Written by: Larry LeBron and Lawrence Woolner
Directed by: William Crain
Starring: Bernie Casey, Rosalind Cash, Ji-Tu Cumbuka
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“Brother man, this situation is rapidly becoming insalubrious... meaning: We're about to stomp a mudhole in your ass!"
The term “blaxploitation” has come to be known as a genre in and of itself over the past 40 years, which really isn’t quite accurate and only serves to lump a bunch of black-themed movies together. The truth is that blaxploitation films dabbled in a bit of everything: there were dramas, action flicks, comedies, and, of course, horror movies. Many horror fads found themselves being co-opted for black audiences in the 70s and beyond, whether it was re-appropriations of classic monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein (who became Blacula and Blackenstein) or more recent terrors like demonic possession (Abby is Linda Blair’s exorcised counterpart). After horror’s two most famous monsters were tackled, it only made sense that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde got some soul brothers in the form of Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde.
Dr. Pride is well-respected in his field; he’s not only generous and professional, but he’s also a smart researcher. His most recent project is a serum that he hopes will regenerate dying liver cells; after a few experiments on mice and a dying patient, he decides to inject himself. It ends up turning him into an albino beast that terrorizes the city’s prostitute population every night. Pride then struggles to come to terms with his alternate personality as the local police force attempts to crack the case.
Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde features most blacxsploitation hallmarks: there’s plenty of pimps, prostitutes, tricked-out-cars, drug use, a funk-tinged score, and even some random kung-fu (or is it pimp-fu?). At least that’s what you get when the film decides to be interesting; it’s a bit poorly plotted and paced, and often feels like more of a police procedural or drama. A sequence where Dr. Pride wines and dines a prostitute (who emerges as the film’s “hooker with a heart of gold”) is especially lethargic. However, the scenes of horror are good--there’s some nicely conceived chase sequences and attack scenes (though the attacks amount to no more than some punches and press slams), and it all leads up to a climactic sequence that echoes King Kong, if you can believe that. The film is fairly gritty and grimy, steeped in its urban environment that's far removed from Stevenson's Victorian England, though Pride's penchant for killing prostitutes rightfully brings us right back to Jack the Ripper. As such, the film is appropriately violent without being overly graphic. In many ways, it truly does just feel like an updated 50s monster movie, only much more colorful (in more ways than one).
Like many films of its type, it also packs in some thinly-veiled social commentary on race relations. In no uncertain terms, Pride is called out as an Uncle Tom before his affliction literally transforms him into a white man. The image of an albino black man who terrorizes a black community has obvious metaphorical implications, and Casey’s white-face perhaps represents a cinematic inversion of blackface. It’s not exactly subtle or deep, but this is an interesting representation of the struggles of black community’s struggle to maintain identity while trying to advance in an Anglo-dominated society. If that isn’t enough, the film even throws in women’s lib musings, as a group of prostitutes discuss their desire to free themselves of their male oppressors; again, it’s just lip service, and the film ultimately degenerates into the stuff of standard monster movies.
And it is a decent one at that; Crain (who directed the aforementioned Blacula steadily helms an obviously rough, quick, and dirty production that no doubt felt right at home in the grindhouse. Astute viewers will notice two famous names behind the scenes here: cinematographer Tak Fujimoto and effects man Stan Winston, but this can hardly be considered a highlight for their award-winning careers. Fujimoto’s lens is competent and occasionally captures some dynamic angles and lighting, while the film’s chief effect is the makeup that transforms Casey’s face into a beastly visage that resembles a cross between “The Abominable Snowman and Willie the Werewolf.” Casey himself is a strong point among the cast; like many of his blaxploitation peers, he was a former football player, but he went on to appear in everything from some Magnificent Seven sequels to Revenge of the Nerds. Here, he brings just enough empathy and charisma to the role of Dr. Pride to make him worth getting to know. The other standout is Ji-Tu Cumbuka, who is another familiar blaxploitation face; he’s quite a hoot, and he gets all of the film’s best lines in the role of Lt. Jackson.
All told, Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde is a serviceable take on the Jekyll/Hyde mythos. It’s really fun when it wants to be--the problem being that it doesn’t want it enough, I suppose. VCI has given the film its first legitimate DVD release, and it’s a decent release. While there are no special features, the presentation maintains the film’s low-budget presentation, as the source looks to be a print that’s been through the ringer. The sound is similarly rough at times, but always audible enough. Basically, it looks and sounds like it probably did after a long run through the drive-in circuit back in the 70s. While this one is no cracking dynamite, it’s not exactly a jive turkey, either. Fans of blaxploitation horror especially should give it a look. Rent it!
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