Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Welcome Home Brother Charles / Soul Vengeance (1975)

I was in an old video store with my friend Den looking for interesting previously viewed VHS tapes to buy. I reached into the sale bin and pulled out a movie I’d never heard of before: Soul Vengeance (1975).

“Don’t buy that one,” Den advised me.

VHS box for Soul Vengeance (1975).I looked at the tape in my hand. It appeared to be a Blaxploitation movie released by the same company (Xenon Home Video) that had released the films of Rudy Ray Moore. How could I NOT buy it?

“I’ve seen it,” Den continued. “It’s not that great.” He went on to describe the one interesting aspect of the film – at least in his opinion – and I would say that it qualifies as a spoiler. But it’s also a huge incentive to watch the film, so I’m a little torn about whether to reveal it here or not. I suppose it only strengthened my resolved to buy the tape and watch it, so….

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this paragraph if you like to surprised by mind-blowing plot twists that come out of nowhere about an hour into the movie. On the other hand, if you feel you’d like to have a little psychological preparation before having your brain and eyeballs assaulted, then read on at your own discretion… Are you ready for it?  Soul Vengeance features a penis monster. Or a monster penis. I’m not sure if I’m describing this right… The main character of the movie – our hero, Brother Charles, played by Marlo Monte – seems to have a giant, sentient penis which he uses to mesmerize and control the wives of his enemies AND to murder the men who wronged him. For the most part we don’t actually SEE it, but there is one murder during which Charles unleashes his secret weapon onscreen. It’s still a little obscured, but we see the giant monster extending to an impossible length and strangling a victim. There. I said it. I hope I haven’t ruined the movie for anyone. But I suppose that Den revealed it to me all those years ago, and I still bought the movie and was fairly impressed by what I saw.

“So, what did you think of Soul Vengeance?” Den asked me the next time I saw him.

I told him I liked it, and he seemed surprised. “But I enjoy movies like this for all kinds of reasons,” I told him. “For example, the music.”

CD cover for MGM SOul Cinema - which does not feature music from Soul Vengeance.I’d been a fan of Blaxploitation movie soundtracks since first watching Black Caesar (1973) when I was young – and it’s what made me a fan of James Brown’s music. Over the years I’ve picked up many Blaxploitation soundtracks and compilations, like the awesome MGM Soul Cinema collection.  I’ve discovered that even the most obscure, no-budget Blaxploitation films can feature some really great music – or, in some cases, music that’s so bad, it’s wonderful. Soul Vengeance features some pretty decent tunes. There’s a piece of instrumental music somewhere in the middle of the film that I would swear was a knockoff of The Guess Who‘s classic “These Eyes” – which was covered by a lot of other artists, including Junior Walker & the All-Stars. It’s always been a special song to me, party because The Guess Who are from my home town of Winnipeg. Hearing what I believe is a knockoff of “These Eyes” in Soul Vengeance somehow endears the film to me just a little bit more.

Soul Vengeance was made by Jamaa Fanaka, who would go on to some success with Penitentiary (1979), Penitentiary II (1982) and Penitentiary III (1987). Originally titled Welcome Home Brother Charles, Fanaka made Soul Vengeance while he was a student at UCLA film school. It’s hard to imagine a movie like this as a serious film school project, but perhaps Fanaka was attempting to say something about racism and stereotypes. I won’t try to explain it here, but I will say that I saw Penitentiary when I was twelve years old and thought it was pretty cool. So in some ways, I’ve been a fan of Fanaka’s work for most of my home drive-in watching life. I’ve collected all of his movies (except Street Wars (1992), but you can bet it’s just a matter of time). So, in retrospect, I NEEDED to buy Soul Vengeance from that video store bargain bin.

Sadly, that VHS tape snapped while I was re-watching it a few years ago. I took it apart in an attempt to repair it (which I have done successfully with other tapes), but the whole thing crumbled and I had to give up. Luckily, I picked up a DVD somewhere on my pre-pandemic travels and that is what I watched last week.

While it may not be as good as Black Caesar (1973) or Shaft (1971), Soul Vengeance (1975) is a highly entertaining and unique entry into the Blaxploitation genre. And it was made by a serious filmmaker who wasn’t afraid to use commercial exploitation genres to get his message across. Perhaps because of this, he’s a certified master of #NotQuiteClassicCinema – and it’s too bad he didn’t make more films during his all too brief career. But at least we can continue to enjoy the ones we’ve got on any #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: The Initiation of Sarah (1978)

There are a lot of movies called The blank of blank (insert action in first blank and name of person in second blank). The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979), The Violation of Sarah McDavid (1981), The Seeding of Sarah Burns (1979) and the less formal The Seduction of Gina (1984), The Awakening of Candra (1983), The Initiation of Sarah (1978), The Violation of Claudia (1977), The Taming of Rebecca (1982), The Taking of Christina (1976) – the list goes on and on. It seems as if the second blank – the name – most often represents a woman, while the movies themselves most often fall into one of two categories: Made For TV Movies of the Week or Golden Age Adult Cinema. Can you tell by the titles which ones are which? Probably not. But both categories are fertile ground for Not Quite Classic Cinema.

