As a fan of the Blaxplotation genre I was more than excited to discover Arrow Video were releasing a rarity from the exploitation genre JD’S Revenge and even better it had a horror twist little did I expect it to be a highly interesting and intellectual tale of revenge, race and undead gangsters.
Opening in 1942 in New Orleans in a freezing meat locker filled with cow carcasses we witness the murder of Betty Jo Bliss the sister of hustler J.D. Walker who also sees his sibling slain. Unfortunately for the grieving gangster Elija Bliss (Louis Gossett Jr.), Betty Jo’s husband walks in who mistakenly blames J.D for the crime and kills him in a hail of bullets.
Flash-forward to 1972 and we are introduced to Isaac Hendrix (Gremlins and Super 8 star Glynn Turman) an all-round nice guy studying law in the day and driving a taxi at night while living with his long term girlfriend Christella (Joan Pringle).
Deciding he needs a night off the couple and their friends head for the bars and clubs of New Orleans ending up in an establishment offering a hypnosis show as part of the entertainment. Proving he isn’t uptight Isaac goes onstage where the hypnotist proceeds to put him and a bunch of other men under making them believe they are extremely hot resulting in them all striping off.
Hilarious as it is especially for Isaac’s friends when she reverses the process making them feel sub-zero cold a trigger is switched in his subconscious and images of the slaughter house, Betty Jo’s killing and J.D’s unjustified death start unexplainably streaming into his brain.
Coming round but still feeling strange Isaac brushes the experience off but when the memories from the past that aren’t his return alongside extreme headaches a transformation starts to take place and J.D stars to take over Isaac’s mind, body and soul with only one thing driving him, revenge.
With such a crazy plot you may be lead to believe JD’s Revenge is simply a ridiculous oddity from the seventies however thanks to some great performances and interesting elements there is much more going on beneath the surface of this barmy blend of gangster action, possession horror and relationship drama.
Isaac is unlike many far more famous Blaxplotation icons such as Shaft, Superfly and Blacula whose anti-establishment attitudes, sexual magnetism and super human strength, martial arts or gun skills make then epic action anti-heroes.
In J.D’s Revenge’s not only is the hero also a victim but underneath Isaac although physically capable is just an average guy trying his best to educate himself and get a better job while still grafting hard as a cab driver to earn an honest living.
Like the classic Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde story J.D makes takes Isaac to the dark side but slowly and insidiously first making him place an illegal bet then making him beat up and rob an innocent old lady who is a fair in his cab.
These small steps take a giant leap as Isaac’s clothes, manner, speech and attitudes change completely in a fantastic frantic turn from Glynn Turman’s as J.D takes full control wielding a cut throat razor as sharp as his suit and enacting his grand plan for vengeance against Elija Bliss who is a now a showboating reverend working alongside his nefarious brother, another face from the dead hustlers past.
The far more sinister side to all this comes in the destruction of Isaac’s relationship after J.D inhabits him during sex with Christella acting much rougher and nastier than he ever has before with her. Although she enjoys the experience she senses something is wrong and when Isaac/J.D shockingly first beats her and then rapes her in one of the most disturbing scenes of the movie she runs from him to her ex who as a cop betrayed and devastated by the horrifying act from the man she trusted and loved.
Although Isaac knows he is not himself literally no one seems to be able to help and when he desperately reaches out all he gets is a Dr saying its stress and advising him to smoke more weed and his best friend telling him he is repressed and that perhaps a slap isn’t a bad thing for a women to receive once in a while.
It is all this that makes it very easy to see something beyond the simple sensational story of JD’s Revenge making it more akin to the model of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead using a crazy horror cliché to expose much deeper cultural and racial issues of not only black stereotypes within cinema and society but also what makes a African American man a man in the 70’s in both the worlds eyes and his own.
Luckily none of these bigger bolder intellectual issues cloud the enjoyment of JD’s Revenge and in fact they accentuate what is already a well shot and excellently acted possession horror utilizing all the trademark conventions of the genre to maximum effect and throwing in the action and exploitation to be expect from a 70’s Blaxplotation picture.