Well my friends, I’ve made another weird VHS discovery. You know how I am. I rent odd little movies I never heard of that seem to have never made it to DVD. And in an attempt to legitimize this activity I now have a name and logo for such reviews. I considered VH-EXCAVATOR, but I decided TAPE RAIDER worked a little better and sounded more like an exciting adventure. Picture me as The Phantom going into that museum and stealing back the artifacts for his buddies, but instead of an artifact it’s a movie and I’m making sure you know about it. Whether you like it or not.
This one is called URBAN JUNGLE and was released by Xenon, so it has a trailer for THE LEGEND OF DOLEMITE at the beginning. It might be from 1989 or 1994, depending on which IMDb entry you trust (it seems to have two). I first found it under the title URBAN JUNGLE HARLEM (1994), and I looked up the director and was searching for a copy of his other movie HOMEBOYZ II: CRACK CITY (1989) until I watched a trailer for it which proved it was the same movie. Some of the weird things about that are
1) None of the people on the cover are in this movie or look like anybody in this movie
2) I never noticed any crack
3) I can’t find any evidence of a HOMEBOYZ I.
URBAN JUNGLE is the story of David (Brian Paul Stuart, BIG MOMMA’S HOUSE), a young man living in Harlem, working as a photographer “for the revolution” and also doing some unspecified job for a crime boss named Enrico (Blas Hernandez). Maybe they do sell crack, but I never saw any. Enrico works out of a dilapidated old church and has an unfuckwithable Native American enforcer in a bolo tie (didn’t catch the character’s name).
David looks like kind of a square, but he has a cool friend named Spider (McKinley Winston) who’s really tall and has a mohawk. At the beginning David observes that their boss is “an uptown Fegan, and you’re the Artful Dodger and I’m Oliver Twist.” Spider has no idea what the fuck David is talking about, but we do: they didn’t think we’d pick up on any Oliver Twist references so they made a character notice it and say it out loud.
Enrico claims “I screw the rich, they screw the poor.” I guess that sort of jibes with the tagline “Harlem 1994: Trickle-down economics enforced through the barrel of a gun!,” but I’m not clear how exactly he’s supposed to be screwing the rich. The rich are definitely holding up their part of the bargain, though. The movie opens with anonymous white elites scheming, parts of their faces cropped out or blocked by shadows or the backs of their fancy chairs as they conspire, occasionally petting or feeding a scary doberman in a spiked collar. Their order of the day is to get David’s aunt (Yvonne Kersey?) to move out of the building she’s lived in for 18 years because it’s been sold to developers. They send two smooth talkers in suits to offer a “more than generous” deal, plus moving fees.
When she turns them down, somebody says “I suppose we could get an eviction order, but the trouble is getting a judge to sign it.” Man, I know they have or had rent control in New York, but this still seems amazing to me. Here whenever they want to remodel my apartment for rich people they just raise my rent by several hundred dollars so I’ll leave. Being evil in Seattle 2018 is way easier and more socially acceptable than in this b-movie about exaggeratedly heartless elites.
Then again, this is a naive time, because here they are maybe selling crack (?) but it’s a big deal when Spider decides to get a gun. David is clearly very uncomfortable with it, but Spider says, “This is like cool, like in a big way!” He fires it off on a rocky beach and a homeless family comes out with their hands up. “Where’d these bum motherfuckers come from?” he asks.
Despite the flippant attitude about “these bum motherfuckers,” they’re one of the movie’s biggest concerns. In their spare time, David and Spider are helping Manny James (William Farrier), a guy who’s collecting evidence to show to the housing commissioner about what’s going on. And in a dryly satirical scene that happens later, grotesque rich people help the homeless by having the same bum motherfuckers (I think), still covered in dirt, join them for a fancy feast with candles and violins.
But the white bosses also pressure Enrico to “get the old lady out,” and things come to a head in an artfully constructed scene where David and Spider go from watching African dancers performing on the street to running to the apartment to try to head off gunmen they hear are coming for Auntie. Their running is intercut with the dancing and drumming, as well as Auntie aiming her shotgun Henrietta at the door as the assassins come in. The resident and the evictors shoot each other dead, splattering blood on portraits of Martin Luther King and the Virgin Mary. Kind of a John Woo touch.
