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Mean Johnny Barrows

Posted by Josh Samford On August - 8 - 2008
The Plot: Johnny Barrows was at one time a football prospect, with the whole world ahead of him. However, after some controversy with a young woman he skips town and joins the army. He is awarded the silver star and is an excellent soldier, but unfortunately some of his superiors are of the racist variety. After a routine training exercise lead by Barrows where a minefield is supposed to be completely dead and his troops are to sweep it – those superiors plant a live mine that Johnny steps on. When Johnny de-activates the mine and confronts his superior, he belts him one right on the kisser. This gets Johnny a dishonorable discharge. Once Johnny arrives in the states, he is mugged immediately after stepping off the bus. He wanders the streets looking for food before finding an old football foe who runs a restaurant, turns out this restaurant is a mob front and Johnny’s old adversary is looking for some new muscle. In particular, a new hitman. Johnny however has no intentions of killing anyone. He takes his chances on the street, but times are tough and work isn’t exactly plentiful. Johnny finds work at a local gasstation where he is put to work cleaning bathrooms and doing all the dirty jobs. The mob won’t quit calling though, Johnny needs to make a decision, what will it be?




The Review: Fred “The Hammer” Williamson is without a doubt my favorite male lead from the blaxploitation era. My all time favorite lead from these films would most definitely be Pam Grier, such a beautiful woman with such sweet charisma… ahh, doesn’t get much better. Umm, oh yeah, Fred Williamson! Williamson in my opinion was probably the most talented leading man in any of these films. He had a lot more going for him than simply his charisma and charm, Williamson always seemed to invest himself a little more than the likes of Jim Brown or even Richard Roundtree. Just my opinion is all, but Williamson had a certain Brando quality about him where he could be tough as nails but also convincingly emotional and hurt. It really is a shame that his time seemed so exclusive for this one small era, when in my opinion he could have followed in the footsteps of Sidney Poitier – but also a man capable of bringing an action movie to life. The guy was so much more than just a football player turned action star. With Mean Johnny Barrows Fred not only steps in to deliver his own special take on yet another tough but fair leading man, he also sits in as director. With Barrows, Williamson lives up to just what I have described here. He delivers a subtle and nuanced performance in the midst of this small but engrossing crime film. Although the Italian stereotypes are in full effect, Williamson’s film delivers a lot of the things that can make a mafia-based film great. Sure, it seems silly to have a la cosa nostra based crime film set in the middle of Los Angeles, and sure the Italian accents seem like overkill – but the sense of the culture is thick in the film and the back and forth messages to one another are the things mob movies are made of.

Did I mention the Hammer-fu? I didn’t did I? Boy, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen The Hammer breaking it down with his unique brand of fighting. To see Fred Williamson taking on a kung fu pose whilst fighting in a poorly choreographed fight sequence (probably not his own fault) is just another reason to see this flick. The final fight sequence is actually pulled off fairly well, but still just as funny as the first one I am thinking of. The real meat and bones of Mean Johnny Barrows isn’t in the action however, it is mostly a character driven crime drama. Resembling a little of that art-house style of something like Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, only much more linear. Much of the film is about Barrow’s deep contemplation on what he is going to do and his dealing with homelessness. It’s only after about a hour into the film that Johnny actually takes on a direction, with many sequences preceding just showing Johnny trying to figure things out and cure his own moral dilemma. One segment even features Elliot Gould in a small cameo as a bum who is very well spoken and calls himself a professor, who introduces Johnny to the soup-kitchens where he can get some desperately needed food. His time as an employee at the gasstation is equally memorable, however I’ve done a lot dirtier work without as many complaints as Johnny seems to have – but it all becomes understandable when it comes out how little the gasstation owner tries to pay him for a month’s work. Mean Johnny Barrows is not what you would really call an action film, even though that is generally what most consider Blaxploitation films to be – however, if you’re patient enough and can dig on the crime elements as much as I did you’ll be treated to some “cool” crime oriented shootings and plot twists in the third act of the film. The double shotgun shooting rampage that Williamson goes on at one point is worth the price of admission alone, giving the film a healthy dose of bloody violence at the tail end. Blood definitely goes a long way, but hey, there’s even a kiss of death in here to keep up with all the other Godfather influenced mafia cliches. I live for this sort of stuff!

