Thursday, 15 March 2018

Drum (1976)

Drum was a kind of sequel to Mandingo, which in 1975 had (for a short time) put the slavesploitation genre on the map. Mandingo actually took itself more seriously than you might expect, trying to be more than just trash. It was trash, but trash with some pretensions. Drum appeared in the following year and it is pure trash. Pure trash, but deliriously entertaining trash.

Drum is the name of a slave. We start with a brief prologue about his birth and upbringing. He is the offspring of a white woman, Marianna (Isela Vega) and a black slave. Marianna’s slave Rachel raised the boy as her own to avoid a scandal.

Now, twenty years later, Marianna runs the most celebrated whorehouse in New Orleans. Drum enjoys a comfortable enough life as a house slave. Then fate takes a hand.

The sinister degenerate Bernard DeMarigny (John Colicos) has organised a fight between two slaves to serve as entertainment for his friends but one of the slaves has been withdrawn from the fight by his master. Rather than be embarrassed in front of his friends DeMarigny coerces Marianna into allowing Drum to fight. DeMarigny’s slave Blaise (Yaphet Kotto) is a formidable opponent. After half-killing Blaise Drum decides he wants to be his friend. It will be an uneasy friendship.

DeMarigny offers Drum anything he wants as a reward for winning the fight and Drum decides he wants a woman. He gets Calinda (Brenda Sykes). As a bonus he also gets Blaise. Things turn very awkward however when DeMarigny tries to seduce Drum and not only gets rejected but gets clobbered as well. DeMarigny vows to get his revenge.

To get Drum out of the situation Marianna sells him to Hammond Maxwell (Warren Beatty). Maxwell’s plantation, Falconhurst, is devoted entirely to the breeding of slaves.

To set up a nicely explosive situation two more elements are added. Maxwell wants Marianna to find him a nice whore to help him raise his very troublesome daughter Sophie (Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith) but Augusta (Fiona Lewis) turns out to be a lady rather than a whore and being a lady she is determined to change things at Falconhurst.

Even more explosive is Sophie herself, whose chief hobby seems to be trying to seduce the male slaves. When set sets her sights on Blaise things are clearly going to get messy. If the master finds out he’ll have Blaise killed, if Blaise is lucky.

The stage is set for the standard slavesploitation ending - a revolt with lots and lots of violence.

The plot offers obvious opportunities for copious amounts of sex and violence. The sex includes every deviation you can think of. There’s a great deal of nudity. Most of it is entirely gratuitous but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else, which at least is refreshingly honest.

This was not an exploitation B-movie. It was a genuine big-budget A-picture. It was originally a Paramount project but ended up being released by United Artists. The switch to UA entailed major reshuffles with Steve Carver replacing Burt Kennedy as director, major cast changes and a complete rewrite of the script. It also meant a cut in the budget but the budget was still insanely high by exploitation movie standards. Not many exploitation movies have a crew of 150. And when they needed a mansion they built one, at a cost of one million dollars (and that’s one million dollars in 1976 money). They then burnt it to the ground.

With lots of money spent on it and an extremely generous 63-day shooting schedule you’d expect Drum to look sensational, and it does. The sets are superb. And they’re big! Having multiple Academy Award-winning cinematographer Lucien Ballard onboard also doesn’t hurt.

The movie’s biggest asset is Warren Oates. He gives a performance that very cleverly combines campiness and subtlety. He gets plenty of laughs but he makes Hammond Maxwell surprisingly complex. Maxwell might be a slave-owner but in his own bizarre way he’s a kindly man with his own individual but rigid moral code. He is definitely no melodrama villain. He’s the most interesting and in some ways the most sympathetic character in the movie.

Ken Norton can’t act at all but he looks the part. Yaphet Kotto can act, and does so to good effect. Fiona Lewis is a delight as Augusta, combining primness with spirit and managing to be scheming but in a good way. Pam Grier gets very little to do as Maxwell’s bed wench Regine (unfortunately most of her scenes were among the many that the MPAA insisted be cut). Rainbeaux Smith is great fun as the terrifyingly slutty Sophie.

While it tries to be a bit more serious at the beginning and at the end the middle part of Drum is outrageous and often very funny.