The African drumming isn’t the only interesting musical choice. Another scene has Enrico playing guitar and singing in Spanish to a woman dancing topless, intercut with David follows the enforcer and photographs him stabbing somebody for Enrico. There seems to be way more effort and experimentation put into the score than I’d ever expect from a movie like this. IMDb credits it to Yuval Ron, who later did episodes of Sweet Valley High, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Masked Rider. The style is all over the place but I noticed some beatboxing (“Beat Box and Vocal Sample” credited to The Hayden Good Will Rap Group) and I particularly like an odd piece during a footchase that sounded like a drum machine with tenor saxophone. (Somebody called The Heavy Metal Horns are on the credits, I don’t know if it’s them or not.)
After the Native guy tells Spider “You have to help David avenge the old woman. Her spirit cries,” they follow this guy Spencer McKnight (Peter Wittrock) to a club with topless men and women, a Roman orgy, people chained up being spanked. Fat old dudes in togas make out with younger women spilling their vomitoriums all over themselves. Spider finds a quiet bar in the back where ordering a drink gets him surrounded by women demanding he lick some boots before the bartender offers him a Michelob, enema or nipple clamps.
See, alot of movies, they would’ve just followed him into a strip club. This is not alot of movies.
I think this Spencer guy works for the housing department. David finds him in the club, now changed into a leather outfit, sort of seduces him and goes home to his apartment with him. But Spider follows him in and they tear Spencer’s gimp mask off and photograph him, for blackmail purposes, I assume. It seems to be getting into some horribly homophobic territory here, but Spider says “Ah man, what have we done?”
The plot is definitely clunky and incoherent. I’m not always sure what David is trying to do, and there’s not much of a flow to it. But I forgive that because I really appreciate its poetically exaggerated portrait of city living. For the climax they get chased by one of these scheming rich white men.
He’s wearing a tux with the tie untied and carrying an ax in broad daylight, chasing these two young black men through Harlem, The Man gone American psycho. At first it seems like nobody will do anything, but luckily they end up in an empty lot where various homeless people close in and surround him.
“Do you know who I am? I’m the commissioner of housing!” he yells. And “Go on home, get out of here!”
Sorry, asshole. They don’t have a home. You made sure of that.
In case there’s any question about whether or not this HOMEBOYZ II has more on its mind than selling DOLEMITE tapes, it ends with a quote from J. Paul Getty and one of Ronald Reagan cluelessly saying “I don’t believe there is anyone that is going hungry in America.”
So who the fuck made this movie? The answer is interesting, at least to me. If you’re familiar with Tobe Hooper’s THE MANGLER (which I rewatched and fell in love with a few months ago) you may remember the sort of sidekick character, the detective’s brother-in-law and occult expert who lives next door with weird decorations hanging all around and goes along on his investigation and asks inappropriate questions. This guy:
His name is is Daniel Matmor, and he originally hooked up with Hooper to rewrite NIGHT TERRORS. Depending on which IMDb entry is correct he directed this either a few years before or right in between his first two acting roles in NIGHT TERRORS (1993) and THE MANGLER (1995). He directed one more movie – BUFFALO HEART in 1996 – but continues to work as an actor, mostly in TV.
It turns out I’m not the only one to be curious about this guy. The Schlock Pit did a good interview with him about the Hooper movies. It only has one mention of URBAN JUNGLE/HOMEBOYZ II: “I’m not proud of it,” laughs Matmor, “But it was my film school!”
I also found this great appearance by him on a Canadian podcast called This Movie’s About You. He doesn’t talk about his movies, but does tell a funny story about staying at Stanley Kubrick’s house for a couple days and then getting kicked out. Based on this movie I assumed he’d be a guy from the New York arts scene, like a latter day Abel Ferrara type, but it turns out he’s very British and grew up upper class and I have no idea how he ended up interested in race and class warfare in ’80s and/or ’90s New York City.
Here he is talking about a painting he acquired:
In retrospect it seems so obvious. OF COURSE that’s the guy that directed HOMEBOYZ II: CRACK CITY.
I’m not saying Matmor is anywhere near as good, but the spirit of this thing reminds me of Jamaa Fanaka – very much a low budget exploitation movie, but with some surreal and artsy stuff cooked in making it feel special. He just would need to be better at the exploitation side of it to make more of an impression. A guy taking a couple photographs isn’t as exciting as a guy getting in a bunch of fights and training with Mr. T and stuff. But I appreciate the effort.