Black Gunn • The Take • The Dark Half • Skinner • Kaleidoscope • Rabid
Robert Hartford-Davis seems an odd choice as a blaxploitation director. The British filmmaker started his career with early Sixties sex dramas like The Yellow Teddybears, moved on to horror films like The Black Torment and curios like Gonks Go Beat before heading to the US. I suppose that filmography at leasts suggests a man who could turn his hand to anything, and sure enough, Black Gunn turns out to be a rather cracking slice of early 1970s black action cinema, with Jim Brown as the titular character, a successful club owner who is driven to revenge after his younger brother – who we see in the opening scenes carrying out a heist on the mob in order to finance a Black Panther style revolutionary group unfortunately called BAG (Black Action Group) – is killed by sleazy mafiosi led by a fantastically edgy Martin Landau.
This 1972 film shows how quickly the cliches of blaxploitation were established, and happily plays on them all. The plot is not unlike the superior Across 110th Steet, with the black petty criminals/revolutionaries facing off against the more established Mob (the Mafia being the go-to villains in much of the genre), while both the potentially suspect plot device of the successful, sophisticated black businessman being driven back to the brutality of the street, and the revenge narrative would also be mainstays of the genre. But as unoriginal as the film might be, there’s no denying that it is a fast-paced action movie that works very well. We might argue that Gunn’s vendetta is carried out in a rather half-assed manner – he never quite becomes the killing machine that the genre demands – but the movie makes few concessions to good taste beyond a surprising lack of nudity. The blood is splashy and bright red in a way that was only found in early Seventies films, the music by Tony Osbourne is as funky as you could ask for and a supporting cast that includes Bruce Glover, Bernie Casey and Bond girl Luciana Paluzzi bring a certain vibrancy to the whole thing. As the hero, Brown is on good form – he’s smooth and stylish, but still manages to exude a sense of danger.
Modern viewers with language sensibilities probably should be aware that there is no restraint shown in the use of racial epithets in the movie, with the N-word tossed around with wild abandon by all races. A such, it’s very much of its time – but something to bear in mind nevertheless.
Hartford-Davis was back in 1974 with The Take, which you might expect to be another blaxploitation movie based on the fact that Billy Dee Williams appears in a loud shirt on the poster art. In fact, Williams’ skin colour is – refreshingly – entirely insignificant to the narrative and (beyond a single reference to him as a ‘black bastard’, presumably crowbarred in along the way) is never referenced – the part could have been played by anyone of any race, which is rather progressive by early Seventies standards. Based, rather surprisingly, on British writer G.F. Newman’s notorious novel Sir, You Bastard, but here relocated to New Mexico, the film starts like a Dirty Harry copy, with Williams as San Francisco cop Sneed freshly relocated and immediately caught up in a shoot out. But Sneed is dirtier than Harry ever was, on the take from local crime lord Manso (Vic Morrow) while trying to play both sides, hustling the hoods while being as corrupt as all the other cops around him. It’s impressively cynical stuff, and while Williams sometimes seems too smooth and good looking to be convincing as a dirty cop, that also works in the film’s favour – even the coolest cops can be bad cops, it reminds us.
Alongside Morrow, the supporting cast is an impressive haul of familiar faces of the era – Eddie Albert, Albert Salmi and, incongruous but impressive as a weasely hood, Frankie Avalon. As with Black Gunn, Hartford-Davis directs with an unflashy efficiency, mixing fast-paced action and car chase scenes with the more subtle moments of shakedowns and pay-offs, keeping Sneed’s attempts to balance the two sides of his career nicely tense, and allowing us to see that the hoods and the drug pushers are probably less unsavoury than the police officers charged with apprehending them. There’s a definite 1970s vibe about the film, but it’s also a lot more modern in attitude than many a production of the era, and The Take deserves to be a lot better known than it is.
1992 film The Dark Half was a late return to the world of Stephen King for George Romero after their early 1980s collaborative plans mostly fell apart. The story takes inspiration from King’s years writing as ‘Richard Bachmann’. Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) is a serious novelist with a secret – he also write wildly successful violent pulp crime novels as ‘George Stark’. When his secret is threatened with exposure, he decides to publicly out himself and kill off Stark. The problem is, Stark doesn’t want to stay dead, and soon all those involved in his ‘death’ – Beaumont’s agents, the journalist who wrote the story – are being killed off.
There’s an interesting idea at the heart of The Dark Half, but Romero can’t seem to decide quite what it is (I haven’t read King’s novel so I don’t know if he handles the problem with any more success). The opening of the film reveals that Beaumont had a partially-absorbed twin that was surgically removed when he was a child, but this is no Basket Case – the twin was never more than a twitching eyeball and some organs. So it’s never quite clear who or what Stark is – a supernatural force come to life, a part of Beaumont or a split personality. Actually, the film rules the latter out as it goes on, even though it would be the best (albeit most cliched) solution, and so Stark remains a bit of an irritating, thinly-defined mystery for most of the film, as do the plague of sparrows – yes, sparrows – that are connected to him.