Drum is the kind of movie that no-one would dare to make today. While it ticks all the right political boxes and takes all the correct political stances (it is certainly very much an anti-slavery film) it still manages to be outrageously politically incorrect. There’s nothing pious or preachy here - despite the big budget this is unequivocally an exploitation movie and it delivers the exploitation elements with enthusiasm. Steve Carver was a graduate of the Roger Corman school of film-making and the end result is exactly like a Roger Corman movie made on an enormous budget.

One thing you have to keep in mind is that if this film seems a little disjointed at times that’s because it was cut to ribbons by the MPAA.

Kino Lorber’s Region 1 DVD includes an audio commentary by the director. The transfer is anamorphic and it’s excellent.

Drum is totally disreputable but it doesn’t care. It sets out to entertain and it succeeds. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Psycho II (1983)

Psycho II is, quite obviously, a sequel to Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece. Now personally I think that making a sequel to a Hitchcock movie is a seriously bad idea (just as remaking a Hitchcock movie is a seriously bad idea). The chances of falling flat on your face are just so overwhelmingly high. Nonetheless someone at Universal decided that a Psycho sequel would be a fine idea and Australian director Richard Franklin was given the assignment of directing it. It was originally intended as a TV movie but ended up getting a theatrical release (and doing well enough to lead to the making of Psycho III).

Franklin certainly nails his colours to the mast straight from the start. Psycho II not only opens with a clip from Hitchcock’s original, it opens with the famous shower scene in its entirety. Which means Franklin is really setting himself up to look foolish if he can’t deliver the goods. He certainly can’t be accused of trying to make things too easy for himself.

Psycho II takes up the story just over twenty years after the events of the first movie. Norman Bates (again played by Anthony Perkins) has been pronounced cured and released from the mental hospital in which he had been confined. Perhaps a little unwisely he’s decided to return to the Bates Motel. Even more unwisely his psychiatrist Dr Raymond (Robert Loggia) doesn’t seem to think this will be a problem.

The motel is being managed by the sleazy Warren Toomey (Dennis Franz). Norman has got himself a job in a local diner where he befriends waitress Mary (Meg Tilly). Norman isn’t exactly relaxed around women and given his incredible twitchiness plus the fact that Mary knows he’s been in a mental hospital it’s a little surprising that Mary moves into the Bates House after breaking up with her boyfriend.

Norman is pretty obviously becoming obsessed with Mary and he’s also started getting messages from his dead mother. Adding to Norman’s rapidly increasing anxiety levels is the vendetta that Warren Toomey launches against him after Norman fires him.

It’s not exactly a shock when the murders start happening. The local sheriff is however not convinced that Norman has gone back to his old habits. He’s not prepared to take any action without hard evidence and such evidence as he has is a long way from being conclusive.

Of course the murders haven’t stopped yet although the final body count is not particularly high by the standards of 80s slasher movies.

The problem for Norman is that he has no way of knowing if he’s responsible for these murders. He never did remember carrying out his original series of murders.

This movie begins very conventionally and with the kind of obviousness you expect in a TV movie. After it’s drifted along in this vein for a while Franklin clearly decides he’d better start doing something clever. If you’re going to attempt a Hitchcock sequel you’re going to have to pull off at least a couple of impressive visual set-pieces. The first murder is rather disappointing. The second though is extremely well done, and it’s in keeping with the tone of the original movie as well. On the whole Franklin does a fine job with some nice use of odd camera angles and lots of atmosphere.

Screenwriter Tom Holland faced a real problem. Anybody who had seen the first movie would already know the whole setup with Norman and his mother. A mere rerun of the same events would have been too obvious and entirely lacking in suspense. He had to find a way to keep within the framework established by the first movie whilst somehow convincing us that maybe this time events would follow a different course and that the final explanation might not be quite the same. He had to make us consider the possibility that maybe this time Norman wasn’t the killer, or then again maybe he was. This was certainly a challenge.

He meets that challenge reasonably well. The story keeps to the spirit of the original but with some completely new and startling twists. What’s perhaps most unexpected is that this movie plays fair with the viewer. The big surprise twist will surprise you but it shouldn’t since there have been numerous clues pointing in that direction. But then there’s some nice misdirection as well.

