Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, March 25, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-in-Law (1977)

With the “Dolemite” duo, Ruby Ray Moore had successfully transitions from a weirdo stand-up comic with a cult following to a weirdo movie star with a cult following. So why stop there? After a slightly more above-ground credit in “The Monkey Hustle,” Moore continued to make his own weird movies with his gathering of co-conspirators. “Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil's Son-in-Law” – officially the movie skips the subtitle but that's what on the title screen, so I'm going with it – sees the comedian doing the crazy stuff he always does while trying something slightly new. The result would be another oddball grindhouse experience, destined to garner a fan following years down the line.

From the moment he was born, Petey Wheatstraw was destined for greatness. As a kid, he was trained in martial arts by a kindly old man in his neighborhood. Going into adulthood, he successfully pursued his dream of becoming a stand-up comic. However, Wheatstraw incurs the wrath of a rival club owner. A gang of mob hit-men murders the little brother of one of Petey's friend, before gunning Wheatstraw down at the boy's funeral. In death, Petey is greeted by the devil. Satan cuts Wheatstraw a deal. If he marries the devil's hideous daughter, Petey can return to life with magical powers, able to reap vengeance on those who wronged him. Petey agrees, with no intention of fulfilling his end of the agreement.

As the title indicates, Ruby Ray Moore is playing a new character in this movie. Yet it quickly becomes apparent that Petey is essentially the same character as Dolemite. Which means he's mostly an exaggerated version of Ruby Ray Moore. So, like Moore and Dolemite, Wheatstraw is a stand-up comic who playfully jabs at his audience. The character performs the rhyming raps and utilizes the same bizarre profanity Moore did in the “Dolemite” features. As in those films, rivalries between night clubs and mob connections motivate the plot. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as Moore's distinctive shtick remains as entertaining as ever. Moore even indulges in some self-mythologizing here, when we see Wheatstraw's – and, by extension, Ruby's – birth. First, his mother birthed a watermelon. An adolescent Petey popped out next and beat up the priest for slapping his behind, talking smack all along.

In “The Human Tornado,” Moore included a hokey, gothic torture dungeon and an old witch in his goofball crime epic. In “Petey Wheatstraw,” this passing interest in cliched horror elements becomes an important part of the plot. The demonic bargain Petey makes grants him access to a magical pimp cane. It also gives us a peak at Moore's low budget interpretation of hell. The underworld is mostly shown as a dark room with a couch and crystal ball, bathed in red. Later, after Satan feels screwed over, a series of demons are sent after Wheatstraw. Actors in caped leotards, with chalky face paint and rubber horns on their heads, appear to attack Petey and his friends. When a particular demon is defeated, he leaves a burning outline in the asphalt. This stuff is way too goofy for “The Devil's Son-in-Law” to classify as horror. But it's enough to make the movie a deliberate horror homage.

These zero budget attempts at devilish horror are fun but it's not the most amusing thing about “Petey Wheatstraw.” The typically bizarre bits of Dolemite-ian absurdity prove more memorable.  At least twice, Moore gets into sped-up kung-fu fights. My favorite has a gang of dudes attacking Petey as he's about to have sex with his girlfriend. Thus, Moore has to leap from a building in his underwear, beating fools into submission with his leaden footwork. Another suitably nutty moments has Lucifer introducing Petey to a brothel populated with demonic ladies. He bangs each one in absolute glee, a scene also shot in fast motion. At one point, the film even utilizes reverse fast motion footage, when a murder scene plays backwards, the dead bodies leaping back to life.

For all its gonzo excesses, “The Devil's Son-in-Law” is ultimately not as entertaining as either of Moore's previous features. The movie drags a lot. The subplot involving the gangsters goes nowhere. Petey dispels them with his devil-powered pimp stick early on and they don't appear again until the very last scene. While the ramshackle scripts were charming in the “Dolemite” films, the obvious sloppiness wares on the viewer in this one. The last act drags on, eventually becoming a long series of fight scenes between Petey and the demonic minions. A montage devoted to Petey using his powers to help people in the ghetto out – saving a kid playing in traffic, making a fat woman skinny – is funny but also goes on far too long. That could be said of the whole movie, which is a bit bloateda t 98 minutes long.

“Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil's Son-in-Law” is not a demented masterpiece on the level of “The Human Tornado.” It does have its moments, many of them being utterly brilliant bits of insanity. As always, Moore's kooky antics can't help but entertain. Still, this is a lesser effort. Even the theme song, which just repeats the movie's title over a funky beat, isn't as good as the others. Naturally, the movie has a cult following, like all of Moore's features, but I'm not likely to return to this one as often as I do the gloriously off-kilter “Dolemite” flicks. [6/10]

[X] Afros or Sideburns
[X] Brothels or Pimps
[X] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[X] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang


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