MEYER MONTH – Russ Meyer’s ‘Black Snake’ (1973) review

10 Mar

Michael Ewins reviews Russ Meyer’s 1973 attempt at Blaxsploitation filmmaking Black Snake. Warning, it’s not one of Meyer’s best films…

In the summer of 1970 Russ Meyer unleashed Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, an X-rated satire depicting the drug-fuelled hedonism of early-70’s Hollywood, following a sexy three-piece rock outfit (Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers and Marcia McBroom) as they descend deeper and deeper into its swinging, sensual realm. It was the first of Meyer’s pictures to be distributed by a major studio, 20th Century Fox, but following a major flop (1971’s The Seven Minutes) he was forced back onto the independent scene. One might assume that this two-picture quickie would have whetted Meyer’s appetite for destruction, and marked a return to the garishly camp pictures of yore (Vixen!, 1968, for example), but the director had other – somewhat stranger – aspirations. Rather than producing another corset-busting crime caper, Meyer instead turned out the bonkers blaxploitation drama Black Snake – or as it’s known in France, Serpent Noir

The year is 1895. Blackmoor plantation is ruled by the heel of Lady Susan Walker (Anouska Hempel), an oppressive, toffee-nosed dominatrix who inherited this corrupt empire from her first (deceased) husband. Her iron grip is upheld by the nasty Joxer (Percy Herbert), a foul-tempered racist who indulges his prejudice with the crack of a whip (the titular black snake). Into this world comes Charles Walker (David Warbeck), a plain sort of chap aiming to unravel the mystery of his missing brother, who disappeared sometime after marrying Lady Susan. The island’s prehistoric barbarity disgusts Charles, but his efforts to defend the black slaves only serves to incite more violence. So yeah, it’s miles departed from the sort of softcore romp usually associated with Meyer, who here trades his bold colour schemes and taboo-busting humour for po-faced politics and unflinching sadism (there’s even a crucifixion sequence!)

Meyer had always intended Black Snake to be a “statement” on racial bigotry, but his navigation of complex moral lines is frequently dogged by a (surprise, surprise) penchant for excess. The film does actually boast a solid thesis, and some dedicated performances go a long way toward anchoring the drama in some sort of reality – Warbeck (who was once on the shortlist to play Bond, before losing out to Roger Moore) is really effective here, especially in his scenes with preacher Isiah (Thomas Baptiste), who delivers lines like “You think God is white?!” as if they’d been handed to him in stone. The hodgepodge of accents on display are hilarious, but hey, awkward line readings are as much a staple of Meyer’s cinema as voluptuous females…

His intentions may have been admirable, but Black Snake ultimately suffers in the chapters most recognizable as Meyer’s. At the halfway point he finally reveals Charles’ brother, Jonathan (David Prowse), who turns out to be a zombified, rape-happy hunk, supposedly struck by some kind of voodoo curse (although that’s never clarified). During the finale he runs rampant through the plantation HQ, whose railings are littered with hung corpses, each emitting the clang of a church bell when Jonathan bangs into them. Meyer’s zany sound design has always managed to land laughs, but here it feels so awkwardly misplaced as to become borderline offensive. I wish I didn’t have to treat the film so seriously, but from the opening frame it practically begs for a pedestal to stand proud from.

What’s really missing from Black Snake, however, is a commanding female figure. Even ignoring her proportions (it’s no secret that Meyer preferred the bustier model) Hempel just doesn’t pack the physical heft to convince as a nymphomaniac warden – there’s just no confidence in her stride, and her slinky contour feels lost every frame (Meyer was notoriously unhappy with her casting, even editing in a breast double for the close-ups). Tura Satana, Erica Gavin and Raven De La Croix typify the Meyer model – Hempel seems almost the antithesis, and her acting chops certainly don’t make up for the fact. The actress got her start in Hammer’s Scars Of Dracula (Baker, 1970) and starred in a few cult titles before retiring in 1980, following her marriage to Sir Mark Weinberg. Now residing in London as Lady Weinberg, Hempel is a celebrated hotelier and designer (recently ranked among Architectural Digest’s Top 100 interior designers). I was interested to learn that, although Black Snake is available on DVD in the UK, its star bought the TV rights in 1998. Needless to say, it’s no longer in circulation. You’re not missing much, but if this film isn’t Meyer’s finest hour then it’s certainly among his most interesting…

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