Detective Valentine (Richard Lawson) who has to try and understand the science that talks about dead skin cells, including “nerve endings” and “epidermis”.  And a few other hard not to sound stupid lines.  So, it’s camp well beyond the afros and pretty amazing outfits that Miss Bey gets to sport.

I liked it pretty well.  Not entirely what I was thinking but good.

I may have to parse down my zombie movies between “Voodoo” and “flesh-eating”.  They are two different traditions with very differently minded zombies.