Written by Jaison Starkes
Directed by Arthur Marks
Starring Glynn Turman, Louis Gossett Jr., Joan Pringle, Julian Christopher, Fred Pinkard, Alice Jubert, David McKnight
Released August 25, 1976 (New York City)
RT 96 min.
Home Video Arrow Video
Classic Horrors rating = 6 (out of 10)
Neither an expert on the sub-genre nor a particular fan of it, I’d nevertheless categorize J.D.’s Revenge (1976) as a blaxploitation film. It meets the fundamental characteristics of blaxploitation as I understand them to be: made for an urban black audience with a primarily black cast. In the bonus materials of Arrow Video’s new dual format release, though, it seems that nobody informed the movie’s creators of this fact.
In “The Killing Floor,” a 46-minute retrospective documentary on the making of J.D.’s Revenge, screenwriter Jaison Starkes, director Arthur Marks, editor George Folsey Jr., and star Glynn Turman all talk about how it is decidedly not a blaxploitation film. They don’t treat the sub-genre with a lack of respect; however, as Folsey says, they sincerely believe that J.D.’s Revenge is “a cut above the standard blaxploitation film.”
If you consider it to be a horror movie, which I do, J.D.’s Revenge belongs in the company of Blacula (1972), the black Dracula, Blackenstein (1973), the black Frankenstein, and Abby (1974), the black Exorcist. Turman says it’s a Jekyll and Hyde story. I agree to a certain extent, but the story, about Isaac (Turman), a New Orleans law student, who is possessed by the spirit of a mobster killed in 1942, is similar only because it depicts one man’s transformation from good to evil.
My biggest problem with the movie is that we see no evidence that J.D. Walker (David McKnight) was a bad guy when he originally lived. He stumbles upon the murder of Betty Jo (Alice Jubert) and looks completely helpless and innocent when Elija Bliss (Louis Gossett Jr.) arrives after the fact, sees Walker over her body, thinks he’s guilty, and shoots him to death. I understand that J.D. wants revenge, but Turman plays him like a psychotic character we never met.
More impactful than the primary thread of the story are scenes of domestic violence when Isaac, as J.D., manhandles his lady, Christella (Joan Pringle). I almost believe Marks’ claim that J.D.’s Revenge is the story of a man in trouble and Starkes’ claim that it was ahead of its time dealing with issues like abuse. This doesn’t mean the movie is particularly successful in realizing those claims. I doubt that distributor AIP and its head, Samuel Z. Arkoff, gave a darn about all that.
In fact, AIP was supposedly not happy with the final cut of the film and took it upon themselves to make some additional edits. Arkoff and company didn’t understand the flashbacks, perhaps believing they were “too sophisticated for black audiences.” Nevertheless, Starkes says 80-85% of his original intention survives in J.D.’s Revenge… and that’s a good thing for a screenwriter, even in this day and age. I’m glad he can see that; it’s hard for me to find deep meaning in the movie.
The closest it comes for me is with its theme of spirituality versus organized religion. I’m not sure I would have picked up on it myself, but to hear Starkes talk about it, it makes a lot of sense. In a way, Isaac’s situation represents spiritual aspects of seeking a higher truth while still dealing with the Id. “Everyone is here to explore their truth.” He, as J.D., Isaac is battling organized religion through the character of Elija, now a reverend, and his brother, Theotis (Fred Pinkard.)
Purposely set in New Orleans because, as Marks says, it’s a place that believes in the undead, I appreciate the movie’s 70’s vibe. While I was obviously not there to confirm this notion, the characters and situations feel authentic to me. Scenes of Isaac studying with Christella or confiding in his friend at the hospital ring true. However, they’re minimized when Carl (Julian Christopher) the detective that inevitably becomes involved, is coincidentally Christella’s ex-boyfriend.
Overall, I’m inclined to believe the intentions of the movie’s creators, even though I don’t enjoy the execution of the ultimate delivery. Everything good it offers is smothered by the sensational delivery. As J.D., Turman is over the top, literally spinning in circles and laughing maniacally as someone else executes the ultimate revenge for him. Sure, there’s a happy ending, but our hero doesn’t seem to realize what he’s been through. He and his friends laugh and stroll casually into the urban sunset.