Sunday, May 21, 2017

BLACKENSTEIN (William A. Levey)

Thinking back to the 1970s, whoever thought that Blaxploitation would become a cult movie genre? As a regular patron of mainstream movies during that decade I avoided Black exploitation fare in general, although Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)
was a memorable exception. I regret that I skipped Bill Gunn's truly subversive vampire film, GANGA AND HESS (1973).  That film thoughtfully and artfully addressed what it was like to be African American in America of the mid 1970s.  And, most importantly, it was conceived and directed by an African American. BLACKENSTEIN THE BLACK FRANKENSTEIN (onscreen title) was not, William A. Levey, the director of SKATETOWN U.S.A. and THE HAPPY HOOKER GOES TO WASHINGTON helmed with no sense of place or pace, but more on that later.

A gravely wounded African American Vietnam vet (Joe De Sue) is transported by his fiancee, who is also a f medical student (Ivory Stone) to the clinic of Nobel Laureate Dr. Stein (John Hart), for experimental surgery to restore his blown off arms and legs. The surgery goes well but an assistant (Roosevelt Jackson) who wants to eliminate the patient so he can have his fiancee for himself, administers a toxic chemical mix which turns the patient into..... Blackenstein!

The creature, complete with an expanded cranium of Boris Karloff in the 1931 James Whale classic, lumbers around Los Angeles, tearing apart everyone he encounters, including mob moll/sleaze movie actress Liz Renay, a girlfriend of LA mobster Mickey Cohen, who was also a client of the film's writer-producer Frank. R. Saletri, and that's where fact becomes more interesting than fiction. Saletri may have produced a laughably ineffective horror film but his own life became a real life horror film when he became the victim of an execution style murder by a gunshot to the head inflicted by a home invader in 1982. The police determined that robbery was not a motive. The home was the Hollywood Hills estate of the late horror legend Bela Lugosi, whom Saletri idolized, and was a serious collector of everything related to classic Hollywood horror films. Saletri, a Hollywood lawyer, also had some rather sinister underworld clients, was one of us, a cult movie fan, but whose own back story, and double life, is certainly more compelling than anything in his one completed production.

Actually, BLACKENSTEIN works as a terrific party film, one you just have to bring along to make a party memorable or play when you host your own. It's teeming with reliable LOL moments, such as the monster's deliberate, slow motion walk with arms always outstretched. I was also pleased to see the vintage electronic equipment of Ken Strickfaden, who provided the flashing light panels,  buzzing resistors and exploding bolts for FRANKENSTEIN (1931) THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), THE LOST CITY serial, DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN 1971).

Director William  A. Levey does absolutely noting to improve the crude staging or atmosphere but the eye popping 1080p  Full HD resolution of this presentation gives the action a candy colored look, an impressively detailed image, with razor sharp focus. The 2.0 audio clearly delivers the Blues songs of Cardella Di Milo, which does give the proceedings a much needed boost and provides at least one nod to African American arts and culture.

The Special Features include the longer (by 10 minutes) Video release version, an interview with producer Saletri's sister, an archived television news broadcast on Salteri's murder and the investigation, an interview with Special Effects creator Bill Munns, and interviews with Director Kent Osborne and actor Richard Dix (BLOOD OF DRACULA'S CASTLE) also concerning Saletri's career and death. The theatrical trailer is also included. .

BLACKENSTEIN is a hoot and addictive fun now available on this very entertaining presentation.

(C) Robert Monell, 2017