Monday, March 21, 2011

DVD REVIEW: Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976) 35th Anniversary Edition

DR. BLACK, MR. HYDE (1976)
 35th Anniversary Edition DVD

LABEL: VCI Entertainment
DURATION: 85 mins
DIRECTOR: William Crain
CAST: Bernie Casey, Rosalind Cash, Marie O'Henry, Ji-Tu Cumbuka, Milt Kogan
TAGLINE: A Monster He Can't Control Has Taken Over His Very Soul!

PLOT: Dr. Henry Pryde (Bernie Casey) is a noteworthy scientist who is working on an experimental remedy for liver damage. He perfects a serum that has the potential to reverse damaged liver tissue. Pryde also donates his services as a medical practitioner to a free clinic in the Watts projects. Pryde begins a series of unorthodox experiments to test his serum, and uses the serum on himself. The results are disastrous: he transforms into a hulking white-skinned hooker-murdering lunatic.

FILM: Former 49ers footballer turned actor Bernie Casey stars in this 70's blaxploitation take on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale of duality Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Director William Crane mostly directed 70's era TV series S.W.A.T. and THE MOD SQUAD but also BLACULA (1972). Dr. Pride is a respected African-American biochemist and an upstanding member of the Watts area community in Los Angeles where he practices medicine at the Watts Free Clinic treating a steady parade of prostitutes and drug addicts. His latest experiment is a serum designed to regenerate damaged liver tissue. Displeased with the progress and convinced that a break through is just around the corner if only he could facilitate human testing the good doctor injects himself with the serum, probably not a good idea, right? Sure 'nuff the serum transforms him into a white-skinned murderous hulk of a man with a penchant for prostitutes. Eyewitnesses describe him as white but honestly he just looks a bit ashy to me but whatever. The film definitely aims to offer some social commentary as the well meaning black pillar of the community is reduced to a  diabolical white monster who terrorizes the predominantly black neighborhood, it's an interesting turn on the Jekyll and Hyde mythos.

The acting is uniformly sketchy with the exception of main-man Bernie Casey who made memorable appearances in several of my favorite 80's comedies including THE REVENGE OF THE NERDS (1984) and SPIES LIKE US (1986). His portrayal of Dr. Pride is sympathetic and mostly carries the film. There's also Dr. Pride's girlfriend played by Rosalind Cash in what amounts to a bit part but it's worth mentioning her work in the another film featuring black folks turned white-skinned monsters OMEGA MAN (1971). Then there's the sexy Marie O'Henry as Linda the hooker with a heart of gold and Ji-tu Cumbuka as Lt. Jackson who gets perhaps the films only memorable line "brother man, this situation is rapidly becoming insalubrious meaning we about to stomp a mud hole in your ass!" and what blaxploitation flick didn't have a pimp? Here we have the sleazy but smooth Silky (Stu Gilman) a pimp with a fabulous cape, cane and all the greatest 70's pimp accessories.

The film is very gritty and one might never suspect the talents on the film include make-up effects by the late Stan Winston who would go onto glory with ALIEN (1986), TERMINATOR (1984) and PREDATOR (1987) and whose first film credit was the made-for-television film GARGOYLES (1972) which also starred Casey as the leader of a clan of gargoyles. Further proving that everyone starts somewhere is cinematographer Tak Fujimoto who just a few years earlier lensed Terrence Malik's BADLANDS (1973) and would go onto THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), and THE SIXTH SENSE (1999).

The film poorly paced and is weighed down by some rather sluggish melodrama that really does grind the film to a near-halt but it picks up with some decent fight and chase sequences featuring our albino beast. While there's plenty of physical violence the film lacks any real bloodshed, bummer. Likewise, the transformations from mild mannered physician to white-skinned terror are mostly acted-out by Casey himself with only minor make-up effects to enhance the performance. Perhaps the most bizarre aspect he film is a finale that pays homage to KING KONG (1933) as Casey scales the Watts Towers and nose-dives into an expected ending. It's a bit out of place but just kooky enough to work for me.

DVD: DR. BLACK, MR. HYDE's 35th Anniversary Edition sports a 1.85:1 (16x9) anamorphic aspect ratio transfer with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. No subtitle options are available and the only bonus feature is a theatrical trailer. Why tout this bare-bones release as a 35th Anniversary Edition and not include a little somethethin' somethin' for the fans is saddening. There's no commentary, no interviews, not even a radio spot and there are some great radio spots for this film out there, it just seems lacklustre to me. The print is well worn with obvious damage, tinny sound and an abundance of audio pops.  It's a gritty affair that looks to have had a few good years on the drive-in circuit prior to being transferred to DVD but it's probably a better viewing experience for it. The previous DVD edition featured a VHS-quality 1.33:1 aspect ratio so lack of bonus features aside this is an improvement.

VERDICT: While not a classic by any means this Afrocentric take on the duality of the human psyche works remarkably well thanks in large part to the talents of Bernie Casey. This is a genre of film I'm not well versed in but based on this viewing I am intrigued enough to make an effort to seek out BLACULA (1972), BLACKENSTEIN (1973) and the EXORCIST-tinged ABBY (1974). I can't give this a high recommend and I'm a bit perturbed by the lack of extras but if you're looking to explore the horror sub genre of blaxploitation this is a fun start. 2.5 outta 5