So in the end, is Mean Johnny Barrows worth your time? You bet it is. Generally anything with Fred Williamson is going to be worth your time but you throw in a cleverly scripted mafia story featuring as many betrayals and cheesy genre cliches as you can shake a stick at – and you’ve got a winner. The last act of the film shows Fred in classic form, delivering some outstanding lines before putting an end to several mafiosos. They all have it coming through! Williamson drops the hammer (ZING!) and has never been more cool. His character and the arch that he is on seems to bend slightly to the will of the movie rather than being a fully natural growth but by the end of the film everything comes together just fine. I’m not going to say it’s the best of the blaxploitation genre or even Williamson’s best – but I don’t feel bad about calling it a classic at all. I give it a four out of five, which is probably exceptionally high for this film – but I enjoyed it thoroughly and see it as a film deserving of a larger audience. It’s a mostly serious, sometimes wacky and all times entertaining crime story about a man coming to terms with his own violent past and his search for happiness. It’s probably a high three rather than a four, but until I make a three and half rating, the four will serve its place.



Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song

Posted by Josh Samford On July - 30 - 2008
The Plot: Sweetback is a young African American entertainer at what appears to look like some form of brothel/cabaret that takes place in someone’s living room. Well, after being escorted around one night by a couple of crooked white cops who pick up a young black kid and proceed to beat him unmerciful. Sweetback, unable to deal with seeing a young black man being treated in such a way he retaliates to the police and proceeds to half-kill them. Now Sweetback is wanted by the law and with no where to hang, he must simply: run!




The Review: Sometimes being the first in something will carry you quite a long way. You’re not really held to any standards yet when you’re inventing a genre. The films of Bruce Lee never had the stunning choreography of Yuen Woo Ping or many filmmakers who came much later. Sure, but his charisma is what carried those films and great storytelling were also integral in the success of Enter the Dragon. Black Christmas didn’t push the slasher subgenre further than many later films would do – but it relied on a great premise and the delivery of suspense. Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song is definitely one of the first of what we might consider the “blaxploitation” genre – but unlike the previously mentioned films – what is it that Sweetback has to offer? Not simply in comparison to the many great films that the genre would later produce – but I have found that many tend to share my opinion that while Sweetback certainly helped give birth to and influence the work of many independent young African American filmmakers throughout the seventies – it lacks in so many departments that it simply isn’t the sort of film you can bare to watch all too often. Working more like a film of the French New Wave told through the eyes of an oppressed young black man; the film is often needlessly stylized and comes off as slightly pretentious. It’s hard to completely deride the film, since who am I really? I surely didn’t start any subgenre of cinema that grossed millions and influenced the world – but I can’t lie and say that I was theroughly impressed with Sweet Sweetback simply because of the influence the film has had instead of the actual character of the film.

Watching the film, it comes off as if Melvin Van People’s wrote the script certainly with the idea that he would be playing the lead – and that since that was the case he might as well portray his character with as few flaws as possible and as superhuman as they could get away with. Although he does take a few punches in the film, for the most part when the character of Sweet Sweetback isn’t running – he is either knocking out a cop with very little effort or bringing women to orgasm without so much as a thrust of his pelvis. Aside from the displays of his amazing fighting skills and incomprehensible sexual prowess, Peoples does show his character as a testament to perseverance and a fighter of police brutality. These are good things, and I realize/hope that this was the main intent of the film. I’m sure in its time it provided hope and a character that young African Americans could look up to; which is likely the reason it became as popular as it did. Also being such a new thing surely didn’t hurt. However, as it is today it is such a hard film to try and sit through. Featuring scene after scene of random shots of the city, with Sweetback running down streets or across railroad tracks with the very repetitive theme song playing in the background. Then, eventually we somehow stumble into a new mini-story with Sweetback wandering into a location and either laying a chick or fighting a cop/being shot at. There are also the times where Sweetback runs into someone who proceeds to give a long monolauge of advice or simply swear words. This looks like perhaps improv meant to expose a few talents; but it just gives the film an even more fragmented feel – which doesn’t even seem possible.

