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Stacie Ponder – Blaxploitation Movies Brought Horror to the Hood

Any good “-ploitation” movie should skirt the lines of taste, and blaxploitation flicks oblige, vacillating between the racism of perpetuating stereotypes and the empowerment inherent in minority actors seizing the spotlight. Knowing that the writers, producers and directors of blaxploitation movies were overwhelmingly white just adds to the confusion, and it can make for some uneasy moments: “Gee, an afro-ed, leather jacket-clad Pam Grier gettin’ her vigilante on and blowing away bad guys is great! Oh, right, but all the other black characters are hookers, drug-addicts and thugs.”

That said, blaxploitation movies were meant to be — and are — pure entertainment. And hey, if you’re the type of scary movie fan who, you know, likes to be entertained, you should be thrilled to discover that blaxploitation has a horror division. Blaxploitation horror is, in essence, historically “white” horror seen through an urban filter: Sometimes the plots are paper-thin; sometimes they touch upon themes relevant to the “black experience” of the 1970s. More often than not, they’re uncomfortably entertaining. Here are a few notable entries in the genre.

Blacula (1972)
If there’s one thing I learned from watching Blacula, it’s that Dracula is a real jerk. OK, I kinda knew that already, what with the whole bloodsucking thing. But I had no idea the Count was a racist jerk! First he refuses to help African Prince Mamuwalde (theater-trained William Marshall) eliminate the 18th-century slave trade, then he turns the hapless guy into a vampire. Blacula is released from his coffin in the swingin’ ’70s and kicks off a cinematic genre. From the over-the-top performances by the two gay interior decorators who unearth the vampire to the racially-charged moniker bestowed on the bloodsucker, Blacula is an exercise in political incorrectness. The movie spawned a sequel (1973’s Scream Blacula, Scream!, with Pam Grier) and nabbed the first Saturn Award for Best Horror Film. In your face, Dracula!

Black Frankenstein (aka Blackenstein, 1973)
It’s a story straight out of the history books: A soldier loses all his limbs in Vietnam, only to have them reattached by a Nobel prize-winning scientist who’s just “solved the genetic code.” Just when you think all will be well for the young veteran, the scientist’s evil sidekick screws with the DNA (kept in a bottle helpfully labeled “DNA”), transforming our hero into Blackenstein — an unholy monster driven to murder topless women. Isn’t that always the way? It’s glaringly obvious that all of Blackenstein‘s ultra-low budget was spent on gore, of which there’s a surprisingly sizable amount. If you can ignore… oh, the atrocious acting, directing, lighting, pacing and writing, there’s fun to be had in with this laugh out loud “horror” movie.

Abby (1974)
This outrageous movie is demonic possession as only the late schlockmeister supreme William Girdler (Three on a Meathook, The Manitou) could envision it, When the soul of minister’s wife Abby soul is taken over by dirty-talking demon Eshu, she froths at the mouth and hits the disco floor in search of men who can satisfy her suddenly voracious sexual appetite. William Marshall, Blacula himself, plays her understandably dismayed father-in-law. The movie’s tagline proclaims, “Abby doesn’t need a man anymore — the Devil is her lover now!” I’ll say this much: Satan better be real nice to her, because the relationship wreaks absolute havoc on her skin and hair. Girdler freely admitted to aping William Friedkin’s hugely successful The Exorcist and disco-dancing scenes aside, Warner Bros. saw enough similarities to threaten a lawsuit. Abby was pulled from theaters shortly after release, but decades later, this awesome, trashtastic piece of moviemaking has found the cult following it deserves.

Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976)
In William Crain’s second blaxploitation outing, Dr. Pride is attempting to develop a cure for cirrhosis and tries out his experimental serum on himself. Side effects of this serum include nausea, inflammation at the injection site and the possibility of turning into a white man with a propensity for killing hookers. Never mind wondering about the science behind that startling transformation — the biggest mystery here is that the movie features no one named Dr. Black or Mr. Hyde. There’s actually a hint of something deeper to the film, a touch of thought-provoking happenings that cause the viewer to question what it means to “act” black or white. If, however, you’re not into, you know thinking, you can just sit back and enjoy the flour dusting Bernie Casey’s face and hair.

Black Devil Doll from Hell (1984)
This shot-on-VHS feature, written and directed by Chester Turner, has been floating around the horror underground forever as one of those “You just gotta see this!” flicks, sort of like that ominous tape in The Ring. While it won’t leave you struggling to rid yourself of a death curse after viewing, it will coat you in a patina of sleaze so thick you may never feel clean again. Devoutly religious, middle-aged Helen picks up a Rick James look-alike doll at an antique shop after the owner informs her that the doll fulfills the owner’s most heartfelt wish. Helen’s heartfelt wish is for some sexy times, and the doll all-too-willingly (and nauseatingly) obliges. Inept, explicit, tasteless, and jaw-droppingly offensive… trust me, you just gotta see this!

Blaxploitation horror is receiving a bump in popularity thanks to the recent Black Devil Doll — yes, Turner’s similarly titled, outrageous puppet opus was an inspiration — though it will be interesting to see how such a movie plays in today’s politically correct climate. Personally, I’m hoping the genre continues on an upswing; maybe then we’ll be treated to Blacula Has Risen From the Grave.

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A fan of horror movies and scary stuff, Stacie Ponder started her blog Final Girl so she’d have a platform from which she could tell everyone that, say, Friday the 13th, Part 2 rules. She leads a glamorous life, walking on the razor’s edge of danger and intrigue.

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