Arrow Video: J.D.'s Revenge (1976) - Reviewed

Horror, particular involving the demonic possession subgenre, and blaxploitation remain two categories in film you would rarely expect to see go together as one unique entity.  And yet with frequent Perry Mason and Gunsmoke director Arthur Marks’ truly one-of-a-kind J.D.’s Revenge, we somehow get both disparate genres meshed into one still uncategorizable and surprisingly involved flick.  Like most demonic possession pictures, the film centers around an unassuming college student named Isaac Hendrix (Glynn Turman in a standout performance) who after a night on the town with his wife Christella (Joan Pringle) and friends who decide to try out a hypnosis act for fun and awaken a vengeful evil spirit which gradually begins to take possession of the young man’s soul. 

By now we’ve seen the demonic possession flick done to death, with The Exorcist still reigning supreme in that department, but for my money I’ve never seen one that plays out quite like J.D.’s Revenge.  As such, it’s a film with all the fashion, swagger and sexuality of a blaxploitation picture but never once are the elements used for anything but horror with many flashbacks to the aforementioned slaughterhouse that are as dark and disturbing as some of the demons gracing modern horror media.  Originally entitled The Killing Floor, it’s a film loaded with increasingly unsettling imagery with a still unnerving portrait of sexual abuse in a consensual relationship.  In most exploitation horror films or blaxploitation horror, it’s rare to see such keen attention paid to the female victim, notably with Christella (an astonishing Joan Pringle) who goes the full distance in her scenes with Isaac (Turman) in some of the most uncomfortable sexual encounters depicted on film in recent memory.

Rounding out the proceedings is Reverend Elijah Bliss, played by an unknown Louis Gossett Jr. at the time, who all but steals the show in every scene he’s in.  One of the film’s strongest assets is how the characters and their own respective dilemmas are introduced.  Where most horror films of this ilk are eager to get all of their chess pieces on the table, J.D.’s Revenge takes it’s time to introduce the characters at key plot points, keeping the proceedings consistently surprising and engaging.  Separating this even further from the films which inspired it is the classy cinematography by Harry J. May and frequent John Landis editor George Folsey Jr.’s precise editing work.  Also unique is Robert Prince's original score which ranges between light jazz and atonal glass harp, aiding the film's increasingly uncomfortable atmosphere.  Like The Exorcist, the use of subliminal cutting imprints in the blink of an eye disturbing images into the mind which play like a strobe flash, leaving behind a twisted mirage that lingers well after the shot has finished.  Also key is the use of color which changes drastically to indicate when our hero comes in and out of possession, signaling the danger the surrounding characters are unaware of.

If there is a complaint to make about this surprising little gem of a movie, it’s the ending which feels abrupt and too easy.  Something of a shame as everything leading up to the finale had me on the edge of my seat.  Having seen my share of blaxploitation films over the years, to say I was completely taken aback by what this one had to offer is an understatement.  While this one won’t reinvent the wheel for most horror fans or seasoned fans of the 70s urban subgenre, I can’t say I’ve seen a horror/blaxploitation hybrid quite like this one before.  Just a couple years prior the blaxploitation horror scene saw Abby, a naked ripoff of The Exorcist which was ultimately suppressed by Warner Brothers.  Curiously, the same company behind that film, American International Pictures, would helm the far more inventive and original J.D.’s Revenge which could have easily fallen into the realm of cheap knockoffs and yet remains an indelible horror film with a startlingly fresh perspective ripe for rediscovery by the horror community.

- Andrew Kotwicki