Slaughter came at a time when blaxploitation films were moving into their heyday. This was 1972, a year after Shaft had been released but before Pam Grier’s iconic Coffy and Foxy Brown. As such, director Jack Starett’s film falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, not quite reveling in the subgenre’s black roots and not exactly as exploitative as later flicks, but also not skimping on the dominance of a black hero despite the adversity and offensiveness of white characters. Co-written by Mark Hanna (no stranger to the B-movie game with titles like Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman and The Amazing Collossal Man under his belt) and Don Williams (no other claim to fame besides the sequel Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off), Slaughter tells the story of Captain Slaughter’s (Jim Brown) attempts to get revenge on the mobsters that hit his father.
And really, that’s the extent of the plot. Hanna and Williams’ script starts off fast and furious, with a quick carbomb explosion that acts as the sole exposition of the film – Slaughter, mourning the loss of his father, then takes it upon himself to hunt down and kill the bastards, and with his cop know-how and his massive frame, he has no problem getting down to business. Like other blaxploitation films, Slaughter is about revenge – not just to get back at murderers, but very clearly people who are white and disrespectful of black culture. And so that throughline is the tenuous tie that holds the whole film together, despite a lack of deeper subtext.
That doesn’t stop Starett from hitting all of the right notes, though. The best of those is the use of Don Gordon as Slaughter’s white sidekick Harry, delivering comedy gold again and again because of Hanna and Williams’ insistence on making him as inept as possible. He’s a great foil to Slaughter’s unyielding serious personality, and Slaughter capitalizes on putting them together in increasingly dangerous situations. At one point, Harry even remarks that Slaughter‘s just plain weird; but despite their differences and early altercations, the partnership between Harry and Slaughter is an excellent exploration at bridging the racial gap.
Not so with the mobsters Slaughter’s up against, however. While head boss Mario Felice (Norman Alfe) has a mutual respect for someone as tough as Slaughter, his henchman Dominic Hoffo (Rip Torn) dislikes him from the start because of his brazen attitude and his rugged good looks – and it doesn’t help that his girl Ann (Stella Stevens) is attracted to him.
Dominic is the perfect metaphor for white paranoia. He’s immediately hostile, dropping the n-word a few times just because Ann even glances Slaughter’s way, and his intent to kill Slaughter comes from his intense race hate. While Slaughter doesn’t characterize Dominic, or even Ann, all that well, Dominic is clearly a symbol of prejudiced white America. It’s something audiences can understand despite the lack of strong development.
That tends to be a sticking point in Slaughter, though. Hanna and Williams’ script gets a lot of mileage out of the revenge storyline, and it even throws a couple of sex scenes in between Slaughter and Ann for exploitation’s sake. But the plot lacks meat, sorely evident in the final moments of the film – it’s been pretty clear all along that Dominic was behind the hit on Slaughter’s father, and the conclusion does nothing to twist away from that piece of exposition. There’s no surprise at the end of Slaughter, only a confirmation for our character’s conscience and the expected death of Dominic.
That’s not to say Slaughter‘s a completely unfulfilling experience. In terms of action, this blaxploitation flick really has it all – car chases, explosions, a death by firing squad, and even a garden maze chase. Starett does a great job of shooting these sequences, and on that spectrum, Slaughter doesn’t disappoint. But if you’re looking for a more complex crime plot, best look elsewhere.
Still, Slaughter has a charm and wit that other blaxploitation films can’t match, and Jim Brown certainly matches the subject of the film’s theme song.
Olive Films Blu-Ray
Olive Films has released Slaughter as part of their blaxploitation collection. It gets an HD transfer that looks quite nice without much alteration, along with a standard audio track that at times suffers from muffled dubbing. Otherwise, no special features are included besides a trailer.