Vanity Fear

A Pretentious A**hole's Guide to B-Movie Bullsh*t

Filtering by Category: Blaxploitation

The Soul of the 70s: Part Three "Make It Right"

When it comes to 70s exploitation, always bet on black!

Willie Dynamite



Willie Dynamite (Roscoe Orman) is one of New York’s top pimps with a multiracial stable of 7 beautiful women working one of the top hotels in the city. But the law is squeezing in on his trade and his fellow top hustlers want to form a co-operative to make it through this tough time. Willie ain’t a team player, though, so he refuses. His life is further complicated by a former hooker turned activist named Cora (Diana Sands), who has dedicated herself to saving his girl Pashen from the life and finding her respectable work as a model. Thanks to Cora, her district attorney boyfriend (Thalmus Rasulala), and the two cops (George Murdock & Albert Hall) dedicated to bringing him down, Willie’s empire begins to crumble and he’s forced to ask himself if being the flashiest playa in town is worth all of the pain, misery and death it brings.

Pertinent Details

Big Hollywood Producers: While many Blaxploitation movies were made by low budget producers on the fringes of Hollywood culture, Willie Dynamite was actually the second effort by Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown (I wrote about their first film, Sssssss, here) who had previously ran 20th Century Fox together before moving on to work as independent producers at Universal. Their biggest hit together would come a year later, when they made a film about a killer shark named Jaws and played a major role in revitalizing what was then a dying industry.

An Attempt at Authenticity: Because of Zanuck and Brown’s influence, they were able to make sure that their film about a black pimp actually had a black director calling the shots. Willie Dynamite would end up being the first of Gilbert Moses two feature films, the other being the 1979 Julius Irving basketball oddity, The Fish Who Saved Pittsburgh.

Posthumously Released: Though the film is called Willie Dynamite, the film’s most compelling character (and true protagonist) is Cora, who was played by Diana Sands, an actress who would be much better known today were it not for her death from cancer in 1973, four months before the film was released in January of 1974. She was only 39 years old.

Willie Dynamite is an example of a Blaxploitation film that plays with our expectations of the genre, providing us with all of the gaudy glamour and attitude we would expect from a film that features a male main character who walks around in fur coats and drives a purple Cadillac (I’m guessing—I know less than nothing about cars), while also attempting to be a serious examination of a criminal’s fall from grace and possible redemption. It’s a film that both wants you to laugh at it and take it seriously at the same time and the remarkable thing is that it very nearly gets away with it.

The biggest shock for most viewers is seeing Roscoe Orman in the title role—his movie debut. Though you may not recognize his name, if you grew up enjoying the urban adventures in a special place called Sesame Street, then you know his face, since he played the part of Gordon for 35 years. Thanks to his beard and flashy wardrobe he’s almost unrecognizable, but during those brief moments when his future self does show through, the effect can be chilling.

It’s a strong, if occasionally overwrought performance, affected as much by some over dramatic scripting and bad direction as anything else. The best thing about it is Orman’s refusal to seek out our sympathy. Willie is not a likeable guy and many, if not most, of his actions throughout the movie are deplorable, yet somehow, when he denies ownership of the purple car being towed away from his old apartment, it’s impossible not to feel some hope that this symbolic gesture is an actual sign of his choosing a new path and becoming a new man.

It’s a feeling of hope that wouldn’t be possible were it not for the performance of Diana Sands. Her Cora is the film’s true hero and easily the most sympathetic character. When her goal is to take Willie down and rescue Pashen, we remain entirely on her side, completely unconflicted as she breaks the law to do what she feels is right. Yet we also understand her ambivalence when she succeeds and Willie’s life stands in ruins. She doesn’t feel any joy or sense of victory. She’s sad for him and invites him into her house for coffee in the film’s most powerful scene:


But lest you think this all too melodramatic, Willie Dynamite never forgets how absurd and gloriously tacky so many of its characters really are. Because the genre demanded it, Willie gets his own catchy theme song, which we hear twice in the movie and is so awesome I would have bought it from iTunes immediately after I heard it if it were available:


This is a movie where we actually see a brotherhood of pimps discussing their business a la Black Dynamite (whose name suggest this effort served as a major inspiration). Their leader, Bell, is played so over the top by Roger Robinson, he actually could have been lifted whole and placed in that satire without changing a single vocal inflection. He’s a parody of a parody, but his presence doesn’t take the whole thing down. Instead he’s an amusing note in an often-serious film that takes pains to show that there are actual consequences for the women ruled over by these men.

