DVD. Region 2. Arrow. 18.
In the first instalment of our DW Weekender we looked at Warbeck the warrior. Tonight our attention turns to Warbeck the fop… the lover… the advocate of universal love and human rights… the union organiser…. the book keeper… all of which roles he discharged enthusiastically in Russ Meyer’s characteristically crackpot Black Snake (1973.) Meyer was unhappy with DW as a leading man for various reasons that have been amply documented elsewhere and relations between them became pricklier still when our man encouraged his fellow cast members to agitate successfully for a tea break (mad dogs and Englishmen, eh?) The director’s principal grudge against his star, though, was that when his mandatory busty leading lady (history does not record her identity) dropped out at the last moment, David recommended his UFO co-star Anorak Hempel for the role of aryan uber-bitch Lady Susan Blackwood. Now to some of us Hempel is a pleasingly archetypal “dolly bird” of the ’60s / early ’70s and she looks just great on horseback, cracking a whip but as far as Meyer was concerned, she lacked the two main attributes which he demanded from any actress (“She had two backs!” was King Leer’s disgruntled assessment) and it falls upon dusky house maid Vikki Richards (“Cleone”) to provide a token bra-busting presence in Black Snake.
If Meyer’s titanic personal vision scaled its most vertiginous peaks in the delirious cartoon trilogy that folllowed this one (Supervixens, 1975… Up!, 1976 … Beneath The Valley Of The Ultra-Vixens, 1979), I’ve always found his unique brand of guerrilla auteurism to be most effective when pitched mischievously at the margins of the mainstream. When I was an adolescent, for instance, sneaking into ‘X’- rated double bills with more intention of catching a glimpse of female nudity than experiencing Cinema in any kind of analytical mode, I saw Black Snake (rechristened Slaves and paired with the immortal Richard Lerner’s 18 Year Old Schoolgirls) round about the same time as I caught up with Meyer’s 1970 effort, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. Too unschooled and stupefied with testosterone to even connect these films as the work of the same man, the question I kept asking myself during each of them was, approximately (to paraphrase my daughter after I’d treated her to a screening of Birdemic: Shock And Terror): “Is this a real film”? Did Meyer mean it or was he putting us on? As seasoned cineastes, of course, the answer is all too painfully obvious to us in 2016.
By the time I got to know him, David Warbeck had clearly got the joke and was happy to regale me with stories of Meyer madness, further claiming that there were anecdotes so scurrilous that he’d only be able to relate them after RM’s death. In the sad event, David predeceased his director by several years and one gathers that in his dotage, the formerly litigious Meyer would not have been up to pursuing any kind of legal case anyway. Rewinding to 1973 though, the young Warbeck on screen doesn’t seem to know quite what to make of the lunacy unfolding around him in Black Snake, looking every bit like an actor searching in vain for clues as to where to pitch his performance… and his accent vacillates alarmingly along with the film’s ludicrous plot twists.
Ah yes, the plot of Black Snake (such as it is)… in early 19th Century England, at his stately pile, Maxwell House (!) Sir Charles Walker (DW) appraises family friend and benefactor Lord Clive (ubiquitous character actor Anthony Sharp) of his audacious plan to disguise himself as book keeper “Ronald Sopwith” and head for St Cristobal Island to discover what happened to his brother Jonathan, who has disappeared in the wake of his marriage to Blackmore Plantation owner Lady Susan (Hempel.) When he arrives in St Cristobal (looking suspiciously like Barbados) he discovers a harrowing scenario of exploited humanity, intercut with Carry On-style hi-jinks in her ladyship’s boudoir (intercut also with wobbling boobies that clearly aren’t Anouska’s.)
His chief rival for her affections is the loathsome Irish overseer Joxer Tierney (played with lip smacking, whip cracking relish by Percy Herbert, in a role that might well have been written for Charles Napier) who spends his working day howling racial abuse at the unfortunate plantation workers and lashing out at them with the “black snake” of the film’s title (what did you think it meant?) He’s ably assisted in chastising them by a turncoat Praetorian guard of gay black cavalry mercenaries, fronted up by the seriously camp Captain Raymond Daladier (the visually impressive Bernard Boston, whose first film appearance was as himself in Godard’s Sympathy For The Devil, 1968… he also appeared in John Boorman’s Leo The Last, 1970 though Black Snake, surprisingly, seems to be his screen swan song.)
