Written and Directed by: Jamaa Fanaka
Starring: Marlo Monte, Reatha Grey, and Stan Kamber
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
They tried to take everything - even his manhood!
I don’t know if I’d consider them the “best” of the bunch, but the most memorable Blaxploitation films certainly thrive on provocation and a message that’s succinctly boiled down to “fuck you, whitey.” In this respect, Soul Vengeance (aka Welcome Home, Brother Charles) is arguably the most memorable, as it doesn’t shy away from the ultimate point of white-male insecurity. Let’s just say that another appropriate alternate title would have been Fear of a Black Penis. No matter how rambling and confusing the film ultimately is, it makes that much clear: it’s really funny to watch white dudes squirm in the presence of a giant, hypnotic black dick.
But before we get to all the Freudian hand-wringing and incoherence, we’re presented with a stock Blaxploitation setup that actually makes the faintest of sense: Charles (Marlo Monte) is a drug-dealer and a pimp who nearly gets busted after a stake-out but manages to just escape. Getting arrested might have been preferable, though, as, in a twist of fate, it turns out he’s banging one the pursuing officers’ wife. As a virulent racist and terrible human being, the cop is horrified and makes it a personal quest to bust Charles (but not before dealing with some business involving an airstrip and a briefcase, an encounter that somehow leaves him just irradiated enough to send him on a routine trip to the doctor—or something). Instead of arresting Charles and sending him straight to jail, the cop also attempts to castrate him, which is understandably a point of consternation when he’s released from prison some years later.
Given the film’s infamous conceit (spoiler: Charles’s dick remains intact and becomes a preternatural force), what follows should be plenty of bloodshed as the freed Charles takes revenge on the whole damn system: the police, the lawyers, and even the judge. Instead, Soul Vengeance takes a dramatic route and explores the fallout from Charles’s time on the inside (which is briefly illuminated by weird black-and-white flashbacks). Upon returning home, he discovers that his best friend has been taking care of his girl, so he moves on and strikes up a romance with a woman who witnessed his arrest all those years ago. Peppered with random dancing sequences and other nonsense, this stretch of the film is a drag that makes the film’s flaws all the more obvious. The debut feature of provocateur Jamaa Fanaka, Soul Vengeance is roughshod, with its amateur roots betraying themselves in most of the film’s aspects, from the wooden acting to the slapdash production values. Far from the most graceful or compelling portrait of readjusting to society after a prison sentence, Soul Vengeance teeters on absolute tedium and has you wondering what happened to the wacky movie featuring the broad, absurdly racist cops practically begging for their comeuppance (at one point, the irradiated,cuckolded husband insists that his wife is actually the one that's been contaminated).
Waiting for the film to regain its footing via Charles’s third leg is worthwhile, as Fanaka conjures up the sort of stuff that courts disbelief. At first, the revenge seems pretty straightforward, with Charles posing as a telephone repair man before seducing another one of the wives, a scenario that’s straight out of a vintage porno but soon turns awkward and weird once you realize the woman’s been hypnotized and she’s watching Charles strangle her interloping husband to death. Even that isn’t as weird as it goes, though—the strangulation seems to be of the good old-fashioned two-handed sort since it’s obscured by the camerawork, so you could be forgiven for assuming this to be your standard issue “ex-con kills the crooked cops that put him in jail” routine.
Such an assumption is strangled away with the film’s weirdest, ballsiest reveal, though; you have no way of knowing it, but Soul Vengeance is actually a mystery (if only because you’re constantly left questioning just what in the fuck is going on) centered on revealing just what happened to Charles’s junk after the botched castration. If you’ve ever heard of the film, chances are it was recommended as “that movie where a guy strangles a guy to death with his abnormally sized dick” (or some variation thereof), which is correct. If I’m being honest, a movie with such a logline should probably be more thoroughly bonkers than Soul Vengeance is, but, once the infamous scene unfurls, the film’s relative dullness is obliterated by Charles’s dong, which winds up being less a penis and more an anaconda that squeezes the life out of his victims. Any of the film’s flaws are also pretty much forgiven in light of this, seeing as how you never see this sort of thing unless you enter some strange search terms on a porn tube (OR SO I’VE BEEN TOLD). Most worn-out VHS tapes reveal the spots that all horndogs immediately sped up to and rewound, but this had to be the rare cassette with a ragged stretch born out of everyone speeding back just to confirm what they just saw.
Usually, dismissing a movie that thrives on one money shot is easy (most people do it by closing their browser window, if you know what I mean), but Soul Vengeance is just weird enough to make a substantial impression. It also helps that Fanaka’s really up to something beneath the juvenile veneer by aiming at his targets’ most primal and pointed source of inadequacy. Had this been made by just about anyone else, there’d be something unseemly about Charles being reduced to a bundle of stereotypes that preys on white women, but, coming from Fanaka, it's pretty clear that he’s fucking around with racist white men by presenting their worst nightmares writ supernaturally large. Charles’s penis claiming their white women would have been ghastly enough for these dolts, so I can only imagine their furor when Fanaka didn’t just stop there. Even if most of the film feels like a pretense just to arrive at that point, it’s an awesome bit of needling that captures the provocative spirit of the Blaxploitation movement.
To that end, Fanaka’s rawness is also a boon; this is authentic stuff, shot right in the heart of Compton and Watts and done without any sort of studio polish or sheen that would serve to coopt the spirit. That makes it a harder watch (and it’s already difficult enough to follow anyway—don’t even think the film’s about to explain Charles’s newfound girth), but the street-level grit just feels right. Xenon (rightfully) didn’t do much to refine it on DVD, as both the full frame transfer and mono soundtrack are pretty rough by most standards. The “special edition” tag is also misleading since the only extras are trailers for other Xenon offerings, including Fanaka’s Penitentiary, the first in a trilogy of films that would earn him even more infamy. But really, the best advertisement for that film is Soul Vengeance itself since it’s hard to believe Fanaka ever topped this. It’s definitely one of the damnedest things I’ve ever seen. Buy it!
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