Not a perfect movie, the film still manages to deliver the goods we expect, but in a way that allows us to enjoy the spectacle without feeling like we’re supporting it. Willie is less an anti-hero than an asshole with just enough humanity that after we’ve seen him taken down, we’re ready to see him built back up—hopefully as someone less destructive and with much better taste.

Bad Mother--SHUT YOUR MOUTH! Rating: 7 Fur Hats out of 10

The Soul of the 70s: Part Two "An Unfortunate Show of Good Taste"

When it comes to 70s exploitation, always bet on black!

Black Eye



Shep Stone (Fred Williamson) used to be a L.A. police lieutenant before his sister died of a drug overdose and he started doing more than just arresting pushers. Since being fired from the force he spends most of his time finding runaways and drinking bourbon in his favourite bar. When his hooker neighbour is killed by a psycho named Chess for a silver topped cane she stole from the gravesite of a dead silent movie star, he convinces an old friend from the force to let him investigate the crime for $200 and a gun permit. Around the same time a worried father named Dole hires him to find his missing daughter, Amy. Investigating both cases takes Stone into the worlds of pornography, the occult and a local “church” whose flock consists of young hippy Jesus freaks, until they converge and lead Stone to the same MacGuffin—$250,000 of uncut heroin.

Pertinent Details

Unfaithful Adaptation: Black Eye is based on the 1971 Jeff Jacks novel, Murder on the Wild Side, but—according to this review—differs significantly from this source material in several ways. Jacks’ protagonist is white and was kicked off the force for stealing money from a drug bust. He’s also based in New York, instead of Los Angeles. Also instead of a voluptuous redheaded hooker/porn star/medium, his murdered neighbour in the novel is an old lady known as the “The Handkerchief Woman”. In the book Stone agrees to investigate the murder to get his P.I. license, not a gun permit.

Religion Sucks: Williamson's romantic co-star in Black Eye was the extraordinarily lovely Teresa Graves, who remains best known as the star of the Blaxploitation inspired TV series Get Christie Love. After Black Eye she starred in only one other film—the 1975 Clive Donner directed David Niven oddity Old Dracula—before giving up acting because it conflicted with her newfound Muslim faith.

Best Hack in the Business: Black Eye was the first of two Blaxploitation movies made by Jack Arnold (the other being Boss, which also starred Williamson), the director of Creature From the Black Lagoon, Tarantula and The Incredible Shrinking Man (as well as 26 episodes of Gilligan’s Island).

Despite being one of the biggest names in the genre, Fred Williamson has never made it a secret that he hates the Blaxploitation label, repeatedly asking the question, “Who was being exploited?” whenever he discusses the subject. Watching Black Eye it’s easy to understand where he is coming from. Despite its title, the film bares little resemblance to the outlandish films so expertly parodied by Black Dynamite and I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, and is instead a fairly straightforward private detective picture that just happens to have a black protagonist.

As a result, Black Eye both benefits and suffers from its lack of traditional Blaxploitation trappings. Director Arnold was one of the best pros in the business and gives the film a solid professional look, and Williamson is outstanding as Stone, a character who never descends into stereotype and who could have easily appeared in more films had this one proven to be a success. The problem is that the script takes what appeared to have been very exploitation friendly source material and annihilates it in an unfortunate show of good taste. The film was rated PG, despite being based on what looks like an X-rated novel.

Williamson does his best to carry the film on his broad shoulders, but its not enough and he’s weighed down by slow-placing and a plot that is never as interesting as it thinks it is. The one intriguing element that does remain (the grudgingly respectful relationship he forms with his girlfriend’s lesbian sugar-mommy) gets short shrift and ends up being unresolved and feeling superfluous.