Sweet Sweeback’s Badassss Song is an oddball flick that should be seen simply because of the cinematic relevance of it, but I won’t lie and say it is anywhere near a favorite film of mine. It is enjoyable if you sit back and take the whole feel of the picture into account and enjoy that. Just be prepared, as the film doesn’t feature a solid narrative and plays out like the editor wanted the film to feel like an acid trip. Lines of dialogue are repeated over and over again while the same sequence is shown in repeated camera angles with fades and effects layered over it. For what reason, your guess is as good as mine. Melvin Van Peoples probably has many reasons behind everything he did in the film, but these things aren’t always evident to the viewer. I give the film a rating of two, because sometimes will carry you a way – but really; if the content of the film isn’t up to the reputation it carries then the distance it will carry you can only be so far.



Black Shampoo

Posted by Josh Samford On July - 30 - 2008
The Plot: Mr. Johnathan (no last name needed) is a hairdresser, who loves the ladies. He essentially lays just about all of his clients, and is the man around town all the women folk are just dying to get their hands on. After sleeping with a gaggle of women to start our film, Johnathan apparently meets his match in Brenda the new receptionist at the salon. However, when Brenda’s old flame finds her things get real ugly. See, Brenda used to date the head of a crime family and now that he wants her back; it seems she’s going to have to leave the salon. Johnathan promises her he’ll protect her – and when the mob goons break into HIS salon and trash the place – things go from personal… to deadly!


The Review: I’m going to start this review off by offending many readers out there by asking a question: you ever hear that song by The Bloodhound Gang “I Wish I Was Queer, So I could Get Chicks”? The song is about a man who pretends to be a homosexual in order to hook up with women, so of course the ladies hang out with gay guys all day long – so if you could fool the ladies into thinking you in fact loved the fellas; you could conceivably play up the friend role before springing the “more than friends” role on her. Well, Black Shampoo apparently shows this line of thinking to not only be correct – but indeed the greatest idea man has ever possibly conceived. See, the character of Johnathan isn’t gay – doesn’t act gay – but his job? Way gay. When I think of hairdressers, generally the ones that I have known have all been so far out of the closet they are in the driveway. Get it? Closet… driveway… differrent area of the house?… regardless, this film has inspired me. I thought for a while there the reason I was getting no play from the ladies was simply because I don’t speak to them and when they approach me I can hardly mutter a coherent sentence. What has been missing though is a much easier fix. Hair cutting prowess! I wouldn’t know the difference between a beehive and a perm but that’s soon to change! I’ve enrolled at a beauty college and if this site is not here in three months time – you’ll know I’m rollin’ in the deep seas of feminine sexual deviancy! However, if I’m still here we can all assume I still have no life or ladies – such is the way things are.