Tony Perkins is even twitchier this time around. He really goes all out with the crazy person stuff. It works because he does manage to make us feel sympathy for Norman as a man who thinks he has conquered his insanity but is now put under extreme stress - the twitchiness really is only to be expected.

Meg Tilly is pretty good. She manages to make Mary seem like the sort of girl who might well make a habit of befriending recovering serial killers. She has a certain innocence combined with an odd protectiveness towards Norman. The Norman-Mary relationship is certainly a bit strange but it’s weirdly touching and against the odds Perkins and Tilly make it seem convincing.

Obviously this film is not in the same league as Hitchcock’s film. Having said that it stands up as a fairly interesting variation on the slasher movie theme with less gore but more intelligence than most movies of that type. Overall it’s one of the better 80s horror movies. Recommended.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

The Alley Tramp (1968)

The Alley Tramp is a good girl gone bad 1968 sexploitation flick directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis. The credits list Armand Parys as the director (and give every member of the cast and crew a phony French name) in a desperate attempt to give the impression that this is a classy French production. But it’s neither classy nor French and H.G. Lewis was indeed the director.

Lewis was an important figure in exploitation cinema in the 60s but somehow I’ve always found his movies to be not quite as much fun as they sound like they’re going to be. The Alley Tramp is no exception. The threadbare plot isn’t a problem. Plenty of sexploitation film-makers could have taken such a flimsy idea and made a highly entertaining film out of it. Lewis’s approach just seems lifeless, as if he just wanted to get it over and done with.

The plot revolves around young Marie Barker (Julie Ames). Marie is sixteen, but she’s not exactly sweet sixteen. Her mother has always feared that one day she’d run wild and now she’s convinced that those fears have turned out to be well-founded. What sets Marie off is the sight of her parents having sex (which is apparently a very rare occurrence in the Barker household). As everyone knows this is a sight that can trigger nymphomania in teenage girls, and Marie is soon running amok sexually.

Her first target is her good-natured third cousin, Phil. Phil is a decent enough young man but he is utterly unable to resist Marie’s very determined advances.

Marie’s mother Lily (Amy Heath), already suffering from extreme sexual frustration, suspects that her husband is having an affair (which he is, with his secretary) and since her chances of ever getting any marital sex seem remote she decides to have an affair as well. She picks Herbie as a good prospect, or at least a good prospect for a woman who likes it rough (as Lily does).

Inevitably things get complicated, with Marie seducing Herbie. After having an abortion and then seducing the doctor in the hospital Marie is packed off to a mental institution. But all is not lost. Her parents are assured that nymphomania is a treatable medical condition.

The sex scenes are pretty much what you expect in a 60s sexploitation feature, the sex mostly taking place under the bedclothes with the men keeping their jockey shorts on at all times. There is however plenty of nudity, including frontal nudity, and including at least one remarkably explicit shot that Lewis presumably hoped (rightly as it turned out) that he could get away with. Or perhaps he was so uninterested he didn’t notice it himself.

Julia Ames and Amy Heath are both quite attractive (with Amy Heath looking rather young to be the mother of a sixteen-year-old) and they both spend plenty of time naked.

This film features some of the worst acting you will ever come across. That turns out to be its saving grace. Julia Ames is atrocious but she’s enormous fun especially when she goes completely over-the-top in the scene in which Marie finally snaps and lets her mother know exactly how things are going to be from now on. It’s a gloriously epic piece of overacting. Amy Heath is no slouch in the overacting department either. Between the two of them they turn what could have been a dull film into a deliciously entertaining exercise in bad but thoroughly enjoyable film-making.

There is also a brief go-go dancing scene. More go-go dancing would have helped but we have to be grateful for what we get.

Something Weird paired this one with another sexploitation film, Over 18…And Ready! (which I haven’t watched yet). The Alley Tramp looks terrific. There’s the usual array of Something Weird extras.

The Alley Tramp is I suppose a borderline roughie, although it lacks the edge to qualify as a fully-fledged member of that species.

It has to be admitted that this is far from being a classic of the genre but it is a must-see movie for true connoisseurs of excruciatingly bad acting. If you’re a H.G. Lewis completist you’ll also be interested.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

The Frozen Dead (1966)

The Frozen Dead might be a schlocky sci-fi/horror B-movie with a close kinship to cheap and lurid 1950s mad scientist movies (and to both zombie and Nazisploitation movies) but it has enough odd interesting qualities to make it worth seeing. Although the majority of these kinds of movies tend to be American or European this is actually a 1966 British production.

