Posts Tagged ‘blaxploitation’

Let’s get one thing straight about writer-director Larry Cohen(who we always seem to come back to every few months around here)’s 1973 mini-opus Black Caesar : this is most assuredly not a blaxploitation film in any traditional sense.

Oh, sure, it was marketed to the African American audience. And yes, a formerly-trod-upon black guy getting his revenge on “The Man” is a central theme here. And yeah, it’s got a kick-ass soul music soundtrack (in this case supplied by the one and only James Brown himself). And okay, it stars none other than Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, and features D’Urville Martin in a supporting role as a crooked preacher.

So fair enough, it’s got all the trappings of your classic blaxploitation flick. But right there, bubbling away just underneath the surface, hiding in plain sight, there’s an unstoppable rhythm that grinds away more ferociously than the vocal stylings of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. An undeniable trajectory that guides the plot along like a force of nature. We know it’ll all end either in tears or in a bittersweet “victory” that stings more than it soars, yet we can’t turn away despite the fact that the fate of the film’s central protagonist, one Tommy Gibbs (Williamson, in the role that made him a household name), is written in the stars. Yes, friends, this is classic Shakespearean tragedy as its finest — albeit in truncated form and set in Harlem.

When we join the story, our guy Tommy is a hard-working shoeshine kid in the 1950s who helps out the local hoods by setting a guy up to get whacked and running a payoff over to a local crooked cop. When the payoff envelope he delivers turns up a little light, the aforementioned morally compromised police officer, one Captain McKinney (the great Art Lund) takes it out on Tommy and busts his leg with his nightstick. And that right there is his biggest mistake, because Tommy Gibbs never forgets, and he never lets a grudge go.

As he lays in bed with leg in a cast, he begins to hatch his master plan, his rise to the top — he learned all he needed to know about the world when McKinney’s billy club whacked him, and he knows without a doubt that the name of the game is power. First he’s gonna get McKinney and every other white asshole just like him to bow down before him, and then he’s gonna bring ’em all down at the precise moment he’s got them eating out of his hand.

Next thing we know it’s 20 years later and Tommy’s making his mark as a hit man for the mob who’ll take on the jobs nobody else wants. the Italian “family” bosses don’t trust him, of course, but when he’s given a block of his own in Harlem that none of them want, he makes it work, and soon he’s expanding his territory — and taking over theirs. Tommy Gibbs soon becomes known as the “Black Godfather,” and as his influence grows, the same guys who first gave him a chance begin to view him as a threat. It’s only a matter of time before Tommy gets too big for his britches and is brought down hard.

Along the way, though, he becomes the undisputed heavyweight champion of the Harlem crime world — but not without paying a price. Oh, sure, he gets McKinney, and every other bent lawman and politician, right where he wants them, and soon the guys who used to give him his marching orders are all taking the same from him. But the first person to see Tommy for the monster he’s become is none other than his own mother. When Tommy offers her everything she ever wanted and then some, she turns him down flat. When his estranged father re-enters the picture later, the results are no different. And his single-minded determination to “make it” manages to alienate his wife (there’s a particularly gritty scene that marks one of the few times I’ve actually seen a film portray spousal rape  as the horrendous violation ) and drive her into the waiting arms of his best friend.

Needless to say, by the time our Mr. Gibbs finally has everything he wants — or more precisely everything he thought he wanted — he’s alone and finds he’s really got nothing. There’s been one thing driving him on all these years, though, one thing that he can still take care of before the curtain drops on his classically-structured tragedy — he can finally get even with McKinney, personally. Tommy’s a very sharp guy and senses that he’s on the way out, but before he goes, he’s going to take the symbol of all his former oppression and victimization down with him, goddamnit!

Okay, so this isn’t a particularly original set-up in and of itself (“be careful what you wish for, you just might get it” and all that) — but the the oldest stories are still the best. As I stated at the outset, Black Caesar is genuinely Shakespearean in its structure (and Shakespeare got it from the Greeks — remember Oedipus, the very first tragedy?), but Cohen does a terrific job of serving us up a story we’ve seen a thousand times before in a way that’s fresh, exciting, and for its time, frankly even a little bit revolutionary. the characters here, even down to the smallest supporting parts, are interesting and involving, even if they’re only there to serve as convenient plot devices. The dialogue is uniformly smart and realistic throughout, the actual Harlem filming locations are well-portrayed, Williamson is flat-out superb in the title role (equal parts compelling, repulsive, sympathetic, and alienating — we can always relate to his portrayal of Tommy even when we can no longer condone any of his actions), and at no point do you feel like there’s no way this could happen. This is a thinking person’s exploitation flick, and folks with a background in classical literature are going to feel more intrigued than insulted or pandered to by it. There’s nothing wrong with telling the same old story very well, after all, and that’s exactly what Black Caesar does. Sure, at the end of the day you could make the argument that it’s essentially a Cliff’s Notes version (right about 90 minutes) of The Bard transposed into an urban ghetto environment, but that’s actually a pretty cool thing, especially when done with  professionalism and passion — both of which are on display here in ample quantities throughout. Frankly, while Larry Cohen can usually be counted on to crank out a competent piece of work, this is as close as I’ve ever seen him come to genuinely inspired moviemaking.

Black Caesar is available on DVD from MGM as part of its Soul Cinema line (of course). It’s (again, of course) essentially a bare-bones release that offers nothing by way of extras apart from the original theatrical trailer, but the anamorphic widescreen transfer looks great, especially considering its age, and the 2.0 stereo sound does the admittedly killer soundtrack pretty solid justice. It’s also playing for free all month on Impact Action On Demand on most cable and satellite systems.  So do yourself a favor and check it out — I’ve got a feeling that no less an authority than William Shakespeare himself would be more flattered than insulted by it.

Not so long ago we took a look at Pam Grier’s finest hour, Coffy, and I thought it would be fun to follow it up quickly with a re-watch, and subsequent review, of a flick that’s generally considered to be one of her more uninspired starring turns, namely late exploitation king William Girdler’s 1975 offering Sheba, Baby.

A lot of the criticism this flick comes in for is frankly pretty well-founded — far from being “Hotter’n Coffy” and “Meaner’n Foxy Brown” as the tag line on the poster claims, this is a pretty tame and formulaic affair, with Pam pretty much just running through the motions. Here she portrays one of her fairly standard characters, a tough-as-nails Chicago P.I. named Sheba Shayne who comes home to Louisville, Kentucky (where Girdler shot most of his early work) when her dad’s neighborhood loan operation is vandalized and the old man himself attacked by some vicious hoods trying to run him out of business  who work for a mid-level loan shark/all-around operator named Pilot (the always-reliable D’Urville Martin) who in turn works for a higher authority who goes by the name of Shark (Dick Merrifield) and is busily consolidating control of all the various rackets in the black neighborhoods around town. Honest businessmen like Sheba’s pop and his partner, Brick Williams (Austin Stoker, with whom Sheba subsequently rekindles an on-again/off-again relationship) hasn’t got a chance when the crime lords decide that legit loan operations are standing in the way of the 20-30% vig they can charge desperate people who have no legit alternatives to take their custom to.

Along the way Pam goes undercover and tries to lure the crime bosses in with her always-alluring feminine wiles, kicks a lot of ass, takes a bunch f names, tussles with lazy, crooked cops who are in for a piece of the action — you know the drill. It’s not like she’s gonna lose in the end or anything, and even though there’s a twist of pathos added when her dad gets killed about halfway through the flick, you know that sooner or later (in fact, in just about 90 minutes’ time), our gal Sheba is bound to bring down the whole operation.