Fans of “The Hammer” will definitely want to give this one a look, but it’s likely going to bore those who expect some goofy tackiness in their Blaxploitation movies. The best Black Eye can offer up in that direction is this brief "lovers frolicing" scene and—as much as I love it—it just isn't enough.


Bad Mother—shut your mouth! rating: 5 out of 10

The Soul of the 70s: Part One "Pimps, Hos and Cat Pee"

When it comes to 70s action exploitation, always bet on black!

Truck Turner



Mac “Truck” Turner (Isaac Hayes) is a former pro-football player who is just barely making ends meet as a bounty hunter with his partner, Jerry (Alan Weeks). Together they agree to take on the generous bounty for a dangerous pimp named Gator (Paul Harris), who ends up getting killed trying to getaway from them. Gator’s best girl, Dorinda (Nichelle Nichols), takes over his operation and posts a bounty of her own on Truck’s head, offering 50% of her profits to any pimp willing to put him in a body bag. Her call is answered by Harvard Blue (Yaphet Kotto), who assembles a crew of assassins he calls “The Insurance Company” to take down Truck. They manage to kill Jerry, but Truck won’t go down as easily, especially now that they’ve made him mad.

Pertinent Details:

Soundtrack: Composed by Hayes, who had previously won the Oscar for Best Song for his classic “Theme From Shaft”. It’s available on iTunes in a double disc package with the soundtrack from the same year’s Tough Guys. It features tracks entitled “Buns O’Plenty”, “Pursuit of the Pimpmobile” and “Hospital Shootout”.

Trekkie Trivia: This was not only the first and last Blaxpoitation appearance of Nichols, but was the only feature she appeared in during the decade between Star Trek’s cancellation in 1969 and the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979.

Eurotrash connection: The part of Stalingrad, the blond hooker with Gator just before he dies, is played by Werewolf Woman's Annik Borel.

Corman Connection: This AIP feature was directed by Jonathan Kaplan, who got his start directing Night Call Nurses (1972) and The Student Teachers (1973) for Corman. Today he remains best known as the director of the Oscar-winning Jodie Foster rape drama The Accused (1988).


The tone of Truck Turner is established right from the beginning, when we see its title character get up and get dressed in the morning. Truck realizes that his pet cat has peed on his only clean shirt and is forced to decide whether that deems it unwearable or not. In the next scene, he’s driving in his car, wearing the cat-pee shirt. Clearly, Truck is not the ultra-smooth John Shaft, Isaac Hayes won an Oscar singing about. He’s a slob, he’s broke, and his girlfriend, Anne (Annazette Chase), is just getting out of a stint in prison for shoplifting. But rather than alienate us, it actually makes him a much more sympathetic protagonist. It helps that he’s portrayed as being good at his job—his name means something on the streets—he’s just not that good at life.

This plays out in the movie in many hilarious ways. Late picking up Anne after she’s released from prison, he treats her to a “special” dinner of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Later on, when he realizes she’s in danger from the assassins hired to kill him, he frames her for shoplifting, knowing she’ll be safer back in lockup. None of this is smooth or heroic. Truck is never as cool as you’d expect a Blaxploitation hero to be, but that actually makes his acts of violence that much more intense—his sudden competence in this area stands out compared to everything else we’ve seen.

Truck’s vulnerability is also reflected in the other characters, both heroic and villainous. Though the pimps and hookers never transcend their status as 70s cartoons, Dorinda’s fury seems justified and gives her character a slightly tragic quality she might not have otherwise had. Kotto’s Harvard Blue is just a greedy, evil bastard, but he’s still given the glory of one of the better drawn out death scenes I’ve ever seen.

For a film this light-hearted, the violence is often shocking and brutal. The result is a tension that feels completely of the time and reminds us why these films remain so much fun to watch today. Sadly, what makes it all work is probably the same thing that kept us from getting a Truck Turner Returns or more films with Hayes in a leading role. Audiences at the time wanted their black action heroes to be supermen akin to James Bond or Bruce Lee, not a character who could have just as easily been played by Elliot Gould (who pretty much did just that in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye).