Nor, of course, is Lady Susan any slouch when it comes to her whipping slaves, though she insists that “no what man gets whipped on Blackmoor… unless I’m doing it!” Firebrand Joshua (Milton McConnell) attempts to raise consciousness and foment rebellion among his fellow slaves, but his pacifist father Isiah (Thomas Baptiste) repeatedly persuades them to turn their other cheeks. When Isiah is crucified though, Dad drops his bible, dons a dashiki and leads a bloody uprising. “Your ol’ mate Joxer’s fallen over…” simpers their erstwhile tormentor is brought to ground “… I like you people… some of my best friends are n*ggers!” Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for Joxer.
Lady Susan fares even worse, hung upside down and burned alive amid the sugar cane. As the karmic carnage unfolds, DW runs around pleading with the revolting natives not to perpetrate a bloodbath, ironically oblivious to the fact that Cleone has already served up a literal one to her mistress. Oh yeah, the elusive brother Jonathan (in the hulking shape of Dave Prowse) turns up at the film’s climax as a duppy (i.e.zombie) before Meyer finally gets to whip out some truly garantuan knockers (Donna Young and Lawanda Moore are credited respectively as “first” and “second running girl”), flapping away in slow motion during a gob smacking “racial harmony” epilogue that will put any waverers wise as to whether Meyer was playing it straight or for laughs…
… of course it was the latter, but he really does seem to take an eternity working up to his punch-line here. En route Russ tramples all over various liberal sensibilities, probably topping even 1968’s Vixen! (a veritable smorgasbord of phoney social consciousness) in terms of writing off right on causes as being just grist to his titty mill. The excellent performances by Baptiste (who ended up in Brookside!) and McConnell belong in a much better film (and the tremendous titles sequence belongs in a Sergio Leone Western)… I wonder what the actors thought when they actually saw the finished film (McConnell never racked up another screen appearance, which possibly gives us a clue.) Where they as gob smacked as the earnest NFT patrons to whom David introduced Black Snake (with the aid of trannie conjuror Fay Presto) during a season of black consciousness raising cinema back in the ’90s? As I looked around me that evening, it was like those scenes of audience reaction to the opening musical salvo of Springtime For Hitler in The Producers. I was surprised when IMDB reminded me that Black Snake actually predates Richard Fleischer’s box office biggie Mandingo by two years but as DW told me, Meyer always prided himself on being a trail blazer, a pioneer rather than a follower. Black Snake was ahead of its time but now very much of its time… it’s difficult to imagine that somebody could possibly get away with making such a film today.
David Prowse, interviewed for Jimmy McDonough’s admirable Meyer biog Big Bosoms And Square Jaws, remembered asking the director about the relative paucity of massive mammaries in Black Snake, only to be told: “Sex is out, violence is in. This film will have every conceivable death you can think of – death by hanging, by double barrelled shotgun, by whipping, by machete, by crucifixion and by shark.” It does indeed manage to pack all of those into an unevenly entertaining hour and a half but then again, violence was never exactly conspicuous by its absence in Meyer’s other films… to quote the opening voice over in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!: ” Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to violence, the word and the act…” Meyer was back on surer ground with the trilogy that closed his directorial career proper, in which the escaped Nazis and dynamite wielding psychos fought for screen space with stupefyingly stacked wonder women.
This Arrow release from way back is decidedly non-amorphic and looks like it might have been mastered from a laser disc. It was released (sans extras) after their decent looking Russ Meyer Collection with considerably less fanfare, suggesting that they thought it was worth putting out just to keep completists as happy as possible. You pays your money… or you doesn’t. Given the job they recently did on Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls / The Seven Minutes, perhaps it’s time for a remastered reissue of all the Meyer titles Arrow can muster?
Now that we’ve set the world to rights vis-a-vis race relations, you might all want to visit the House Of Freudstein lobby to stuff your faces with additives and e numbers and generally fortify yourself for the remainder of our Warbeck Weekender, which concludes tomorrow night with…
… A Classic Interview Revisited! It cuts the mustard… you’ll relish it… yeah, yeah, I know that’s really lame but could you do any better? I don’t make any money out of this shit, you know! And another thing…
See you tomorrow…