To the uninitiated, titles like Blacula and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde signify ultra-cheap, ultra-cheesy Blaxploitation fare that could never be taken seriously, but the uninitiated can go take a flying leap. Truth is, both films are evocative, low-key, straightforward horror films with complex characters, taut direction from William Crain, and superb acting by a talented cast. (Those wanting pungent cheese should seek out Blackenstein.)
In the case of Dr. Black, Bernie Casey stars as the titular (Titular. Tee-hee.) character — not Dr. Black, but rather, the only slightly less subtly named Dr. Pride. He’s a well-to-do doc catering to Los Angeles’s troubled Watts neighborhood, and in an early scene he’s taken to task by sexy local prostitute Linda (Marie O’Henry), who calls him a sellout for acting too “white”. He doesn’t help his defense later when he tests an experimental cell regeneration serum on himself and turns into a white-skinned, light-eyed (think Omega Man), hooker-murdering lunatic. Despite his spooky, ashen look and sizable afro, the people who encounter honky Hyde strangely see him as just some white dude and not a mutant or even a black guy with a skin-altering disease like vitiligo or albino chicken pox.
Is the moral of the story that you should “keep it real” or, on a more ominous level, that white people like to kill hookers? Or maybe the filmmakers were just using the skin color plot as an ironic twist on the whole Jekyll/Hyde thing — an indication of the race consciousness of the time — but it’s hard not to read something deeper in the “white man ravaging a poor black neighborhood” angle. All in all, Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde isn’t as scary or atmospheric as Blacula, but frankly it doesn’t try to be. It’s a more socially conscious film that’s still very watchable, thanks largely to Casey’s performance — particularly the end, which finds him scaling the Watts Towers in an (intentional?) homage to King Kong.
Rest in peace Bernie Casey, this could have been ridiculous (maybe it is) but he really sold it with a totally committed performance. What a pro!