Bad Mother—shut your mouth! rating: 10 out of 10

Vanity Fear Bullsh*t Synopsis Theater - Part One "Chickfight"

As a kid I loved to go to video stores and look at all the posters and video covers and try to guess what the movies were about based solely on the images they portrayed. I fully believe that these flights of fancy are primarily responsible for the development of the imagination I have used in a semi-successful professional capacity throughout the past 10 years or so.

To honour this tradition, I’ve decided to occasionally take a look at a classic poster for a film I’ve never seen and spend a paragraph or two imagining what it could be about. The twist is that after I’ve written this “Bullsh*t Synopsis” I’ll then watch the movie and discuss what it’s actually about the next week in my “B-Movie Bullsh*t Review”.  The fun will be had in determining which plot is better—the one that actually got filmed or the one I pulled straight out of my butt in 15 minutes.

Yes, it is a very lame idea, but I’m running out of Rejected By Rod(?) reviews and I gotta come up with some filler ideas PRONTO.

Anyhoo, we begin this epic new adventure with a totally fake look at a 1974 Roger Corman produced Pam Grier classic.

Vanity Fear Bullshit Synopsis Theater

Part One

The Arena


Bullsh*t Synopsis

Wanda and June are two happy-go-lucky gals who meet at a local Roman slave auction. Wanda hails from the Nordic region of Europe, while June enjoyed a long boat trip from Africa to get where she is today. That afternoon they’re both purchased by a wealthy lesbian named Patricia, who enjoys mocking her wounded General husband by dressing in the military uniform he no longer has any use for.

At first there’s some tension between the two of them, mostly because Wanda is a horrible racist who’s jealous of June’s abundant femininity (specifically her enormous breasts), but as time goes on they become very close friends. So much so that Patricia becomes so envious of their mutual affection she decides to convince her husband to suggest to the emperor that women be allowed to fight as gladiators.

The idea gives the emperor a total boner and Patricia volunteers Wanda and June as the first two combatants. The emperor gets one look at them and eagerly agrees. Wanda and June attempt to refuse to fight each other, but some erotically charged torture takes care of this and the two of them enter The Arena and battle to the death. Both women prove so strong and courageous that when June has Wanda at the edge of her trident, the emperor denies her the kill with an upturned thumb, sparing Wanda’s life. The crowd cheers his decision, but Patricia is so enraged she berates the emperor. His guards arrest her for her impertinence, much to her husband's delight. The next time we see her it is in The Arena, where she is fighting a losing battle against her two former slaves, who both know the emperor has no intention of giving them the thumb’s up this time.

50 Words or Less - Black Frankenstein (aka Blackenstein)

For some the capsule review comes easy, but for me it’s an exercise in pure frustration. As a means of self-discipline I have decided to confront that which tortures me through this continuing feature—B-Movie Bullsh*t in 50 Words or Less.


A quadruple amputee (in some scenes, at least) Vietnam war vet is turned into the title character in one of the worst Blaxploitation movies ever made. Directed by Skatetown USA’s William Levey, Black Frankenstein is so cheap it uses "Oh Tannenbaum" as background music during an automobile make out scene.

The ABCs of B-Movie Bullsh*t -- B is for Blaxploitation


is for Blaxploitation

In 1971 Hollywood made a shocking discovery--black people went to the movies too. The two films that allowed them to reach this conclusion were Shaft and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. The first was a studio picture, the second was made independently and both would have a tremendous impact on the entire decade. It turned out that "urban" audiences were desperate to see images of themselves onscreen and went to the movies more often than their less-"urban" contemporaries. The result was a genre unto itself given the controversial name of Blaxploitation. Though most often associated with low-budget action films, Blaxploitation encompassed virtually every known genre, including horror, westerns, musicals, melodrama, romance, and comedy.

Blaxploitation faced criticism both as an overall concept and for its content. Some of those who participated in the making of the films bristled at the notion that they and their audience were some how being "exploited". They argued that for the first time black actors had the chance to play leading roles in mainstream films and black audiences now had characters they could identify with. How was that exploitation? The answer to this came from (mostly white liberal) critics who argued that Blaxploitation films placed too much of an emphasis on negative cultural stereotypes and featured many films made by white writers and directors in which the black protagonists were pimps, hookers, drug dealers, addicts, thieves, con men and other kinds of anti-heroes that helped perpetuate urban criminality rather than serve as an uplifting respite from it.

