Bite Size: The Baron (1977)

All Jason (Calvin Lockhart, Cotton Comes To Harlem) wants to do is make a movie. In a lifetime of bullshit artistry and constant hustle, he’s finally hit on something that works. Everyone who has seen the completed portion of his film very much enjoys it, a family friendly adventure about a well to do race car driver named Baron Wolfgang Von Tripps. Unfortunately, he is running out of money to finish the film.

Desperate to see his creation on screen, he borrows a large sum from a local drug dealer known only as The Cokeman (Charles McGregor). What Jason doesn’t realize is that The Cokeman borrowed that money from the mob. Heading to the coast to negotiate for a negative pick up deal, Jason finds out backers are only interested in the film if he replaces himself and his all Black cast and crew with white actors. Heading back to New York defeated, Jason is left with an unfinished film and one very pissed off mobster (Richard Lynch, God Told Me To) looking to recoup his $300,000 by any means necessary.

The Baron was written and directed by Phillip Fenty (writer of 1972 smash hit Superfly), and was released toward the end of the Blaxploitation boom, with a leading man easily recognizable to fans of the genre. Yet for all of its crime procedural elements, moviegoers looking for a high stakes actioner full of gun fights, karate chops and dramatic comeuppance were likely to be sorely disappointed. The Baron plays the bulk of its runtime in more drama fueled territory, with an interesting meta element regarding the perils of making an indie film likely drawn from the director’s own experience.

For all of the shaggy, scattershot plot beats and distinctly flat visuals, The Baron is never less than watchable, due to a herd of better than average performances, and a mellow score by jazz/spoken word legend Gil Scott-Heron. Calvin Lockheart’s Jason is by alternating turns a believable charming trickster and tunnel visioned dreamer. Even when the silliness of the plot demands he do something incredibly selfish, incredibly stupid or both, he never manages to become entirely unsympathetic. Here is a man so incredibly desperate to succeed at something, he’ll do just about anything to be a hero, even if it is only on celluloid.

Jason doesn’t have the constitution for violent robbery or dealing drugs, even when The Cokeman strongly suggests he do so by virtue of some well trained attack dogs. Instead, Jason leaves his loving wife Caroline (Marlene Clark, Night Of The Cobra Woman, as usual turning in some fine moments in an underwritten role), and becomes a gigolo for the wealthy white jet set who are ever so eager to exoticize him. With his breezy charm and elegant lines in a sharp cut suit, he’s soon being kept by the very old and very rich Mama Lou (1930s Hollywood queen Joan Blondell, doing a rather fun oversexed dowager). She may refer to him as her “hot dog”, but she also pays all of the bills.

However, The Cokeman is dead, and it isn’t long before Richard Lynch’s Joey shows up at her mansion to collect from Jason instead. Richard Lynch was always excellent at playing human excrement, and his sleaze coated homophobic and racist hit man steals every scene in which he appears without getting a single spot on his immaculate white suits.

Unfortunately, the movie fails to utilize some of its strongest themes or performances as effectively as they could have been, particularly the systemic racism of Hollywood and the upper class environs Jason inhabits in his brief stint as a gigolo. Some of the film’s best bits are when Jason is subtly sticking it to the upper class snobs in posh clubs and department stores, using his hustler skills and some well placed malicious compliance to make their prejudices pay out in cold hard cash.

The ending is also more than a touch rushed, and lands with a bit of a whimper. Given the obvious lack of resources and a coherent central focus, the fact that the ending feels unsatisfying is a testament to the quiet appeal and good will the performances managed to generate in the first place. While The Baron never quite reaches top speed, there’s a certain charming pluck in the fact that it ever managed to get onto the track.

Bite Size: Night Of The Cobra Woman (1972)

Night Of The Cobra Woman has all of the right elements to be a delightful bit of down and dirty, shot in the Philippines drive in fare. The location shoot allows for a built in exotic setting. It stars multiple comely actresses that did some solid genre work and weren’t opposed to showing a bit of skin, and the downmarket Peter Lorre stylings of Vic Diaz. Plus, there’s enough snakes to mandate the resurrection of St. Patrick. Yet, for all of its positive aspects, the overall effect of watching the film is akin to that of a bad online date. The basic details all match the profile, but it has all of the personality of a sack of wet laundry.

Sometime during World War II, Lena Aruza (Marlene Clark, Ganja & Hess) and a young woman named Francisca (Rosemarie Gil) are Allied nurses out gathering medicinal herbs. Lena has heard rumor of a local plant that provides additional vigor and long life, and stops to investigate inside of a remote cave, where she is bitten by an exotic cobra. Meanwhile, poor Francisca is shot and (completely unnecessarily) raped by a Japanese soldier. As it turns out, the cobra venom has all of the properties the herbs were reputed to, and Lena uses it to save the life of her friend.

Cutting to the present, A UNICEF researcher named Joanna (Joy Bang, Messiah Of Evil) has just arrived in Manila to research anti venom for snake bites. She becomes fascinated with the local legends of immortality granting cobras, and a woman in a remote village who supposedly has access to one of the rare snakes. Lonely with all of the long hours in the lab, she invites her boyfriend Duff (Roger Garrett) to join her.

