Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Don't Give Him No Sass, Or He'll Kick Yo' Ass

The director of BLACULA tries to do for Robert Louis Stevenson what he did for Bram Stoker. William Crain’s blaxsploitation take on Count Dracula was a witty sendup propelled by William Marshall’s extraordinary performance in the title role.

In the 1976 ozoner DR. BLACK MR. HYDE, which also played theatrically as THE WATTS MONSTER, former Los Angeles Ram Bernie Casey—like Marshall an intelligent, erudite man—provides an equally strong performance, but is saddled with silly Hyde makeup (designed by Stan Winston!) that makes his monster more ridiculous than frightening.

Casey (HIT MAN) plays Dr. Henry Pride, a renowned physician and biochemist working with his girlfriend, Dr. Billie Worth (Rosalind Cash), on a serum that would cure liver disease. Testing it on a rat, Pride discovers that it A) turns the rodent’s fur white and B) enrages it into such a fury that it kills the other rats in the cage.

Undeterred, Pride tries to test the serum on a prostitute (Marie O’Henry) with hepatitis, but when she turns him down, he injects himself with it. It turns him into “Mr. Hyde,” a monstrous white man (we’ll get to that in a moment) with super-strength and a deep hatred for hookers.

Once you get past Hyde’s goofy appearance—if you can—Crain’s film is quite good. Larry LeBron’s screenplay insists that everyone who encounters Hyde believes him to be a Caucasian. Even those who know Pride don’t recognize this big white man. But because Hyde really looks like Bernie Casey with a layer of flour covering his face, any illusion of Pride transforming into a white man is immediately shattered.

Give it up to Casey for busting his hump to pull off the illusion. He lends Pride a kindly, dignified manner that contrasts harshly with the animalistic Hyde. LeBron and Crain succinctly establish the racial metaphors in Casey’s transformation. Instead of the class divide Stevenson served up in the 19th century, DR. BLACK is about the “evils” of selling out to white society. It’s too bad Dimension Pictures didn’t pony up a few more bucks that would have honed the rough edges, because the script and Casey deserved better.

The finale, which echoes KING KONG, was shot at the famous Watts Towers. Ji-Tu Cumbuka (metal-handed spy Torque on A MAN CALLED SLOANE) is great as a cop investigating Hyde’s murders. The great Tak Fujimoto, Jonathan Demme’s regular cinematographer, shot it, and Johnny Pate (SHAFT IN AFRICA) scored it.

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