Monday, July 13, 2015

Black Snake (1973)

          The slavery saga Black Snake represents the end of skin-flick titan Russ Meyer’s brief flirtation with the mainstream. Following the notorious sexcapade Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and the turgid melodrama The Seven Minutes (1971), both of which were made for 20th Century-Fox, Meyer returned to his independent roots to cowrite, produce, and direct Black Snake, which has some aspects of blaxploitation cinema but doesn’t really belong to that genre. Set in the West Indies circa 1835, the film concerns a European fellow who arrives at a Caribbean plantation posing as a new accountant while he searches for his missing brother. The blaxploitaiton elements surface in a subplot about black slaves rebelling against their oppressors, and the title refers to the whips that plantation bosses use against slaves. As for the film’s sexual content, it’s fairly tame. The gay overseer who digs S&M is a kinky character, and Meyer presents ample footage of leading lady Anouska Hempel in various states of undress, but Black Snake lacks Meyer’s usual horndog glee. Whereas Meyer’s sex flicks boast a special blend of chaos, excess, and insanity, Black Snake is comparatively methodical and rational. As happened with The Seven Minutes, the absence of over-the-top gimmickry reveals Meyer to be a mediocre and undisciplined storyteller.
          Bland he-man David Warbeck stars as Sir Charles Walker, the latest arrival at Blackmoor, a plantation run by the cruel Lady Susan Walker (Hempel) and her vicious overseers. While observing various injustices (and availing himself of a slave concubine), Charles looks for his brother. Things get complicated when Susan demands that Charles provide her with sexual services. Meanwhile, slaves become more and more bold in their revolutionary activities, and the whole combustible situation explodes with a violent uprising. Working with veteran Hollywood cinematographer Arthur Ornitz, Meyer conjures one attractive widescreen image after another, exploiting the potential of tropical locations. Yet the shots splice together poorly, resulting in choppy pacing both between and during scenes. Meyer also displays zero control over tone, with nearly every scene pitched at the same level of intensity. At his worst, Meyer films beatings and rapes as if they’re exciting action scenes, then amplifies the inappropriate vibe by setting these scenes to bouncy music; it’s as if he thinks he’s making another one of his signature sexualized comedy/thriller hybrids, instead of a quasi-legitimate melodrama. By the time Meyer ends the film with a ridiculously moralistic epilogue, it’s plain that he is not where he belongs, cinematically speaking.

Black Snake: FUNKY

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