Junkfood Cinema: Black Shampoo

By  · Published on February 19th, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; now part of the physical education curriculum for the Milwaukee Public School System. Every week I bring you the absolute best of the absolute worst films ever made. I’m what you might call a connoisseur of crap and there is nothing that brings me more joy than an entertaining film made with lacking budgets, less-than-textbook measures of quality, or absent moral reservations. In an effort to infect others with my “taste” in films, I launched this column that has been lowering standards ever since. As if your dwindling IQ weren’t enough of a trophy, each film is perfectly paired with an appropriate food item that promises just as much nurturing value to your body.

As you know, if you are one of the unlucky folks who actually read my column every week, February is Blaxploitation History Month here at Junkfood Cinema. So far we’ve hunted pimps with Truck Turner and endured the pain in the neck that is Blacula. The thing is, despite their innumerable shortcomings, I would still classify both of those as legitimately good films. This uncomfortable proximity to quality has prompted me to swing the pendulum in the other direction. For the remaining two weeks of February, I can assure you that the blaxploitation films under the microscope will never be mistaken for praise-worthy. I won’t divulge the big finale, but this week we are going to dine on the awkward mess that is Black Shampoo.

Black Shampoo is the tale of Mr. Jonathan, the most popular hair stylist in the city. His female clientele always seem to leave his salon refreshed and blissfully happy. Whether this happiness is fostered by his skills with the shears or his enormous…capacity for exemplary service, Mr. Jonathan is always in demand. One day he finds out that his new secretary used to be a call girl in the employ of a gangster named Mr. Wilson; scariest mobster name ever! Mr. Wilson decides he is unhappy with her defection and demands she return to work. Mr. Jonathan refuses to give her up and suffers harassment from the mob at every turn. But the tables soon turn when he gets his hands on Mr. Wilson’s private business ledger; now they want him dead!

What Makes It Bad?

The thing that really strikes me about Black Shampoois that it’s as much sexploitation as it is blaxploitation. Like any signature blaxploitation film, Black Shampoo is essentially a rip-off of another, more Caucasian film: in this case, Shampoo. But I have to believe Black Shampoo was intended to be an adult film version of Shampoo from the purely pornographic approach they take to the sex in the film. This isn’t coming from a place of prudishness; Lord knows I am more than a little hedonistic. But it was a little off-putting that every other scene involved a sexually-frustrated white woman trying to jump Mr. Jonathan. The loose sexual morals divorced from real life and the fetishistic lingering on the nudity made me wonder if this film wasn’t originally intended for an entirely separate 42nd street crowd. I think my favorite scene involved a pair of barely legal sisters who basically molest him until their mother, also hot for Mr. Jonathan, chases them off and then mounts him in front of the girls; making them watch as punishment for their impudence.

The sexuality of the film is doubly disconcerting when one examines John Daniels, the actor who plays Mr. Jonathan. And bear in mind you will have ample opportunity to examine him as he spends a fair amount of the film in various stages of undress. To say Daniels is unconventionally attractive is to say that Boris Karloff was unconventionally attractive. He has a face that appears to be twisted in two separate directions and has a physique rivaled by the dumpy chic of Isaac Hayes in Truck Turner. But still, we are treated to several extended love scenes featuring a nude Daniels lounging on a sofa; often with some of his more pronounced features flopped to one side and in full view. I think the hyper-machismo sexiness is a carry over from the Shampoo rip-off wherein Warren Beaty plays a womanizing hairdresser; a compensation for his working in a field wherein men are typically more feminine. Whatever the reason, Mr. Jonathan is a walking, talking representation of 70’s libido.

It doesn’t help matters that John Daniels is not what I would call…an actor. He’s bad; epically bad. He looks nothing short of perplexed by the simplest conversations with other characters, but that may just be his natural facial expression. He mumbles his way through most of his lines in a way that not even the best of ADR work could have saved. I also love the fact that the film’s budget was so small that the concept of a second take was far too much of a luxury. There are moments wherein Daniels trips over his words, stutters, or otherwise has to repeat his lines. This is quite the hindrance when they are trying to sell him as the smoothest ladies man on the planet. It’s funny because I do like that he treats most of his sexual experiences as obligations; yes sir, you and your wang are so put-upon.