The Initiation of Sarah (1978) falls into the first category and was in fact an ABC Monday Night Movie. I didn’t see it back then, in sprite of the fact that I was always on the lookout for scary movies on TV. I remember watching other made for TV horror films that year, like Summer of Fear (1978) – which I believe was called Stranger In Our House at the time – but The Initiation of Sarah somehow came and went without me even noticing it. 

I sometimes talk about the fact that home video, or VCRs, really took the place of going to the drive-in for people of my generation. We were too young to drive cars or get into R-rated movies, but we were somehow allowed to rent those same weird and forbidden movies on VHS and Beta. Our VCRs became the home drive-ins of our youth, and we took full advantage.

Prior to those glorious days, made for TV horror films – and other edgy genres that were somehow adapted for TV – were all that we underage trash junkies could access. Anyone remember made for TV women in prison films like Born Innocent (1974) with Linda Blair and Cage Without a Key (1975) with Susan Dey? If VCRs were the home drive-in of my youth, then made for TV movies were the home drive-in of my childhood. 

Ad for Born Innocent (1974)

Ad for Cage Without a Key (1975)I suppose it’s no surprise that once we were able to rent R-rated theatrical movies, we lost interest in the made for TV stuff. Some of those old TV movies were released on VHS and Beta. It wasn’t always easy to tell if a movie had been made for TV, but we would look for words like “teleplay” in the credits. Whenever we found one on the shelf, we would laugh and scoff at the idea of renting it. Our attitude seemed to be “This movie won’t be any good… it won’t be scary… it won’t have any gore or nudity in it… it’s made for TV so it will be suitable for children – yuck!” So if I came across a copy of The Initiation of Sarah in those days, I would have avoided it like the plague.

Fast forward a bunch of years, and I started to realize that a lot of those old TV movies were actually good. As I’ve talked about in previous posts, my friend Brian and I have actually taken to seeking out old TV horror films and watching them during our annual all day movie marathon. And I think I speak for both of us when I say that a lot of the R-rated movies we watch can’t hold a candle to classic made for TV movies like The Night Stalker (1972) and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973). A few years ago I purchased a Shout Factory TV Terrors DVD that included The Initiation of Sarah. I brought it with me to our annual movie event a few years in a row, but for some reason we kept passing it over in favour of other films. Last year, thanks to the current pandemic, we were unable to hold our event – and it seems doubtful that we will be able to reschedule it any time soon. So, last week I decided that perhaps it was time for me to investigate this particular TV terror on my own (sorry, Brian)…

The Initiation of Sarah is not quite in the same class as made for TV masterpieces like The Night Stalker, but it’s a pretty darn entertaining film. I think it’s fair to say that it’s one of many post Carrie (1976) films that were majorly influenced by it. The term rip off, or knock off, might be used to describe it (and not entirely unfairly). It does manage to distinguish itself with some other, non Carrie-like elements. For one thing, Shelley Winters guest stars as Mrs. Erica Hunter – not Sarah’s overbearing, insanely religious mother, which would have been too on the nose in terms of recreating Piper Laurie’s role in Carrie (but I somehow found myself making that connection anyway) – no, Shelley Winters plays the quirky den mother to the uncool sorority that Sarah manages to join (the only one that will have her). If the movie had stopped there, things would have been okay, if a little ordinary. But it turns out that Mrs. Erica Hunter is some sort of expert on witchcraft and the supernatural – and she recognizes that Sarah has some extraordinary powers. At the risk of including a mild SPOILER, by the final reel of the film, Shelley’s performance takes a sharp turn from quirky, interfering den mother to full on Satanic Priestess, and – as anyone who knows Shelley Winters can likely imagine – she does it very well.

Shelley Winters guest stars as Mrs. Erica Hunter in The Initiation of Sarah (1978)The rest of the cast is pretty stellar as well. Kay Lenz stars as Sarah Goodwin (doesn’t that name somehow ooze witchcraft? Maybe it’s just me). You might recognize her from movies like House (1985), Stripped to Kill (1987) and the early Clint Eastwood directorial effort Breezy (1973). I first got to know her in one of my all time favourites, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987). She also stars in one of the other TV movies I mentioned earlier, The Seeding of Sarah Burns (1979). 

There is also a very bad blonde sorority girl who tries to make Sarah’s life hell (somewhat reminiscent of Nancy Allen in Carrie) played by Morgan Fairchild. I recall seeing her play a string of “bad blondes” back in the 1980s. The Initiation of Sarah was a relatively early effort from her, but she already had the woman-you-love-to-hate thing down. It’s no surprise she went on to star in some prime time soaps, like Flamingo Road (1980-82).

The movie was directed by Robert Day, who has almost 100 credits as a director, mostly in television. He did make a few theatrical feature films early on, including The Haunted Strangler (1958) with Boris Karloff and Corridors of Blood (1958) with Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee. 

The Initiation of Sarah (1978) is a perfect example of #NotQuiteClassicCinema made for TV in the 1970s. Even though I had never seen it before, it gave me powerful feelings of nostalgia. The actors, the music, the atmosphere, the suspiciously familiar story – it all adds up to cinematic Déjà Vu of the very best kind. If you didn’t grow up watching these kinds of movies at your home drive-in, you might not appreciate it quite as much as I do, but it should still provide enough entertainment value to justify 96 minutes of your time. It will certainly always be a welcome sight for me on a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.