Monday, February 18, 2013

J. D.'s Revenge (1976) dir. Arthur Marks

Logline: In 1942, a New Orleans hustler named J. D. (David McKnight) and his sister are murdered in a slaughterhouse. Thirty years later, Ike (Glynn Turman), a law student and cab driver, sees a vision of their murders while under hypnosis during a stage show. In the days that follow Ike begins to take on the characteristics, mannerisms, and appearance of the violent J. D., frightening those closest to him. J. D.'s possession of Ike is necessary for the achievement of his ghostly goal: revenge from beyond the grave against those who wronged him.

It begins, inexplicably, in a slaughterhouse. A first person perspective camera leads us down a dingy, unhygienic, soft-focused hallway towards the sounds of arguing voices. The man whose perspective we've been sharing is revealed to us: a well-dressed man, far too well dressed for this setting. He stops just outside the doorway of a large room and spies on what he finds inside. The room is full of carcasses, dead cows processed and stripped of their skin, hanging from hooks as meat yet to be butchered. In the center of all this are a man and a woman, the man yelling and the woman laughing, making the scene a vague spiritual predecessor to the opening scene of Jean Rollin's Fascination (1979). At this point, the content of their conversation means little to us, but we grasp the general dynamic and we fear that the situation is about to come to a head. Perhaps we understand this better than they do: the man, unable to control himself, removes a straight razor from his jacket pocket and with no warning slashes the laughing woman's throat. In slow motion she throws her head back, her  laughter insupressible, her throat gaping from its new wound, her face frozen in a smile as she falls. A revolving carousel of well-dressed men then circle into various positions around her corpse-- another one for the meat hooks-- as one of the men flees, the other takes his place kneeling by her, and the last arrives to take the place of observer. It's an enigmatic way for the film to begin, and the screen will return to images of it throughout, each time altering what we've seen in surreal but significant ways: the meat turns back into cows as we watch their throats be cut, the woman is strung feet first among the carcasses, blood pours steaming down floor drains. The only constant is the smile on the dying woman's face.

J. D.'s Revenge is a fine film, but it never approaches the power of that opening sequence. The acting is certainly powerful: Glynn Turman's physical and psychological transformation from the gentle and good-natured Ike into the raging, hormonal, flamboyant beast J. D. is rather remarkable, and Lou Gossett's pew-hopping performance as Reverend Elija Bliss is certainly energetic. But, otherwise, it's merely a well-plotted revenge thriller with a subtle mystery at its core (we know the solution to the puzzle from the outset, but the pieces are pleasantly blurred and amorphous). I simply can't find much subtext here, race-oriented or otherwise. Of mild interest is the fact that J. D.'s possession of Ike finds the young black man-- a law student aspiring to a better life after past indiscretions-- lapsing back into old and eventually even worse ways, but it falls short of making any sort of class commentary. In one early scene, post-hypnotic possession, Ike looks into a mirror and sees the visage of J. D. staring back at him, the seeming Hyde to his Jekyll. But the two men are not one in the same, as the film strives to assure us of, rather than leaving us with nagging doubts or ambiguities about whether or not J. D.'s woman-beating, granny violence, and two-timing mirrors Ike's own internal instability: revenge completed, J. D.'s ghost exits Ike's body and allows him to strut out gaily into the sunshine arm-in-arm with his pals, the only baggage he's saddled with from his horrifying experience being a new hairdo.

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