Black Snake (Sweet Suzy) (Dutchess of Doom) (1973)
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"Black Snake" is a unique item in director Russ Meyer's wild catalog. Short on Meyer's trademark titillation (which probably explains why it flopped), the film was obviously conceived at the height of the "blaxploitation" movement. But this is no tale of cocaine, pimps and Cadillacs -- it's a period piece. The time is 1835, the days of Negro slavery. Charles Walker (David Warbeck) is a handsome London aristocrat whose brother Jonathan (David "Darth Vader" Prowse) has mysteriously disappeared in the British West Indies. Charles suspects foul play and launches an undercover investigation, sailing overseas to take an unlikely accountant job on a sugar-cane plantation. He introduces himself with a pseudonym, and soon encounters the three authority figures who keep the island's dark-skinned harvesters in check. There is Lady Susan Walker, a cold-hearted blonde and former prostitute who gained her title through strategic marriage. Her faithful cohort is Raymond, an educated French black who also happens to be flamboyantly gay. And the sadistic field boss is Joxer, an older Irishman who deals out a steady torrent of racial slurs and vicious beatings. He affectionately calls the whip his "black snake." Charles has a lusty servant girl in his quarters, but also samples the wares of Lady Susan -- despite a strong suspicion that she's responsible for Jonathan's disappearance. Little does Charles know that his brother has fallen into a supernatural, zombie-like state. Oh my. Meanwhile, the slaves are plotting a mass revolt, though they're torn between the leadership of militant Joshua and his more philosophical father. It's difficult to label this film "racist," because its racism is a matter of historical fact. And Joxer's and Susan's verbal abuse of the slaves is so over the top that some perverse giggles are inevitable. A drinking game focused on hearing "nigger" and "black bastard" would render its players unconscious within the first half-hour. Though "Black Snake" has plenty of violence (including a grisly crucifixion), Meyer can't quite commit himself to crafting a serious drama. The film turns abruptly burlesque during a couple of bedroom scenes -- even the soundtrack radically transforms -- and the epilogue with happy, modern couples running naked through a field belongs in a whole different movie. Raymond's campy mincing is a hoot, and in a moment when Charles furiously tries to choke Susan, the actress goes cross-eyed like she's in a silent comedy. The incongruous shifts in tone can be laughably jarring. And really, did anyone flip the middle finger in 1835? Still, "Black Snake" is more interesting than Meyer's films of pure sexual slapstick. Whether you giggle at its unsubtlety or recoil from its brutality, it's a memorable experiment.
It's great for making one uncomfortable, but that's part of the charm of this exploitation flick. It's not that it's racist, but rather that it about characters that are racist and an extremely gross time in history. Russ Meyer takes the subject matter and places his schlocky mold overtop of it. The result: a solid psychotronic flick that demonstrates his unique directorial style and provokes the shit out of you. It's worth a watch for a fan of this type of film.
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