However, no matter how much I look to prepare – I honestly don’t see myself getting the whole “black Lou Ferrigno” look that Mr. Johnathan carries so well. I mean really, if the guy was green he could have been The Hulk’s stunt double – just as long as he didn’t have to take his shirt off of course; as Johnathan isn’t quite as ripped as old Lou but he’s certainly a buff dude for sure. I might could sway that but my ability to grow an Afro is unlikely. The basic premise of Black Shampoo is a pretty insane one, about as insane as these past paragraphs – but even more insane. Mr. Johnathan essentially spends the first twenty minutes of the film nailing as many chicks as he possibly can and the height of awesome is reached as he visits a “customer” who is looking to get her hair fixed on a house call. So here’s good old Johnathan being greeted by the daughter of said “customer”, who both look impossibly young (I hope they were 18!). The girls take Johnathan by the ppol whilst flirting with him hard and heavy, before dropping the payload as they claim “you know, we’ve shared a guy before! Twice!”. Whoa nelly, we have liftoff! The girls begin to stick their head in his lap and rub his body down before Mommy Dearest comes out to bullwhip the girls for attacking their guest. Next thing to happen? Mommy’s lifting her dress and riding his lap by the pool in front of the girls to show them how it’s done. WHAT!? How can this not be a porno? Soon enough, once the mob gets involved however – all the fun stuff comes to a halt. Then we get the violence! Okay, well, there’s a lot of set-up before the conclusion to the film but by the end of this process we’re treated to some fun stuff such as a hair curler shoved right up someone’s anus! Does it get much better than that? I think not!

I’ve read good and I’ve read bad aboutBlack Shampoo. Director Greydon Clark has some less than notable films under his belt, but ever since seeing his film The Bad Bunch I have been very interested in his work. Black Shampoo solidifies my view of him. Whether it’s bad, good, well meaning, exploitive – Greydon Clark makes interesting films. That doesn’t mean they’re going to be Godfather II, but his drive-in flare seems to hit all the right notes with me. I gave a pretty flamingly bad review for The Bad Bunch a few years back but I’ve grown to appreciate it over time – and Black Shampoo caught my liking with just the first viewing. It is by no means a “great”, you can read this review and figure out we’re talking exploitation here and you won’t be sucked in over the mesmorizing character development – but it gets the job done. John Daniels plays the character of Johnathan with enough flare that he isn’t mundane and turns out to be a lot of fun. Tany Boyd helps stabalize the film in the leading female role and is probably the strongest of the performances – but I watch the film and I see Greydon Clark and I see a film that makes me happy. It’s goofy, it’s fun and we all know Johnathan isn’t even talkative enough to be such a beloved individual with all of womenkind – but who cares; all the more reason to enjoy the work. You might think I’m crazy, giving the film a four out of five – when for some reason it’s a two out of ten on the IMDB – but if you like your drive-in exploitation as genre-dependent as they come then this will leave you entertained and then some. Seriously though, a two out of ten? What ARE the people on that site smoking?




Blackenstein

Posted by Josh Samford On July - 15 - 2008
This review was originally written between 2003-2006 and has since been slightly edited. The opinion remains the same as the original posting, but slight errors have been revised or smoothed out.

Plot Outline: Winifred Walker, a female scientist, shows up on the doorsteps of Dr. Stein (GET IT!?!?!?) in hopes that he can somehow help her boyfriend who lost his arms and legs after stepping on a mine in Vietnam. The doctor, who has made miraculous discoveries in the world of DNA, assures her that he can. Meanwhile Dr. Stein’s assistant Malcolm has become obsessed with Winifred and eventually lets her know his love for her. She refuses him and so he decides to get some revenge. He switches Winifred’s boyfriend’s DNA with some other more dangerous DNA and thus makes her boyfriend a monster. The monster goes crazy, kills a bunch of people, the end.


  


The Review
Before deciding to write this review, I at first thought of just writing “OUCH” in very large letters and rating it a zero, but changed my mind because I want to warn as many people about this movie as possible. When I first saw the flick I, like many before myself, was expecting a fun blaxploitation flick. This movie however doesn’t even deserve that moniker. This might outright be the most boring feature I have ever seen. It’s not the worst however, for that there is plenty of stiff competition with flicks such as The Godmonster of Indian Flats, but with most of the others that would top my list of “worst movies ever made” they are at least enjoyable because of how poorly made they are. Blackenstein on the other hand is just a dread to sit through. It took me three tries to finally watch it and I’m not sure why I bothered to finish it at all.