Sadly, Sheba, Baby is pretty light on the mayhem and violence front, with what few killings there are being relatively bloodless affairs, and Pam’s ample — uhhhhmmm — assets are more or less obscured throughout with only some almost-but-not-quite nudity in a couple of spots, but I still don’t think this thing would garner the PG rating it got at the time if it were released in this day and age (to those who say that you can get away with more in the movies these days I humbly beg to differ — plenty of PG-rated flicks in the 1970s had more sex and violence that many contemporary R-rated features).

On the technical front, Girdler, who would go on to give us such notable exploitation classics as Grizzly and Day Of The Animals before dying in a helicopter crash in the Philippines while scouting locations for an upcoming film project at the tragically young age of 30, and who co-wrote the script for this feature, struggles a bit. He doesn’t seem to have mastered anything beyond basic point-and-shoot filming techniques at this point in his all-too-brief career, and the editing is uniformly amateurish throughout, which especially detracts from some key action sequences.

All in all, though, I can’t be too hard on Sheba, Baby. Even in a by-the-numbers effort like this one, Grier still oozes charisma and bad-ass sex appeal and can carry a film on attitude and poise alone. She shines more brightly when she’s got better material to work with, of course, but even her substandard fare usually gives her enough (even if it’s only just enough) to sink her acting chops into, and her natural dynamism has a way of carrying even the most hackneyed scripts further than they deserve to go. Simply put, she’s essentially the only reason to see this movie, but she’s more than enough.

I guess I can’t really recommend Sheba, Baby to anyone but the most diehard Pam fans or blaxploitation completists, but it’s still got more going for it than most of what comes out of the Hollywood meat grinder these days and certainly isn’t any more formulaic than, say, the latest Michael Bay blockbuster. It hasn’t got the soul of a Coffy or even a Foxy Brown, but it’s still not a bad way to spend an hour and a half of your life by any means.

Sheba, Baby is available on DVD from MGM, who see to have acquired nearly all of the old American International Pictures catalog,  as part of its Soul Cinema line. It’s pretty much a bare-bones release, but the widescreen anamorphic transfer and mono sound are perfectly serviceable. It’s also playing all this month on Impact Action On Demand on most cable and satellite TV systems, and is certainly worth a look if there’s nothing else on TV — which, let’s be honest, there pretty much never is.

When people ask me what my all-time favorite blaxploitation flick is, the question is a serious a serious no-brainer. Oh, sure, there are plenty of great ones to choose from —Black Caesar, Across 110th Street, Shaft, Foxy Brown — the list of classics is nearly endless. But the one flick that stands out above all the others, the one that holds the title of not only the greatest of all blaxploitationers, but also one of the very best revenge movies ever made, is Jack Hill’s incomparable 1973 Pam Grier starring vehicle Coffy. This is the one that set the standard, folks, and frankly it has yet to be matched.

The story’s simple enough — when the younger sister of hard-working inner-city nurse Coffy (we never get her first name), better known as “Coffy,” is sent into comatose shock after shooting up some bad smack, our intrepid (and deadly sexy) heroine is determined to bring down the whole fucking criminal underworld all by herself. That’s bravado, people. She’s got no skills, no training, just a bad attitude and a body to die for.  The chain leads way higher than even she could have guessed, though — all the way from street dealers to big-time pimps to Italian mobsters out of Vegas to crooked cops right to the would-be congressman she’s sleeping with!

Simple story? Hell yeah. All the best are. But if you’ve got the right the woman for the job, even the simplest set-ups can leave you gripped to the screen. And Grier was definitely more than up to the task. Hill (one of the great unsung heroes of exploitation moviemaking) had worked with Grier on a couple of Roger Corman women-in-prison productions shot on the cheap in the Philippines (The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage, to be precise) and figured she was ready to graduate from being a supporting player as the stereotypical bad-ass-butch-black-woman-in-stir to her own starring turn, and damn was he right.  Pam’s not only a total sexual dynamo here (she gets naked three separate times in the first 15 minutes alone), she’s a supernatural force of pure fucking vengeance. Her conscience troubles her a bit more than you’d expect in a film like this (check out her “the past few days seem like a dream” monologue early on to her cop friend Carter), but she can put that in a locked drawer when she needs to and just plain kick ass. You always get the feeling revenge is gonna be bittersweet for Coffy, though, because Grier gives such a tellingly multi-dimensional performance (and the long slow fadeaway of her walking, battered and bruised after killing all the bad guys (come on, did you ever doubt she would?), along a lonely,  early-morning beach at the end as the credits roll provides a surprisingly downbeat ending that the genre would later airbrush out of things as these films became more formulaic) that’s always grounded in reality (and yes, reality itself would become another casualty of this genre’s success as time wore on). In short, Grier’s  Coffy is not some cartoonish superhero, but a real woman dealing with an extraordinary set of circumstances and trapped in a situation beyond her control that she’d rather not be a part of. Sure, she hams it up a bit when going undercover as a Jamaican prostitute to grab the attention of mega-pimp King George (who’s even got his own theme song!), but even in the midst of the most over-the-top scenes here, like the notorious cat fight (you knew there had to be one) at George’s pad, there’s always something lurking under the surface in Pam’s extraordinary performance. She’s a bad-ass mama out for revenge with soul, a real life flesh-and-blood heroine rather than a cardboard cut-out. She’s not a super-woman here (although she’s got a super-woman body — damn, I’ll quit obsessing over it now), but if conscripted into a situation where that’s what she’s gotta be, then goddamn if she isn’t gonna be it, and worry about the consequences later.

There are some damn fine supporting turns here as well, to be sure — Booker Bradshaw as sleazy Councilman-Soon-To-Be-Congressman  Brunswick, Sid Haig as — well, the kind of hired-muscle-with-a-perv-streak he always did so well at the time — but really this is Pam’s show all the way. From the minute she blows that pusher’s head off with a shotgun  (and this is also surprisingly violent for a film of this type — another element that would be toned down as the blaxploitation formula took hold) in the film’s opening scene (which would later be aped by effects legend Tom Savini in the legendary head-shot scene in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), she absolutely owns this motherfucker from start to finish. Honestly, if Grier’s Coffy said “you can fuck me, but I might kill you afterwards if I feel like it”, you’d be up for taking the risk. That’s how undeniable she is here.  I can’t think of higher praise than that.

Hill and Grier would be back less than a year later with Foxy Brown, which essentially tells the same story with a bigger budget, less graphic violence, less nudity, and frankly less heart and realism. It’s still a damn fine flick, but it’s a sanitized, de-fanged version of what you see here. This is the pure, grade-A, 100-proof stuff.

Coffy is available on DVD from MGM as part of its Soul Cinema line. It features a nicely-done full-frame transfer, a solid stereo audio track, the original theatrical trailer, and a feature-length commentary from Jack Hill that’s absolutely gripping listening. It’s also playing free this month on Impact Action On Demand, available on most cable and satellite systems. I’m assuming most readers of this blog will have seen this before, probably numerous times, but if it’s been awhile, give it a go again — you’ll be very pleasantly surprised at what a bass-knuckled punch it still packs even after all these years. They just plain don’t make ’em like this anymore — and truth be told, even though Coffy was a solid box-office success, they never made ’em quite like this again even back in the day. This isn’t just “soul cinema,” it’s heart, soul, blood, and guts cinema. It’s everything you love exploitation films for, combined with everything that a lot of it (and everything else on celluloid, be it from Hollywood or the independents) is missing. It’s uncompromising, multi-faceted, honest and arresting art, folks. It’s complex in spite of  its simplicity and provides no easy answers or feel-good moments. It’s a genre movie for grown-ups that doesn’t insult your intelligence and for once provides more steak than sizzle (although there’s plenty of that, too). It’s the straight dope and it’ll hook you forever.

