Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Black Snake (1973)

... aka: Black Snake: The Whip
... aka: Carne cruda (Raw Meat)
... aka: Devil's Mistress, The
... aka: Dutchess of Doom!, The
... aka: Serpent Noir
... aka: Slaves
... aka: Sweet Suzy

Directed by:
Russ Meyer

Russ Meyer is one exploitation director whose work I'm not that well-acquainted with. Sure, I put in the usual Cult Film 101 viewings of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) and Beyond of the Valley of Dolls (1970), both of which I liked, but that's been it thus far. So it was about time I checked out another from this guy and what better film than his only genre effort? Black Snake is atypical of the director's usual product. For starters, it's a costume / period-set film with horror and blaxploitation elements. Second, it was filmed on location in Barbados and was, in fact, the very first film entirely shot on that island nation. Third, the cast was comprised primarily of local talent and actors imported in from the UK. And finally, the film deemphasizes the director's usual rampant sex and nudity (which had always ensured his films were slapped with X-ratings) in favor of violence (this one is rated R). In fact, Meyer was actually attempting to make a message movie with this one, believe it or not, whilst simultaneously delivering the usual drive-in good. The message? Well, you know, the usual racism-and-slavery-are-bad kinda things.

The action is set in 1835 on San Cristobal Island in the British West Indies, where a section of the populace has been enslaved by the Blackmoor Plantation and forced to work cutting sugar cane... or else. In charge of the operation is the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, black-clad, whip-wielding Lady Susan Walker (Anouska Hempel), who rides around on a horse barking out orders and is a black widow type who's left behind a string of dead husbands. Susan's latest hubby is Jonathan Walker and he himself has also recently and rather mysteriously disappeared. Since Lady Susan prefers living the life of leisure (i.e. horse riding on the beach and getting her ass massaged by her female servant), she delegates most of the actual slave-running chores to the sadistic Joxer Tierney (Percy Herbert), who's impotent and always pissed off, constantly screams racial slurs at the top of his lungs and uses any excuse in the book to start laying into the slaves with his "black snake" (whip). He's quite the prick. Young, impassioned slave Joshua (Milton McCollin) want to lead a revolt, but his bible-quoting pacifist father Isaiah (Thomas Baptiste) tries to discourage it for fear of even worse repercussions.

Meanwhile, in England, Sir Charles Walker (David Warbeck) is wondering about the disappearance of his brother and gets the blessing of solicitor Lord Clive (Anthony Sharp) to travel to San Cristobal to investigate matters. Posing as "Ronald Sopwith;" Charles goes to the plantation to work as a bookkeeper, is set up in a shack and given a slave girl named Cleone (Vikki Richards) to attend to his every whim. The insatiable Lady soon attempts to seduce the new arrival, Charles' brother (David Prowse) turns up as a maddened mute after having his tongue cut out and balls removed by Susan's flamboyant gay assistant (the memorable Bernard Boston) and the slaves eventually get their bloody revenge on their captors as well as all of the Uncle Tom's who's been aiding them. There's a crucifixion, a burning at the stake, a corpse getting whipped, mass hangings, people chopped and impaled with machetes... and a million and one shots of waves crashing on the beach and sugar cane plants blowing in the wind.

Meyer was extremely dissatisfied with his own creation. In an interview with Ed Lowry and Louis Black, he admitted the film "...had a lot of things wrong with it," wrote it off as "a weak Mandingo" and noted it was equally disliked by both black and white audiences of the day. The vast majority of critics hated it and even Barbados' Minister of Tourism couldn't appreciate it on travelogue value alone and called it "nauseating." I can see everyone's point. The editing cuts are often jagged, the dialogue is terrible, there's not much in the way of plot and the entire cast seems completely lost, with some taking the proceedings completely serious and others wildly overacting and turning their characters into massively irritating one-dimensional buffoons in the process. The film never seems to find the right tone. It's too ridiculous to be taken seriously and takes itself too seriously to work as camp. Still, I didn't find it to be a complete waste of time, though. The scenery is utilized well throughout, there are a couple of genuine laughs (the best the slave master can come up with while pleading for his life in front of an angry mob of slaves is "Some of my best friends are niggers!") and the blood-thirsty revenge portion during the final 20 minutes is fairly potent.

Another major issue Meyer had with his movie is that he didn't like his female lead, who'd been brought on board at the last minute to replace another actress who overdosed just three days before filming was to begin. The pouty-lipped Hempel was born in New Zealand under the name Anne Geissler and eventually moved to the UK to began her acting and modeling career. After playing a brief role as "The Australian Girl" in the Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), a sultry vamp in Hammer's SCARS OF DRACULA (1970) and a few minor TV roles, she landed rare leads in this film and the sleazy sex comedy Tiffany Jones (1973). Her third and final top-billed role was in William Webb's extremely difficult-to-find Double Exposure (1977), which is listed as horror on some sites but as a "standard crime-thriller" in the book "The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Film." In 1980, Hempel became socialite Lady Weinberg (or "Lady Nou Nou" to friends) after marrying filthy-rich London businessman, insurance tycoon and hotelier Sir Mark Weinberg (her third husband). Now known for her refined taste and hobnobbing with A-List British royalty and celebs, Hempel actually attempted to buy up all the rights to both Snake and Tiffany at one point in order to keep them from ever being sold or publicly shown again. It doesn't appear she succeeded - at least with this particular film - considering it received a UK DVD release (from Arrow) in 2005.

This extremely hard-to-find VHS (released on the Astral Video label out of Canada)
featuring Hempel in a rare starring role recently sold for 250 bucks (!!) on eBay.

The director never met an enormous rack he didn't want to photograph so needless to say he wasn't all that impressed with Hempel's sleek physique, telling the press she had "Tiny tits and a big mouth." In fact, while he had no issue filming her ass, he didn't use her topless shots at all and later spliced in close-ups of a larger-breasted body double. The casting of Hempel also caused issues on the home front for the director. Apparently, then-wife Edy Williams (whom he'd met on the set of Dolls and also cast in The Seven Minutes [1971]) became angered when she was not given the lead role. In order to appease her, Meyer promised her the title role in an upcoming project called Viva Foxy! Roger Ebert penned a script for the film, Meyer photographed Williams for a special 1973 Playboy spread to promote it and he even shot a teaser trailer (one of the first of its kind) that was inserted after the end credits of Snake to get the ball rolling. For some reason, the film was never actually made and Meyer and Williams divorced in 1975.

Black Snake (filmed in Panavision in the spring of 1972 for about 300,000 dollars) premiered on the same day in both Little Rock, Arkansas and Bridgetown, Barbados. It was later reissued numerous times theatrically under new titles like Sweet Suzy and (in the UK) Russ Meyer's Slaves. For a short while it was even promoted (with inappropriate artwork featuring a skull-faced woman with large breasts) under the new titles The Devil's Mistress and The Dutchess of Doom! In America, it was distributed (on both video and DVD) by RM Films.



crow said...

Man, those screen caps offended me, and I'm not even black. The film looks disgusting with all the natives of that land being killed in despicable ways. I love Meyer, but I'm not watching this one.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

This is definitely Meyer out of his comfort zone and I can see why he wasn't a fan of it. What made me feel most uncomfortable was that the actors playing the slaves were taking this all VERY seriously and probably thinking they were making an important film about the horrors of slavery while the others were going WAY over the top. It wasn't very funny, wasn't believable enough to work as drama and even the sleaze was muted. It really didn't accomplish much of *anything*

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