Where to start when dealing with such an incompetent film? I think I’ll start with ol’ Blackenstein himself. Look, I’ve seen bad acting in my time, but this guy… man! I think he was picked for the role because of his obvious size, but he is possibly the least intimidating monster ever to grace the screen. I mean, it’s worse than just bad acting. It’s non-acting. He looks like he’s in a coma when he delivers his lines. He has absolutely no personality at all. In the way that Troma usually takes things ‘over the top’, this guy is ‘under the dirt’ in his levels of underacting. He genuinely looks like he is asleep, but someone painted eyeballs over his eye lids. Everyone else delivers the usual bad acting, but if the razzie awards weren’t full of idiots (I mean Depalma getting a worst direction nom for scarface?) this guy would be inaugurated into the hall of fame. His size is impressive though, despite his abilities. I personally hope he never reads this… I get the feeling even though he’s probably old he’d still beat me up.

Alright, I guess we’ll talk about the direction… or lack thereof. In the film there’s a scene where we watch Blackenstein escape from his room and walk into town where he kills a bunch of teens or what have you (that’s his ‘thing’, of course). Well, in the scene we watch as he walks across some parking lot during sunset, but the guy walks so slow and we watch the entire process! The scene eats up what seems like an eternity, and the director never cuts! We established that he was walking, we don’t need to watch every second of it. Then the director has the same scene later in the film, again! Showing the elaborate ‘walking’ process in all of its intricate detail. That’s essentially what the film is: A serious of awkward and boring scenes strung together in order to eat up time to make short-film into a feature length production. Half the time you can’t even see anything because of how badly lit the film was, so that could almost be construed as a positive. Add to this fact, the film was made extremely cheap even for a 70’s era horror movie and no one has taken care of the original film-stock so you get one scratchy, washed out looking, very bad movie.

Not to continue the ragging, but another awkward moment in the movie is definitely the talent show segment. Well, I take that it was a talent show. I’m not really sure what it is. Near the end of the movie Blackenstein escapes (again) and reaks havoc (again) but this time he does it outside of a bar, where we for some unknown reason have to watch what happens inside. We watch as a man tells an incredibly corny joke about a talking dog, then we sit through a blues performance by some lady. I think it was the theme song to the movie but I forget. Anyway, I assume that these were people who helped fund the film or were simply close to the director. This is the scene that topped everything for me. This has no bearing on anything that happens in the movie and is obviously tacked onto the project in order to further pad the running time. I can’t think of any legitimate reason for it to be in the film. The guy who tells the dog joke later sees Blackenstein and reports him, but why did we have to know who he is? The simple answer: we don’t and there’s no excusing the obvious padding that this movie forces us to endure.

The Conclusion
The only way I can recommend this in the least is if you’re a masochist who likes extremely bad films. If you’re a drinking man then I suppose there’s a slight possibility that this could be moved up to a rating of one, but watching this sober is not recommended. Just stay away from it… stay far, far away.



Bad Bunch, The

Posted by Josh Samford On June - 28 - 2008
Plot Outline: White Vietnam veteran Jim (Greydon Clark) returns home after the war and takes it on himself to deliver a letter, that his black friend wrote before dying, to his family. He soon gets into a confrontation with the dead man’s brother and his gang. Add to all this a love triangle with two hippie chicks and the dead man’s brother out to put a hurting on Jim and you’ve got the movie in a nutshell.



The Review: Have you ever watched a movie where you were certain that the director had high intentions for his film in making a grandiose statement, but somewhere along the way he kind of lost his path? The Bad Bunch falls into this category without question. From my own personal vantage point it seems that Greydon Clark was trying to make a film that ultimately questioned all sides of the race issue, but somehow was pressured into adding a gaggle of unnecessary exploitation along the way. That or perhaps he was just let down with his own lack of talent. Clark, who should be well known to b-cinema afficianados, kind of reminds me of Ed Wood. The only difference is that as his career went onwards he didn’t sink so low as to start making porn flicks. He is a filmmaker with great intentions but limited means, and The Bad Bunch is a shining example of this.