"Black Dynamite" Movie Poster

First off, unlike the other flicks we’ve looked at in the little “Modern Grindhouse Classics” series I’ve had going on and off here at TFG, Black Dynamite isn’t so much a thematic or stylistic heir to 1970s-era exploitation cinema so much as it’s a straight-up spoof on it. But it’s a spoof that hits all the right notes and clearly understands not just what made the genre it’s sending up, in this case blaxploitation, so ridiculous, but what made it work, and what made it so damn cool, as well.

Largely the brainchild of co-screenwriter and star Michael Jai White (who’s gotta be on steroids), this 2009 pretty-much-straight-to-DVD feature (it’s gotten a bit of theatrical play on the midnight movie circuit) is a spoof with soul, and it’s clear from the outset that both White and director Scott Sanders have an intuitive understanding of what blaxploitation is all about, and while it’s certainly irreverent, it’s never downright disrespectful, and it’s clear this is truly a labor of love.

White plays the titular Black Dynamite (that’s the only name he goes by,  even at age 15), a bad-ass ex-Viet Nam vet and ex-secret agent who’s gotten tired of working for The Man and now protects the neighborhood on his own as a kung fu private eye.  He kicks ass, takes names, scores with all the ladies — you know the drill. But when The Man kills his only brother, who he had pledged to protect on his mother’s deathbed, starts dealing heroin to the local orphanage, and pumps some funky malt liquor into the neighborhood, he’s gotta fight back, even if the chain of corruption leads all the way to the top — and it does!

Everything you want is here — intentionally flubbed lines, repetitious dialogue, absurd Curtis Mayfield-style soundtrack music that not only gives a concise run-down of the plot but even goes so far as to lay out certain scenes in specific detail, kick-ass kung fu moves, authentic (if purposely exaggerated) 1970s clothing and hairstyles, smokin’ hot babes — and if you’re the type to watch out for cameos, be on the lookout for Arsenio Hall and Brian McKnight.

The action leads from the mean streets to Kung Fu Island all the way to the White (as in honky) House itself,and I’m sorry, but if you can’t get a laugh out of Black Dynamite getting in a martial arts showdown with a surprisingly spry (but ultimately, of course, doomed) Tricky Dick himself, while making time with Pat Nixon on the side, then you’re just plain no fun.

This movie is everything I’m Gonna Git You Sucka hoped it would be and then some, with the key notable difference being that the primary influence on the main character is more Jim Kelly than Jim Brown, and more of the jokes actually work. I’ve also seen some reviewers liken this to a kind of black Austin Powers, but whereas those movies sucked and this one doesn’t, I’m not so sure that the comparison is really all that valid.

What more do you want, people? A pimp named Mo Bitches? He’s in here. A bad-ass sultry ghetto fox named Mahogany Black? She’s here, too. Incompetent white cops and tough-but- good-hearted sidekicks? Check and check. Simply put, Black Dynamite doesn’t miss a beat.

The DVD release from Sony is solid, too, with the pristine anamorphic widescreen picture quality you’d expect from a new release, paired with a terrific 5.1-channel surround soundtrack, and a boatload of extras including the theatrical trailer, a “making-of” featurette tht covers pretty much all the bases, a panel discussion from Comic Con 2009 featuring all the principal players in front of and behind the camera, and a terrific feature-length commentary track with White, Sanders, et. al. So give it a look ASAP — in the spirit of Black Dynamite itself your humble reviewer refuses to pass up on any line that’s too obvious, so I’ll just close by saying this is one dymo-mite! flick.

"Original Gangstas" Movie Poster

Hey, what the hell, you know?

In the late 90s and around the turn of the millennium, blaxploitation cinema started to earn a long-overdue critical reappraisal, due in large part to the success of films like Jackie Brown and the “updated” (and lame) Shaft — suddenly the opinion-dictators out there, who had written off the entire genre as racist, contemptible crap realized a lot of those old flicks were pretty damn good. And after being wrong for about twenty years, said self-appointed trendsetters were finally right about this terrific, much-maligned genre. And since a lot of the folks who starred in those great old 70s action yarns were looking for work, it was only a matter of time, I suppose, before a “greatest hits” reunion came to pass.

Enter director Larry Cohen, the ultimate B-movie survivor (he helmed blaxploitationers like Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem in addition to tons of awesome B-grade horrors), who in the year 1996  reassembled all the blaxploitation heavy hitters (well, okay, almost all), sprinkled in a few more awesome cult stars, got ahold of a semi-decent script that gave ’em all something to do, and the result its Original Gangstas.

Okay, he might be like 60, but I still wouldn't fuck with Fred Williamson

Just look at this cast, people — Fred Williamson. Pam Grier. Jim Brown. Ron O’Neal. Richard Roundtree. Paul Winfield. Isabel Sanford. Robert Forster. Wings Hauser. Charles Napier. Paul Winfield. There’s just no way any flick with that cast, and Cohen behind the camera, is going to suck too badly.

Is Original Gangstas predictable? Dear God yes. Fred “The Hammer” plays an ex-football player who comes home to Gary, Indiana when his father is brutally attacked in the shop he owns by members of a street gang known as The Rebels, and from the minute his private plane (probably rented for all of ten minutes by the production crew) touches down, you know everything’s gonna work out okay. Any supposed “twists and turns” the plot takes along the way cam be seen from a mile off — at least.

But so what? You’re not in this for anything new. You’re here for the comforts of the familiar, to see the old pros show the young punks how it’s done.

For the most part, the fight scenes are well-enough staged, and you believe the likes of Williamson, Brown, Grier, and Roundtree can still kick a little ass — and that they’ll feel it in the morning. The aura of invincibility around all of them has been brought down a couple notches, and they’re portrayed not as super-heroes, but as people who can hold their own in a fight despite their advanced years. Yeah, it might be a totally unrealistic premise, but at least it’s presented —- uhhhhmmm — semi-realistically.

"Eat lead, muthafuckas!!!!!!!!!!"

It’s essentially the soul music generation vs. the hip-hop generation here, and there’s never any doubt about who’s gonna come out on top in the end. Contemporary elements like drive-by shootings, automatic weapons, ultraviolent gangbangers, and a “gangsta rap” soundtrack all combine to produce an atmosphere where it’s pretty clear the old-timers are, sure, a little out of their element, but they work hard and know how to adjust on the fly. They’re survivors, after all, and they’ll make it out of this scrape okay.

Sure, it gets a little preachy in spots — what’s happening to our neighborhoods?, what’s happening to our youth?, why are the cops so incompetent?, what’s happened to economic opportunities in the black community?, yadda yadda yadda etc. etc. etc.

So what? There was an element of preachiness in all the 70s blaxploitation flicks, usually about these exact same subjects. Give Original Gangstas a break — it’s pretty clear from the outset that the only “original” thing in the movie is the first word in the title.

Real love never dies, baby

It’s all here — the gangland slaying of their son rekindles an old romance between Brown and Grier, hard-working flatfoot detective Forster tries but can’t get anywhere, Napier as the Mayor and Hauser as his assistant don’t actually give a shit, Williamson’s gotta get the old gang back together (he and Brown and Roundtree and O’Neal actually founded The Rebels), and the little kid who everybody loves gets killed. Again, don’t expect anything new under the soggy Gary skies here, just enjoy the ride.

And if you can do that, then goddamnit, Original Gangstas is a  lot of fun. Way more than any flick with a geriatric cast going after one last crack at glory should be. Cohen moves things along at a steady little pace and with consummate professionalism, and not one of the stars seems to be mailing it in, even though all of them could. I won’t recommend it without reservation, but if you know exactly what you’re getting into here — and it’s never any secret — then there’s no reason you can’t just kick back and dig it for what it is — one last shot at the big-time for a bunch of actors who certainly deserve it.

