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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 10: J. D.'s Revenge (1976)

Written by Jaison Starkes
Directed by Arthur Marks

Glynn Turman:  Isaac Hendrix
Louis Gosset, Jr.:  Reverend Elija Bliss
Joan Pringle:  Cristella
Fred Pinkard:  Theotis Bliss
David McKnight:  J. D. Walker
Alice Jubert:  Roberta Bliss / Betty-Jo Walker

My favorite joke about moviemaking? Okay. "Everyone in Hollywood is in a desperate race to the be second one to do something original". Every time there's a huge smash hit there's a flood of imitators hoping to hop on the big film's coattails and lure an audience in with promises of more of the same, but with a gimmick. Disaster movies, slashers, Mafia dramas...A picture hits spawned B picture imitators as surely as dawn follows night.

American International Pictures always had their ear to the ground looking for the next trend they could exploit for a quick buck or another way to give an audience what they already wanted--and in the Seventies they had a thriving line of supernatural horror movies as well as a steady stream of black-themed films (and, occasionally, a movie that would be both of those things at the same time). So it would be the most natural thing in the world for them to work up a blaxploitation take on some kind of supernatural theme. Vampires already got used four times in various AIP films and voodoo was used for a revenge movie two years before. They'd done a quick and cheap ripoff of The Exorcist with Abby, so why not go back to the possession well? But instead of a demonic personality taking over an innocent person, this time it's a more human evil. Hard as it might be to believe, J.D.'s Revenge is a blaxploitation horror take on The Search for Bridey Murphy.

The first thing we get is a flashback to New Orleans in 1942 (complete with soft focus so the viewer knows that the entire movie won't be a period piece). The significance of everything in this scene won't be revealed until the third act, but the events that happen in the first two minutes of the film resonate for decades in the storyline and until the final minutes of the movie in the land of fiction. In a meat packing warehouse, a woman is laughing at a man. She says he's crazy and an idiot; the man says he can give the woman more money than Elija can. The woman's not having any of it--she says if the man doesn't cut this shit out she'll tell Elija that the baby isn't his. The man says if she does that, he'll kill her, and she laughs at him again. Well, it turns out that it's easier for the man to pull a straight razor out and slice this woman's throat than it is for him to get laughed at by a woman. A second man walks in and sees her body, and winds up consumed with panic and grief. He calls her by name, so we learn she was Betty-Jo. The second man stands up with blood literally on his hands when a third man walks into the room. He concludes wrongly but understandably that the second man killed Betty-Jo and shoots the second man dead while the first one (who really did kill Betty-Jo) watches from a place of concealment. And we're two minutes into the movie.

The next thing we see is a thunderstorm at night, next to a cemetery plot with a marker for Betty-Jo Walker and her brother J. D. and then it's time for the credits, which are shown over present-day footage. There's a friendly football game being played by a bunch of young black men; Glynn Turman looks so young! I'm used to him either being the science teacher in Gremlins (still my favorite Christmas movie) or the mayor in The Wire; I was not ready for him looking about nineteen years old and built like a brick outhouse. Turman sketches his character Isaac easily while the game progresses--he stops a fight between two players and gets them to shake hands and make up before he takes off. He's late for work (he's a cab driver, which he does to pay his way through law school). So--handsome, smart, dedicated, athletic. Makes me feel pretty inferior just looking at him.

His girlfriend Christella wants to go out and have fun (New Orleans can't be an easy town to be a bookworm in), so she and Isaac go out to celebrate their friends' first wedding anniversary. It turns out that in the Big Easy, the one-year gift is an instant R rating for your movie (the characters are on a double date to a topless go-go bar, which sounds kind of unlikely to me). Isaac's sticking to beer instead of going for the harder stuff and the quartet winds up going on a pub crawl through topless bars (for an anniversary celebration? Really?). In one of the clubs there's a stage hypnotist who puts various patrons through their paces, and of course Isaac is one of the people chosen to go  up on stage and make a damned fool out of himself. The hypnotist makes her subjects feel hot (which makes them strip down, to the amusement of the rest of the audience) and then feel cold so they don't wind up buck naked on the stage. And when Isaac is under the hypnotic command to feel cold his eyes pop open and he has a flashback to the deaths at the meat packing warehouse--which is impossible, since he's too young to have been alive then, let alone the same age as the people in his vision. So of course it's time to go to the next club for some disco dancing!

Isaac zones out on the dance floor (and his visions are teased by the film going to a sepia tone, the cinematic way to say "this is the past" as it shows Isaac in the present; that little touch really impressed me). That night, back at his apartment, he says it's just a headache but Christella is concerned when he turns down an invitation to make love. He has another flashback before going to sleep--blood from slaughtered animals, murder, and J.D. Walker shot down in a case of mistaken identity. Just what you want before a peaceful night's sleep.

