“Baby, this is going to be the shortest phone call in Bell Telephone’s history.”
Earlier this year, I wrote about Vinegar Syndrome’s fabulous Blu-ray release of Dolemite (1975), the first film from comedian and all-around greatest-ever-human, Rudy Ray Moore. While that was his debut effort (he wrote as well as starred) after years on the standup circuit and is arguably his greatest work, Vinegar Syndrome have fortunately spent much of the summer resurrecting several of Moore’s subsequent titles: The Human Tornado (1976), a superhero defending his community against the mafia, Petey Wheatstraw (1977), about the revenge-filled antics of Satan’s prospective son-in-law, and Disco Godfather (1979), where Moore stars as a retired cop turned celebrity DJ who battles PCP use in his own community. While my love for Dolemite knows no bounds — and Vinegar Syndrome’s extras-laden, restoration presentation of the film is excellent — I was particularly excited for Petey Wheatstraw, as blaxploitation horror holds a special place in my heart and is relatively thin on the ground.
Moore stars as Petey Wheatstraw, a martial arts expert whose rivals on the entertainment circuit, Leroy (Leroy Daniels of Disco Godfather) and Skillet (Ernest Mayhand of Sanford and Son), conspire to have him murdered so that they don’t have to compete with his upcoming nightclub act, which is sure to be a success. After they accidentally have a child killed, Petey and his friends are mowed down by machine gun fire at the funeral, though it seems like Petey will have the last laugh after all. Taking pity on him, Lucipher (the amazing G. Tito Shaw in his only performance) makes a bargain with Petey: if Petey will marry his hideous daughter (Ebony Wright) and give the Devil a son, he will restore Petey and his friends to life, so they can get their revenge. Reluctantly, Petey agrees, but immediately begins a plot to get out of the wedding.
While the ‘70s resulted in dozens of blaxploitation titles (many of them absolute gold), the genre was always more focused in traditional exploitation fare: tales of sex, violence, crime, and revenge. But a handful of horror-themed titles emerged in the first half of the decade and, for whatever reason, never took off even though some of these films are among my favorites. Blacula (1972) and Scream Blacula Scream (1973) are the most popular of these — and deservedly so — though there are also more unusual examples, like the haunting Ganja & Hess (1973), as well as lower-tier entries like Blackenstein (1973) and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976). In general, these films combine classic horror themes, such as Universal monsters or zombies, with more generic blaxploitation tropes.
But my favorite two blaxploitation horror films arguably have more in common with Petey Wheatstraw than any of the aforementioned films: William Girdler’s glorious rip-off of The Exorcist (1973), Abby (1974) — a contender for one of my favorite films of all time — and Sugar Hill (1974), essentially a zombie revenge movie that boasts the use of voodoo and the presence of Robert Quarry. All three of these display a certain sense of whimsy and irreverence, a disregard for the conventions of genre cinema, and more of an interest in being outrageous than in being properly scary or suspenseful. And out of the three, Petey Wheatstraw is not even really a horror film, but makes delightful use of some satanic tropes and has the sort of fun with the convention of a Faustian pact that only Rudy Ray Moore could have.
This is truly a blend of comedy, action, and exploitation (writer and director Cliff Roquemore was also responsible for The Human Tornado and the script for The Disco Godfather) that’s success essentially relies on Moore’s charisma and hilarious, generally nonsensical onscreen shenanigans. Things kick off with Petey’s birth sequence — during a hurricane — where, after a tussle with the horrified family doctor, he comes out of womb already nine or ten years old somehow. This sets the tone for the proceedings, where Moore continues to be the baddest motherfucker in the entire film. There’s even a training sequence where, as a preteen, he is trained to become a karate master. As you do.
The adult Petey’s first line of dialogue is “My, my, my, what an ass,” and though he doesn’t quite reach the dizzying, rhyming heights of Dolemite, there is some absolute verbal gold here. The admittedly low budget film essentially consists of two kinds of scenes: people exchanging insults (in person though also over the phone quite a bit and, weirdly, roughly half the film involves phone calls) and then the most absurd, yet always enjoyable fisticuffs sequences imaginable. Moore has plenty of scenes that prove how much of a badass Petey is, including a hilarious early sequence where a few misguided hooligans attempt to steal his car — running off with various parts, including the girl sleeping inside — leading to a comic chase sequence; of course he uses karate on them and then makes them put his car back together in front of a crowd of cheering onlookers.
Lines like, “No need to call him, he knows he got an ugly bitch” are priceless and Petey’s insults are, as always, unforgettable. One of Petey Wheatstraw’s chief strengths is that its villain — the Devil himself — is every bit as compelling as Petey. I don’t think I can find the words to express my love for G. Tito Shaw and it’s really a shame that he wasn’t in more films (with Moore and in general). The film’s use of Satan is quite clever, despite the budget restraints, and involves everything from a few trips to hell (where Lucipher enjoys drinking milk out of a goblet while in the bathtub), a late-night cemetery visit to retrieve an all-powerful satanic cane, and the scene of Lucipher trotting through the neighborhood in a red jogging suit is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen — I watched it five times in a row.
Lucipher, his future father-in-law, even throws him a wild bachelor party (admitting, emotionally, “I always wanted one of these”) complete with a bevy of lingerie-wearing demonesses and a wacky orgy scene ensues. Of course he has sex with all of them, before returning to his original plan to dupe the Devil: he kidnaps a wino, dopes the man up, makes a magic mask of his own face with the satanic cane, and then swaps out the wino for himself at a crucial moment. (Notably, he avoids his friend’s advice to lay low and tell Lucipher that he can’t get married yet because he has “the Alabama claps.”) I can’t imagine what kind of monster you would have to be to not love Rudy Ray Moore.
Vinegar Syndrome’s release is, of course, wonderful, and more than does justice to a relatively neglected film. It includes two discs — a region free Blu-ray and a DVD — and a restored print of the film from the original 35mm camera negative that looks glorious. This offers a continuation of the great extras on Dolemite and The Human Tornado, including a making-of documentary, “I, Dolemite Part III,” a commentary track with input from Roquemore and actor Jimmy Lynch, as well as Moore’s biographer, Mark Jason Murray. There’s also the featurette “Shooting Locations Revisited” with Moore himself, a soundtrack, stills gallery, and trailers for all the Moore films being released by Vinegar Syndrome this year. If these Moore films had been released as a box set, it would definitely be in the running for release of the year, but even as a solo release, this is well worth buying immediately.