Romero handles the film with efficiency but gives it no style – cut a couple of gory scenes and the swearing, and this could be another of the slew of King TV mini-series (at two hours long, it’s not even far short of their length), which we might argue is the natural home for King’s often bloated work. It’s not a terrible film by any means, but there’s nothing here that suggests more than a jobbing effort all round, Hutton’s performance excepted – he clearly has fun switching from the bland Beaumont to the sleazy Stark, all slicked back hair and one-liners (the best moment of the film: a neighbour opens the door during an attack from Stark. Neighbour: “what’s going on here?”. Stark: “Murder. Want some?”. Neighbour quickly closes the door.) The rest of the cast are bland at best (Michael Rooker seems especially wasted as a symapthetic cop), and the film doesn’t so much end as fizzle out after a display of dreadful CGI, with much of it feeling like padding. Romero seems to be going through the motions, frankly, with no individual flair or style being apparent – this could have been directed by Mick Garris and it would’ve looked the same. The result is an inoffensive but ultimately forgettable horror movie.
From a similar time period as The Dark Half, but rather less respectable and so much more interesting in its approach to horror, is Skinner – a serial killer slasher that began life as a screenplay set in London before being adapted into an American movie that is rather fascinating. There’s a fascinating and unlikely cast – Traci Lords as a vengeance-crazed woman, Ricki Lake as an affection-starved housewife who you just know bad things will happen to and Ted Raimi, better known as a comedeic character, playing psycho killer Dennis Skinner.
Yes, Dennis Skinner. Which I must assume was a joke from British writer Paul Hart-Wilden that is lost on Americans. But even the Beast of Bolsover might balk at slicing the skin off prostitutes and parading around in it (unless they were Tory voters, in which case he might approve). Raimi is impressively strange and demented in the role, and the film flits from moody atmospherics to explicit gore and some ill-judged tasteless comedy (at one point, Skinner wears the skin of a black man and walks about doing the sort of impressions that many will find more upsetting than the actual murders). It’s a weirdly uneven film, but that’s what makes it interesting – you never quite know where it is going next.
Ivan Nagy, one of the key players in the Heidi Fleiss scandal, directs – it’s quite a change from the TV movies he’d specialised in earlier or the softcore videos he made after this, but he does a decent job of keeping the outrageousness flowing. Skinner is one of the great lost slasher films of the early 1990s – a time when the serial killer movie was becoming more intense and more interested in the inner workings of the pssychopath’s mind, rather than simply presenting them as masked maniacs. As part of that period, it’s a worthwhile effort, even if it does tend to go all over the place, and fans of outré cinema will find this a worthwhile addition to their libraries.
Kaleidoscope seems to hit all the buttons for modern, pompous British horror (if, indeed, it is horror).
Council Estate? Tick.
Ambiguous time frame? Tick.
Banal scenes backed by dramatic score? Tick.
Murky and bleak, as if Ken Loach was making a horror film? Tick.
Toby Jones? Tick.
Occasionally, these films rise above the new cliches of the genre to become something interesting – Ghoul, from a few years ago, was better than it had any right to be for instance – but all too often they sink into self-satisfied pseudo-artiness, designed to impress the sort of horror fan who seems a bit embarrassed to be a horror fan and so clings to this sort of thing as a way of proving that yes, they really are super-intelligent people who appreciate the finer arts. Elevated Horror is both the emperor’s new clothes and a plague on the genre.
To be fair, Kaleidoscope is far from the worst example of this sort of thing, the main offence being a leaden pacing that makes the 100-minute film feel a great deal longer. It also suffers from poor characterisation, though that is arguably a plot divice as it follows down-trodden Carl (Jones), a year out of prison for some unspecified crime, who meets a woman, Abby (Sinead Matthews) who is apparently out to steal from him, and who he may or may not have murdered. To complicate things, Carl’s domineering and manipulating mother (Anne Reid) shows up to stay. Or, again, does she?
As a psychological drama where we enter Carl’s own fractured reality, the film is not without some impressive moments, and the hints at darkness from his past relationship with his mother – there are slight suggestions of incest and murder in their history – are done well. There are knowing nods towards both Hitchcock (Psycho, of course) and Polanski (The Tenant). But the film drags on and on and writer/director Rupert Jones (brother of star Toby) seems far too much in love with his own material, which isn’t quite as smart or provocative as he might think it is. There’s perhaps a decent TV drama in this, if it was chopped down, but it doesn’t really cut the mustard as a movie, and like many an ‘elevated horror’ movie, it feels rather slight when you get down to it – all mouth and trousers, essentially.
And so we come to Rabid, the David Cronenberg remake by the much-hyped Soska Sisters. This arrives with much gushing from everyone who saw it at FrightFest, and general dismissal from everyone else. Funny, that.
Anyway, it’s a terrible, terrible film that tries to expand the story into the fashion world to no great effect (beyond some laughably bad fashion), allows important points – you know, like the motorbike accident that sets everything in motion – to take place off-screen (you could blame budget, but Cronenberg was hardly working with huge amounts of money in 1977, and he at least made sure the pivotal plot points appeared on screen) and is awash with bad acting and clumsy dialogue, while the continual references to Cronenberg’s work quickly start to wear thin. It’s hard to fathom how someone can claim to love a filmmaker’s work so much and understand it so little, but there you go.
Early in the film, a character says “why do we keep remaking old trends? Are we adding something new? If there is no soul, there cannot be life. So, do we cater to the masses, or do we create art?” I assume this is the Soskas immediately countering the anti-remake complainants and setting their work as heartfelt art rather than a mass-market, major studio remake. It’s the smartest point of the movie. But sadly, this isn’t art, not by a long shot. It’s just an empty imitation.