One of the many rare and cherishable things about Jordan Peele’s Get Out was that it was a horror movie with an African-American lead that nevertheless wasn’t pitched or marketed as the black version of any pre-existing horror film. After Night of the Living Dead, which should have been the watershed moment, African-American horror got bogged down in movies too easily dismissed as novelties: the black version of Dracula (Blacula), Frankenstein (Blackenstein), The Exorcist (Abby, which somehow escaped the indignity of being called The Blaxorcist).
All of this makes Arthur Marks’s J.D.’s Revenge, reissued on Blu-Ray by those indefatigable blaxploitation champions Arrow Video, a pleasing anomaly. Rather than making the blaxploitation version of an existing horror movie, Marks has made the horror version of a standard blaxploitation narrative. The result isn’t perfect by a long way, but it’s more distinctive and interesting than a lot of technically more accomplished films.
J.D.’s Revenge opens with an effectively strange, blurry flashback showing a woman being killed in a meat-rendering plant, then jumps forward to introduce us to our hero Isaac Hendrix, played by Glynn Turman. The number of years between the two scenes isn’t exactly specified, but it’s always a good idea to look at the clothes in blaxploitation films. David McKnight’s pork-pie hat in the flashback suggests a contemporary of Al Capone, while Hendrix and his girlfriend Christella (Joan Pringle) can only be living in the mid-70s. (Also, he is called Isaac Hendrix, which is a giveaway in itself)
On a night out with his friends, Isaac is taken up on stage by a hypnotist. She laboriously reassures the audience that hypnosis cannot make you do anything you don’t want to do, but Hendrix is still beset by horrifying visions of slaughtered animals and women being stabbed. Hendrix isn’t himself after this – he becomes a noticeably more reckless taxi driver, and his mind isn’t exactly put at ease by his fantastic local doctor (Fred Ford), who recommends he smoke a joint and try meditation. Before long, he’s fully possessed by McKnight’s ruthless 1940s gangster J.D., out for vengeance on the men who killed his sister.
J.D.’s Revenge is a fairly simple film that misses a few opportunities for twists (it’s never quite clear why J.D. chooses the meek Hendrix as his vessel – there must be tougher guys around). In between the opening and the action finale, the horror content rests largely on some overused (stock?) footage of animal slaughter and Turman’s roaringly OTT performance as the possessed Hendrix. Its most interesting qualities are the ones that lie outside its plot, particularly in how it relates to African-American cinema in general.
It would be a mistake to view blaxploitation films as the authentic voice of black America – Marks, like most of the genre’s other stalwarts, was white. But his previous film, Friday Foster, was one of the most overtly political of the blaxploitation cycle, and those tensions are carried over into J.D.’s Revenge. Hendrix is studying to become a lawyer before he’s possessed, and it’s almost possible to read his possession as a metaphorical cry from the id against the idea of working within the system. Moreover, there are motifs which hark the way forward to authentically black-authored films. The hypnosis leads us back to Get Out, and it also pops up in Charles Burnett’s short 42 Second Dream, much as the slaughterhouse harks ahead to Burnett’s landmark debut Killer of Sheep. These are all coincidences, but they add to a feeling that – like so many good B-movies – J.D.’s Revenge is in touch with its culture, and has ideas that transcend its thin budget and basic story.