Movies Till Dawn: Spotlight on Film Detective (Polyester Pantsuit Edition)

Joe Bullet” (1972) Ken Gampu (“The Gods Must Be Crazy”) plays Joe Bullet – a less-tormented, South African version of Ray Donovan – who is called upon by a football team to root out the gangsters that have threatened to undo their shot at the championship. Hat-tip to American black action films of the period has a capable lead in Gampu, a commanding presence in Western pics like “The Naked Prey,” but technical issues and sluggish pacing will make it a challenge for all but the most ardent action/cult/obscura devotees. The most interesting thing about the pic is its history: made by two white South African filmmakers – director Louis de Witt and prolific writer/producer Tonie van der Merwe –”Joe Bullet” played for two days before the apartheid government imposed a four-decade-long ban which, as noted in the commentary track by van Merwe and Benjamin Cowley (whose company, Gravel Road, handled the restoration),was due largely to its depiction of a strong, appealing black hero. Film Chest’s full-frame DVD also includes the original trailer.

Voodoo Black Exorcist” (1974) Confounding Spanish horror-fantasy with perennial Euro bad guy Aldo Sambrell as a West African who, having been punished with mummification for transgressions against his chief’s daughter (Eva Leon) in the seventh century, is revived in modern times aboard a cruise liner transporting him to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where a professor (Alfredo Mayo) will exhibit his sarcophagus on live television. Once awakened (and tricked out in a swell Nehru jacket), Sambrell discovers that the professor’s assistant/girlfriend (also Leon) is the reincarnation of the chief’s daughter, and sets out to woo her by slaughtering various passengers who are deemed a threat, including one poor soul – a hamburger franchise magnate – whom he runs over with a steam roller. No exorcism, black or otherwise, takes place in this bizarre entry from prolific director Manuel Cano – the original title, “Vudu sangrieto” (“Bloody Voodoo”) was replaced with a more pungent English-language moniker by Stateside distributors hoping for a bite of the ticket sales from black action pics and “The Exorcist” – but you do get a hilarious turn by spaghetti Western vet Fernando Sancho as a laissez-faire police detective, several beheadings, a belly-dancing number, a fight between the mummy and a fire hose, an acid-jazz soundtrack that suggests early Can recordings, the aforementioned death by steam roller, and reams of quotable dialogue (“3,000 years in museums taught me many things”). In short, it’s Christmas Day for camp/cult/badfilm devotees, and for everyone else, it’ll be the damnedest thing you’ll see all year, if not the next three millennia. Film Detective’s restored Blu-ray looks better than most previous PD releases, and retains the often-excised prologue, though it can’t do anything about Sambrell and Leon wearing blackface (though it looks more greenish) in flashbacks.

The Black Dragon’s Revenge” (1975) Martial arts champ Ron Van Clief – who got a shout-out on an episode of “This is Us,” of all things – plays himself as he searches the darker corners of Hong Kong in search of the truth behind the death of his (real-life) friend, Bruce Lee. “Black Dragon” is a fairly restrained example of “Brucesploitation,” a lower-rent classification of martial arts movie that surfaced after Lee’s passing in 1973; here, its key elements of the sub-sub-genre – a morbid obsession with the how and why of the action star’s death (was it drugs? Mob murder? A curse?) and a pervasive air of cheap-and-sleazy – are kept largely to a shot of the action star in his coffin and some awkward attempts to avoid legal action by the Lee estate by editing every mention of the surname “Lee” surname from the English-language dub (these moments are also compiled in a supplemental feature on the disc), though the unauthorized use of Ennio Morricone’s score for “The Battle of Algiers” (among other soundtracks) and a jaw-dropping moment in which an Asian woman in blackface (twice in one column!) asks Van Clief if his skin color is also makeup (“No, baby, it’s the real shit”) certainly earmark it as junk food kung fu. Mostly, it’s a straight-ahead showcase for the karate skills of Van Clief, who also helped to choreograph the fight sequences, and partner Charles “La Pantera” Bonet, who apply their feet and fists to a host of casual-wear-clad hoods with neck-snapping (and twisting) vigor. Film Detective’s remastered MOD Blu-ray offers a fuzzy-looking trailer with English narration and Italian title cards.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, and George Newall, who created both "Schoolhouse Rock" and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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