As is often the cases in these situations, both points of view were entirely valid. These films did allow many talented black actors to play roles they had never played before and never would again, but too often these roles did require them to enact a white scenarist's skewed view of a culture they obviously didn't understand.

Today, Blaxploitation is fondly remembered more for its dated fashion and  slang than the actual quality of the film's themselves. Parodies of the genre, such as the hilarious Black Dynamite, are invariably more affectionate than biting. And though the genre petered out at the beginning of the 80s, largely due to the rise of suburban multiplexes and a general dissatisfaction with the overall quality of the films, its influence remains today and can be seen in any urban action film starring the latest rapper looking to expand upon his record career.


is for Blaxploitation





B-MOVIE BULLSH*T - Part Four "Always Bet On Blacula"

B-Movie Bullsh*t

Part Four

Scream Blacula Scream



Following the death of his high priestess mother Willis is rejected as leader of his local voodoo cult. To get his revenge he buys some bones from another of the cult’s cast-offs, unaware that the ritual he will perform with them will result in the resurrection of the centuries old vampire known as Blacula. Once an African ruler named Prince Mamuwalde, Blacula was cursed to walk the earth as a member of the bloodthirsty living dead by a racist Count Dracula. Desperate to get the evil demon that compels him to murder out of his body, Blacula enlists the aid of a beautiful voodoo priestess named Lisa in the hopes that she can free him from his curse. But Lisa’s boyfriend—an ex-detective turned wealthy writer and African artifact collector named Justin—has different plans and intends to put a permanent end to Blacula’s legacy of blood.


Whether the term “dated” is an insult or affectionate compliment depends entirely on the person who is using it. In both cases it refers to a work whose style, themes and relevance are entirely of a different era, which for some viewers means feeling alienated from what they're watching, while for others it means being given a historical snapshot of a time long past, be it one they remember or never got to experience on their own.

Most often, though, “dated” is an indicator of obvious artifice. A film that is so fully realized it feels less like a composed narrative than life caught on film inevitably transcends its "best-before" date. A film that looks “dated” today probably looked just as ridiculous the year it was released. In some cases this is the result of tone-deaf filmmakers trying to capture the flavour of a zeitgeist they themselves don’t understand. In others it’s a case of focusing on a cultural event so ephemeral you could literally mark on your calendar the moment it would cease to have any meaning. But mostly it’s just the result of a generalized failure of all involved.

Making movies is hard.

Not every one can be a timeless classic.

That said,

Scream Blacula Scream is dated.

Profoundly dated. Exquisitely dated. Exuberently dated. It’s also wonderful in that way only 70s Blaxploitation can be with its equal parts racist stereotype and affecting humanity. Capturing an age I’m pretty certain never existed, it’s an all out fantasy made deliriously transcendent by one of the greatest combinations of role and actor ever put to film.

In a fairer world William Marshall never would have had to settle for playing Dracula’s tragic African cousin. Standing six foot five and possessing a classically trained baritone that demanded your full attention, he was every bit the equal of Christopher Lee--the most famous Dracula of his generation. Instead he had to settle for Blacula (and I suspect we’re better off for it).

Speaking of Christopher Lee, it’s hard not to watch Scream Blacula Scream and not think of Hammer’s regrettable attempt to move their most successful gothic horror series into the 20th century--the previous year’s Dracula A.D. 1972. Replace that film’s “swinging” London setting (which includes a scene where the crazy hipsters crash a private party featuring a band that must have been terribly important at the time, since they’re mentioned in both the opening credits and by the party’s host during their performance) with Los Angeles’ black yuppie voodoo community (?) and the films are markedly similar, right down to both title characters transforming from bleached white bones to fleshy bloodsuckers.

But unlike Hammer’s film, the two Blacula films (the first came out the same year as Dracula A.D. 1972) rise above their questionable taste and premise through their insistence on portraying their title character as a sympathetic, tragic figure. Less a monster than a genuine victim of circumstance, the cursed prince is a character we root for, not against.