Dr Norberg (Dana Andrews) appears to be a dedicated and kindly medical researcher living in a comfortable country house not too far from London. He’s German but the war has been over for more than twenty years and he’s popular and well-respected in the district. In reality though the war never did end for Dr Norberg. He’s actually a stalwart Nazi Party member and his medical research is far from innocuous. In the closing stages of the war he perfected a method of freezing people so that they could be revivified many years later. He froze twelve Nazi officers and they’re in his basement laboratory.

Actually to say that he perfected the method is a slight exaggeration. Defreezing people turned out to be more difficult than he anticipated and so far the ones he has defrozen have ended up with severe brain damage. He is however working hard to refine his techniques.

This has suddenly become critical. He has just been informed that the Party actually has 1,500 frozen Nazis in storage and now they want them all revived so that the Third Reich can be reborn.

To add to his troubles his much-loved niece Jean (Anna Palk) has arrived back home from a school in America earlier than expected. She knows nothing of his past or his work and he really doesn’t want her finding a basement full of deep-frozen Nazis.

On the other hand an opportunity has come his way. He has finally been able to obtain a completely fresh human head which he has been able to sever from the body and keep alive. This may give him the keys to understanding how to revive his frozen comrades successfully without damaging their brains.

This might sound like an incredibly trashy film. It is a trashy film but it’s a cut above most films of its type. There are some genuinely effective and atmospheric images. The head without a body is very well done and quite creepy.

What really sets it apart is the performance of Dana Andrews. Andrews was a fine actor who by the 60s found himself relegated to low-budget shockers but he hadn’t forgotten how to act. He plays his role pretty straight and makes Dr Norberg a mad scientist who despite being a Nazi does have some good qualities. He’s a Nazi with ethics! And his German accent is subtle and convincing.

Anna Palk is quite good as the niece. Alan Tilvern plays Norberg’s assistant Karl Essen and he also manages to deliver a fairly non-hammy performance. Philip Gilbert is the weak link as young American scientist Ted Roberts who agrees to help Norberg with his experiments. Look out for Edward Fox in a small role as a brain-damaged Nazi zombie.

Nazi fever really took off in the 1960s and fuelled a whole series of mostly Z-grade sci-fi horror flocks as well as even more lurid fare. Nazis became an obsession in television action adventure series as well. Nazis were simply everywhere in the world of 60s pop culture.

What makes this movie interesting is that it has all the outrageousness that the plot outline would lead you to expect combined with a certain British quality of understatement. It’s as if writer-director Herbert J. Leder (who was actually an American) was trying to make a quality sci-fi horror movie in the tradition of Hammer’s celebrated Quatermass films. With a limited budget and ludicrously over-the-top subject matter it’s not surprising that he falls short of his objective but at least he gave it the old college try.

On the whole this is a silly but reasonably well-made fun movie. It’s low-budget but the production values are certainly not rock-bottom. And it does have that surprisingly complex performance by Dana Andrews to give it a touch of unexpected class.

The Warner Archive disc offers a very good anamorphic transfer. The colours look great.

The Frozen Dead is pretty entertaining. Zombies, a memorable mad scientist, a head without a body and snap-frozen Nazis - what’s not to love? Recommended.

And if you love Dana Andrews in this movie he's also good as a mad scientist in the excellent Crack in the World.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Platinum Pussycat (1968)

Platinum Pussycat (also released as The Losers) is a 1968 sexploitation movie that creates its own little sub-genre. We could call it sexploitation noir, or maybe noirsploitation. It’s a strange little movie but it’s fascinating and it’s entertaining.

Some guy called Hollister gets stabbed to death. His girl Dena (Sandy Roberts) didn’t do it but she is the prime suspect, mainly because she didn’t play things too smart after the murder. She picked up the knife, left her prints all over it, then ran before the cops arrived. So it’s not surprising that the police figure she’s the murderess.

