Thursday, July 24, 2014

Women in Blaxploitation Horror, Redux


Try as I might, I cannot seem to muster a thoughtful piece on every, single blaxploitation horror film. I thought I could to a large extent, but that goal was pretty unrealistic and I had been trying to hold myself to a standard that was just out of orbit for any human being. So what do I do with these other films? I would recommend them only for some considerate discourse on gender representation, not because they were particularly good in my opinion. Harry Benshoff argues that some blaxploitation horror films "tend to uphold male-dominated (hetero)sexuality and participation in the genre's usual demonization of women and nonpatriarchal sexualities." With good reason.

Below are examples of such in this sub-genre circuit. Further, I suppose these films from this era are my own question mark. How do I conceptualize them in the larger discourse on race, gender, and the history of Black women in horror?

Abby in Abby (1974):


Abby was simplistically bleak if only for the idea that even the most church-going individual could fall victim to demon possession. But this wasn't just any demon. Eshu, the god of sexuality, who transforms the demure Abby (played by Carol Speed) into a lascivious deviant. Many of the problems with Abby as a character stems from the dichotomous war of good/evil, and furthering the concept that a woman, being authoritative with one's own sexuality is to be overbearing, antagonistic, and dangerous. Creating a narrative that this new personality that Abby takes on is due to demon possession only exacerbates the ideology of female human sexuality as aberrant and in need of male taming.

Which brings Bishop Garnet Williams (William Marshall) into play as 'The Exorcist' whose mission is to rid Abby of Eshu and restore her place as a Christian, wholesome housewife and nothing more.

Linda Monte in Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976):


Linda (played by Marie O'Henry) was the beautiful prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold. Her medical visits with Dr.  Henry Pride (Bernie Casey), mainly to be treated for venereal disease symbolized two, very important issues: the disconnect between Black urban vs. middle-class communities (physically and mentally) as well as female sexuality as autonomous, but in need treatment as patriarchal control.

In Dr. Pride's examination room, Linda questions Pride's "real" commitment to the community in which she lives. Sure, he volunteers his time treating people of her social ilk, but is it to alleviate his twinge of identity anxiety or to honor his commitment to equitable wellness? This is a running theme throughout the film and I would argue both.

Which leads into the dispensability of Linda, as she becomes desirable to Pride only in the sense of transforming her through a medical experiment he needs a subject for. She is valued only through his control and monitoring. The fact that she's been treated for a sexually transmitted disease earlier in the film marks her choice of sex work as essentially unorthodox and without much nuance.

However, we do get a glimpse into Linda's home life and how she cares for one of her neighbor's and that neighbor's kids. It brings somewhat of a full-circle snapshot of the urban landscape of Los Angeles in the 1970s and how survival in Black communities depended heavily upon looking out for those around you who share a close proximity to home.

Dr. Winifred Walker in Blackenstein (1973):


The most campiest and muddled of them all, Blackenstein gives us Dr. Walker (played by Ivory Stone) who works under Dr. Stein (John Hart) to restore her lost-limbed beloved Eddie (Joe De Sue) to an independently mobile person again. Unfortunately the experiment goes awry and Eddie goes on a murderous rampage. There's a creeper twist when Dr. Stein's servant Malcomb (Roosevelt Jackson) excels to physically dangerous advances on Dr. Walker after she lets him down gently. He orchestrates Eddie's full destruction to requite his unrequited. Sadly, Dr. Walker is a placeholder and not an active agent in virtually the entire film.

Her character is as unremarkable as the film itself.

You can also add Christella (Joan Pringle) from J.D.’s Revenge (1976) to this list.


At the hands of a loving boyfriend warring the possession of a misogynistic, psycho thug from the 40's, Christella suffers from passive reactions as this film eagerly looks for us to focus on boyfriend Isaac's (Glynn Turman) battle with the ghost of J.D. Walker (David McKnight). Neither does she put a firm stamp on zero tolerance for abuse (I suppose possession is a great excuse) nor the men assume that smacking a woman around sometimes, or anytime is just not okay. Ever.

J.D.'s Revenge is one of those wild cards of a solid effort with deeply problematic imagery and social customs. We don't watch films in a vacuum. This hints very blatantly at the tensions around gender dynamics within Black political movements around this time.

Regardless of quality and representation, these films give us a mirror into the imperfections of the sociocultural times. Fears that are aroused stem from both white supremacist ideals that keep black communities in constant danger and the less than harmonious intra-racial relationships.

I do encourage others to reflect on these films and bring their own insights to the table. Even forty some odd years removed, blaxploitation horror has a way of feeling all too fresh.
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