"Original Gangstas" DVD from MGM

Original Gangstas is available as a bare-bones DVD release from MGM, and it’s also playing all month on Impact Action-on-Demand, in HD, on most major cable systems. It’s well worth a look, and even if one viewing will probably do it for you, it’ll be one enjoyable viewing.

The advertising tagline for Original Gangstas is “It’s Time for Some Respect.” The film itself earns just that.

"The Guy From Harlem" Movie Poster

I know what you’re wondering already : can the movie possibly be as low-rent as that poster?

The answer is : and then some.

Affectionately (I guess) referred to as “The ‘Plan 9’ of blaxploitation” by fans of the genre, Rene Martinez Jr.’s 1977 offering “The Guy From Harlem” is actually, on a purely technical level, even worse than Ed Wood’s unintentional masterpiece — or any of Wood’s films, for that matter. It rivals low-grade 70s porn in terms of sheer artistic inability and leaves a person feeling somehow unclean for having even seen it, even though there’s little by way of nudity or even convincing violence on display. Of the 18 comments posted about the film on IMDB, a good majority of them refer to it as the worst film ever made. And while in many cases that’s simply hyperbole, or even a tag applied by fans of the film in order to gain it a cult following, in this case it might actually be the truth. I’ve seen plenty of cheaply made haphazard films, but few can rival “The Guy From Harlem” for overall incompetence. Many a low-rent production has been referred to as “looking and feeling more like a student film,” but again, in this case it’s  absolutely true —it looks and feels like a student film. Like a 6th grade student film!

Al Connors, daring man of action and mystery

The movie throws us right into the middle of the “action” — a foul-mouthed young black woman with a bad attitude is tied to a chair in what looks to be some kind of cabin. Her captor informs her that she’ll soon be joined by another “of her kind,” in fact, her soon-to-be-arriving guest is from Africa. You can safely put this entire situation out of your mind, though, as we won’t be getting back to our feisty damsel in distress until about halfway through the movie. Now it’s time to meet The Man himself!

As the credits roll — literally — over a scene of an enormously-fro’d dude driving his car, we hear the the film’s constipated-sounding theme tune bumping away : “The guy from Harlem! That cat’s a baaaad dude! Ugh! Watch the moves! The guy from Harlem! Ugh! He’s mean, he’s clean, he’s a fighting machine!”

Good to know he’s clean, huh? We always look for that in a hero.

The first thing you’ll notice, apart from the titular guy from Harlem’s hair, is that we’re not actually in Harlem at all. We’re in Miami, and the whole film in fact takes place in sunny south Florida. That doesn’t mean our hero ain’t from Harlem, though — he never misses a chance to tell anyone and everyone where he hails from (“Tell your boss that nobody messes with the guy from Harlem!” being a favorite line). Remember, the title of the movie is “The Guy FROM Harlem,” not “The Guy IN Harlem.”

So, anyway, our man of the hour is Al Connors, (supposedly) bad-ass private eye who doesn’t take no shit from anyone, doesn’t play games, and scores with every piece of tail that crosses his path. In the hands of a capable actor, Connors could, potentially, be a serviceable, if still entirely unoriginal and uninvolving, two-dimensional cardboard cut-out John Shaft-wannabe.

In the hands of star Loye Hawkins, however, he approaches the level of unintentional caricature, almost a walking parody of the excesses of the entire blaxploitation genre. Think of the comical OTT nature of Rudy Ray Moore’s “Dolemite” character — only the makers of “The Guy From Harlem” WEREN’T trying to be funny. The end result’s certainly the same, though. In fact, “Dolemite” looks like a big-budget blockbuster next to this thing.

Hawkins can’t act. Period. He looks the part enough, I suppose, but he’s got all the screen presence of wet lumber, and emotes about as well. You’d honestly think he was reading directly from cue cards — if it weren’t so painfully obvious that most of the “dialogue” in this movie was just ad-libbed on the spot. Jumbled lines, repeated information from a few seconds earlier, garbled delivery and barely-intelligible exchanges are mainstays of “The Guy From Harlem” — apparently director Martinez either had very little actual film at his disposal and couldn’t spare any to actually shoot more than one take of anything, or else the only words in his vocabulary were “okay, cut — and print.” Quite literally everything on display here NEEDS to have been done in one take — otherwise there’s no, and I mean NO, explaining it.

Al’s got himself a perfectly serviceable little office staffed by a perfectly serviceable-in-the-looks-department secretary named Sue (Wanda Starr), who of course has the hots for him even though he’s prone to tell her things like “how many times do I have to tell you — this phone is for business purposes only!” when she’s talking to her mother.  Some dudes just know how to charm without even trying, I guess.

One morning Al is visited by an old buddy of his from Harlem who just so happens to work for the CIA. We’re told that a visiting African dignitary is coming to town to meet with the Secretary of State and that his wife may be the target of a kidnapping plot, so they need someone they can trust to look after her. They’d normally task one of their own men from inside “The Company” with the job, but they’re worried that there might be a mole, so they’re hiring outside talent to watch her back. Al’s hesitant to take on the gig, but when his friend tells her that she’s cute, he’s in. He’d better be careful, though — as his CIA budy keeps telling him, if he tries to make time with this lady, there could be INTERNATIONAL REPERCUSSIONS! Still, despite Al’s apparently well-established reputation as a hound dog, they figure he’s the man for the job.

Next we head to one of exactly five, by my count, different locations used for the film (the others being Al’s office, an apartment, the “cabin” mentioned earlier, and a piece of outdoor acreage that functions as all the film’s “various” outdoor locales — my best guess is that they’re all either in or right outside of the same building), a hotel suite (where they’ve checked in under the impenetrably clever aliases of Mr. and Mrs. Connors), and Al is showing Princess Ashanti (Patricia Fulton, who’s variously referred to as a Princess, a Queen, or even simply “the wife of a chief of state” — if her exact title didn’t matter to Martinez and co. it sure as hell shouldn’t matter to us) her spacious new temporary quarters.

The Princess (or Queen, or whatever) has a bad back and needs a massage. Al would normally volunteer his own services, of course, but given those INTERNATIONAL REPERCUSSIONS we’re constantly reminded of, he calls the hotel’s masseuse instead. There are some shady characters hanging out in the courtyard, though, so Al decides to keep an eye on the Princess (or Queen, or whatever) while she gets her rub-down for SECURITY PURPOSES, the next phrase we’ll be hearing repeated about sixty times. Damn good thing, too — the masseuse was about to stick a needle into the Princess (or Queen, or whatever).

Dangers are aplenty at this apparently five-star hotel, though, because next up the room service waitress turns out to be, well, not a waitress —

Hey, man, that ain't a man!

How could Al see through this impervious disguise? As he tells Princess (or Queen, or whatever) Ashanti : “I ordered a New York strip steak, and I can smell a New York strip steak from a mile away.” Sure enough, under the silver tray, there ain’t no steak, but a gun! And here I just thought maybe he could smell dick a mile away. Still, besides this feat of chameleon-like daring, this scene also treats us to the first of several inanely-staged fight sequences that will become a staple of the film. You’ve simply never seen “action” choreography staged as unconvincingly as it is in this movie. Punches that obviously don’t even connect send attackers sprawling to the ground, people leap a good few seconds to soon, Al barely taps an assailant and they go reeling — they’re an absolute blast to watch, but there’s no point in mentioning their ineptitude time and time again, so whenever I talk about the guy from Harlem taking on an attacker or two (or more) in the future, just assume it’s an unintentional display of absolute buffoneery. You’ll swear that the fight scenes in this flick were  choreographed by Dick Van Dyke or John Ritter.