In desperation she turns to her ex-boyfriend Mike Baron (Jeff Baker). Mike’s an ex-cop and he’s one tough hombre. The only trouble is that he knows Dena pretty well and he doesn’t trust her one little bit. He is however persuaded to help her hide out for a while, at the apartment of a lady artist friend of his. This works out very badly indeed for the lady artist, and pretty badly for Dena as well when a couple of hoods show up. They rape Dena and kidnap her and then they torture her.

This makes Mike pretty mad and when Mike gets mad people get hurt. They get hurt real bad.

At this point the plot, pretty shaky to begin with, starts to gain quite a bit in complications and lose quite a bit in coherence. It seems that Hollister was mixed up with a Soviet spy master and the whole thing revolves around some stolen documents and the money that was to be exchanged for said documents. Everybody involved was trying to double-cross everybody else and now there are lots of people prepared to commit all manner of mayhem to get their hands on the documents, or the money, or both.

So basically this is a spy thriller. And while it might be a bit incoherent it’s really no more incoherent than a lot of the mainstream spy movies of the mid to late 60s. It was an incoherent kind of decade.

You might now be asking what happened to the sexploitation angle? Well you needn’t worry about that. The spy thriller plot is interspersed with lots of sex and lots of nudity. The sex scenes don’t always make much sense. I have no idea where the two lesbians came from but this is a sexploitation movie and so it had to have lesbians, and it does. And they get down to some hot girl-on-girl action as well as a threesome with a particularly nasty gangster.

All the female cast members get naked at some stage. Mostly the sex and nudity is what you expect from early to mid 60s sexploitation - no frontal nudity and while the sex scenes try to be steamy the guys keep their underpants on. This suddenly changes midway through and we get a ten-minute interlude with fairly explicit (by the standards of 1968) sex and some frontal nudity. This little interlude was shot in colour while the rest of the movie is in black-and-white. It is of course quite possible that this sequence was shot separately some time after the rest of the movie.

There’s a very obvious film noir influence here and I suspect it was particularly influenced by John Boorman’s Point Blank which came out in 1967. Lee Marvin’s performance in that film might well have inspired Jeff Baker’s performance in this film. In fact this movie has a pretty strong claim to be considered as an authentic neo-noir. Not a great neo-noir, but considering the ultra low budget it’s better than you might expect. There’s even an actual action set-piece as the finale.

Sandy Roberts can’t really act but she’s cute and she knows how to look seductive. She has the femme fatale role and she carries it off reasonably well.

The really interesting performance comes from Jeff Baker. I’m not claiming he was any great shakes as an actor but he sure as hell was hardboiled. Mike Baron is your basic hardboiled movie private eye on steroids. This guy could eat Mike Hammer for breakfast.

The impression of incoherence is perhaps mainly due to the soundtrack, with its odd mix of random noise, pop songs and voiceover narration that manages to make the details of the plot much more difficult to untangle. In fact it’s probably easier to follow the plot if you ignore the voiceover narration altogether.

Retro Seduction Cinema have released this movie as part of a double feature, paired with The Sexploiters. It’s a two-disc set and there are oodles of extras. They’ve done a fairly reasonable job with the transfer. The source material clearly had some problems. There’s some severe print damage in places but mostly the image quality is quite good. Sound quality is OK but with a few dropouts.

Platinum Pussycat might not make a whole lot of sense but it’s certainly action-packed, by which I mean it’s packed with actual action as well as sex. As a sexploitation movie it clearly belongs in the roughie category but it tries hard to be a film noir and at times it succeeds. It’s oddly hypnotic and fascinating. Most of all it’s fun. Highly recommended.

Monday, 29 January 2018

The Atomic Brain (1963)

The Atomic Brain (the original theatrical release title was Monstrosity) is classic Z-grade sci-fi horror schlock.

This is a mad scientist movie and it has all the right ingredients. Of course having the right ingredients doesn’t guarantee a good movie.

The mad scientist in question is Dr Otto Frank (Frank Gerstle) and he is on the verge of perfecting the technique of brain transplantation. He’s transplanted animal brains into humans and now he’s ready to take the next step - human brain transplants.

