Archive for March 18, 2012

I respect any movie that can’t live up to its own self-generated hype. Not because short-changing customers at the box office by not giving us our hard-earned money’s worth is in any way admirable behavior, mind you, but because it usually means that the hype is soooooo good. And as far as hype goes, you really have to hand it to director William Crain’s 1976 blaxploitation “monster thriller” Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde, because its promo lines are among the very best. “The Fear Of The Year Is Here!” “A Monster He Can’t Control — Has Taken Over His Very Soul!” “Don’t Give Him No Sass Or He’ll Kick Yo’ Ass!” Honestly, is it even right to expect any film to live up to the level of pure awesomeness such sensationalist pitches suggest?

Needless to say, Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (recently re-issued on DVD by VCI Entertainment in a so-called “35th Anniversary Special Edition” that doesn’t seem all that “special” at all because it contains no extras to speak of apart from a few weirdly-assembled promo trailers for other VCI titles — props on the film restoration though, the widescreen transfer, though still grainy in spots as you’d expect, looks great, and the mono soundtrack is serviceable-if-unspectacular) doesn’t even really come close. But it’s still a pretty decent little slice of cinematic nostalgia that wins a few extra points for positively reveling in setting a few tried-and-true Hollywood cliches on their rear ends.

The always-reliable Bernie Casey stars as Dr. Henry Pryde, a UCLA biochemist driven to develop a serum to reverse the effects of cirrhosis of the liver because it killed his mama, a hard-working maid at a whorehouse who died from the disease (oh, and none of the “ladies of the evening” would help her out in her death throes, thus engendering a psychotic hatred of prostitutes in young Hank, not that we learn any of this until about halfway through the film, by which point he’s already killed a couple of them — but whoops, I’ve gotten a little bit ahead of myself, haven’t I?) and left him a broken-hearted, and apparently quite determined, young man. Dr. Pryde is assisted in his researches by his faithful colleague, and part-time lover, Dr. Billie Worth (Rosalind Cash), and it’s a good thing he’s got some help because he seems to take a few hours off from the lab every day to go  down and help out at the — I’m not kidding here, folks — Watts Free Clinic and Thrift Shop (he’s apparently a good old-fashioned regular MD as well as a big-shot biochemist), where he befriends a rather striking-looking young(ish) hooker named Linda (Marie O’Henry — funny, she doesn’t look Irish) and is soon wining her, dining her, taking her for spins around Watts in his Rolls Royce, and generally treating her a lot better than most of her back-alley johns probably (okay, certainly) do. What’s our guy Henry got in mind — just a piece of action on the side, or is he after something more?If you said “something more,” award yourself exactly no bonus points on our movie trivia scale (that doesn’t even exist anyway) because, of course. that’s the way this shit always works. He wants her to try his new test serum out, to be a “human guinea pig,” if you will, and he desperately needs one because the real guinea pigs (and rats, and mice) that he’s been trying his miracle-liver-cure on in the lab have turned into ferocious beasts that rip apart and devour all their fellow caged creatures. Oh, and he tried it on some old dying woman at the free clinic and it killed her, too. Not that he has the decency to inform Linda of this.

She’ll do it, but there’s a catch — he’s gotta try it on himself to first to prove to her that it’s safe. Sounds reasonable enough, right? Doc Pryde plays along — and you can probably guess the rest: he becomes a vicious albino killing machine who can’t be stopped. She back-tracks, quite wisely, on her previous offer to give the serum a go, runs off into the night, he gives chase for awhile, and then, when he can’t find her, goes on a killing spree through Watts, specifically targeting practitioners of the world’s oldest profession.

Come daytime, though, it’s back to normal for the not-so-good doctor, and he’s blissfully unaware of his nocturnal activities — although little things like blood on the headlights of his Rolls clue him in that something nasty must have happened. Still, might as well keep pumping the serum into your arm every night, because you’ve got no specific memories of anything bad going down. And so the nightly rampages continue apace for a few evenings, until Linda finally confronts Henry during the day and threatens to go to the cops herself if he won’t turn himself in. Naturally, getting anyone down at the precinct to believe her story about a black doctor who turns white and evil at night and kills hookers is a pretty tough sell, but for reasons that are never even attempted to be justified by the script, one Lieutenant Jackson (Ji-Tu Cumbuka) buys her tale and sets about tracking Dr. Pryde’s nighttime alter-ego down.

If you don’t know where all this is headed, give me back those points you didn’t earn anyway in our trivia game that doesn’t exist. Pryde’s a dead albino duck by the time it’s all over. Nothing unusual about that. What is weird, though, is how director Crain seems to waver in his feelings toward his protagonist (Casey, for his part, keeps his performance pretty consistent throughout depending on what the script calls for — affable by day, enraged zombie by night). At first, we’re quite clearly supposed to like the guy. Then, we’re supposed to be shocked by his amorality in roping unwilling test subjects into his web of human experimentation. Then, we’re supposed to be suspicious of his anti-hooker motives. Then, we’re supposed to be appalled at his cold-blooded murder spree. And finally, when the cops gun him down, we’re supposed to feel sorry for the guy. That kind of directorial schizophrenia is a rare thing, and frankly, while it doesn’t make for good filmmaking according to any generally-accepted definition  of the term, it’s certainly an interesting thing to see play itself out, and combined with the completely unsubtle upturning of the old (and nauseating) “white is good (even down to hats and costumes, but especially when it comes to skin color), black is bad (even down to hats and costumes, but especially when it comes to skin color)” silver screen cliche, it ensures that Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde is a more memorable — and, frankly, fun — viewing experience than its strictly by-the-numbers script would suggest.

The final crime report from the desk of Lieutenant Jackson reads : Robert Louis Stevenson literary classic makes a trip to the ghetto and, for the most part, emerges unscathed.