Several years before playing Blacula, Marshall understudied for Boris Karloff’s Captain Hook in a production of Peter Pan and it’s easy to see why someone would think to have the two actors play the same role. He brings so much desperate humanity to Blacula that its closest horror equivalent is Karloff’s performances in both Frankenstein and (especially) Bride of Frankenstein. Both actors present us with so-called “monsters” who did not choose to be monstrous and whose most horrific acts are either the result of misunderstandings or uncontrollable rages that cloud their better judgment.

If Karloff’s monster is the ultimate portrait of a lonely, ugly man frustrated by his inability to find love, then Marshall’s is one of the horrors of addiction. At his best moments, he retains all of the honor, power and dignity that befits his royal station, but when his hunger strikes he loses his rational mind and is forced to act out in the most antisocial of ways. That said, he tries to select deserving victims when he can. In the case below, he even goes so far as to lecture his next two meals about the damage their crimes are doing to their people: 


Suffice it to say, William Marshall’s performance is not dated.

Nor is that of his leading lady, Pam Grier.

Her Afro, on the other hand, most certainly is.

Filled equally with serious black professionals who expertly discuss African history while drinking fine wine, and over-the-top preening pimp daddies in your choice of either ridiculous hat or enormous James Brown hairdos, the film presents us with a clear one-step forward, one-step back situation that is admittedly only a few steps away from your typical Tyler Perry production.

And just like a Tyler Perry movie, the overtly racist characters are much more entertaining than the serious ones, especially Blacula’s resurrectionist and subsequent lackey, Willis, who is played by Richard Lawson in the kind of gleefully over-the-top performance many black actors give when presented with possibly questionable characters to play.

Admittedly a failure as a horror movie, Scream Blacula Scream succeeds instead as a bizarre character drama that just happens to feature scenes where black folks walk around in ridiculous vampire makeup. Ironically its biggest failure comes about as a direct result of its biggest success.

I say this because the film doesn’t so much end as it just freezes mid-scene. Having tried and failed to rid Blacula of the demon that dwells within him, Lisa is horrified by his true face and—as he attacks her boyfriend—tries to stop him by stabbing the voodoo doll she crafted for the occasion with a wooden arrow. This causes him to stumble with pain, but does not kill him. Instead, the film freezes as our sympathetic villain looks up to the heavens and screams in frustration. (Or at least that’s how it ends in the version I saw. According to Wikipedia, “Lisa stabs the prince's voodoo doll killing Mamuwalde and forever destroying Blacula.” I’m not sure if this description is the result of an alternative cut of the film or the writer coming to a conclusion not actually justified by what is presented on-screen.)

From a script standpoint, this ending doesn’t make any sense (even if it does provide the film with its title), but from a marketing standpoint it’s the only one the filmmakers could present without filming a whole new sequence. The problem with making Blacula so sympathetic is that as an audience we don’t want to see him vanquished, even though the film has gone to the trouble to present us with a more typical hero in the form of Lisa’s boyfriend, Justin.

Interestingly, the tension we feel during the climax where Justin and the police are besieged by Blacula’s legion of vampires while on their way to rescue Lisa doesn’t come from our fear that they won’t get to her in time, but instead that they will. For this reason Blacula’s subsequent rage over the interruption of the ritual meant to make him human feels totally justified and we resent both Lisa’s turn against him and Justin’s attempt to kill him. My guess is that the ending once did explicitly show Blacula dying as a result of Lisa’s voodoo magic, but that test audiences roared with disapproval over this outcome. Having no other option, the filmmakers chose to go with a non-ending rather one guaranteed to piss the audience off.

The good news was that this ending easily allowed for another sequel. The bad news was that the film didn’t do well enough to justify one. It’s a shame, because Marshall’s performance more than deserved a lengthy franchise. Sadly, he never received as good a role again and probably remains best known to members of my generation as the second King of Cartoons.

Still, two great performances are better than none, especially when—unlike the movies they’re in—they’re guaranteed to stand the test of time.