[DVD REVIEW] BLACKFACE KILLER

Race and exploitation film have had an uneasy relationship for years, from the “African” adventure films, bug-eyed comic relief performances of Mantan Mooreland and yellowface of the ‘30s to the Blaxploitation era of the ‘70s to the “black guy always dies first” tropes that some say are still present today.  It makes sense, then, that reacting to a film coming out of the low-budget world claiming to be an homage to ‘70s grindhouse flicks and called BLACKFACE KILLER with a bit of skepticism is only natural.  Especially if the plot, as the name implies, concerns a mysterious figure who runs around in blackface killing a series of white women.

Thankfully, Michael (THE SCARLET WORM) Fredianelli’s BLACKFACE KILLER (we interviewed the director here) has more in mind than simple racial exploitation, a motive more obvious from the film’s original title, THE MINSTREL KILLER.  I’d argue that the title switch, made because “blackface” is more recognizable than “minstrel,” was a mistake, as the original title reflected a sense of knowledge to the history of racially offensive caricatures , while “blackface” is used so offhandedly that tends to lack the context as to why such a thing is, well, just plain ignorant.  The original title is even more accurate – the killer is specifically garbed as a minstrel show performer, an explicit reference to the racial portrayals of the 19th and early 20th century rather than just some idiotic college students dressing like Jay-Z.

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The film begins with the murder of a young bikini-clad woman listening to her transistor radio in a deserted park area in which the killer is barely seen, and one that sets the tone of the film perfectly with its’ attention to ‘70s-era detail, an effect improved upon even more by the deliberately low-budget credit sequence from animator Chad Kaplan.  The murder is investigated by a pair of Texas lawmen, country boy Pike McGraw (Eric Andersen) and “college boy” Tex Holland (Fredianelli), whose only witness is a couple of incredibly dumb rednecks (Kevin Giffin and Brian Levy).

It’s the rednecks that clue you in that BLACKFACE KILLER may have little more up its sleeve than simple exploitation.  They begin as impressively annoying comic relief, to the point where you eagerly await their demise as the performances are pitched so high they’d look over the top in a Franco and Ciccio vehicle, and soon their casual racism moves from being “comical” to being outright nasty.  Another murder follows, and the pair end up dead as well, but by then the racial content of the film has been made a bit more apparent.

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The idea of “racism” continues to be bandied about a lot in culture, often legitimately and sometimes not, but the truth is that there are still plenty of people who couldn’t possibly be racist because they have black friends, or they think that Antebellum nostalgia is all about cultural heritage, or they just think Santa Claus or Jesus being white is just tradition and therefore correct, or they’d never actually use the word “nigger” out loud, or they clearly started a sentence with “I’m not racist, but…” so it’s your fault for even thinking otherwise.  BLACKFACE KILLER takes on this sort of thinking, filling its ranks with characters that are completely convinced that they’re not racist, even as they make broad judgments about any group of people that’s not them.  They’re not openly hostile to other races, so isn’t that enough?

Lead character Tex Holland is the most obvious frame for this way of thinking, a man who can no longer have sex with his wife since she cheated on him with a black man.  When a black law officer (Anthony Spears, whose earrings sticks out like a sore thumb amid the carefully-constructed period detail) comes to help them investigate, Tex’s passive-aggressive treatment of him agitates the situation, and he goes through a period of self-examination, even hiring a black hooker whom he ends up beating when he catches her going for his wallet.

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It all comes to a head with the climax, where Tex finally confronts the title murderer, a figure whose identity is cloudy even after the motivation behind his crimes is revealed.  Fredianelli gives the viewer no easy answers, ending the film on a note that confronts the audience the history of racism without allowing for any sort of pat conclusion – the sort of finale that ambitious films of the ‘70s often had that no doubt frustrated grindhouse audiences at the time but created reputations that warranted the best of these films to be rediscovered decades later.

The style of recreating a ‘70s grindhouse film using a technique of using washed-out colors, film crackling and period detail has become a bit commonplace, but Fredianelli is certainly an admirer of the films that came before, and utilizing the technique to present a social issue in the guise of a standard exploitation flick (that, like the films that inspired it, often goes off-track) gives BLACKFACE KILLER a bit more ambition than the HOBO WITH A SHOTGUNs that have populated this recent wave of bell bottom nostalgia.

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The gambit mostly works, though the film often wavers between comic relief, standard exploitation fare (including a bizarre sub-plot involving a cannibal family) and genuinely interesting moments to the point of whiplash.  In freeze-frame, Fredianelli’s done a fantastic job of replicating the era, even if the performances don’t always read as “period.”  The most unfortunate anomaly is Fredianelli himself, whose obviously fake moustache and youthful appearance make Tex himself a non-entirely-convincing presence, even if he’s committed to the performance.

There are plenty of intriguing ideas in BLACKFACE KILLER and so much memorable dialogue that I was having a hard time writing it all down (“You’re gonna jump through a shitstorm, you might as well get wet first,” Tex opines, deciding to go out for a drink), to the point where the wittiness of the screenplay tends to overshadow the drama on screen.  The characters are almost too clever to be realistic, an effect that damages the film a bit when it comes to taking the ideas it offers seriously.

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In the end, the biggest issue with BLACKFACE KILLER isn’t fumbling the racial issues – outside of the basic concept of the film and a couple of moments involving the rednecks, it never feels as though it’s using racial epithets for shock value – it’s that it’s too unsure as to exactly what it wants to be.  At times a drama about racism, a racist “Hee Haw,” a serial killer film, a goofy homage to THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and a domestic tale of marital problems, BLACKFACE KILLER never quite settles into one skin for long enough to feel entirely comfortable.  I suppose you can argue that this tactic is part of the homage, as many films of the era had similar tonal schizophrenia (LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT comes to mind, as does 1975’s PICK-UP), but that doesn’t make the lack of commitment any less frustrating.

BLACKFACE KILLER is available on DVD from Whacked Movies.

@Paul Freitag-Fey

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