In the next scene, Isaac's at a mental hospital cafeteria having lunch with the guy he was double-dating with the previous night (who is wearing a lab coat and jeans, so I guess he's an orderly or a really casual doctor). Isaac says he's been having headaches for a week and his friend gets him an appointment with a doctor on staff. And when Isaac passes by a secondhand clothing shop in his cab, he hops out and buys the fedora in the window. Christella says it's not exactly his kind of look and Isaac gets visibly angry (and the viewer can see J.D. Walker in the mirror on the wall behind him!). When Isaac takes a look at himself in the mirror, he sees J.D. in his clothing and gets scared, while the slain man just scowls at him from the great beyond.

Then there's a jump cut to Isaac's visit to the doctor, who says "You're perfectly healthy. You don't have hypertension or high blood pressure," which means Isaac needs to find another doctor because those are the same thing.That night Isaac is out walking in a rougher part of the city than he was in before and visits a pimp named Enoch in a smoke-filled nightclub. Enoch is quite surprised to see him there and Isaac says he wants to start playing the numbers (an inner-city gambling game eventually supplanted by the Daily 3 and Pick 4 lottery games; the players try to guess the last three digits of the NYSE daily trades, which are random and can't be influenced. Winners get 600:1 payouts and bookies can be expected to clean up with those odds). And still later, while studying, Isaac has another flashback to J.D.'s life which winds up in a love scene where Isaac is considerably rougher and more forceful than he normally would be (which, viewing from the more enlightened perspective of 2014 looks borderline or actually abusive).

Soon after that, Isaac (who's calling himself Ike now, by the way) is driving his cab and hears a radio preacher over the transistor radio hanging from his rear-view mirror. He looks up and sees J.D. looking back at him in the rear-view mirror, flips out, dries off like a lunatic (terrifying the older white woman passenger who also winds up breaking one of the rear windows with her head during a sharp turn), kicks her out of the cab, steals all the money in her purse and drives off laughing. Which is a counterpoint to Isaac back at the cabstand getting yelled at by his boss because he wants a lighter schedule during exam week.

Later, Isaac sees a poster for the revival preacher Elija Bliss and rubs the spot on his cheek that would have a scar if he was J.D. instead of himself. He goes to the service (either out of curiosity or because J.D. is influencing him) and hears Bliss say that he's against Satan. That's a pretty safe thing to come out against if you're a minister. During the sermon Isaac has another flashback to the meat packing warehouse murder scene and it sure looks like Elija Bliss was there. Someone in the congregation hauls off and clocks Elija and Isaas pulls the attacker off the minister before leaving. Bliss following him and introduces himself, his daughter Roberta and his brother Theotis. Adding to the feel of time slipping out of joint, Roberta is played by the same actress as Betty-Jo Walker.

Bliss thinks that he might already know Isaac, even though they've never met and Isaac says he'll come back for another service at the church. He also hallucinates blood on his hand and drives to a condemned building while having more flashbacks to events he could not possibly have witnessed firsthand (it's the warehouse where the two murders at the very start of the movie took place). When he goes home he gets drunk as a skunk and slaps Christella when she expresses concern. J.D. fully in control, he acts horrifically abusive towards her and throws her out of the apartment. When she's gone, Isaac has a teary breakdown in the bathroom and sees J.D. in the mirror--when he breaks the mirror he sees Walker behind the broken glass!

So obviously a trip to the mental hospital is in order again. He calls Christella to apologize and his orderly friend congratulates him on not repressing himself in a scene so grimy and misogynist it could only be from a 70s exploitation movie. Isaac isn't buying it--he knows there is something seriously wrong with him. Christella, for her part, goes to talk to her ex-husband (a police officer), who says that he'll watch over Isaac and make sure he's doing all right. When Isaac spots Christella on a street car he hops on board and apologizes to her but to her immense credit she says she doesn't feel safe around him and doesn't go back.  This is all happening in the run-up to final exams at law school and of course Isaac's way too distracted and stressed out to study.

When he hears another Elija Bliss radio show Isaac has a vision of a much younger Bliss threatening an as-old-as-he-ever-got Walker, with the threat that Bliss would take him "to the killing floor". During the sermon Isaac writes REVENGE on an Elija Bliss flyer without realizing he's doing it (and I really love the movie for not slowing things down by having Isaac confront someone who can explain automatic writing to him--the audience undoubtedly figured it out even if they didn't know about that particular paranormal action). When he goes to the service, Roberta Bliss asks him for a ride home to her place--and they get seen by Christella's ex. Meanwhile, in Elija's limo, his brother Theotis says that he hates Isaac just on sight, claiming he's a rowdy street punk (which, as we in the audience know, is the antimatter counterpart to Isaac's actual personality). Elija likes the younger man, and tells his brother / business manager so. Theotis sees the ministry as nothing but a hustle while Elija does not, which makes sense if one is doing the preaching and the other is working the books.

At Roberta's place, Isaac learns that her mother died when she was an infant, and she moved to live with her father and uncle when she was fifteen (and those flashbacks to the killing at the warehouse make me think that she's right, but those two people are not who she thinks they are). Isaac's starting to fall for her, but Walker's in his head too. He and Roberta make out, and then make love, and when Isaac leaves he gets jumped by three toughs that Theotis sent after him. Isaac picks a fight he cannot possibly win against them and the head thug thinks he's insane. Back at his place, Ike takes a shower and Christella returns. Isaac's given himself a Forties-style conk job (chemically straightening his natural hair) and during this sequence a confrontation brews. Isaac slaps Christella and assaults her. The score and cinematography here don't suggest that the audience should find the sequence thrilling, so AIP has that going for themselves. During this confrontation Isaac refers to himself as J.D. Walker; Christella gets away when she breaks a vase on Isaac's head and runs to the bedroom where she locks herself in and refuses to open the door for Isaac (and good for her).

J.D. gives up on trying to get through the bedroom door and steers Isaac's body to a disco, where his 40s style zoot suit, conk and fedora look considerably better than the 70s fashion abominations on the dance floor. He flirts with a woman at the club and winds up going home with her. When her husband returns home unexpectedly Isaac / J.D. brags that he slept with the man's wife and cuts him with a straight razor after the man attacks him. He leaves the man wounded but alive and steals his car, driving to the cemetery where he sees the gravestone for Betty-Jo and J.D. Walker. Another flashback ensues, where J.D.'s spirit remembers his own murder. He goes to the church as J.D. instead of Isaac and Elija goes utterly silent when Walker comes through the door. He tells the preacher to give a message to his brother--to meet Walker on the killing floor. He also tells Elija that the preacher was never involved in this particular affair.

While that's all going on, Isaac's friends are talking about all the warning signs that they should have seen in retrospect (the orderly is pretty sure Isaac's got a brain tumor). They contact the police, who are now looking for Isaac. And one older cop at the station, upon hearing the name that Isaac used to refer to himself, says that J.D. Walker had been dead for thirty years. As the police explain, Walker was a criminal in the black market during the Second World War, selling unrationed meat in New Orleans (a town that enjoys its food). He had plenty of women and even more enemies, and the police in 1942 apparently just assumed that one of his enemies got the drop on him and didn't pursue things particularly far after that. And the police are closing in on Isaac as the stolen car gets reported.

Elija thinks that God is testing him by showing him a supernatural event, but an evil one (to his mind, why else would a low-level veal bootlegger return from the grave?) while Theotis is certainly less well-disposed to explain things. The brothers go to the warehouse, where Isaac is waiting. And we get one more flashback that puts all the pieces in place. Theotis killed Betty-Jo and J.D., then framed J.D. for Betty-Jo's death and claimed to have saved Elija's life. Meanwhile, in the present day, both of the Bliss brothers as well as Roberta are at the warehouse calling for J.D. to make his presence known. Isaac / J.D. say that Theotis killed Roberta for threatening to reveal that Theotis was really Roberta's father (and using the same actress to play both women means that diegetically, Elija would only know that his "daughter" looked just like her mother). Theotis confesses, saying he was always jealous of his brother, and then tries to shoot Isaac. All three of the Bliss family struggle for the gun, and it goes off. Theotis falls to the ground and Roberta thinks she just killed her father.

The police show up and beat on Isaac for a while; Elija runs to his empty church and has a breakdown. He begs for forgiveness while at the police station, the cops try to pin Theotis' death on Isaac. When Roberta confesses, this puts a crimp in their plans. Christella says she won't be pressing charges against Isaac and Elija shows up to the police station to tell Isaac that he had been possessed by the vengeful spirit of J.D. Walker but that it should be completely over, since Walker has no reason to stick around and take revenge any more. The police pin the killing on Theotis (since his prints were on the gun as well) to avoid any further complications and Elija says that no matter what the genetics might say, Roberta was and will always be his daughter. And Isaac's friends show up to take him away from all this strangeness. AIP must have thought it was a complete story in one film, because there's no sequel hook in the ending.

What a great convergence of influences! There's plenty of ghostly happenings for the horror fans and some great jump scares and mirror gags (my friend Andy will never be seeing this one; mirrors in horror movies would be his secret weakness if I didn't just tell all my readers about it). And the plot has two murders covered up, infidelity, betrayal and discovery--it plays out like an Elizabethan revenge tragedy except there's only one dead body at the end. The characters all act realistically about what's going on--the police are understandably not too enthusiastic about the "a dead criminal from 30 years ago was possessing me during the fight" defense but as one of the cops points out, Isaac has absolutely no reason to know about J.D. Walker. He was far from a criminal overlord when he was alive and didn't become famous in death like Stagolee or Jesse James.

But the real standout in the film is Glynn Turman's performance as Isaac and as J.D. Walker. The actor who plays the criminal in the flashbacks and mirror gags really doesn't have a lot to do other than scowl and look menacing (and he is fantastic at that, by the way). But Turman manages to make a quick sketch of Isaac Hendrix as a studious, polite, hardworking and peaceable man in a couple short minutes of screen time and then play the murderous thug taking over his mind just as well. It's a great double act in a movie that was only ever meant to play grindhouses and drive-ins, and it's one of the benefits of living in the DVD age that an otherwise vanished performance has survived for nearly four decades and will never completely disappear.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Jason Goes to Hell:  The Final Friday

Yes, I Know:  Jason X

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