I’m serious about this Greydon Clark thing, I’m fascinated by the guy for some reason. I know nothing about him however and I’ve only seen two of his films. The Bad Bunch and Final Justice (on mst3k) being those films, of course. Maybe I haven’t fully explored his filmography due to that recurring theme of his: Badness. Well ‘badness’ is one particular theme, lack of budget is another and the fact that he likes to cast himself often is another staple of his work. Here he’s the star, but in Final Justice he plays a sheriff near the beginning. Anyway, I realize all of Clark’s work after this film tends to be just quick drive-in fare aimed to make a buck, but I think this film is a little different. It’s just as bad as those films, but I think Clark really thought he was going to make something with this movie, but instead he delivered a film that just goes in way too many directions and gets extremely sloppy towards the end.

Unlike a review I read a while back, I don’t think the film is really all too prejudice. I think it shows both races that are explored in a particularly bad light. I think Clark was trying to deliver a racial drama that he felt was true to life, but the unnecessary nudity, cheapness and the amateur acting takes away from any artistic integrity the feature may have hoped to achieve. At one point in the film, everything kind of stops for like five minutes when the ‘bad bunch’ of the title, all go skinny dipping with a bunch of upper class white kids at their pool party. This could have been a scene to further the plot in some way I imagine, but instead it just seems tacked on. The entire film could have went without it, but it seems like a rather cheap device to get some nudity out there and is just one of the many things that feels like it could have been added so they could sell the film easier. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this film is any kind of masterpiece and Clark was a hapless pawn in the producer’s game. Heck, the man made “Satan’s Cheerleaders”, so you know he’s to blame for a whole lot of everything.

I’m no filmmaker myself, but I believe there has to be a rule about not overusing your scenery. I mean if you’re going to use the same set, at least shoot it differently. It makes sense right? Well, obviously this never crossed Clark’s mind because in the film we are treated to about four different scenes on the same plain “motel” set. Near the end of the film, we are actually treated to two scenes in a row. One woman walks out the door ending the scene and another walks in starting another. I couldn’t help but laugh because if you’re going to re-use a set so often the least you could do is make it a good looking set. Shoot on location in a real hotel if you have to, just give the audience something to look at!

The acting is shoddy, the camerawork is terrible, the sets are incredibly cheap, and the film isn’t really all that fun. I can’t really recommend it, but I’m sure there are some who would enjoy this film. I came close to it, but after thinking it over and re-watching the film I came out with a different opinion. I’ve given it one star for effort and minus four for everything else.



Author’s Note: While going through a lot of these reviews, it’s funny how you find how your opinion changes over time. I find with a lot of these earlier reviews (this was originally written back sometime around 2002 and posted in 2003) while not only being a shade of what I am capable of in terms of writing, they were written with a little less care in terms of judging films as a whole. Here I am about six years later and I still find myself wandering back to The Bad Bunch now and then. Say what you want, the film has staying power. I look at the score of one out of five and cringe now, because I think it deserves a little more than that. If I were to re-review the film now I would score it a three out of five. For what it is, The Bad Bunch is a very decent film. With time and many, many movies later you tend to learn that there are a million different ways to look at a movie and no matter what you think – there will be better and there will be worse. Greydon Clark is indeed a b-film director, but one that should draw a little more notoriety than he recieves. Overall, I now have to say I do reccomend Bad Bunch for fellow blaxploitation fans and drive-in afficianados looking for something a little bit strange.

— Josh
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Varied Celluloid is a film website intent on delivering views on movies from all genres. Started in 2003, the website has been steadfast in its goal and features a database of over 500 lengthy reviews. If you would like to contact us about writing for the website or sending screeners, please visit the about page located here.

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