Friday, February 24, 2017

Genre Run-Through - Blaxploitation Horror of the 1970s

The time has come for another write-up, and this time once again we go for the topical approach at the end of February which is not only Women in Horror Month but also Black History Month. Now, again never let it be said that we're not topical here on this blog, so there's a need to honor their contributions to the genre rather than simply being the token first kill in a movie that's since become the cliche when black people are cast in a film.

So, that means we must take a look through history to find our what they actually contributed in order to properly honor them, and that finds us taking a look at a small movement in the early 1970s that were often produced, directed and starred African-Americans that has become known as The Blaxploitation Horror Movement.

Now, that brings up an important question: What is blaxploitation? To better understand the subgenre of Blaxploitation horror films, it is necessary to understand what it is meant by the term "Blaxploitation." Blaxploitation is a mix of the words black and exploitation. It makes a point to enforce stereotypes that were afflicted on African-Americans by the so-called white media. The first movie to be considered 'Blaxploitation' was Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in 1971. Melvin Van Peebles directed, produced, and took the lead role of this hyper sexual film about a male prostitute who is out to fight "the man."  which was not-so-subtly a reaction to white oppression. It spanned a new type of film genre that evolved all the way to what is now the urban blaxploitation horror films of the 21st century.

However, that is only part of the story here. Blaxploitation films, regardless of subgenre, spanned from race movies. These were films that started appearing in the 1930s–1940s. They were meant to segregate films featuring an all black class from mainstream Hollywood movies. Many of these films already had the element of horror integrated into them, and over time these films transcended into their own subgenre of film, Blaxploitation Horror films. In the 1950s to 1960s, Hollywood started to integrate films produced and starring African Americans into mainstream media. There was a lot of backlash by several African-American directors and actors that did not want to be integrated into mainstream media over this as they wanted to stay independent, This caused them to create more of what were originally known as race movies during the 1960s and 70s which happened during the time of the Civil Rights Movement. African-Americans were in a fury at ongoing white oppression and wanted something that they could call their own. This lead them to begin creating films that were directed, starring and produced by African Americans. In an effort to maintain their cultural identity, they made it a point to emphasize the stereotypes the white media was portraying them as. They called this genre Blaxploitation. Many Blaxploitation films have a mix of comedy and horror, and most significantly William Crain took the aspect of horror in these films one step further and created the first Blaxploitation horror film, Blacula. As a result, a new subgenre of Blaxploitation was created, dedicated solely to horror.

Now, with that introduction out of the way, let's take a look at what this started:

Blacula (1972)

This was quite an enjoyable effort that really deserves a lot of the credit it gets for starting this movement. The fact that the film is played straight with the main vampire is still someone who actively and viciously kills people makes him someone to be feared and respected which makes all the action in here really fun and enjoyable. That ranges from the early attacks to the beatdown in the warehouse and all through the finale which are some of the more engaging and enjoyable set-pieces here with all the vampires emerging to take out the heroes and leading into the fun confrontation in the ship which has a lot of great fun to be had, while the film's dealings with the concept of race and quality manage to really hold quite an effective weight here by really delving into these areas showing the race of the characters as being integral to the story. It stumbles a touch with the interior logic at times and features some really bizarre situations set-up because the characters are foolishly trusting of others more than they should be, and with some dated and rather bad special effects work that does look great in concept rather than execution it's a fantastic first step into the genre. (8.75/10)

Ganja and Hess (1973)

This is a truly abysmal effort that has very little elements that are enjoyable and wasn't all that entertaining at all. The main thing with this is that nothing happens at all in here and it's an endless repeat of boring blather about nothing in particular or endless looping of an admittedly catchy tribal song and not much else, as the film's barely-there plot unfolds in such a confusing, mystifying manner that there's almost no way to ensure what's going on at all. That just makes the film seem endlessly long and excruciatingly boring since we don't have anything to really get a grasp on at all beyond the few decent moments of eroticism and sensuality present in their romance with each other. That mostly comes along during the final half which is where the few moments of enjoyment come from with the final revelation of the curse forcing this into some decent areas, but overall, this one just isn't all that worthwhile. (2.5/10)

I can't find the actual trailer for this one, so this is the best I can do:

Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973)

As a sequel to a good movie, this one features some really great moments. The film's best quality is that it really showcases the vampires' struggle with bloodlust and how it affects his needs and desires, ranging from the need for victims and how he needs to stay hidden away from the world. By focusing on wanting to stay hidden while also needing to feed on the gang-members which really drives this one quite nicely. It plays a large part of this one and manages to work out so well that the debate about who he really is and how he's going to be able to keep it in check, and the fact that this is carried throughout here in strong tones makes this quite a welcome effort. Added together with the use of voodoo and more traditional suspense elements for enhanced atmospheric effect, and it's enough to hold off the few minor issues present. Again, the special effects aren't the best as the blood here is particularly distracting and comes off way too cheaply considering how liberally it's thrown around during the biting scenes, and that does drop this one somewhat as the original had no problems. There's also the fact that it just really ends without any kind of special ending, but really there's not a whole lot really wrong here. (8.5/10)

Abby (1974)

