In case you’ve had your fill of straight-to-video action and shit, I’ll give you an alternative. Today we’re having a triple-feature of ’70s blaxploitation movies with scores by Johnny Pate. You know, I’m trying to find one of those real accessible topics everybody can relate to.
Johnny Pate is a Chicago-born bassist and arranger. He says his first and biggest love is jazz, but to me he’s a legend because of his comparatively brief detour into R&B in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He worked with many Chicago labels of that era but most notably alongside the one and only Curtis Mayfield – Pate was an arranger for the Impressions and for Mayfield’s label, Curtom.
I’m not as detail-oriented about music as I am about movies, so I probaly wouldn’t know about Johnny Pate except that I happened to pick up his 1970 funk instrumentals album “Outrageous” when it was reissued last year by Dusty Groove. Then I found out he scored SHAFT IN AFRICA so I finally got around to watching those sequels and loved them. At least half of my love for blaxploitation movies comes from the music, and of course SUPERFLY and SHAFT are the two most legendary blaxploitation soundtracks. Here’s a guy who kind of connects them together – he arranged Superfly for Mayfield, he scored the third SHAFT movie, and even played with the original Isaac Hayes SHAFT themes when he scored the short-lived (and not on DVD) SHAFT tv series.
But SHAFT IN AFRICA is a masterwork. Okay, it’s not as deep as SUPERFLY and maybe the original SHAFT score has a wider breadth of styles on it, and also it’s hard to really compare anything to SHAFT because it’s so inescapable in pop culture it’s hard to be objective about it. But all I know is SHAFT IN AFRICA has two of the most preposterously funky themes of all time. They are the type of theme songs every badass character wishes they had, but never will. That is the sound I always wanted to hear and I figure nobody, including Pate, ever topped them. But just to be sure I decided to watch and review some of the other movies Johnny Pate scored.
BROTHER ON THE RUN (1973)
The VHS tape I found was called MAN ON THE RUN, but the original and better title is BROTHER ON THE RUN. They got MAN on the title screen but Pate’s theme song (which plays in several different variations throughout the movie) repeatedly calls him “brother on the run.” And brother is simply more accurate because the guy who’s on the run is more like a kid than a man on the run, and he has a sister in the movie so maybe the title is from her point of view. He’s her little brother on the run.
(It could be worse though. IMDB claims it was also released on video as BLACK FORCE 2, which would make it the sequel to an unrelated movie that came out two years later.)
The reason the brother is on the run is he and a white dude were shoplifting radios from a store when the store owner pulled a gun on them, there was a scuffle and the owner got shot and killed. These kids are actually part of a crime ring run by a white hippie preacher named Brother John, and they kind of got set up by a corrupt individual trying to cover his involvement in the whole deal.
Anyway, he runs to his sister’s house, then the cops show up there so he runs some more, and that is why he is on the run.
But the actual hero of the movie is not on the run, he’s Professor Boots Turner played by Terry Carter of FOXY BROWN and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (original recipe). We see in the opening scene that he’s a popular and somewhat lenient professor of English literature, and later he makes a reference to Fagin from Oliver Twist, and also he wears a very professorial suit and tie for the whole movie, but otherwise he’s basically Shaft. He knows how to break locks, use a gun, lose a tail, beat up a dude in a junkyard and trick the cops. He spends the movie trying to find the brother on the run because he’s worried if the racist cops find him first they’ll kill him.
He’s not a private eye like Shaft, so obviously he can’t be hired onto the case. He just found out he’s neighbors with an old hooker friend who is the brother’s sister. So he happens to be catching up on old times when the kid shows up with his white friend dying of a bullet wound. I really have no idea why they made him a teacher, that’s kind of weird. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the story. But I like it. He must be one of the all time toughest movie educators, up there with Indiana Jones, Tom Berenger’s THE SUBSTITUTE and Seagal’s professor of Chinese archaeology character from OUT FOR A KILL.
The filmatism is pretty crude and the story is pretty ridiculous. Boots not only beds the sister but also some white lady in Brentwood who he just meets because the kid was hiding in her backyard. But I sort of enjoyed the story which somehow was more involving than many better-made blaxploitation pictures. There are some pretty tense foot chase scenes with the kid climbing fences, hiding around corners, trying to stay quiet when cops are nearby. We can all relate to that. And he knows he’s in trouble walking through a rich white neighborhhood with his afro. Lucky for him nobody seems to lock the doors on their cars, or even their trunks. He hides in the trunk of a Mercedes at one point, a good way to catch a ride.
Musically it’s no SHAFT IN AFRICA but it’s a good one. The vocal theme song is very catchy and then there’s a bunch of funky chase music with intense drums and percussion and lots of organ solos. Also some more laidback jazzy sexy kind of tunes for the sex scenes. Not a great movie but a worthwhile one, especially for the Johnny Pate completist like you or I.
This one’s alot like a western. Legendary badass (Fred Williamson) comes into small town by train, discovers the people are being oppressed by corrupt law officials, calls in a team of gunmen, they take justice into their own hands and execute all the cops, but then they decide to pin on the badges and take over the town themselves, so the original badass has to take them out. It’s a little different from other westerns though though because there are no cowboy hats or horses, and toward the end he drives a tank over a car and it blows up. That doesn’t happen in most of the Howard Hawks or John Ford movies.
Bucktown is kind of like South Africa during apartheid – it looks like it’s a primarily black population, but the white redneck cops control everything and abuse everybody. When Williamson steps off the train (in town for his brother’s funeral) the first thing he sees is a white cop beating up a black dude. I’m sure that’s on their postcards and souvenir t-shirts too. It might even be on the official town seal that they put on the letterhead and the checks and everything.
When Williamson calls his old friend for help he tells him to bring muscle, so he brings three dudes with him. One of them happens to be played by pre-ROCKY Carl Weathers. His character is named Hambone. Williamson and his buddies are all very cool and cocky. I like the scene where they notice a guy tailing them so they walk over and ask him to join them. These are exactly the right dudes to make some white bigots feel inadequate.
I was a little surprised that their plan just involved going around and executing all the cops, seemed too easy and straightforward. But of course when his out of town friends take over is when the story really begins. At first their friendship allows for a truce, but one of the other guys (not Hambone) gets jealous and has to fuck everything up. The message is that power corrupts, racism not necessary.
This is an above average blaxploitation movie, but I do have to deduct points for Pam Grier’s role. She had already been Coffy and Foxy Brown so it’s not very cool to give her this character where she just whines and gets upset about shit. She’s the standard woman-who-is-hostile-to-the-hero-but-then-falls-in-love-with-him-and-keeps-hysterically-shouting-about-the-dangers-afoot. When she gets attacked she just screams. It’s kind of like in SUNSHINE, when Michelle Yeoh gets attacked and doesn’t know how to fight it’s hard to accept. But this is worse because it’s a movie where a tough Pam Grier character would not necessarily be out of place.
The theme song reminded me a little bit of the DOLEMITE soundtrack but slicker with a little bit of a Fred Wesley and the Horny Horns flavor. There’s also a real funky song with vocals at the end, that one has a little bit of a P-Funkesque sound too.
DR. BLACK AND MR. HYDE (1976)
I was really surprised to find out that this fairly crappy attempt to cash-in on BLACULA was actually made by the same director. I don’t know how many of you hold BLACULA in the same high regard that I do, but I think it does a great job of combining the elements of its two genres (classic Hammer style horror and blaxploitation) and somehow coming off less ridiculous than that sounds on paper. I mean you still get to laugh at (and with) it a little, but I think it actually works as a horror movie with Afrocentric themes, and of course William Marshall is great in it.
To be fair, Bernie Casey is pretty good too as Dr. Henry Pride (hmm, his name is not Dr. Black, that’s weird). The standard horror movie part is that he’s a highly respected doctor working on cutting edge experiments that obsess him because of his mother’s death of liver disease. The new twist is that he’s also a progressive humanitarian type of doctor who works out of a free clinic in Watts that shares a building with a thrift shop. The two female leads are his partner at the clinic played by Rosalind Cash (Charlton Heston’s soul sister girlfriend in OMEGA MAN) and his prostitute patient played by Marie O’Henry (THREE THE HARD WAY). If you enjoy a good looking woman with an afro this is a pretty good movie to check out.
Dr. Pride’s serum causes a lab rat to turn white and kill all the other rats in his cage, and for some reason the doctor decides this would be a good time to secretly inject it into himself. As far as I could tell this makes no sense on any level since not only is the serum clearly not ready for human testing, but he doesn’t even have the liver disease it’s supposed to cure. The tagline of the movie is “A Monster He Can’t Control Has Taken Over His Very Soul!” and that is a double meaning there because the gimmick is that the Mr. Hyde he turns into supposed to be white. The makeup by Stan Winston (who had already made up Casey in GARGOYLES) is a pretty good monster/zombie type face with pale skin and white on the edge of his afro. Kind of a cool monster but for some reason everybody mistakes it for a white man.
This does make the movie sort of enjoyable, because of course you get some good laughs out of people referring to a monstrous Bernie Casey as a white dude. And I guess since the vast majority of serial killers are white it has some kind of logic to it that he would have to turn white in order to go on a hooker-murdering spree. But I’m not sure what the meaning of it is supposed to be. I like Mamuwalde in BLACULA because he was a dignified African leader given this curse by European slavedriver Dracula. He’s a monster and a villain but you also like him because he is bringing this Afrocentric world view to the American ghettos of the ’70s, transcending the stereotypes of the genre and trying to scare some sense into the other characters who fit into the stereotype more. Dr. Pride though, honestly I don’t know what the hell he’s trying to do, and that’s the bigger problem. In the middle section of the movie the storytelling really gets sloppy. To me anyway it is not clear what the rules or motives are. Is he continuing to take the serum for some reason, or does he just keep switching? Is there a reason why he’s killing people, or why he is singling out prostitutes? He doesn’t seem to be doing his experiments on them or anything. And for a while it’s unclear if he knows that he’s turning into a monster or that he’s killing people. And it seems to be inconsistent. In at least one monster scene he’s clearly conscious and in control of his faculties, other times he seems to not be.
Also, I gotta say, the title is really stretching it. Just because BLACULA worked out doesn’t mean you can just replace one word or syllable in any famous horror title with “BLACK” and be proud of yourself. A NIGHTMARE ON BLACK STREET, POLTERBLACK, THE BLAXORCIST, BLACKFERATU, FRIDAY THE BLACKTEENTH? Oh well, I guess if the best alternative I can come up with is JACKSON AND HYDE I got no right to criticize.
Musically it’s fine but not one of the more impressive Johnny Pate scores. Mostly he does standard ’70s cues, not songs but little tension-building low notes and percussion and shit. But there are several parts where it turns into your classic ’70s wah wah chase music. My favorite parts are the ballad at the end and the nice soul jazz tune that’s actually really inappropriate for a montage leading up to people finding a dead hooker.
This is kind of a funny one, but not a great one. Which nobody could’ve ever predicted from a movie called DR. BLACK AND MR. HYDE. Life is just crazy that way I guess.