Of course, the local legend is a still youthful Lena. The long ago bite does grant her near immortality, as long as she has a steady supply of venom from familiar/snake deity Movini and a steady stream of young sexual conquests to steal vitality from. When Duff becomes another of the notches on Lena’s deadly bedpost, Joanna must rush to find an antidote.

Even the basic plot outline is overstuffed, and Night Of The Cobra Woman has no qualms complicating its mostly invented on the fly storyline with even more subplots. Nothing exceeds like excess, and nothing is more sure to flatline than a magic and mysticism based narrative that has absolutely no clue how its basic mythology is supposed to work. Most of Lena’s conquests die immediately, but her manservant Lope (a nonsensically gibbering Vic Diaz) is merely a deformed jungle riff on Quasimodo. Meanwhile Duff can be restored entirely by regular does of fresh venom. Plus, the mighty snake god Movini apparently has a specific weakness against eagles, which happens to be the exact animal Duff stole from outside the airport upon arrival.

Joy Bang is woefully miscast as Joanna, and she stumbles through the film in a haze of well styled hair and an expensive set of veneers. Richard Garrett as Duff is even worse, and it’s inexplicable what either of these women would see in this tall glass of skim milk that was worth venom stealing and backstabbing each other over. Marlene Clark’s imperious, high cheekboned beauty lends itself well to a dangerous cobra queen, but the material robs her of any real chance at delicate tragedy or camp villainy. If anyone’s vitality is truly stolen by this film, it is hers, as she valiantly struggles to add a distinct characterization to the whole mixed up affair.

For all of its potential, nothing much happens. The snakes are pretty tame, and mostly confined to inset shots. A lot of runtime is wasted on people wandering around searching for each other, Joy Bang looking like she’d rather be at Woodstock while they test the venom on a monkey, and a Francisca and Lope hired help revenge angle that just slithers off into the bushes.

The general inertness of the plot could have been forgivable if Night Of The Cobra Woman was stylishly shot, a sort of hallucinatory fever dream of glorious incoherence in the Messiah Of Evil mode. Unfortunately, Andrew Meyer’s direction isn’t any stronger than his screenwriting skills. The effects are pretty cheap, and he lacks any sense of framing or pacing to build any consistent mood. The film’s few kills are primarily cutaway, and what should be a horrific sequence of Lena shedding her skin is shot with the overheated eye of an aging patron watching a burlesque dancer slowly remove her stockings.

Roger Corman was a producer on the film, and was reputedly very displeased with the final result. He never hired Meyer to helm a feature film again. The fact that Night Of The Cobra Woman was beneath the visual and storyline standards of the king of fast, cheap B movie making tells you pretty much all you need to know.





Bite Size: Ganja & Hess (1973)

In an era littered with unscrupulous producers and distributors who hijacked both finished products and profits from filmmakers, Ganja & Hess is the rare inverse case. Director Bill Gunn received financing to make a budget conscious cash in on the success of Blacula. Instead, Gunn used the funds to turn out a film that has more in common with the “New Hollywood” arthouse inflected movement than Blaxploitation tropes.


Wealthy anthropologist Hess Green (Duane Jones) is attacked by his suicidal research assistant, George Meda (director Bill Gunn) with an ancient African ceremonial dagger. The dagger carries a disease that gives the infected near eternal life, and an unceasing thirst for human blood. When George’s wife Ganja (Marlene Clark), comes to the estate looking for her deceased husband, she instead joins Hess in both marriage and his cursed state (though not his personal ideologies).

It’s a slight plot, but the pretext of vampirism allows for a dizzying array of allegory and subtextual commentary on the nature of addiction, Black assimilation in America, and the hypocrisy of Christianity. It’s a shimmering shape shifter of a film to begin with, doubly so for those prone to analysis, and I’ve done a previous deep dive of the movie’s thematic elements right here.

The visuals and sound further the fever dream, with title cards and tilted angles joining lushly shot runs through sun dappled fields, and queasy, almost POV style kills. Sam Waymon’s score burbles both underneath and on top of the dialog, African chants, church hymns and a narrative soul croon given equal weight to the words being spoken by the characters. The cut and paste, collaged aesthetic is both disorienting and deliberate.

The disappointed producers of the film quickly pulled it from distribution for a hatchet job of a recut/retitling(Blood Couple), despite it winning a prestigious prize at that year’s Cannes film festival. Ganja & Hess has very little to do with the easy to sell Blaxploitation conventions that they were hoping for. There are no oversized heroes or easy villains, no action sequences, no clever catchphrases or catchy theme tunes.

Instead, just a slow, purposeful introspection. For all of the larger questions Ganja & Hess raises, there’s no easy catharsis to any of them, no through line of linear narrative, right and wrong. Just two characters, and how they individually navigate their status as othered outsiders, even before you factor in the newly found bloodlust.

*Note from your Midnight Movie Monster: There’s a bit of a break from my usual tone from this post, which marks the end of my break from regular updates(which will continue on their usual schedule from here on out). With the pandemic and the protests against racism and police brutality still ongoing, I took some time off and focused on being useful to the larger issues at hand, rather than cracking wise about B cinema.

Usually, I reserve bite size pieces for films of lesser merits, but this film is actually one of my absolute favorites of the grindhouse golden age, and an excellent piece of arthouse horror. I just wrote it up as a bite size piece being that I had previously covered it for an outside venue.