The Film: 3.5/5
One of the finest horror films to come out of the short-lived blaxploitation boom of the 1970’s and an enduring cult favorite for adventurous genre fans, Arthur Marks’ somber supernatural thriller J.D.’s Revenge finally makes its debut on Region A Blu-ray from the fine folks at Arrow Video.
Ambitious New Orleans law student Ike (Glynn Turman) is compelled by his supportive wife Christella (Joan Pringle) to take a night off from his studies and take her out on the town with some friends. Their evening’s exploits bring them to a nightclub where Ike is invited to participate in a hypnotist’s stage act. In the days that follow, Ike begins to act strangely and experiences visions of a murder that took place back in the 1940’s. Unbeknownst to him or Christella, the vengeful spirit of J.D. Walker (David McKnight), a hustler who was murdered decades ago, has taken control of Ike and is using him as a vessel to seek out the parties responsible for killing him and his sister Betty Jo and make them pay dearly. The most likely culprit is Betty Jo’s husband Elijah Bliss (Louis Gossett Jr., credited as “Lou Gossett”), who has become a successful radio preacher, but Ike eventually discovers that the situation is much more complicated than that. It’s up to him to find the man who murdered J.D. and his sister so both their souls can rest in peace, and he doesn’t have much time to make that happen because he is becoming and acting more like J.D. every day and poses a grave danger to Christella.
Inspired by the 1955 lynching murder of 14-year-old black teenager Emmett Till for flirting with a white woman in Mississippi, screenwriter Jaison Starkes (The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh) penned a modestly compelling thriller that B-movie stalwart Arthur Marks, a veteran of blaxploitation who had helmed starring vehicles for Fred Williamson and Pam Grier, directed with the skill of a true craftsman. Though lacking in style and much substance, J.D.’s Revenge manages to tick off most of the boxes required for an entertaining slice of drive-in cinema by the end of its first reel. There’s ample nudity every few minutes, some sweaty sex, and a hearty serving of bullets and bloodshed. One minute hasn’t even gone by before we get a nasty throat slashing. Marks spices up Ike’s subconscious flashbacks to the deaths of J.D. and his sister with gory slaughterhouse footage and shots of skinned animal skulls. Sometimes the visuals can be unpleasant, but Marks ensures your eyes never leave the screen.
Though long labeled a horror film for its possession subject matter, J.D.’s Revenge rarely approaches being the slightest bit terrifying. The scariest moments are when our hapless hero Ike is completely under the control of the violent criminal J.D. while in the presence of his wife Christella (Joan Pringle is really good here in an otherwise thankless part) and he lashes out at her for mocking the hairstyle and clothing he has adopted to look more like the man possessing him. Stoic and serious, Glynn Turman’s committed performance prevents the story from veering off the rails and he manages to liven up the somber proceedings at times with a few welcome doses as he really gets into the flamboyant J.D. persona, but he mostly plays the material dead straight and with unnerving intensity. His performance is matched by a laudable supporting turn from future Oscar winner Louis Gossett as the preacher with a past. Jo Anne Meredith (The Don is Dead), Fred Pinkard (Rocky II), Julian Christopher (Elysium), and Earl Billings (One False Move) also deliver solid performances in smaller roles.
Only two things keep J.D.’s Revenge from attaining true cinematic greatness – uneven pacing and a lack of narrative focus. The 96-minute running time often drags because we get too many scenes introducing characters and subplots the story doesn’t need and not enough concentrating on Ike slowly being consumed by J.D.’s thirst for vengeance. Despite being the film’s lead character, Ike pretty much gets to sit out the final confrontation and cackle insanely from the sidelines as other people we barely know battle to the death. If this was what the entire film was building up to, what was the point of it all?
Presented in 1080p high-definition and in the film’s original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, Arrow Video’s Blu-ray transfer of J.D.’s Revenge was sourced from a 2K resolution scan and restoration of the original 35mm interpositive. The film was shot by Harry J. May - who also served as cinematographer for director Marks on The Roommates, Detroit 9000, and Friday Foster – and it has the look of your average 1970’s American-International Pictures exploitation release. The color palette is quite muted and favors cool blues and reddish browns in the contemporary scenes, while flashbacks triggered by the main character’s possession are tinted in sepia tone. Grain is prevalent but acceptable and most scenes benefit from sharpened details in the characters’ faces and the sparse, lived-in production design. Arrow’s English PCM 1.0 mono audio track was created by MGM (which licensed the film to Arrow) and is a sturdy and spacious recreation of the original sound mix, with dialogue coming through with fine clarity and the eerie, funk-infused music score composed by Robert Prince (Squirm) meshing well with every other component. English subtitles have also been provided.
Previous home video editions of J.D.’s Revenge were pretty bare bones in the supplements department, but Arrow has created some enticing added value material for this release, beginning with the new retrospective documentary “The Killing Floor” (46 minutes). Named for the film’s original title and directed by Elijah Drenner (That Guy Dick Miller), the doc is assembled from recent interviews with director Marks, screenwriter Starkes, editor Folsey, and star Turman, and exhaustively covers the creation of the film from script to screen. Plenty of great stories are featured here and Turman does a hilarious impression of the legendary A.I.P. president Samuel Z. Arkoff.
Co-star David McKnight is the focus of “Here Lies J.D. Walker” (18 minutes), an audio interview with the actor that covers his involvement in the film in extensive detail with candor and insight. It makes for a fine compliment to Drenner’s documentary. Also included on this Blu-ray are a gallery of production stills, radio spots (2 minutes) and the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes) which are both narrated by the late Oscar-nominated stage and screen actor Adolph Caesar, and trailers for five other films directed by Arthur Marks – Bonnie’s Kids, Bucktown, A Woman for All Men (presented here under its alternate title Part-Time Wife), Friday Foster, and The Monkey Hu$tle.
That does it for the disc-based extras, but as is it custom with Arrow’s Blu-ray releases, we also get a collector’s booklet featuring a new essay on J.D.’s Revenge written by the British author and film critic Kim Newman, reversible cover art, and a bonus DVD copy with the film and extra features presented in standard definition.
Once again, Arrow Video has granted the first-rate treatment to the Blu-ray debut of a beloved cult film, but unfortunately this time their dedication and hard work were done in the service of an entertaining but heavily flawed and ultimately forgettable supernatural thriller that failed to properly exploit a concept rich for narrative and thematic exploration – even in a violent 1970’s drive-in flick. Fans of J.D.’s Revenge will find this Blu-ray well worth the purchase on the strength of the new HD transfer and informative supplements. If you love this film, then Arrow’s release is the one to own.