You don't remember the blaxploitation (or blacksploitation) genre of the Seventies (and later)? Maybe you were too young. But you've probably heard of it, right? Films created largely for an African-American audience, starring mostly African-American actors, and using mainly soul music in the background? Still nothing? Think "Shaft," "Super Fly," "Blacula," "Cleopatra Jones," "Coffy," "Mandingo," and the like.
Well, at least blaxploitation still lives at VCI Entertainment, which recently released the "35th Anniversary" edition of the 1976 horror film "Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde," starring actor and former football player Bernie Casey in a modern take on the old "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" ploy. Was it worth a remastering and re-release? Another "well." The movie isn't good enough to be a blaxploitation classic, and it isn't bad enough to be a camp classic. It just sits there: Not as good as you'd like but not as bad as you'd think.
William Crain ("Blacula" and several "Mod Squad" and "Dukes of Hazzard" TV episodes) directed "Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde" (also known as "Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde," "Decision for Doom," and "The Watts Monster"), and he does so as if in a lifeless daze. Which is not to say the movie doesn't have its distinctions: It has Mr. Casey's acting talents, a fellow who was always much better than the material studios handed him. The movie has a spare musical score by Johnny Pate that must be the only one in blaxploitation history not to overemphasize soul, funk, R&B, or jazz; instead, it seems to copy most of "The Rockford Files" musical tracks. The movie also features makeup for Mr. Hyde by celebrated Hollywood monster maker Stan Winston ("The Terminator," "Aliens," "Predator"), obviously early in his career. And the movie employs Tak Fujimoto ("Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Silence of the Lambs," "Gladiator," "The Sixth Sense") as director of photography. Yet the whole picture has the appearance of a shoestring affair. Go figure. Despite the high-quality filmmakers involved, this doesn't just look like a low-budget B-movie, it looks like a no-budget C-flick.
Part of the film's problem (beyond its lack of a decent budget, inventive script, or imaginative direction) is Casey, who, as I've said, is too good for the script. If he had been worse at his job, we could have laughed at the whole thing. But he, like the director, takes everything so seriously and delivers his lines so earnestly and so convincingly, it actually takes away from the film's camp value. It's too easy to say that we as an audience should lighten up and not take the movie too seriously when the lead actor is taking it so seriously.
Think about this, and then tell me how earnestly we should take the plot: An African-American biochemist, Dr. Henry Pride (Casey), world famous for his contributions to science, concocts a serum that he hopes will cure the world of liver problems. Only he hasn't quite got it perfected without a few side effects. Like, when he injects it into a black rat, the rat turns white, grows fangs, and kills its fellow rats. Undeterred, Pride looks for willing human volunteer to try it out. Funny, no one steps forward. So, naturally, he tries it on himself, with predictable results (for a horror film). He turns white (well, gray, actually), and goes on murderous rampages killing prostitutes.
Just describing it sounds ridiculous to me, but the director and star offer it up in such somber, sober terms, it sucks all the life out of the story. I mean, on the one hand we have Dr. Pride talking self-righteously to a prostitute about changing her life for the better, and on the other hand we see him going on murderous killing sprees that reveal his dark side as he apparently attempts to rid the world of prostitutes.
Although the movie tries to make a few social comments about the plight of African Americans in general and the problems of prostitution in particular, it's basically just a horror flick, plain and simple, and not a very good or scary one at that. Indeed, the scariest part of the movie features an old lady the doctor injects who turns into Norman Bates's mother.
The supporting cast do what they can, but it doesn't help much. Rosalind Cash plays Pride's co-researcher and ambiguous romantic interest. Marie O'Henry plays a prostitute Pride is treating for hepatitis. Ji-Tu Cumbuka and Milt Kogan play a pair of police detectives investigating the prostitute murders, injecting a brief note of humor into the proceedings and then pretty much disappearing into the background. And Stu Gilliam plays a pimp-junkie who at least adds a little fun to the story. Unfortunately, the director and scriptwriters have no idea what to do with him any more than they do the other characters.
In terms of its acting, "Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde" is a cut above its competition in the blaxploitation field, but that isn't saying much because the screenplay doesn't give the actors anything to work with that makes any sense. What the filmmakers leave us with is a run-of-the-mill horror story disguising itself as a morality tale, more sanctimonious and hypocritical than persuasive.
VCI remastered and at least partially restored the film to its original aspect ratio, here presented at 1.78:1, anamorphic. There are no major blemishes noticeable, no mass of flecks, specks, and grain that probably infested the original print by now. However, the screen still exhibits occasional lines and noise, and the image is quite dim and soft looking.
While the Dolby Digital monaural audio is generally quiet enough, it also sounds fairly muted and hollow much of the time. Then, too, we hear some odd crackles, ticks, and pops. With little frequency range or dynamic impact, we get mostly a subdued midrange, which, I suppose, is good enough for the dialogue involved, which isn't exactly scintillating, anyway.
In honor of the film's thirty-fifth anniversary, VCI afford the DVD a theatrical trailer. A pan-and-scan theatrical trailer. In bad shape. Other than that, we get a few promos at start-up, twelve scene selections, and English as the only spoken language.
Bernie Casey is one of the few star athletes who made an easy transition to the big screen; it's too bad he never had any really good roles to show off his abilities. In "Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde" he's saddled with the thankless job of trying to make a madman sympathetic. He loses. But at least he gives it an honest try, and the movie may be of interest to fans of the blaxploitation genre. The fact is, though, it's more of a curiosity than a must-see.