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.

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