Are you ready for another change of scenery? I know, I know — things are moving along at a pretty breakneck speed at this point, but try to stay with me.

Deciding that things are a bit too hot at the hotel, Al take Princess (or Queen, or whatever) Ashanti to a safer place for SECURITY PURPOSES — namely the apartment of a white chick he apparently makes time with when he can fit her into his busy schedule. She’s a pretty good sport about the whole thing and heads out to check into a hotel that Al has fronted her the cash for — I just hope that, for SECURITY PURPOSES,  she doesn’t pick the same hotel that the guy from Harlem and the Princess (or Queen, or whatever) just escaped from.

Exhausted from a long day of running (well, okay, she never really runs—) for her life,  our Princess (or Queen, or whatever) needs a shower, so we get a little bit of toplessness, then we see her putting on one of the white chick’s nightgowns, then it’s down to business as Al scores some (apparently, depending on who’s talking about her) royal pussy. And if you thought the fight scenes were bad, you ain’t seen nothing. “The Guy From Harlem” may have the ambiance and technical proficiency of a shot-on-super-8 porn loop, but the love scenes in this flick are as wooden, stilted, pedestrian, and downright nervous-about-themselves-looking as anything every committed to film. You’ll breathe a sigh of relief when you see this one, and all the others in the film, end when Al strips off the woman’s nightgown, climbs on top of her for an obviously fake kiss, and then we jump to the next day. As with the fight scenes — and the dialogue scenes —, in the “love” scenes  Martinez and DP Rafael Remy — who I’m surprised even a took a credit for his “work” here — show an absolute steadfastness in their refusal to do anything other than shoot things straight ahead from about a medium length. It’s cinematographical paralysis of the highest order, and creates a bizarre occult visual rhythm to the proceedings so incessantly lethargic that on those few occasions when they do actually move in for close-ups or show things from any angle other than dead-center ahead, you feel as if some sort of spell has been broken and the world as we know it turned on its axis.

And that’s it for our Princess (or Queen, or whatever). Al’s apparently safely delivered her back to her just-got-cheated-on husband, and he’s back at the office, mission accomplished.

There’s just one problem — we’re only 45 minutes into the film!

Never fear, though, my friends — the Martinezes (director Rene and screenwriter Gardenia, who’d damn well better be related, otherwise there’s no excuse for this “script” making it in front of a camera) have a plan. Remember that PMSing lady I told you about who was tied to a chair in some remote “cabin” at the start of the film? You can remember her again. But forget anything her captors were saying about bringing some African chick to join her (they apparently have, seeing as how it’s never mentioned again), because apparently that’s the Princess (or Queen, or whatever) that they were talking about and Al just took care of all that.

Into Al’s office steps (again, supposedly) bad- ass gangster Harry DeBauld, portrayed with scene-stealing scenery-chewing amateurish overenthusiasm by “Wildman” Steve Gallon, who would go on to star in Martinez’s only other directorial effort, the amazingly politically incorrectly-titled “The Six Thousand Dollar Nigger” (later renamed “Super Soul Brother,” for obvious reasons, upon its video release during the early-80s VHS boom).Of all the reasons to love this film (what, you’re saying I haven’t given you any?), Gallon’s deliriously gleeful performance has to top the list. Sure, he doesn’t actually know his lines — assuming any were ever written down — any more than anyone else in this celluloid fiasco does, but he’s so brimming-over-with-joy at his own often-incoherence that it just plain doesn’t matter. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

His son Larry (Laster Wilson) and the other henchmen who have accompanied him to the office are as dull and listless as Hawkins or any of the other “actors” in this thing, but Gallon’s is one of two performances in the film (remember the foul-mouthed gal? more on her in a second) that are every bit as unprofessional as the others, but much more eagerly so, if that makes any sense.

Harry’s got a problem. He runs a successful gambling operation, but he’s been trying to take over the local narcotics trade, as well — and along the way he’s into trouble from a guy named Big Daddy, with whom he’s warring over a piece of territory worth, I kid you not, “hundreds of millions of dollars a day.” Wrap your head around that concept! But I digress — as part of his daring plan to get Harry to back the fuck off from his turf, Big Daddy has gone and kidnapped the usually-jubilant gangster’s only daughter, Wanda (Cathy Davis), and is holding her for heavy ransom — a quarter-million dollars’ cash and a whole shitload of coke. Harry heard about what Al did for “that African Queen” (or Princess, or whatever), and figures he’s the man to handle the exchange.

Initially pissed about Harry even knowing about the whole Queen (or Princess, or whatever) thing because “that’s supposed to be top secret,” Al warms up to the idea of working for the crimelord when he checks out a picture of his daughter and decides she’s pretty damn hot. That’s the guy from Harlem for you.

So, he takes the case — Harry forks over an obviously empty envelope (“it’s all there — count it!”), a Ziplock freezer bag full of flour, and Al’s back in action. There’s just one problem — who is this Big Daddy? What does he look like? I’ll let Harry take it from here for a minute —

“That’s the problem. Nobody’s seen him. All I know about him is this — he’s big, six feet tall, and muscles ! You wanna talk about muscles! Curly blond hair, and he always wears these bands around his muscles!”

So — nobody’s seen him, but everybody knows what he looks like.  Only in “The Guy From Harlem.”

Al’s got it all figured out, of course, only he doesn’t let Harry in on the details of his cunning plan — he heads down to the local Gold’s Gym-type place, gets the drop on one on Big Daddy’s lughead henchmen who’s probably twice his size, find out Wanda’s (Ms. bad attitude, in case you hadn’t figured that out already) location, busts her out , a few more inept fight scenes of the sort I mentioned earlier ensue, and suddenly the guy from Harlem is sitting on top of the world with a quarter million – bucks’ “cash,” a half-million – bucks’ woth of “drugs,” and a beautiful, if feisty, female companion who’s grateful as hell for his “daring” rescue of her.

All that's missing from the "fight" scenes in "The Guy From Harlem" are the "Bang" and "Pow!" on-screen captions

Wanda doesn’t want to go home just yet because she’s pissed at her dad for putting her life in danger by getting mixed up in the drug business, so Al takes her back to that white chick’s apartment from before. She’s not nearly so pleasant to deal with this time, but she gets the hell out of there again, with cash fronts her for a hotel again, and after than Wanda takes a shower, puts on the same fucking nightgown the Princess (or Queen, or whatever) was wearing earlier, and we get essentially the exact same “love” scene we got before. Yes, folks, the only thing differentiating this sequence from the one that took place about 40 minutes earlier is the actress, that’s it. And they both have the same identically-huge afros, and remarkably similar bodies,  so who knows if our guy Al really even notices the difference when the lights are out.

Then it’s back to gangster daddy for the exchange at Al’s office the next day, whereupon he informs them that gangster daddy can keep the money, but he’s taking the drugs to the cops, a fact that only pisses off gangster daddy for a second before he’s back to his usual disturbingly jovial self.

There’s still the matter of Big Daddy to be dealt with, though. He’s pretty pissed at the guy from Harlem for messing up his whole life in one day flat, so they arrange for a “meeting” (read: fistfight) to settle the score, and we get one more of those straight-outta-the-Batman-TV-show-but-without-the-word-balloons  “fight” scenes, which Al of course wins, and then we get a final surprise — Al, who has shown no signs of being anything other than the biggest skirt-chaser on the planet, has apparently fallen for Wanda during the course of their (and I use this term loosely, of course ) ordeal, and, as one of her daddy’s henchmen says to her brother, “it looks like you’re gonna need a new suit!”

And so everyone, apparently, lives happily ever after.

