Taken separately, 1971’s The Seven Minutes and 1973’s Black Snake feel like curious outliers in the world of filmmaker Russ Meyer. Taken together, they show the work of an artist who was trying to vie for some kind of recognition outside the realm of sexploitation; strong examples of Meyer: The Artist. The frustration felt by these back-to-back commercial failures is more about what he wasn’t able to continue and less than what he pulled off, namely a very fine courtroom drama and an excitingly audacious, period blaxploitation film, respectively.
Working from his own pocketbook, Black Snake is a movie in which Russ Meyer spared no expense where he didn’t need to and kept tight where he needed to relax. It’s beautiful and sumptuous and is probably his best looking movie but it also feels like an expensive lark. After the failure of The Seven Minutes, a project that must have had some hold on his heart given its subject matter, Black Snake seems more like Meyer doing something he has absolutely no interest in other than seeing if he could successfully play the odds and avoid the porn market which, during his sojourn in Hollywood, had shifted from softcore to hardcore almost overnight. This is not to say that Black Snake is a bad film by any means. In fact, it’s both very good and very well made. It just feels like the most robust and adventurous part of a journey that was aborted and, unfortunately, created a huge, glaring question mark on a trail stopped cold.
The story of Black Snake concerns Sir Charles Walker (David Warbeck), a nobleman from Maxwell House (groan) in England who goes undercover as an accountant named Ronald Sopwith to seek out his missing brother, Jonathan (David Prowse), who has disappeared from his home shared with Lady Susan Walker (Anouska Hempel), a vicious slave trader at Blackmoor Plantation on the British West Indies island of San Cristobal. There, Walker/Sopwith will tangle with not only Lady Susan but also with Captain Raymond Deladier (Bernard Boston), head of her security forces, and with black-hearted slave driver Joxer Turney (Percy Herbert).
When casting for Lady Susan, Meyer made a conscious decision not to give any credence to the size of the actresses’ chests. This decision posed (and still poses) an interesting question as to whether or not the pneumatic qualities of his strong, central female characters were what made them so revered in the world of Meyer. Anouska Hampel is just as ribald, scandalous, and in-charge as the best of them but she makes less of an impression, not because of her build but, oddly enough, because Russ Meyer seems preoccupied with the compelling and interesting character of Captain Raymond Deladier, who ends up stealing the film.
And as Captain Deladier, Bernard Boston gives a truly magnificent performance. In the character, Meyer reveals a bit more in his inability to find a comfortable middle with his male gay characters, either making them lisping queens or sadistic monsters. But, as was the case with the rise in violence that accompanied his fascination with same-sex couplings, this reveals more about Meyer’s own internal conflicts and has less to do with potential box office performance. The third act, in which the slaves revolt and exact revenge on the plantation, is a fascinating corker as Meyer’s violence is taken to the extreme but, for the first time, without any real sexual counterpoint; a metaphoric rape-and-revenge film writ large where even the best intentioned characters will be corrupted by the madness and the mayhem as the films winds to a close.
Black Snake is a surprisingly layered work due in large part to its well drawn characters and its sharply penned screenplay by Meyer and Leonard Neubauer (working from a story by Meyer and James Ryan). John Furlong making a rousing return as the narrator by putting on a high-shelf British accent to frame the tale of San Cristobal Island in the British West Indies in 1835 and the wave of anti-colonialism amid the slave riots in the region. Some of the film’s dialogue has the nasty-yet-delicious Russ Meyer sting that was his trademark, and the cinematography, some of which was lensed by Meyer himself, is absolutely stunning.
Meyer again shows a unique deft at exposition and makes things run at a clip as Black Snake crams a whole lot of story into its 82 minutes. It’s also a much richer and better film than its given credit for being. Maybe it’s not a film that’s likely to land upon first viewing but multiple revisits prove to be very rewarding. Like The Seven Minutes, there does seem to be a lot of heart in Black Snake that was covered up or outright abandoned in Meyer’s own discussions about the film over time. As was his particular wont, Russ Meyer generally felt the need to protect his ego by retroactively dismissing movies that didn’t perform commercially even if research would show that his comments and musings were much more favorable as the films were in production. Black Snake’s terribly hot and uncomfortable production, even worse than what was usually experienced during a regular Meyer shoot, probably didn’t help the film settle into the gentler meadows of Meyer’s recollections and it always registered as a failure much more disastrous than that of The Seven Minutes because Black Snake was under his complete control and, worse, made with his money. It wasn’t until well after a 1978 re-release under the name of Sweet Suzy that the film FINALLY achieved a payout status.
If ever a case was needed to be made in the service of preserving the work of Russ Meyer, the horrendous presentation in which Black Snake survives could serve as “Exhibit A.” Until that day comes in which it gets a high definition upgrade, Black Snake can only be viewed in a non-anamorphic video scan which is only found on PAL-DVD in a long out-of-print box set of Meyer’s work that Arrow Video released eons ago. It’s not unwatchable by any means and works just fine for academic concerns but it’s hard to get lost in an image that is akin to looking through a letter-opener and not having an optimal presentation does no favors to the film’s potential for future reassessment.
Despite its reputation as a disposable head-scratcher, Black Snake is only puzzling in terms of Meyer’s professional gambit. That it was a financial failure of a spectacular nature caused Meyer to never step foot outside of his comfort zone again. He immediately hit the road to commercial redemption, a journey that became the metaphoric basis for his next film which would also mark the beginning of the final phase of his storied career.
(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain