The 1970s were the golden age of Blaxploitation films, and with the ground-level success of classics like Shaft and Foxy Brown came a whole string of lesser (read: cheaper) movies that had neither the budget nor the distribution to really make much of an impact, but were somehow more authentic because of this. 1976 also saw several movies that, at least on the surface, seemed to exploit other, more successful movies by simply adding “black” to the title. Director William Crain ventured into this territory with his 1972 feature film debut Blacula for American International to some success. Four years later, he ventured out on his own with Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde. Dr. Henry Pride (Bernie Casey from Never Say Never Again and In the Mouth of Madness) is a medical doctor who works at a free clinic in the inner city. Aided by another doctor (Rosalind Cash of The Omega Man), he’s also researching a breakthrough chemical that can regenerate liver cells. But mild-mannered Dr. Pride (not-so-subtly named) is a man of two worlds. One of his patients looks at him with disdain because he acts white, dresses white, and even drives a white car, but is not white. When he discovers that his liver regenerative formula turns his black lab mice into white, dominant predators, the wheels begin to turn. When Dr. Pride eventually does inject himself, he turns into an albino (white) guy with a ton of rage.
That doesn’t mean the movie isn’t fun. It is. One of my favorite things inthe movie are two cops on the trail of Dr. Pride. Lt. Jackson is played by Ji-Tu Cumbuka (Bound for Glory, Brewster’s Millions) and Lt. O’Connor is played by Milt Kogan (E.T., The Descendants). We never get to see as much of them as I’d like, but I really dig their black cop/white cop interaction as guys who have seen it all. Even though they’re purely supporting characters, they remind me a little bit of Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction, and I can’t help but wonder if they were an influence (maybe even an unconscious one) on a certain exploitation-loving director.
Former NFL athlete Bernie Casey is fantastic in the dual role of Dr. Pride and the white monster. Again, this is the kind of thing that could and should be absolutely ridiculous, but Casey never plays anything with a wink that betrays that he might find the subject matter to be beneath him. By day, Casey’s doctor is quiet, intelligent, and soft-spoken. By night, he’s violent and filled with rage. You know what this movie really reminds me of? The old seventies TV version of The Incredible Hulk that starred Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. While the physical changes aren’t as dramatic as on that show, the idea of a soft-spoken man with a beast within is almost exactly the same. Even the makeup, done by a very young Stan Winston near the beginning of his career, is like a whiter shade of the body paint that was used in the 1978 TV series. Casey gives the premise credibility with his acting, but also with his physicality. He’s got huge muscles that you don’t expect, and he really seems dangerous when he’s rampaging.
A big plus for this movie is the sweet score by a guy named Johnny Pate, a former jazz bassist who went on to contribute some of the most incredible music of the entire Blaxploitation cycle of the seventies. You can hear his work in Shaft in Africa as well as Superfly. Just like this movie and the title character, the score is divided into two equal parts. Fifty percent of the score consists of mournful, noir-inspired jazz that accompanies Dr. Pride during his daytime activities. The motif is tragic, but also beautiful; it would have been right at home in a film by Jacques Tourneur. The other fifty percent brings the funky soul you’d expect, with wah-wah drenched guitars doing that “chicka-bow-bow” thing that was such a staple of seventies exploitation. It’s a really awesome score that gives the movie a ton of character and holds up all on its own.
Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde seems to have mostly flown under the radar since it was released over forty years ago, and that means that it hasn’t been treated very well. The only DVD that I know about comes from VCI, a company that I love for rescuing movies that no one seems to care about anymore, but who puts very little restoration work into their titles. As such, every presentation of Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde is washed out to the point that it almost looks black-and-white, and the print itself is damaged and has seen much better days. This is a movie that is begging for a boutique label to come along and rescue it, restore it, and give it a pristine presentation complete with a commentary track and a retrospective. Sadly, that’s probably not going to happen, and if it did, it would be too late. Bernie Casey died in September of 2017 and many of the key supporting players of this movie have also passed on.