There are more than a couple WTF moments in this, as can be expected from the genre. These are designed to balance out an otherwise pedestrian and stilted plot by giving the audience something to remember; if even in a negative light. The worst has to be the scene with the horribly improper use of hair care appliances. The mob comes looking for Jonathan while he’s in hiding. They interrogate his male stylists in such a way as to be offensive both to homosexuals and anyone who wonders as to the cleanliness of their local salons and the instruments they use. The mobsters take a hot curling iron and proceed to sodomize one of the stylists. Yup, it’s a thing you can’t possibly unsee once it’s seared into your ocular cavities.

There was also the romantic montage of Mr. Jonathan’s date with his secretary that went on for something like eight hours accompanied by a ear-melting song written by a third grade class. Oh, and how can I forget the world’s most delicate room-trashing sequence. In an obvious effort to reclaim their security deposit on the set they rented, the producers apparently instructed the actors playing the gangsters to carefully destroy the salon. So what we get are a series of shots where shelves of plastic bottles are pushed over and easily-replaceable chair segments are gingerly relocated to other parts of the room; all the to sounds of left-over early Disney comedy music. Seriously, I half-expected a cameo from That Darn Cat.

Why I Love It!

Black Shampoo is one of those films that just kind of has to be seen to be believed. It is definitely a film that embodies everything that people think of when they bad-mouth blaxploitation. It suffers all of the faults while contributing little in the way of social commentary. That being said, Black Shampoo never fails to entertain me. There is something so chaotically unceremonious and free about it that I can’t help but love. Like Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite, John Daniels is representative of the archetype blaxploitation anti-hero without himself being a traditional leading man. Funny enough, the racism in Black Shampoo is less about what he says or does as it is how he is perceived by all the white housewives. Mr. Jonathan is not a sex object, but that’s how these women see him and his exasperated approach to sexual conquests is hilarious.

Another WTF moment that makes me absolutely love the film involves a scene at a party. If you watch enough trash cinema then you know that party scenes are often hotbeds of inexplicable behavior; especially from the extras. Black Shampoo has possibly the greatest bad extra acting in the history of film. First let me set the stage, this is a western-style Barbie-Q (to spell it phonetically as per the gay stylists) that is being held somewhere in the middle of absolute nowhere. The party is populated with ballerinas, topless women of varying levels of attractiveness, and crazy homeless people. Before you launch into a chorus of “sounds like my kind of party,” let me emphasize the craziness of these homeless folk. During the serious conversations between Mr. Jonathan and his stylists in the foreground, a particularly brain-fried vagrant starts running around like a toddler flailing his hands in the air and, though it isn’t audible, more than certainly screaming “weeee!”

The best part of Black Shampoo for me is the sudden escalation of violence. A popular convention of blaxploitation is the anti-hero taking on the white mob as an expression of the racial tension and frustration that existed in the 70’s. Black Shampooexplores this theme but in a way that jets up from irritatingly tame to utterly shocking. Throughout the whole film, the most violent situation, apart from the curling iron rape, involves Mr. Jonathan punching a gangster in the face. But, as we move toward the finale, it’s as if the writer realized how tame the struggle had been for the protagonist and amps up the bloodshed tenfold. Suddenly we have chainsaw deaths as well as an idle chainsaw being used to slowly cut into someone’s neck. The big finish is a one-two punch of violence that would later define the slasher genre. A secondary character, thought dead after he was viciously run over by a car, pops up and buries the business end of a hatchet into a gangster’s chest. This is immediately followed by Jonathan impaling the mob boss with a flipping pool cue. Awesome! Take that whitey!

Junkfood Pairing:

An entire salami. I don’t know why, but something about the main character of this film puts the idea of eating a substantial amount of meat into my brain places. Since so much of his personality is defined by his success with women…I don’t know, it makes me hungry for hearty servings of pork. I’m confused, I may have some things to ponder. In the meantime, enjoy this snack that brings a whole new definition to junk-food.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.