transformation

The Watermelon Man (1970)

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What happens when a racist goes through a radical change and is forced to live life as the same type of person he is totally against? Melvin Van Peebles may just have the answer in this raucous comedy that tackles a very sensitive matter that still exists today.

Jeff Gerber is a Caucasian insurance agent who loves to spend his mornings working out and running past the local bus in order to make the bus stop that takes him to his job. His wife Althea watches the recent riots in the city while Jeff doesn’t care what happens to the rioters. He makes wisecracks towards anyone who is African-American much to the chagrin of his fellow co-workers, bus patrons, and even his wife. However, on this fateful day, Jeff’s life is about to change.

That night, he wakes up to go to the bathroom and when he sees himself, he inexplicably becomes African-American. Suddenly, his life takes a turn for the worse. He gets accused of stealing, virtually gets a promotion at work because of diversity, gets an admirer in co-worker Erica, and becomes the ridicule of the community. When Jeff’s attempts to change his skin color back to white fail on a consistent level, he soon learns the hard way that his old ways of being a racist has caught up to him and he must learn to adapt or face some dire consequences.

The tagline of this 1970 film is “A funny thing happened to Jeff Gerber. This won’t happen to you so you can laugh.” Screenwriter Herman Raucher intended this to be a comedy and while it is quite a funny film for its time, it can be considered sensitive due to the topic of the film: racism. In reality, racism is truly not a laughing matter, but director Melvin Van Peebles decided to make light of the situation with this film. Eventually becoming a pioneer in the “Blaxploitation” genre, Van Peebles does pretty well in terms of directing the film.

What Van Peebles came up with can be considered ingenious. When producers first thought of the idea, they had planned to cast a Caucasian actor dressed in blackface. This has been done to death since the days of Amos and Andy and some of the early Hollywood films as well. What Van Peebles offered was to have the producers cast comic actor Godfrey Cambridge, an African-American, dress in whiteface for the first ten to fifteen minutes of the film before becoming Jeff Gerber, the African-American, by being himself. This would be one of only few lead roles for Cambridge, but he does a great job here. The comedy really comes from his attempts to become white again with at times, disastrous results and his racing against the bus in the opening of the film.

The supporting cast does quite well, especially Estelle Parsons (who later gained fame as playing Roseanne’s mother on her hit television series in the 80’s and 90’s) because we get her point of view on the matter involving her husband. It is apparent that while she knows her husband is white, the fact he becomes black begins to affect their marriage. However, it can be considered strange because she seems to watch the riots as if she supports African-Americans yet she doesn’t feel comfortable being married to one. There are some of the classic derogatory terms towards African-Americans as well as the attitudes at that time, just when equal rights have just become known.

If you are truly sensitive to racism, The Watermelon Man may not be your cup of tea. However, director Melvin Van Peebles truly gets his point across with this tale. The film would become influential on later films such as Soul Man and perhaps, Women from Mars, with what can happen when one must change and learn to somewhat adapt with the intention of learning a very hard lesson in life.

WFG RATING: B

A Columbia Pictures production. Director: Melvin Van Peebles. Producer: John B. Bennett. Writer: Herman Raucher. Cinematography: W. Wallace Kelley. Editing: Carl Kress.

Cast: Godfrey Cambridge, Estelle Parsons, Howard Caine, D’Urville Martin, Mantan Moreland, Kay Kimberly, Scott Garrett, Erin Moran.

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REVIEW: Metamorphosis (1990)

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1990, Filmirage

Director:
Luigi Montefiori
Producer:
Donatella Donati
Writer:
Luigi Montefiori
Cinematography:
Lorenzo Battaglia
Editing:
Kathleen Stratton

Cast:
Gene LeBrock (Dr. Peter Houseman)
Catharine Baranov (Sally Donnelly)
Harry Cason (Dr. Mike Lester)
David Wicker (Willy Carson)
Jason Arnold (Tommy Donnelly)
Stephen Brown (Professor Lloyd)
Tom Story (Professor Huston)
Anna Colona (Patricia Kelly)

A scientist takes drastic measures to keep the funding for his project but ends up with something far more dangerous in the only credited directorial debut for giallo screenwriter and actor Luigi Montefiori, using the pseudonym “G.L. Eastman”.

Dr. Peter Houseman is a professor whose excelled in genetics. He has been working on a major project in which he hopes will be the cure of all diseases as well as stop human aging. However, with no results so far, he is feeling the pressure from investor Sally Donnelly as well as some fellow professors, who don’t believe Peter is capable of succeeding. In an attempt to prove his findings, he tries the serum he has created on a monkey, but the result does not bode well.

A desperate Peter decides to try the serum on himself. He not only makes nice with Sally, but soon the two are involved in a relationship. As Peter continues to try the serum, he begins to feel a change. His internal instincts begin to take effect as he gains strength, but suffers a bit of memory loss. However, he tries the serum again and undergoes a physical change, and slowly begins to go on a killing spree, not even remembering what had happened. What is Peter becoming and is there any way to stop it?

Italian actor and writer Luigi Montefiori, known as George Eastman in front of the screens, came up with a film that delves into the Jekyll-Hyde motif of a scientist who tries his own experimental serum and ends up with horrific results. Yes, this has been done to death throughout cinematic history. Montefiori had even mentioned in an interview in the book “Spaghetti Nightmares” that he had been promised a good cast and a nice laboratory to shoot in. When he didn’t get what had expected, he made the most of it but it is clear that making the film made him never want to direct a film again.

That isn’t to say that the film is a complete mess, because for a good portion, the film is not totally bad. Gene LeBrock makes the most of his role as our Jekyll, Dr. Houseman, who undergoes the radical changes both inside and out. Catharine Baranov goes through three phases herself, starting with the annoying investor involved in the funding of the project to love interest of Dr. Houseman to the very concerned not so much damsel-in-distress. Even Italian exploitation film actress Laura Gemser makes an appearance as a prostitute in the film. The other professors are a bit of an annoyance and don’t hold well with Dr. Houseman.

So why is this considered a pretty bad film amongst film fans? Well, let’s face it, it is what Dr. Houseman eventually turns into by the film’s finale that is just ridiculous. One would think he would become some sort of Hyde-like monster (because of the yellow eyes, the first of the physical changes) or even a caveman. After all, we are talking about primal instincts and a physical change. No, it is something far worse…and not in a good way either. And it is this final stage of metamorphosis that you will either laugh at tremendously or leave a complete bad taste in your mouth. For the longest time in this reviewer’s case, it was the former. It just made this reviewer just laugh out loud and after re-watching it, it still is laugh out loud ridiculous.

Metamorphosis starts off promising despite the cliched Jekyll-Hyde riff, but the final stage is just very bad. However, it does have its cult value and should only be seen and collected by fans who love the very cheesy as well as fans of Luigi Montefiori as this would be his only credited film as director.

WFG RATING: C-

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