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MGM Studios DVD presents
Hell Up In Harlem (1973)

"Xerox is a very useful weapon."
- Papa Gibbs (Julius W. Harris)

Review By: Dale Dobson   
Published: October 10, 2001

Stars: Fred Williamson
Other Stars: Julius W. Harris, Gloria Hendry, D'Urville Martin, Tony King
Director: Larry Cohen

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: R for (violence, language, brief nudity)
Run Time: 01h:34m:43s
Release Date: October 16, 2001
UPC: 027616867841
Genre: action

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- C-B+C- C+

DVD Review

In the early 1970s, the American movie industry turned out a large number of "black exploitation" pictures, often directed by white filmmakers and populated by stereotypical images of African-Americans. These movies were controversial, and eventually ceased production under fire from the NAACP and society at large, but they provided black audiences with cinematic heroes unseen in most Hollywood pictures prior to that time. Following the success of Black Caesar, released in early 1973, the executives at American International Pictures prevailed upon writer/director Larry Cohen to produce a sequel as quickly as possible. AIP head Samuel Z. Arkoff insisted that the film not be titled Black Caesar II, in order to avoid marketing confusion with the first film. This proved to be a wise decision, as the original was still in release when Hell Up In Harlem arrived, having been written, shot and released before the end of the same year.

Fred Williamson returns as Black Caesar, a.k.a. Tommy Gibbs, a crime lord in possession of damning ledgers listing payouts to corrupt New York City officials. An assassination attempt on Gibbs at the end of Black Caesar leads directly into this sequel, as he escapes from the cops and obtains medical attention with the help of his gun-toting associates. While recuperating, Gibbs recruits his father "Papa" Gibbs (Julius W. Harris) to blackmail District Attorney DiAngelo (Gerald Gordon) into clearing him of all pending charges. DiAngelo's goon officers attempt to throw Papa Gibbs from the roof of a tall building, but he fights back and earns a respected position in the gang. Soon, Tommy's once-respectable Papa is a pimped-out crime lord, running the business with an iron fist while his son recovers. Father-son friction results when Papa has Tommy's love interest from the first film (Gloria Hendry as Helen) murdered, after which Tommy heads to Los Angeles with his new main squeeze Jennifer (Margaret Avery), leaving the Harlem business in Papa's capable hands. Meanwhile, trusted aide Zack (Tony King) schemes to betray the Gibbs family, leading to a climactic, bi-coastal bloodbath.

The rushed nature of this production shows itself at every opportunity. The plot is contrived and convoluted, designed to maximize fistfights and gun battles at the expense of credible motivation and character development. Gunfights are unconvincing, with cap-gun sound effects and awkward squib placement, dialogue is often clumsy, and blood is of the extremely fake "red paint" variety. New York filmmaker Larry Cohen (who would go on to make the classic black comedy/horror films Q and It's Alive!) works effectively within his budget, evoking a gritty urban cityscape and using a handheld camera for many shots, and he directs action sequences fairly effectively. But Cohen's trademark humor only surfaces briefly, most notably during an extended, over-the-top fight between rivals that starts aboard a TWA jet and ends up on a baggage carousel as tourists duck for cover. The performances aren't bad, given the material, and D'Urville Martin (a veteran of the Rudy Ray Moore Dolemite films) contributes an entertaining performance as Reverend Rufus, a street evangelist and con man whose false profession becomes his true calling.

Hell Up In Harlem is in many ways a typical 1970s' black exploitation picture, from the days when a movie was sold by its poster, actual content being almost beside the point. Fred Williamson's Tommy Gibbs is stoic, determined and ruthless in his battles against "the man," and his anti-drug stance is meant to be heroic, his other illegal activities notwithstanding. It's certainly action-packed, but the story meanders from one situation to another with little of substance between the violent set pieces. It's played straight enough to keep it from being a retro-laughfest, but it's not credible enough to be taken seriously. Likely to be of interest primarily to collectors and fans of the genre.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: C-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: MGM continues to bless minor exploitation titles with stellar DVD transfersóHell Up In Harlem is presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen theatrical aspect ratio, with a solid anamorphic transfer. The source print exhibits some grain and minor dirt flecking now and then, and interlaced displays will suffer moire effects in a few scenes. But detail is generally crisp and solid, and colors are strong (especially considering American International Pictures' tendency to "go pink" over time.) I can't imagine this movie looking any better than it does hereóa fine presentation, and far superior to genre titles released by MGM's competitors in this field.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: Hell Up In Harlem retains its original monaural audio, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 format for ProLogic-decoding to the center channel. Most of the audio seems to have been recorded "live" on the set, resulting in some dialogue muddiness and noise, tinny gunshots and subdued explosions. Frequency and dynamic range sound narrow and constricted, though Motown artist Edwin Starr's quintessentially 1970s themes come through clearly enough. It's a very low budget soundtrack, competently transferred to DVD but unlikely to impress. The French dub is entertaining in its own right; street lingo in French always strikes me as funny. Note that the DVD keepcase copy indicates that music has been edited for home video; I didn't notice any obvious or jarring edits, but the soundtrack is NOT exactly as it was in theatres, most likely due to music licensing issues.

Audio Transfer Grade: C-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in French, Spanish with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director/producer/screenwriter Larry Cohen
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: MGM fans the flames of Hell Up In Harlem with 16 picture-menu chapter stops, optional French and Spanish subtitles, and a few standard extras:

Theatrical Trailers:

Two theatrical trailers are included here, both presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen format, though the prints have suffered some dirt and damage over the years. The one-minute trailer, billed as a "teaser," is a tighter edit of the longer two-minute trailer, which includes additional clips from the feature. Both use the same hyperbolic voice-over, including the irresistible tagline, "He may never get to Heaven. But he's gonna raise Hell Up In Harlem!"

Larry Cohen Commentary:

Director/producer/screenwriter Larry Cohen contributes a running commentary about the making of the film. His memories of this sequel's rush to production, the "golden era of Blaxploitation," and the lessons he learned on his early pictures provide plenty of interesting material, and Cohen seems thoroughly to enjoy talking about his movie. He's also honest about his unorthodox working approach and certain interpersonal difficulties encountered during the making of the film. A fun, historically valuable track from a veteran exploitation filmmaker.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

Hell Up In Harlem is standard-issue 1970s' exploitationóchock-full of action, but weak in terms of substance and character. MGM's DVD presents this American International Pictures programmer in fine style, with a great transfer and an entertaining commentary track. Not really recommended, but fans of the genre will find this a worthy release.


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