Black Shampoo (1976)
By: Mr Intolerance on July 18, 2010  | 
Big Sky Video | All Regions, NTSC | 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English PCM 2.0 | 84 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Greydon Clark
Starring: John Daniels, Tanya Boyd, Skip E Lowe, Joe Ortiz, Anne Gaybis
Screenplay: Alvin L Fast, Greydon Clark
Country: USA
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I think any film genre burns itself out after a while. Doesn't matter how vital that genre might be – and blaxploitation was a living, breathing beast in the early to mid-70s – there are only so many ideas that can be examined before it simply becomes unable to support its own weight, due to writing itself into a corner. The black action film (the current PC term for blaxploitation) often became increasingly bizarre in order to drag in an audience (as with the credibility-defying Black Gestapo or Soul Vengeance), brutalized its viewers with racism to provoke a response (Poor Pretty Eddie, Fight For Your Life), provided a vehicle for current stars (Uptown Saturday Night, any of Rudy Ray Moore's flicks of varying quality like Dolemite), tied themselves in with other genres (horror blaxploitation like Blacula, Blackenstein or Exorcist rip-off Abby; chop-socky blaxploitation properties like Black Belt Jones or TNT Jackson) or simply attached itself to a current Hollywood franchise or big budget property, often with no more link to the original than sticking the word "black" on the front of the title, that it increasingly became a parody of itself – and the legacy of truly great films like Shaft, Superfly, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Coffy, Black Caesar and Across 110th Street became somewhat lost. And with the latter in mind, say hello to Black Shampoo – linked to the Warren Beatty film of a similar title by that virtue alone: title. I certainly don't remember Beatty attacking Mafioso thugs with a chainsaw in his film (even though it certainly would have livened things up if he had).

So, by 1976 blaxploitation cinema had almost run out of puff. The old cliché of the flame that burns twice as bright only burning half as long was certainly true in this instance. Besides the general tailing off in quality of scripts, African-American political groups such as the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) and CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality) had for some years been decrying the perpetuation of black stereotypes in such films, and putting pressure on studios, directors and actors to stop making blaxploitation cinema. This was a two-edged sword, in my opinion – it can't be denied that the genre often relied on its stock characters of pushers, pimps, players, macc daddies and violent action heroes played out against a gritty urban lifestyle that can't possibly have been representative of the majority of African-American experience (although it can safely be said that neither Star Wars, Jaws or Close Encounters Of The Third Kind – all tremendously successful films made at roughly the same time – were hardly indicative of white American experience), but on the flipside it also gave a hell of a lot of work to a talented roster of stars, directors and musicians who probably wouldn't have been able to otherwise get a gig in the industry back in the 70s. And let's face it – a genre that allowed Pam Grier, Fred Williamson and Richard Roundtree (among countless others) to rise to a prominence they still hold amongst real movie fans has to have had some merit, surely.

Mr Johnathan is a hairdresser in demand. Not only can he cut, style and wash with the very best of them – he also sees to his predominantly young, white and rich female clientele's other, more specific needs. As the first half of the tagline tells us: "He's Bad…He's Mean…He's A Lovin' Machine!" And that's something we get to see from the outset, practically giving his customers orgasms by shampooing their hair alone – and that's before he unleashes what's kept inside his disturbingly tight trousers ("Oh Mr Johnathan – it is bigger and better!" squeals one young miss in the opening scene when she gets his slug out) – in his studio with the leopard-print wallpaper. While in some blaxploitation films it can sometimes be difficult to work out where the director is positioning their audience, it's quite apparent in Black Shampoo that the tongue is quite firmly placed in the cheek, and that the genre is being ribbed as much as the basic storyline of vengeance and stickin' it to the Man, and eventual and all-too-infrequent action scenes, adhere to it.

Let's face it – there aren't too many other flicks that feature a hairdresser who's harder than a coffin nail. Actor (and musician, although not on the soundtrack here) John Daniels actually states in one of the special features that he was worried about how his masculinity might be perceived in Black Shampoo, given the public's perception of male hairdressers (his wardrobe, which was actually made up of his own clothes, kind of makes that perception obvious…) – a perception most definitely borne out by Mr Johnathan's excruciatingly unfunny off-siders Artie and Richard – screamingly camp caricatured queens whose delivery of every line sounded to me like someone beating a baby to death with a cat.

Anyway, the plot (such as it is) revolves around Mr Johnathan trying to protect his foxy receptionist Brenda (Tanya Boyd, who keen viewers will remember as one of Dyanne Thorne's bodyguards in Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Shieks) from her old boss Mr Wilson. That's pretty much about it, along with making as many nob gags and double entendre references to sex (the tedious repetition of the word "do" in terms of haircut/sex became rapidly dulling) as possible. I kept waiting for Mrs Slocombe to turn up and start talking about her pussy. Broad comedy, to say the least.