Mill Creek's "Drive-In Movie Classics" 50-pack DVD Box Set, Featuring "The Guy From Harlem"

Improbable — maybe even impossible — as it is to believe, “The Guy From Harlem” is available on DVD. It’s part of the ultra-cheapie “Drive-In Movie Classics” 50-film, 12-DVD box set from Mill Creek, masters of the public domain film. The print looks like shit and jumps at several points, the sound is muffled, it’s quite obviously a direct-from-VHS transfer — in other words, it’s absolutely perfect. You can usually score this box for about eight or ten bucks — I;ve even heard of it going for five at Wal-Mart — and is totally worth it for “The Guy From Harlem” alone. You can watch this flick again and again and not get bored in your quest for still more things to find absurd about it.

Beyond bad, beyond cheap, beyond shoddy, beyond comprehension — “The Guy From Harlem” is absolutely without merit on any level whatsoever, and accordingly gets my highest possible recommendation. See it now!

"Exploitation Cinema" double feature DVD from Code Red/Saturn Productions Featuring "Deliver Us From Evil" and "The Fox Affair"

“‘Deliver Us From Evil’ — a movie that tells it like it is about blacks. The beautiful blacks. The evil blacks.”    —From the trailer for Horace Jackson’s “Deliver Us From Evil” (1977)

Okay, first off I should admit that “you’ve never seen anything quite like movie X” is becoming a bit of an overused catch-phrase here at TFG, but even so — you’ve never seen anything quite like writer-director Horace Jackson’s 1977 sorta-blaxploitation, sorta-godsploitation opus “Deliver Us From Evil.”

Also released under the rather blase title of “Joey,” which is still the moniker that’s slapped on most surviving prints of the film, this is a movie that prioritizes everything else — plot, characterization, continuity, even sanity itelf — so far beneath preaching its anything-but-subtle message that it becomes a case study in genuine cinematic absurdity.

And what is that message, you may ask? A pretty solidly uncontroversial one — “stop the killing, drugs, and violence in our communities, black America.” Can’t really argue with that. But dear God, does this turn into one seriously bizarre harangue after awhile.

Name me another movie that features Al Roker's cousin without a shirt on.

Our story begins with menial laborer Chris Townes (Renny Roker, Al’s cousin) cleaning up around a movie set full of glass vases and shit without a shirt on. Tired of being bossed around by his white asshole “superior,” he takes it upon himself to trash ever single carefully-placed piece of glassware on the shelves and is immediately shuffled off to a psychiatric institution for his troubles, whereupon he engages in a screamingly hysterical laugh-fest for no reason whatsoever with his doctor.

Fun times in the loony bin

Next thing you know, Chris is back out on the streets, having landed another shit job working for a racist prick who goads him constantly (guess it must be a pattern), this time at a construction site. He rents a gaudy-as-hell furnished apartment from another white racist prick who promises him it’s the “best he has available” (Chris obviously disagrees as we find out during some voice-over segments — note that voice-over is only used when Chris is bitching in his mind about his spread) and pockets his damage deposit money with a chuckle.

One day after another eight hellish hours of being degraded and belittle on the job site, Chris spots a rather attractive young lady named Mindy (Marie O’Henry) on the street after her car breaks down, offers her a ride home out of the blue, and she accepts. Mindy’s had a rough day, as well — she works as a recreation director at the 38th Street schoolyard and some local teenage hoodlums determined to start selling “marijuana and pills” at the school have been busy breaking up her organized recreational activities like baseball and stickball, harassing the younger kids, and starting fights. All to, you know, make a good impression on the youngsters they hope to turn into regular customers for their product once they have taken over their new “territory.” Marketing geniuses these guys are definitely not. Things go from bad to worse for her when Chris gets a lead foot, starts driving like a suicidal maniac just because he’s having a bad day, and won’t let her out of the car. He eventually gets her home, but suffice to say he’s left a rather lousy first impression.

Our guy Chris figures he’d better try to make it up to her somehow, so embarks on a campaign of what we today we could “stalking” in order to prove to Mindy that he isn’t such a bad cat. Again, the inept salesmanship on display in this film is absolutely mind-boggling.

Anyway, the apple of Mindy’s — and the entire neighborhood’s, apparently — eye is a young wheelchair-bound boy named Joey, also known as Little Joe (Danny Martin), who she dutifully wheels back and forth to school every day even though she’s evidently of no relation to him whatsoever (he’s apparently got a sister, but near as I can determine we never meet his actual parents in the film). Chris decides to make friends with Little Joe as well in order, apparently, to get back in Mindy’s good graces.

Somewhere along the line we learn the following tidbits of information : Mindy’s married. Black-on-black violence is destroying the community. Christ doesn’t really have the hots for Mindy, he likes an admittedly pretty damn gorgeous friend named Kim he’s seen her with.  Black-on-black violence is destroying the community. There’s rampant racism in the police department. Black-on-black violence is destroying the community. Hard-working black people can’t catch a break. Black-on-black violence is destroying the community. Local gangsters go door-to-door posing as salespeople for radical black newspapers. Black-on-black violence is destroying the community. The best way to meet attractive young single ladies is to get their address from little kids in wheelchairs and then go to their door pretending to be conducting a survey about TV programming. All it takes is a pencil, paper, and clipboard. Black-on-black violence is destroying the community.

I mentioned earlier that pretty much everything else in this film pretty much takes a back seat to Horace Jackson’s rather heavy-handed moralizing. This is no exaggeration, in fact if anything it’s an understatement. Characters turn up and are never seen from again, characters turn up in the beginning (for a little while there this flick looks like it’s going to mainly be the story of a hard-working, put-upon black police detective) and don’t appear again until the end, promising plotlines are dropped completely or turned around for no apparent reason (Chris wanting to cozy up to Mindy quickly turns into Chris wanting to cozy up to her friend once Jackson establishes that Mindy’s married). Scenes and situations abruptly change tone at the drop of a hat , such s when Chris’s parole officer turns up at his place, silently looks around calmly for a few minutes, then decides to start acting out of the blue and gets in his face for a couple minutes before making nice with him and leaving.

But for sheer absurdity, there are a few sequences that just can’t be beat.

First among these is when, after sixty-plus minutes of seriously unimaginative and straightforward, “point-the-camera-and shoot” filmmaking, Jackson goes all artistic during a scene when Mindy is beaten up by the gang members terrorizing her playground. There are freeze-frames of fists making impact against her face, the sounds are held and amplified, and time is generally fucked with in every way possible for a couple minutes while she gets pummeled.

Next up we’ve got the briefly-mentioned series of events involving Chris posing as a TV survey dude and the gang members posing as radical black activists. Get this : Chris gets Kim’s address from Joey and goes to her place to conduct his bogus “survey.” She’s busy but tells him she’d love to have him come by the next day around 4:30. He smiles, says goodbye, and promises to be back. Then some gangster dudes we met briefly earlier in the film come to her door selling some supposedly radical black newspaper that “tells it like it is” and she seems interested in hearing their message. Cut to the next day at 4:30 and Chris returns to her place as promised. She’s not there. He waits around for some little time but she never shows up.

What’s happened? Have the gangster dudes done something terrible to her? Is she okay? Turns out she’s fine. Chris sees her that night at Mindy’s place (his friendship with Joey has convinced her by this point that he’s not such a bad dude after all), and apparently nothing happened when the bad-ass gangster dudes showed up at her place, because she doesn’t even mention it. In fact, check this shit out — she ends up asking Chris where he was because apparently she was waiting for him at her place for over half an hour and he never showed! He just says something came up. And not only does she not mind his little ruse, they start to get a little thing going from that point on.