His experiments are financed by a rich old lady named Mrs March (Marjorie Eaton). She wants to be young again and she wants Dr Frank to transplant her brain into the body of a beautiful young woman. Of course not many young women are likely to volunteer to donate their bodies and for the operation to succeed the body has to be fresh. Mrs March and her boyfriend (gigolo might be a more accurate description) Victor (Frank Fowler) come up with the idea of obtaining a young female companion from a domestic employment agency. They get three applicants, all from overseas (obviously they don’t want nosy families sniffing about if the girls happen to vanish).

The three girls are Bea (Judy Bamber), Nina (Erika Peters) and Anita (Lisa Lang). Bea is English (and Judy Bamber’s attempt at an English accent has to be heard to be believed), Nina is German (luckily Erika Peters is German so she sounds convincing enough) and Anita is Mexican (with another not wholly convincing accent). Mrs Match quickly decides that Bea is the prettiest and so it’s Bea’s body she wants, although for complicated reasons that decision changes later.

There are a couple of Dr Frank’s earlier experiments wandering about and they’re pretty much zombies, plus the telephone wires have been cut and the girls are locked in they don’t take too long to figure out that something bad is going on here. They figure that leaving might be an excellent idea but that’s easier said than done.

You might be wondering where the atomic element comes in. Atomic energy is what Dr Frank uses to re-activate his transplanted brains.

The Atomic Brain is one of those movies that pops up on worst movies of all time lists. It is pretty bad but it’s certainly not bad in the way Ed Wood’s movies are bad. There’s a certain basic level of film-making competence at work here. There’s even the occasional shot that is moderately well composed. And it has a coherent plot. I’m not suggesting it’s a good plot but it is coherent. It’s very silly, but since when has silliness been a problem in science fiction or horror movies?

The mad scientist laboratory is not too bad for a very low-budget film. There are no attempts at elaborate special effects, and that was probably a very wise decision.

The main problem here is that it’s all rather stodgy. It just doesn’t quite have that spark that makes for great low-budget schlock.

It does have its moments though. The scene in which Mrs March has Nina modelling clothes is pretty creepy when you consider that Mrs March is more interested in checking out Nina’s body (which is soon to be hers) than the clothes.

These sorts of movies tend to have very predictable endings (you know that the mad scientist is not going to get away with his evil plans) but this one does throw in a couple of decent little twists.

Something Weird released this one on a triple-feature disc along with a real obscurity called Love After Death (which I have yet to watch)  and The Incredible Petrified World (a bad sci-fi movie that is unfortunately very dull indeed). The Atomic Brain gets a pretty good transfer.

If you’re in the mood for enjoyable sci-fi silliness then you could do worse than watch The Atomic Brain, although it has to be said that there are better movies (including low-budget movies) dealing with much the same themes. Recommended, as long as you don’t get your hopes up too high.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Blacksnake (1973)

Blacksnake is the one Russ Meyer film that nobody seems to like, not even hardcore Meyer fans. It’s nowhere near as bad as it’s usually made out to be but it’s easy enough to see why so many people disliked it.

After his brief and less than happy experience trying to make big-budget Hollywood movies Meyer wisely decided to return to independent productions. He also decided to try a dramatic change of genres. This was understandable enough. Once hardcore porn appeared on the scene it was clearly going to be more difficult for Meyer to find an audience for the sorts of movies he liked to make. And Meyer was adamant that he was going to have nothing whatsoever to do with hardcore porn. His solution was to concentrate on violence rather than sex.

Blacksnake was however a departure from the usual Meyer territory in lots of other ways as well. It was his first period picture, and his first foray into the world of blaxploitation. Blacksnake was to be a savage indictment of slavery.

The setting is the West Indian island of San Cristobal in 1835. The British had by this time abolished slavery but somehow Lady Susan Walker (Anouska Hempel) is still getting away with running her plantation with slave labour. To protect her position she has a private army of French-speaking blacks led by Captain Raymond Daladier (Bernard Boston).

Sir Charles Walker (David Warbeck) is intensely interested in Lady Susan’s activities. One of her many husbands was his brother Jonathan who mysteriously vanished and is presumed to be dead. Sir Charles is convinced that Lady Susan murdered him. He manages to get himself a position as Lady Susan’s book-keeper and sets off for the West Indies to discover the truth about his brother.