Some hired goons turn up to take Brenda back to the Mr Wilson while Johnathan is making a house call to one of his customers (and implicitly being sucked off by her two whiny and slutty teenage daughters at the same time, before she takes over and rides Johnathan like a prize stallion), but when Johnathan finds that the goons have roughed up Richard and Artie and are leaning on his receptionist to return to being a kept woman, he digs in his heels and refuses to let her go. I guess chivalry ain't dead after all – nor is a heavy-handed metaphor for slavery. Although that kind of positive political statement is kind of let down by the fact that Mr Johnathan lets himself get used as a stud by a bunch of oversexed white women – he's not really advancing the cause of black power in that way…

Anyway, to make sure Brenda keeps an appointment with Mr Wilson that she made via his goons on the previous visit, the Boss ends said goons back to Mr Johnathan's salon on the Sunset Strip to bust the joint up in the most piss-poor protracted display of destruction I think I've ever seen (one of the goons has difficulty snapping the elongated neck of a Styrofoam wig-blocking dummy, so he tips over a chair – that's showing him!), while Brenda's enjoying being in a clichéd romantic montage with Mr Johnathan. But of course, the goons really ought to know better than to fuck with a man's salon – they've just started to get him mad. And it's a painfully slow burn, let me tell you. After spending the night with Mr Johnathan, Brenda heads back to Mr Wilson to spare Johnathan any further grief. So now they've fucked up his shop and taken his girl. Finally something snaps and we get the first proper violence of the film, but it's all over far too quickly, and while there's still the promise of more to come – revenge is a staple of blaxploitation after all – Mr Johnathan first heads off to fuck one of his customers, to blow off steam, I guess.

So while Brenda's starting to see a way in which she can maybe throw a spanner into the works of Mr Wilson's numbers racket, Mr Johnathan and his crew decide throw "a Western-style bar-be-que"-cum-piss-up which is really one of Black Shampoo's crazier moments – I'm not too sure that there were too many tutus, belly-dancing outfits, predatory homosexuals and naked chicks at cook-outs in the old West, but there you go… As I was saying before – so far nothing has really happened, but it's from this point on (effectively the final act of the film) where the whole thing seems to have received a massive shot in the arm. Mr Johnathan decides to go up to his cabin in the woods to spend a few days getting his head together just at the moment when Brenda decides to throw off Mr Wilson's shackles and rejoin her loverman – but Wilson isn't one to take this lying down and so for the fourth time, his goons turn up at the salon (he comes along to take a more active role in the intimidation), but this time it's all gotten extremely nasty, and the punishment dished out is certainly not for the squeamish – and it's here that the second half of the tagline starts making sense: "When He's Mad…He's Mean…He's A Killing Machine!" Don't piss off a hair-dresser becomes the moral of the story – watch and learn; it's certainly a memorable and quite bloody final act, but getting there is awfully tedious.

Lazily paced, not terribly well-written and featuring actors whose performances are for the better part more wooden than the Black Forest, Black Shampoo tries its hardest to be both an action film and a comedy, but sadly fails at being either. The characterization relies far too heavily on stereotypes (both black and white), the jokes fall spectacularly flat, the more gonzo moments the film has to offer (and really, the reason why I was here in the first place) come too little too late. If the film could have simply spread out the more lunatic exploitation elements throughout the film, it would have alleviated the boredom that set in for the first two-thirds.
The video quality, given the obscurity of the title and its age, is pretty good. A clear picture, albeit not a particularly crisp one at times, but certainly much better than I was expecting. It's probably worth mentioning that Dean Cundey was one of the DPs on Black Shampoo, and at times that actually lifts the quality of the film – it looks a lot better than some of its contemporaries for that very reason.
Generally acceptable without being anything special, but there were some moments when it all seemed a bit muffled. The score lacks some of the sparkle of the better blaxploitation soundtracks while obviously mimicking them at the same time. If I ever hear the song, "Can You Feel The Love?" again, I will cut off my ears and flush them down the john. It's even worse than any of those terrible songs on the various Black Emanuelle soundtracks.
Extra Features
There's a small package of Extras on offer here – certainly nothing like Mr Johnathan's package! You get a director's commentary with Greydon Clark (interesting for fans of the film, a little dry otherwise), a 2005 telephone interview with actor John Daniels (again, interesting if you like the film, with some detail about its making and his career in general), the original theatrical trailer (the voice-over sounds like it was written by Rudy Ray Moore – does anyone really speak in rhyming couplets?), and some deleted scenes (which unfortunately have no audio, but seem from the visuals to accentuate the more slapstick elements of the film – even down to a cream-pie fight).
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Black Shampoo is a rather slight film, padded within an inch of its life. The campy set-pieces and characterisation of the first two-thirds of the film rapidly become grating, whereas the kitchen-sink mentality that prevails in the final third simply highlight the paucity of ideas in the first two. Sure, it's a fun enough time-waster eventually, I guess, but personally I prefer my action films more lean. I realise that Black Shampoo is playing the comedy card pretty strongly and obviously, but honestly, that doesn't work here, mainly because by and large it just simply isn't funny and the attempts at humour generally had me rolling my eyes so hard I think I snapped a ligament. The parodic, absurd camp humour attempted is a very difficult thing to pull off at the best of times, and here it fails more than it succeeds. If this was going to be your first foray into blaxploitation, your money is best spent elsewhere - the release itself is fine, but the film isn't.

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