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JD'S REVENGE (15)
Director: Arthur Marks
Screenplay: Jaison Starkes
Review: David Stephens
Any significant movie genre will have a section of its offerings devoted to horror. The Western has films like “Bone Tomahawk” and “Grim Prairie Tales”, and many more. The festive film DVD shelf can give you a “Black Christmas” or a “Silent Night, Deadly Night” along with all the feel good schmaltz. You get the idea. The Blaxploitation era of the 1970’s was no different either. Along with movies like “Super Fly”, “Shaft”, and “Foxy Brown”, you had plenty of horrors based around the same demographics. “Blacula” is the best known example, but there were plenty of others. “Sugar Hill” (Zombies), “Abby” (Exorcism), and “Ganja and Hess” (Vampirism) are all well respected cult scares from that time. One particularly favoured offering from then was “J.D.’s Revenge”, an offbeat supernatural tale from 1976 about vengeance from beyond the grave. It was directed and produced by Arthur Marks, who also made the classic Pam Grier film “Friday Foster”. It stars Glynn Turman - a film/TV veteran recently seen in “Super 8”, “John Dies at the End”, and “The Wire” - in the lead role. Louis Gossett (minus the “Jr” at the time of filming) also has an important role in the movie. Arrow Video will be releasing a 2K restoration of the film on dual format on the 30th October, complete with all the usual Arrow trimmings. So YGROY takes in a preview of this 70’s cult favourite to see if J.D.’s on the rocks or not…
It opens in New Orleans in 1942, with a women being murdered by an unknown assailant in a meat-packing plant. Another man arrives at the scene, is mistaken for the killer and is shot dead for his trouble. Two gravestones identify the fresh corpses as Betty Jo and J.D. Walker. Years later in modern day Na-awlins (or at least 1976), the plot introduces us to Isaac Hendrix (Turman). Working as a taxi-driver, he also studies law and is an all-round good guy and great role model… apart from the fact that he pronounces his name as “Eye-Say-Ik” for some reason. Anyway, “Ike” is in a loving relationship with Christella (Joan Pringle) and things are going good for him. However, on a night-out in the French Quarter with Christella and his friends, he visits a show with a hypnotist (“Sarah Devine – The Hip Hypnotist”) and let’s himself become part of the stage act. From that point he becomes a victim to headaches and weird flashbacks. He also develops a fascination with wide-brimmed hats (?!) and starts to seemingly exhibit a split personality. Things take a turn for the worst when he sees a scarred face in the mirror that’s not his, and he shows violent tendencies and an obsession with celebrity preacher Elijah Bliss (Gossett). J.D. wants his revenge…
It doesn’t take a genius to work out what’s going on here… But it’s executed in a nicely straight-laced way with some aplomb for the time. Perhaps refreshingly, the film (mostly) eschews that overblown machismo that was prevalent in practically all Blaxploitation flicks during that decade. Ike is a decent guy, working his way through college and treating his squeeze with respect. This juxtaposes with the asshole he becomes when “J.D. Walker” is at home, a gruff swaggering douche that thinks nothing of abusing the opposite sex and waving a razor blade about to deadly effect. If you’re being generous it can be read as a positive comment on changing male attitudes, as jive-talking gangsters screwing around and threatening people with their loud zoot-suits aren’t perceived as cool even in 70’s New Orleans.
Apart from one hilarious James-Brown-hairstyle reveal, Turman is good value as the poor good-guy-gone-weird. In a couple of moments where control of his consciousness is in flux, he actually sells it very well; whether it’s flailing around in his apartment, or moaning “Let me go” in front of J.D.’s gravestone. Gossett also brings a good deal of predictable class as the typically flamboyant religious showman. Watch his reaction as he sees “J.D.” for the first time in church.
Perhaps one of the best aspects though is to revel in the rich dialogue and tropes that you would expect from a Blaxploitation movie. Every sentence has the word “baby” crammed in there somewhere, and there’s a proliferation of the N-word and B-word, which will have any “sensitive” person who thinks that time is constant, reaching for the “unlike” button. But the film makes a good job of using the stereotypes as well as condemning some of the worst examples. You can’t beat drop-dead brilliant lines like; “Don’t you like your Daddy’s conk?” as well as making “J.D.’s” swaggering misogynistic attitude seem dated and unattractive. Although a couple of women do still unfortunately find his roughhouse sexual style bizarrely appealing (“Daddy’s got you good baby”).
But it makes a few insightful digs at “current” social issues. There’s one clever moment where a character speaks of a snake-oil preacher, saying; “You’re pimping God’s consciousness like some kind of fat whore”. Although you do have to balance that with a time-period where it’s perfectly acceptable to take your beloved to a topless strip bar! And a trip to the doctor after some brutal headaches and mood-shifts results in the expert medical opinion of; “Maybe meditate. Smoke some weed”.
As far as the genre elements go, they’re fairly subtle and not too extreme. SFX are limited to some (dodgy) visual effects via a mirror and some mild blood-letting (although some animal slaughterhouse scenes look worryingly realistic and a bit grim). And the theme of possession by an evil spirit is treated offhandedly like catching a common cold. But it does have a nice surreal edge to it, like the moment where Ike madly scampers around with a blade at the denouement, or the sequence where he uses a spot of dangerous driving to mug an elderly white woman.
If you are a fan of the Blaxploitation era and films like “Blacula” and “Abby”, then you’ll definitely get a kick out of this. It’s a superior example of the sub-genre and has a little more restraint and intelligence to it than most. The supernatural aspect isn’t overly used and there is perhaps not enough time on the “revenge” aspect of the story. But otherwise, this is another excellent package of genre nostalgia and cult goodness from the Arrow boys.
DVD Extras: It’s an Arrow Video release… so you know it’s gonna be good. “The Killing Floor” = A brand new 45 minute documentary that’s crammed full of details about the making of the film. Also includes new interviews with Turman and Marks. Well worth watching, if only to see Turman completely crack up laughing when repeating some of the dialogue! + “Here Lies J.D. Walker” – a rare 17 minute audio interview with actor David McKnight, who plays the character + A trailer reel of Blaxploitation classics + the usual collection of a trailer, radio spots, and a gallery. 1st pressings also include a collector’s booklet with a new article from critic/writer Kim Newman.
Something of a Blaxploitation gem, that’s not as well-known as some others of its type, but is totally worth catching. Turman is totally cool in both personas, and the story actually treats its subject matter with some seriousness. If you ignore some of the non-PC shortfalls of the era (and the “revenge” angle not getting enough narrative time), it’s a lively piece of Dixieland horror that entertains. (4 stars for the documentary and other extras).
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