He soon discovers that San Cristobal is suffering a reign of terror at the hands of Lady Susan and her henchmen, especially the sadistic white overseer Joxer Tierney (Percy Herbert). A slave revolt is in the offing although no-one on San Cristobal can see it coming. Sir Charles uncovers the horrifying truth about his brother and he is also caught up in Lady Susan’s dangerous sexual games. The violence is pretty much non-stop and builds to a frightening crescendo.

One of the major problems with this film is that Meyer seemed to want to make a sincere and serious anti-slavery film but at the same time he was trying to make an exploitation film (which is after all what he was good at). There’s violence in most of Meyer’s movies but it’s always very stylised and very cartoonish and mostly played for laughs. The violence in Blacksnake is the exception to this rule - it’s over-the-top but it’s also horrifyingly realistic. This was obviously a conscious decision by Meyer but it can be a bit jarring since there’s also (as always in Meyer’s films) a fair amount of comedy.

An even bigger problem is that I’m not sure exactly what kind of audience he expected to reach. Fans of his earlier films were not going to like the combination of realistic violence and virtually no sex and nudity. Earnest white liberals who liked message movies such as Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and To Kill a Mockingbird were not going to deal with the sadistic violence. Blaxploitation fans were not going to like it because there’s no black hero to relate to. The one memorable black character is Captain Raymond Daladier, an effeminate French-speaking homosexual. Art-house audiences were not going to go to see a movie by a disreputable exploitation film-maker (Meyer would eventually gain a following among the film school crowd but that was some years in the future). Mainstream audiences were going to be shocked and mystified. So the danger was that it would end up finding no audience at all, which was in fact what happened.

The biggest problem of all is the acting. Percy Herbert gives the sort of performance that would have been perfect in a typical Meyer movie but it doesn’t quite work in this one. David Warbeck is atrocious. He’s both bland and irritating and comes across as a pompous do-gooder. Bernard Boston’s performance is an absolute delight but it’s as if the the major male characters are all characters in entirely different movies.

And then there’s Anouska Hempel. Nobody has a good word for her performance. Personally I don’t think she’s all that bad but again there’s the problem of the movie being unable to decide if it’s going to be serious or campy. Hempel is slightly too over-the-top for her character to be taken seriously but she’s not excessive enough or sufficiently larger-than-life to make Lady Susan work as a cartoon villainess.

Yet another problem is that there is zero sexual heat in this movie. The most successful of all movies in this slavesploitation sub-genre was Mandingo and it was successful because it had lots and lots of sexual heat which made the violence and sadism easier to endure. With all its other faults Blacksnake could have worked if it had had that kind of overheated perverse sexual tension. Anouska Hempel’s performance is however entirely sexless. Even the brief moments of nudity manage to be sexless. I don’t think it was entirely her fault - with a leading man like David Warbeck giving the impression he didn’t even want to touch a woman she had nothing whatever to work with. Many Meyer fans feel that the problem was that she did not have the kinds of physical attributes that one expects from a leading lady in a Russ Meyer film. That may have been a problem in that Meyer thought she was too flat-chested to be sexy and I guess it’s a bit difficult to motivate yourself to convey sexiness if your director thinks you have zero sex appeal. I don’t really think this was the real problem though. She may not have had the bust measurements of a typical Meyer starlet but Anouska Hempel was still a very attractive young woman.

What it comes down to is that for the story to work we have to believe that Lady Susan is the sort of woman who can drive men crazy with lust and the sort of woman who has insatiable lusts of her own and we just don’t believe it. So we have a Russ Meyer movie totally lacking in sexiness and largely lacking in fun.

It’s not a total loss. Blacksnake was shot on location in Barbados and it looks sensational. It’s also very stylish. It’s not quite Meyer’s usual style (there’s not so much emphasis on lightning-fast editing) but it works and he does come up with some very striking (and occasionally very powerful) images.

The best thing about Blacksnake is that its failure finally convinced Meyer to forget mainstream audiences and mainstream critics altogether and go back to making the kinds of movies he liked making. It also seems to have convinced him to go back to doing his own cinematography and his own editing. His next movie would be the wonderful Supervixens, which is just about the archetypal Russ Meyer movie. Blacksnake is a failure, although it’s an interesting failure and worth a look if you’re a dedicated Meyer fan.