This here was quite the fun and wholly enjoyable Blaxploitation riff on the exorcism genre. By staying so close to the originals' storyline, it allows for plenty of familiar fun with the way it builds her possession that runs from the forced mutilation attempts and generally profane outbursts on friends and family to the more supernatural outbursts in her voice changes and going about unleashing the wind attacks on everyone. These are all rather fun as it sets up the wild finale's attempt to exorcise it out of her which has a lot of the fun while running through the fun and familiar sequences during here which is all capped off with the bits of sleaze and cheesy thrills that are commonplace in the genre. It does have a series of flaws, mostly the fact that it's off-and-on plot tends to run through stretches where it's fast-paced and breakneck but then really goes awhile before it gets back to the action which really sets up the film's biggest issue in its rather overt homages put there just to play into that storyline just changing the race of the participants around. That holds it down more than anything and makes it a fun if generally unimportant entry. (7.5/10)

The House on Skull Mountain (1974)

This was a rather fun and rather enjoyable effort that has a lot to like about it. Dwelling on the voodoo rites and ceremonies that are at the forefront of the plot which comes from the rather strong and enjoyable storyline that enables it all to come together in the first place, this plays like a prototypical Blaxploitation effort with the whole film taking a stereotypical plotline and infusing slight elements here and there that make it much more appealing to its central audience. The voodoo rites are themselves the best parts of the film, ranging from the early scenes of the black magic forcing them into deadly accidents to the discovery of the voodoo ceremony occurring in the house's basement to the battle with the big spirit in the finale, there's plenty to like here. There are a few flaws, from the inability to spell out why the main villain is really out to get the family as it's barely offered here and suffers from some pacing issues, but overall it's still highly enjoyable. (8.25/10)

Sugar Hill (1974)

There's a lot to really like in this one. One of the strongest aspects here is the fact that it really keeps a strong, viable tempo throughout here with the zombie attacks, which are the finest point here with a lot of encounters terrorizing the criminal gang. The trainyard encounter, the big showdown in the dance-hall where they attack the targeted gang member with a great deal of ferocity and the finale at the ceremonial grounds is quite a lot of fun and make all the action here quite enjoyable. Since it also manages to get some great-looking zombies that are appropriately-decayed and dirt-covered shuffling heaps of flesh, a truly fantastic resurrection scene that gives this some creepy imagery crawling out of the dirt and a fantastic mixture of voodooism and traditional zombie lore there's a lot to really like here. The biggest issue here that really holds this one back is the fact that this one goes for the idea of zombies as mindless slaves able to be controlled and directed on their enemies, which is quite a different take than what has come to be the norm in the genre even though the genre was originally founded on that idea so it does pay homage to those more than more modern fare. A few padded-out subplots also hold this one down, but it's still quite an enjoyable and engaging time. (8.5/10)

Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976)

Overall this one turned out to be quite a bland and overall uninvolving effort. The scenes of him going through the transformation offer up some really enjoyable action scenes featuring him just standing there taking shots and fighting everyone off it really manages to get really enjoyable. It even gets an engaging, rousing finale that has plenty of fine action where there's the big foot chase through the streets all the way to the top of a set of electrical towers, but there's still a lot of issues with this one. The main issue to be found here is the fact that it's just way too scattershot with its tempo, featuring away too many plot points that are just there solely so it can pad out it's running time. The romance angle is so cliched and overdone it's really not that tender or romantic and the main issue with spending so much time on him being seen as a trustworthy doctor makes for quite a bland and somewhat boring time when it's not focusing on the action which happens a lot during the middle section of the film. It's quite watchable but really problematic as well (7.5/10)

J.D.'s Revenge (1976)

This here is quite a decent enough if unspectacular effort. The fact that this one does go for the possession route yet doesn't follow through on the vast majority of the intended storylines is a nice feat. Though it still has a lot of the same familiar tricks, ranging from the behavioral changes to the manner of keeping his characteristics in check through the hypnotism angle makes for quite a fun time here. The action is certainly decent enough and it has enough stalking and slashing that it comes off rather nicely with a solid pace keeping it moving along even if the film isn't really all that great. The main issue here is that the film's ideas of showcasing the terror really aren't that horrific, as merely wearing a different style of clothing or hanging out with a different set of people aren't enough by themselves to inspire fear. These are more supplemental elements rather than the main focus, and it can lead to some rather lame sections of time where they're worried about these issues which aren't that big of a deal. This one also manages to keep utilizing a rather disturbing scene from an animal slaughterhouse way too often and it does nothing for the film, otherwise, there's not much to this one. (7.75/10)

So, there we go. That's the original start of the Blaxploitation movement in the 1970s, and while I know I did forget to mention the film 'Blackenstein' I feel that's more of a straight comedy spoof with minor horror elements rather than a full-on blog. I do feel as though I may need to catch up to it at some point as it has been a while since I've seen it but as it stands it's not enough of a horror film to be covered here.

Now, what happened in the history of Blaxploitation horror? After all, I did stop in the late 1970s, so surely there must be more black-centered horror films since then? Indeed, you are correct as the genre simply took a rest until the late 80s actually when it was revived and has seen sporadic films included that has continued on to this day. We'll take a look at some of them later on, but for now, let's leave it as we have with our honoring Black History Month in fine fashion.