I have to think that somewhere along the line Jackson had something else written here and just decided to drop it, like maybe thins young lady ws supposed to get kidnapped or something and he just decided not to go there in order to make a PG film (which he did, this movie has no swearing and very little actual violence, apart from the scene mentioned a moment ago) or something, because this “explanation” of events just doesn’t add up in the least. She stood him up, as we clearly see on film, but that night she claims she waited for him for 30 minutes and he just says “something came up” — even though he was there and she wasn’t? But I digress. Script continuity is apparently not a Horace Jackson strong suit.

The third serious absurdity I’ll mention takes place at the construction site where Chris has been working. The white asshole who’d been lording his authority over him even though he’s not the foreman shows up and sees Chris and every other black worker walking away. He asks the foreman what happened, and is told : ” I had to lay off all the blacks. Didn’t wanna do it, but I’ve got my orders.”

Now, I know we didn’t have a black president in 1977, but I’m pretty sure this type of mass and open race-based discrimination was totally illegal and prime class-action lawsuit material even back then. But just to make matters weirder, the asshole dude immediately goes over to Chris, tells him he’s just essentially been testing his mettle and making sure he’s not one of those “bad” blacks with a chip on his shoulder against “the man,” has grown to see him as being “one heck of a worker and one heck of a man,” or words to that effect, and offers him a job at another site, a proposition which Chris immediately accepts. So essentially a movie that’s been telling us that whites won’t give a black guy a break no matter what for its entire first 80 or so minutes suddenly shows that the biggest white jerk in the whole movie ain’t such a bad guy after all and apparently us white folks aren’t so tough to get along with once we make sure you’re a “safe” sort of black person. Go figure.

But goofy as all that shit is, it pales in comparison to the ending — after an unexpected tragedy hits Joey’s family (at least, I think they’re his family — one victim is his sister, the other might, possibly, be his grandmother, but it’s never really made clear) when the bad-ass gangster dudes pay a visit to his home, a kindly preacher from the local Baptist church turns up and asks Chris, who’s helping to look after our little wheelchair-bound junior Superman (and just as a total aside here, I have to say the alternate title of “Joey” for this flick makes absolutely no sense, being that not only is he not the central character in any way, shape, or form, but 99% of the time everyone just calls him “Little Joe” anyway) if there’s anything he can do.

After endless conversations between the various characters about the evils black-on-black drugs and violence are inflicting on the community, and a theme song called “We Know What We’re Doing To Ourselves” playing almost incessantly throughout the film from start to finish, the “fourth wall” between the actors and the audience fully breaks down and Chris delivers an impassioned and highly pissed-off rant/harangue directly at the camera about how black America needs to get a million people together to march not through the streets of Washington, D.C. (and keep in mind this was years before the Million Man March) but through their own communities and neighborhoods and how they all must work together to stamp out the scourge of drugs and violence once and for all. Then, as if that weren’t enough, this lengthy and angry soliloquy concludes with —

How about right here?

“When Will It End?” Apparently right then and there. With every single plot line he’s introduced — and there are literally dozens of them — still unresolved, with every single characters left in a kind of cinematic limbo, Jackson pulls the plug on his story right then and there, not out of some sort of intentionally artistic sense of narrative realism — that went out the window five minutes into this thing — but because he figures “hey, mission accomplished,” and he’s literally run out of anything else to say.

“Deliver Us From Evil” has recently been released on DVD by Code Red, although you wouldn’t know it. Part of the “Exploitation Cinema” series of double feature DVDs (the second feature here being the eminently forgettable “The Fox Affair,” which pretty much has nothing to recommend going for it) originally issued through the auspices of BCI, Code Red inherited this line with Navarre pulled the plug on BCI altogether, but Code Red’s name is nowhere to be found on this thing. Instead, the only label we see is for the apparently defunct “Saturn Productions,” a name no one’s seen or heard of since the early days of the VHS boom, but which has popped up again out of nowhere both here and on the “Saturn Drive-In” double features that Code Red has put out recently. I’d love to explain the reason for this, but I just straight-up can’t.

The picture quality of the DVD itself, at least for this film, is pretty good. It’s a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer that does feature some skips and jumps and a little bit of grain here and there, but hey, around here we don’t all those “imperfections,” we just say it gives the movie character, in that vintage grindhouse way we know and love so well. The colors are bold and surprisingly vivid given the, shall we say, archival nature of the material, and one gets the strong sense that this is probably the best possible surviving print they could find. There are occasional running green emulsion lines on display as well, but again, that’s no big deal to this reviewer and just adds to the charm. The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack is perfectly clear and crisp. Extras on the disc are in pretty short supply, but you do get preview trailers for “Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde” (worth the purchase right there), “Group Marriage,” Terminal Island,” “The Working Girls,” Cheering Section” and “Death Force.”

There’s a story in here — hell, way too many of them — buried under a mountain of good intentions, and watching Horace Jackson sublimate every other basic rule of filmmaking and even of narrative itself in order to drive home hi singular point yet one more time is a unique viewing experience that I recommend most highly.

Final aside for movie trivia buffs — “Deliver Us From Evil” got very limited thearical play upon its release, and was usually double-billed with Jackson’s one other cinematic credit, another super-low-budgeter called “Johnny Tough” that’s apparently an urban blaxploitation retelling of Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows.” Seriously.

"The Black Connection" Movie Poster

Grimy.

If I had to sum up the 1974 Harry Novak-produced blaxploitation crime thriller “The Black Connection” in one word, that would be it. This movie is just plain grimy.

But there’s more to it than that, of course. From start to finish, this flick exudes an oppressive air of impending doom even at its most lighthearted (relatively speaking) moments. It’s beyond redemption from the get-go, and it’s taking you down with it.

I guess we might as well deal with its notorious alternate title right off the mark : as you can plainly see from the poster shown above, this film was also marketed under the title “Run Nigger Run,” which is offensive, to be sure, but in its defense — flimsy as that defense may be — this wasn’t the only 1970s-era film marketed to a black audience with the unfortunate “N word” in its title. “Boss Nigger” and “The Legend of Nigger Charlie” spring immediately to mind. So while I’m certainly not in any way, shape, or form condoning the use of said racial slur, it was a product of its time, and the times weren’t pretty.

And with that out of the way, we may as well take a look at the story itself, which, to be perfectly honest, takes a hell of a long time to get going. The first quarter (at least) of the movie features a lot of stock mobster-type characters coming and going, only some of whom really have anything to do with the actual thrust of the narrative itself. If you’re looking for a good example of plot discipline, look elsewhere.

Once things do get going, however, the story is a rather involving little crime yarn. John Harrison, a.k.a. The Graveyard Tramp, has described it as being a fusion of “Across 110th Street” and (the original) “Get Carter,” and that’s essentially an accurate summation.

Las Vegas hood Miles Carter (the wooden and uncharismatic Bobby Stevens — but we won’t hold that against him, all the acting in this flick is atrocious) is in it deep with the Italian mob over a hefty amount of missing cocaine. Hes’ tried every legit angle to get the money they want before they whack him, but when even his bank manager turns him down for an extension on the loan he owes them, he knows he’s going to have to resort to — ummm — less conventional methods of settling his scores with both the mob and the bank.

Carter’s girlfriend, Magda (Martha Washington) isn’t too keen on whatever course of action her man is taking, the white junkie chick he keeps on the side is jonesing for a fix, and his aforementioned bank manager has hired a notorious hitman named “Fats” Miller to take Carter out over the not-so-small-matter of his debt. All in all, our guy Carter looks like he’s fucked, and Vegas is getting to be a pretty hot place for him.

