J.D.’s Revenge Review
A docile law student (Glynn Turman) is possessed by a 1940s mobster (David McKnight) in mid-1970s New Orleans. The mobster seeks revenge upon the people who killed him and his sister.
There probably are not a lot of blaxploitation-horror-crime films out there. You might get horror-blaxploitation (“Blacula” and “Blackenstein”) and you get a lot of blaxploitation-crime, but this is just about the only film that comes to mind mixing all three. So, well done for director Arthur Marks.
Marks, for those who do not know, grew up in the world of film. His father worked in Hollywood, and as such, Arthur did the same from the time he could walk. Among many other things, he can be credited with bringing “Perry Mason” to television. For our purposes, though, he must also be credited as a pioneer in the blaxploitation subgenre. His “Detroit 9000” (1973) was a hit and has been championed by Tarantino, and of course there is “Friday Foster” (1975) starring Pam Grier.
The genre path was continued with this film, and not long after with “Monkey Hustle”. The origin of the script lies not with Marks, but elsewhere, however. First-time writer Jaison Starkes started at a second-rate film university in Los Angeles and became friends with George Folsey, who sort of operated a mini-school out of his house. Along with Starkes, Eric Roth was a member of Folsey’s circle, and after writing B-movie scripts for twenty years, finally broke into the big time with “Forrest Gump” (1994).
Starkes connected with AIP through Sidney Poitier of all people, and pitched them “JD’s Revenge”, originally called “The Killing Floor” (a better title). Glynn Turman had just done “Cooley High” (1975) for AIP, and Sam Arkoff was impressed enough to hand him another starring role. Arthur Marks was in the middle of a three-picture contract with Arkoff, so it was only natural he would be offered the director’s chair. (For those who have not seen “Cooley High”, it has been a staple of black culture for decades, inspiring everyone from Boyz II Men to Spike Lee.)
How George Folsey comes in is sort of a surprise. He already knew Starkes, as mentioned above, but actually came in through Marks. Folsey started his editing career with Bernard Schwartz’s “Hammer” (1972) and John Landis’ “Shlock” (1973). In fact, today he is most associated with Landis, having produced no fewer than 11 films with him. But Folsey also did “Bucktown” (1975), which was produced by Schwartz and directed by Marks, so the transition can clearly be seen there. Folsey did not even know his friend Starkes wrote “Revenge” until he received the script while cutting.
Cinematographer Harry J. May had worked with Marks on three prior occasions, and in fact three of May’s four credits to this point are Marks’ films. One shot in particular has been singled out to highlight May’s work. Whether it was him, Marks, or in Starkes’ script is not known, but in one scene the camera lingers behind the protagonist, purposely allowing him to walk off camera. It is a brilliant yet subtle way to suggest a spirit is tagging along with him and the camera is following an important figure we simply cannot see.
Following Folsey’s cuts, distributor AIP had disagreements with both Marks and Folsey; AIP head Sam Arkoff wanted an exploitation film while Marks wanted something more sophisticated. Folsey cut the picture and then AIP made adjustments to eliminate nuance. Ultimately, Starkes believes that 85% of his initial vision is in the final product which is actually uncommonly good. And, as far as the blaxploitation subgenre is concerned, this film does tend to be a more serious film and not heavy on the “exploitation” elements.
Whatever disagreements may have arisen between Marks, Folsey and Arkoff, we only know from the point of view of the two creators, not the distributor. Despite spending considerable time talking about “black action” films in his autobiography, including the rise of Pam Grier, Arkoff never mentions this film. More odd, he never even mentions Arthur Marks, though they worked together repeatedly. The ONLY person associated with “Revenge” who is named is Glynn Turman, and this is only in passing while mentioning “Cooley High”.
The Arrow Video Blu-ray release has an incredible, in-depth 45-minute documentary. Whether you like the film or not, it covers the careers and stories of the names attached. There is also an 18-minute standalone audio interview with David McKnight. Trailers for other Arthur Marks films are included, as well as radio spots. Typically an audio commentary would be nice, but the documentary more than covers anything you might want to know. There is even a brand new essay from legendary horror critic-historian Kim Newman!