Alot of people have recommended the PENITENTIARY trilogy to me over the years. Apparently it’s a pretty crazy movie property franchise of the VHS era, so it made sort of a minor cult legend out of writer-director Jamaa Fanaka. He came out of the UCLA film school and a group of young black filmmakers known as “the L.A. Rebellion.” Other members include Charles Burnett, Julie Dash and Haile Gerima, so he might’ve been the black sheep of the group, being more interested in exploitation type subject matter than his colleagues.
Although the PENITENTIARYs are what he’s known for, Fanaka (who was born Walter Gordon, by the way – he changed it to a Swahili name in college) actually started in the blaxploitation era. His first feature was 1974’s EMMA MAE, better known now as BLACK SISTER’S REVENGE. In 1975 he did WELCOME HOME, BROTHER CHARLES, which we will discuss here under its current video title of SOUL VENGEANCE.
I wanted to watch one of these as an example of blaxploitation movies actually made by black directors, but it’s not necessarily representative of any black filmmaking movement for the same reason that it’s a good one to watch: it seems to be the work of an insane person. A good combination of weird subject matter, crudely executed arty filmatism and seemingly unintentional vagueness of storytelling makes it a real puzzler.
Note: I have to give away the craziest parts or there’s no point in writing about it.
The opening credits play over a shot of some sort of African wooden fertility idol accompanied by ambient scoring somewhere between the metal clangs of TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE’s opening and the tribal-sounding rhythms of SWEET SWEETBACK. It wasn’t until toward the end of the sequence, when the artifact was in profile, that I realized it had a huge boner.
Believe it or not that’s some foreshadowing there.
The story begins with the titlical Charles (one-and-done movie actor Marlo Monte) straddled on the edge of a building, a white detective (Stan Kamber) begging his ex-wife (?) Carmen (Reatha Grey, Betty White’s Off Their Rockers) to convince him not to jump. She wants to know “why did he turn bad?” and the agitated aspiring suicidist looks into her warm face and flashes back to the good ol’ days when they first met and the events that led him to this roof.
Back then she was a sassy hooker, and he was a drug dealer. There’s a scene where she’s picking up a white judge (Ed Sander) as a john while Charles is in a nearby hotel room meeting with one of his hookups. I don’t believe we see any drugs or find out the specific purpose of their meeting, and they’re casually sitting/laying on the same bed complaining about it being hot, and Charles starts unbuttoning his jacket.
I mean, I’m not trying to be one of those guys who has to put a buffer seat between himself and his buddy when they go to the movies together, but you can’t watch this scene and not wonder if these guys are about to start fucking. Then all the sudden they notice a stakeout van outside and make a run for it, and there’s never another indication that anybody’s gay here. Just one of many puzzling events that seems to have no relevance in any other part of the movie.
There are two cops on the stakeout, one is the detective from the opening scene, the other one, Harry Freeman (Ben Bigelow), is more of an asshole and looks like Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. These two are a couple of fuckin pigs who just dump their peanut shells, root beer cans and cigarettes on the floor. This looks like the kind of apartment where the owner just lets animals shit all over and never cleans it up. Real fuckin professional there, fellas.
They think it’s funny and maybe a little hot that their target has a white girlfriend coming over for sex, but upon further binocular examination she is identified as Freeman’s wife. So he has some strong opinions about that. (spoiler: he’s against it.)
The next scene is the most befuddling part of a movie that is made up almost entirely of befuddlement. Suddenly they are not on the stakeout and Freeman is sweatily rolling around on an air strip doing something with a briefcase. It seems like it may have something to do with either defusing a bomb or planting a bomb, either to stop terrorism or to cause terrorism, or also it could be something else, like he is trying to blow himself up with the bomb because he’s upset about his wife fucking around. Don’t blame me for not knowing, in my opinion the information is not conveyed. It definitely involves a briefcase though and some drama where he is worried and then something bad happens that causes him to have to be rushed to the hospital because of radiation contamination.
Well, not so much rushed to the hospital as having an appointment with his doctor, who says he’s fine. When his wife (Tiffany Peters) shows up after his appointment he cryptically/passive-aggressively/racistly hints about her cheating ways, saying “Nothing to worry about. I’m not the one who’s contaminated,” and then won’t go home with her. Later he pretends to tell her about a newspaper article he read but actually describes her cheating on him with a black guy.
All of this I guess is to explain why when the cops arrest Charles this Freeman guy has a racist flip out and attempts to cut Charles’s dick off, or something. It happens off screen and then is not mentioned for a while. In later scenes (after an arty montage of black and white stills representing his prison term) we see that he still very much has a dick. And it’s an hour 28 in when we finally hear from a psychiatrist who’s friends with a doctor who Charles saw (and who must’ve been sick when they learned about patient privacy in medical school) that it was only an “attempted castration” and that “fortunately his sexual apparatus was saved.” We never do find out why the castration didn’t succeed, other than that Freeman is not man enough to do anything like that, at least according to his wife after she wakes up from him strangling her not quite to death. “You think you’re a man? You didn’t even have the guts to destroy the object of your humiliation: me!”
