Friday, October 15, 2010

Trick Baby

Last night I watched the 1972 film Trick Baby from director Larry Yust. The film is set in Philadelphia and focuses on two main characters. Blue Howard played by Mel Stewart and White Folks played by Kiel Martin. Martin's character ( who is only referred to as "Folks" in the film ) is the child of a black mother and white father. Despite his mixed heritage, Folks looks totally white and this is the key plot device that is exploited in the film. Folks and Blue are con-men and their cons are impressive bits of deceit. You get the feeling, while watching the movie, that they have kept their sights on smaller fish for the most part. A confluence of events, though, conspire to bring these two small-time hustlers into contact with a very dangerous group of individuals including corrupt cops and members of the mob. The plot is well laid-out and developed but it is fairly cut and dried. Director Yust manages to shoe-horn a good bit of character development into the proceedings and this is what really raises Trick Baby above other films of its ilk. Blue thinks of Folks as a black man, and it seems that Folks also feels the same. All the people around them though, both white and black, don't trust Folks and make no bones about saying so. Folks is a character who uses his apparent whiteness as a key component of the cons that he and Blue pull. It is an ultimate disguise and it raises questions of what really constitutes "race". At certain key moments we are shown contrasting views of white and black culture and the viewer is left to draw their own conclusions. We will see footage of a fancy dinner party attended solely by wealthy white people and interspersed throughout will be scenes from a bar with only black patrons. This sort of juxtaposition is not subtle, but it did not seem to be intended to illustrate any single specific idea. There was no "This is good" and "This is bad" statement applied in these comparisons, just the presentation of two very separate worlds. I think it forces the question of just how different are these worlds really, and if we were able to choose which world we wanted to live in ( which the Folks character could do ), which one would we choose. The bottom line on Trick Baby is that it is a well-told story of two charming con-men. There is also a lot in there to make you think about race in a broader context. Like the best blaxploitation films, there is more than meets the eye if you want to open yourself to it.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Messiah of Evil

Messiah of Evil, aka Dead People is a 1973 film from director Willard Huyck who is probably more notable for his writing credits than his directing work. Don't let the fact that he directed Best Defense or Howard the Duck discourage you from checking out this atmospheric little known shocker. The story concerns a young woman traveling alone to a remote sea side California community to reconnect with her father from whom she's become estranged. She had been in communication with him via letters he would send to update her on his progress in regards to his work as a painter. His character being an artist allows for some really interesting set design when she finally arrives at his home. As his letters begin to take on a dark and somewhat sinister tone she feels compelled to go investigate the situation for her self. Along the way she begins to have strange encounters with an increasingly curious assortment of townsfolk. The film's sense of oddness within the confines of a seemingly average small town, put me in mind of David Lynch, but the overwhelming influence in my opinion is clearly H.P. Lovecraft. To reveal much more about the plot would be a disservice to you, as the way the story slowly reveals its self is what I found to be such a pleasure about this movie. There are some wonderfully creepy set pieces and the supporting cast all do a good job carrying things along. The film, although clearly a low budget effort, manages to have more of the creeping sense of dread and foreboding, the hallmark of Lovecraft's writing, than almost any film I've seen based on his writing directly. Clearly John Carpenter should have sat down and watched this before wading into Lovecraftian territory with In the Mouth of Madness, a mysteriously overrated film in my opinion. The gore in minimal, but effective and it is much more about the atmosphere and the feel of the film than pure shock value at any rate. I would highly recommend that any fan of 70's genre movies seek this little jewel out.