Then a chance encounter with Juanita, the widow of a former rival known only as “The Cuban,” offers a timely possibility — she can help him get his hands on a large quantity of premium-grade heroin, all they need to do is get down to Albuquerque to secure the smack. Carter has bigger plans, though — plans that involve setting up one last big deal to unload the heroin and then get the hell down to Mexico with Magda, leaving both his bank and the Mafia holding the bag. All is he has to do is stay alive long enough to get the smack, get it sold, and get across the border. With “Fats” hot on his trail, though, that easier said than done —

There’s nothing flashy or stylish about “The Black Connection,” to say the least. It was shot on the ultra-cheap and looks it. What’s even more important, though, is that it feels as cheap as it looks. The opening credits are simple title cards. The music, by an outfit you’ve never heard of before or since called The Checkmates, Ltd. is groovy enough, but definitely sub-standard soul fare. The acting, as mentioned earlier, is almost disconcertingly bland and straightforward. The  Las Vegas  and New Mexico locations are cool (as one commenter on the IMDB remarked, one of the most fun things to do when watching this film is to play “name the imploded hotel” in the scenes shot along the Vegas strip), but shot with no pretense toward giving them anything like a panoramic or even involving presentation by director Michael J. Finn ( by the way, this remains, understandably, his only directing credit). To refer once again to The Graveyard Tramp’s review of the film (featured on the back of the case for the DVD-R release of this movie from Something Weird Video) : “the film looks and even feels like one of those ugly, dirty XXX featurettes from the early 1970s which, much like a car wreck, you can’t help but be fascinated by.” I can’t put it much better than that, so I won’t even try.

As I mentioned in the previous review for “Massacre Mafia Style,” this movie makes a great double-bill with that Duke Mitchell classic. They each present a different side to a 1970s blacks-vs.-Italians crime story, both are dirty-ass cheap, and each offers a unique atmosphere all its own, with “Massacre Mafia Style” centered around, and anchored by, Mitchell’s charismatically unhinged performance and the possibility of positively anarchic violence thretening to erupt at any moment, and “The Black Connection” positively reeking of  the kind of malevolent and oppressive sleaze that only the lowest of budgets can convey with any sense of authenticity. Watch them back to back and have yourself one heck of a fun night scraping the absolute bottom of the exploitation movie barrel.

“The Black Connection” is available from several online DVD-R dealers, but your host recommends the previously-mentioned Something Weird release. It’s a direct-from- VHS transfer struck from a ratherage-worn (but perfectly watchable) 35mm print, but seeing this thing remastered with a crisper, clearer picture would seriously defeat the whole purpose. In addition, the SWV release also includes the original theatrical trailer at the end, and given that they’re the licensed purveyors of the entire Harry Novak back catalogue, that makes this as close to an “official” DVD release as this movie is ever going to get — or, for that matter, should get. And that’s the beauty of it.

Rareflix Vol. 4, Featuring "Boogie Vision, "Transformed" and "Lightning Bolt"

Rareflix Vol. 4, Featuring "Boogie Vision, "Transformed" and "Lightning Bolt"

—transformed into Christian action heroes, that is! Yes, folks, blaxploitation veteran Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and second-tier martial arts star Leo Fong staged a comeback in 2005, but you probably missed it if you weren’t looking too closely. Williamson, star of classics like “Bucktown,” and Fong, star of less-than-classics like “Revenge Of The Bushido Blade” got themselves some old-time religion and re-emerged in the 2005 Jesus-vs.-the-drug-lords modern cinematic parable “Transformed.”

The mean streets of Westgate (which look to be Los Angeles suburbs) are the setting for this tale of—ahem!—intrigue , corruption and redemption, the debut (and to date only, as near as I can tell) directorial effort of Efren C. Pinon, who, if he plays his cards right (if his religion allows him to play cards at all, that is) could very well become the Ron Ormond of the 21st century—and who wouldn’t aspire to that lofty goal?

Westgate is a city besieged by the scourge of illegal narcotics, and while exactly which drugs are tearing the community apart isn’t spelled out (in a Christian flick apparently just saying the word “drugs” will do), the goal of the evil dope-pushing syndicate is apparently to get every kid in town hooked on their product (again, whatever that nameless product may be).

Enter Pastor Debra (Shirlee Knudson), a plucky young lady of the cloth who’s determined to win back her church’s neighborhood, and then the city, from the pushers, lead by the ruthless Cholo (Ken Moreno), a guy who’s apparently dealing drugs to provide a better life for his young son—by getting all the boy’s friends hooked. That little dichotomy doesn’t seem to bother Cholo much, though, and why should it? He’s got friends in high places, including none other than the mayor himself, who are all in for a piece of Cholo’s action and look the other way while he turns the children of the city into hopeless dope fiends.

Pastor Debra is no pushover, however—she’s evidently one of those hip, modern preachers who isn’t above engaging in some hardboiled martial arts action if that’s what it takes to keep the kids in her community safe. Watching her and her friends beat up the pushers in a local bar and then high-fiving each other and saying “praise Jesus!” really is a sight to behold, and I’d venture to guess you won’t find anything like it in any other movie ever made—which probably isn’t such a bad thing, in and of itself, but you have to give Pinon and the other folks behind “Transformed” some credit for not being afraid to be unintentionally absurd.

Our tough-as-nails pastor has some friends in high places, too—the mysterious aged ninja-type known only as The Fist (Fong), who always seems to show up when trouble is at hand, and the equally-aged-but-no-less tough mercenary warrior known as The Hammer (Williamson), a top-dollar freelance operative brought in by a secret unnamed group of good guys to provide help in Westgate’s hour of need.

It won’t be an easy fight—the whole city power structure is lined up against our good pastor, the local DEA office is on the take, and secret computer files reveal that the drug network reaches all the way to the top, with President George W. Rush (yes, really) and Vice President Dick Chaney (yes, really again) named among the nefarious network’s head honchos.

The hand of God has a way of intervening in these things, though (apparently often through tragedy), and when Cholo’s son O.D.’s on product supplied to the school kids by old man’s network, he lets Jesus into his heart while he prays by his comatose kid’s hospital bed (hence the “Transformed” title) and now Pastor Debra and her mystery men have a powerful ally on the inside and are ready to take down the dealers and their ninja army (well, okay, it’s just a few ninjas, and they look pretty old and slow themselves, but it’s the thought that counts).

I don’t know how else to say it, folks, “Transformed” is one of those things you’ve just got to see to believe. Scripture-quoting badass preacher lady and her arthritic protectors taking on a drug network that reaches all the way to the White House yet is apparently inept enough to be brought down by essentially a handful of concerned neighbors, albeit concerned neighbors who know how to fight. The seasoned action exploitation fan will find a lot to like here, people who  like just plain  weird movies will find a more-than-generous amount of  jaw-dropping moments, and everyone else will wonder, probably quite rightly I might add, just how this thing got made, and more importantly — why?

“Transformed” never got a theatrical release and I couldn’t even find any movie poster or stills for the thing to include in this review. It is, however, available on DVD, as you can tell from the photo at the top of this post, as part of the “Rareflix Volume 4” box set from Media Blasters. For those who haven’t been picking them up, I have to say that the Rareflix sets are not only a bargain, they’re also a blast. Volume 4 features James Bryan’s “Groove Tube”/”Kentucky Fried Movie”-style comedy “Boogie Vision” and Antonio Margheriti’s spaghetti Bond rip-off “Lightning Bolt” in addition to “Transformed.” The extras on the set are pretty light (the hysterical commentaries featuring various semi-inebriated Media Blasters behind-the-scenes personnel that featured on the first two volumes are sadly missing), but “Transformed” does include a commentary from Leo Fong and each disc is packed with previews for other cool Media Blasters titles, so it’s still a damn solid value for your entertainment dollar.