Anyway, Charles believes he is an innocent black man framed by a racist system. This may or may not be true. He is shown to be a drug dealer, but I’m not clear what crime he is charged with. He seems to get the book thrown at him because he gets upset and pulls a Christian Bale in court, which is considered worse than a cop trying to castrate a guy I guess. It feels like kind of a paranoid ’70s idea of a rigged system unless you consider that shit like this could happen in Florida today and the cop would be celebrated as a hero by half of the country. They would say it was self defense maybe, and point out that Charles was a drug dealer and an asshole.
It’s true, this guy is not very likable at all. He has a cool Dolemite mustache and later an all red outfit (given to him as a gift) but he needs to chill out. One funny scene is when he realizes something’s wrong with him and goes to a doctor but immediately starts yelling at him for asking about his blood pressure. He thinks the doctor is in on the conspiracy because he’s asking basic doctor questions.
When Charles sees a story on the news about an undercover cop he recognizes him as the guy who busted him and tracks the guy down for revenge. He gets into his house THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR style: pretending to be a telephone repair man. He messes with the phone for a minute and then calls the wife back into the room and…
Look, I’m just gonna have to come out and say it: this ends up being a movie about a black guy showing his dick to white women and it puts them in a hypnotic trance and he fucks them standing up. It’s sleazy, but it’s more confrontational than lascivious. It’s not supposed to be sexy, like a ZAPPED kind of thing, because it keeps cutting to disgusting closeups of his mouth as he licks his lips.
He does this hypno-fucking thing to the cop’s wife and the judge’s wife. They look like they’re sleepwalking and they follow his commands (including “Marge, go to your room!”) I couldn’t really believe what I was seeing and then all the sudden he throws the cop down and this happens:
See, that’s when you know for sure that he didn’t get his dick cut off. And in fact it now has super powers. It can extend like the guy in Fantastic Four. And he’s gonna stand there several feet away from this guy and reach out with his extendo dick and, what, rape him? That’s pretty fucked up.
Oh, phew! He doesn’t rape him. He just strangles him with his dick, so everything’s okay. Just one of those scenes where a guy wrestles a giant dick like it’s a boa constrictor and loses the match while his wife watches lustily.
At this point it’s important to remember the opening scene where Carmen said to the detective, “If I’m supposed to believe what your men told me in the car on the way over here why the hell should he want to be saved anyway?” Because I wonder how that conversation went, when they were explaining to her that Charles has a magic dick that can hypnotize women and strangle men.
Stylistically this is pretty experimental, with some POV shots, the creepy extreme closeups and the weird music by William Anderson. I mentioned the still photo montage. That scene also has black and white footage of him banging his head against a wall. And there’s another montage of what I’m sure is cinema verite footage of real people in the neighborhood hanging out, kids playing, this old guy dancing:
stuff like that. Also some shooting up.
But, some of that excluded, it’s mostly shitty filmatism. It’s much sloppier and more laughable than TRUCK TURNER, really not in the same league to be honest, but I think it has a similar spirit of ignoring the rules for blaxploitation and trying to innovate a little with the cinematic language. Or at least it’s trying to copy SWEET SWEETBACK more than SUPER FLY.
It’s a movie that leaves alot of questions open, the main one being “what the fuck happened in this movie, other than the dick strangling part obviously I got that but otherwise what is going on?” The scenes come together awkwardly and it always seems like we’re missing some context, like the movie assumes we know what’s going on but we don’t.
I don’t think it’s supposed to be some David Lynch type mystery, I think we’re supposed to understand why castration + possible prison experiments or something = vengeful monster penis. My guess is that the cop was radioactive from the mysterious briefcase activity so when he did the attempted castration this radiation transferred to Charles’s, you know, sexual apparatus, and made it a mutant superdick? I don’t know, that’s one theory.
I’m actually much clearer on the subtext than the text. Obviously it’s a movie about sissy white men enforcing an unjust system because they fear black men’s sexuality, or specifically their large penises going into white vaginas. And when the real hateful shit goes down the so-called good white men stand aside and don’t intervene. For example the main detective guy, he stood by during the attempted castration, he looked like he disagreed with it but he didn’t do anything. Just turned his back and winced. There are two scenes in a row where white men defend their failures by saying “my hands were tied!” But of course it’s not a good enough excuse.
It should also be noted that the judge seems pretty reasonable while defending himself at gunpoint until he uses the n-word. Not cool, your honor, and not wise.
Charles specifically brings up the legacy of slavery. When the judge offers money to save his ass, Charles says “Money. Money. Yeah, I want something that money can’t buy. I mean after all it was your ancestors that said that there’s no price that ain’t high enough to pay for a human life.” This is the racial tensions of the time blown up to monstrous proportions by a radioactive briefcase.
You may notice on the credits that Charles Burnett is one of the two credited camera operators. He’d directed a couple shorts at that point but this is the first feature he worked on, and then four years later he made his feature directoring debut with KILLER OF SHEEP. I still haven’t seen that but I’ve seen SOUL VENGEANCE, and that sort of thing is why they made Black History Month in the first place. Sorry everybody.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.