Written by: Jaison Starkes
Directed by: Arthur Marks
Starring: Glynn Turman, Louis Gossett Jr., Joan Pringle
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
He came back from the dead to possess a man's soul, make love to his woman, and get the vengeance he craved!
By 1976, the most obvious Blaxploitation horror riffs had been done, with most of them having come courtesy of AIP. Still, that didnít stop the studio from churning one more out in the spirit of the horror genreís tendency to bleed a concept dry. Thus, from the loins of Blacula sprang J.D.ís Revenge, which actually isnít all that easy to file under a particular sub-genre; whereas the previous yearís Abby was clearly a trashy Exorcist cash-in, this possession flickís overt schlock elements are toned down to the point where it feels more like a sincere attempt to mold an actual drama out of its junky gangster trappings.
In 1940ís New Orleans (which is accentuated by a foggy lens effect to assure us that this is the past), weíre privy to a murder scene involving at least three men. One of them is the titular J.D. Walker (David McKnight), who stumbles upon the dead body of his sister (Alice Jubert). However, heís accused of perpetrating the murder himself by Elija Bliss (Louis Gossett, Jr.) and Blissís brother, Theotis (Fred Pinkard), guns him down. Thirty years later, J.D.ís soul returns and inhabits the body of college student Ike (Glynn Turman) and proceeds to raise all sorts of hell before finally embarking on his revenge against those who wronged him.
Unfortunately, you sort of need the filmís loglineóďsoul of an undead gangster returns from the grave to exact revengeĒófor J.D.ís Revenge to make a whole lot of sense. While the film obviously doesnít need to hold the audienceís hand to be effective, the proceedings are a little vague since the various relationships between J.D. and the Bliss brothers arenít made clear until very late in the film. As such, itís hard to get a good fix on how we should really feel about J.D.ís quest for vengeance, particularly because he doesnít seem like a very nice guy. McKnight just oozes a sinister, menacing presence, and he hijacks Ikeís body to perpetrate some pretty horrible things. In fact, he seems to be having a ball doing anything but achieving his quest, and, with about twenty minutes left in the film, he announces that heíll finally have his revenge on Theotis and Elija (who has since become an evangelical preacher).
In the meantime, J.D. spends most of the movie screwing around in the 70s (though the film thankfully avoids fish-out-of-water clichťs). His actions range from impish to heinous; in addition to attending law school, Ike also drives a cab, and J.D. unfortunately decides to take over his body during the middle of a fare and ends up kicking out his passenger before cursing her out in one of the filmís more humorous moments. More raucous is his decision to literally screw around with a married woman and not even give a shit when her old man unexpectedly comes home early, a sequence that climaxes with the filmís most hilarious exchange. Itís not all funny stuff, though, as J.D. truly wreaks havoc on Ikeís personal life and strains his relationship with his wife (Joan Pringle). Things get downright uncomfortable when J.D.ís spirit forces him to abuse and even attempt to rape her, so thereís this deadly serious underpinning to the film that almost makes it work.
Since Ike and his wife are the clear victims here, the film at least gives you something to latch on to instead of simply delighting in an undead gangsterís deadly antics. Turman gives a fine performance in what is practically a dual role; as the mild-mannered Ike, heís understated and likeable, and the persona really clashes with the more outrageous, flamboyant J.D. Thereís a real conflict there with some relatable consequences that would serve as the filmís backbone if it didnít get lost in the climax. Once heís completely taken over by J.D., Ike isnít given much to do, and the film gets caught up in untangling its backstory and finally revealing the true circumstances surrounding J.D.ís death, thus leaving Ikeís fate a bit of an afterthought as we hurry to the credits.
To its credit, the ending is pretty clever and slightly alters your perception about some of the characters. J.D.ís Revenge also becomes progressively more entertaining as it unfolds and you realize this isnít just Black Caesar done up in horror digs. Most of the gangster elements are subdued, and, with the exception of a few flourishes (such as the requisite funky score and the fashions), J.D.ís Revenge doesnít constantly announce itself as Blaxploitation fare either. This might be surprising considering director Arthur Marks was responsible for some solid films in that genre (like Detroit 9000 and Friday Foster), but this one is pretty subdued, save for a few eccentricities here and there. For example, Louis Gossettís character hasnít aged a day despite thirty years separating the filmís main events and the prologue; furthermore, J.D.ís overtures towards Elijaís daughter get wildly uncomfortable once the truth is completely untangled.
There are some other head-scratching and uncomfortable moments, like the antiquated exchange between Ike and his buddy where the latter assures the former that itís okay to slap around his old lady sine she secretly craves it. For the most part, though, J.D.ís Revenge is just a half-formed ghost/possession/revenge story that reserves most of its violence for elliptical flashes (Ike often has fleeting images of the filmís opening murder scene, which occurs in a meat-packing plant, so imagine a sort of jazzy, urban riff on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for brief moments at a time). In the short-lived Blaxploitation horror canon, it feels like the most unremarkable that Iíve seen so far, but it has its moments. Most of the more effective ones are silly, which runs counter to the filmís aim to carve good drama out of its material, so itís a misfire (but an entertaining one nonetheless). Released as part of MGMís defunct Soul Cinema series, J.D.ís Revenge has only seen one DVD release, and it came back in 2001; despite its age, the discís presentation is still solid, as the transfer is vibrant and anamorphic, while the mono soundtrack is adequate enough. Extras leave a bit to be desired since thereís only a trailer, so you wonít be missing much if you just decide to stream this one on Netflix. Check it out once youíve exhausted the other Blaxploitation-horror offerings. Rent it!
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