If you’re lucky, you will have a “road to Damascus” moment as a cult fan where you realize that a film’s entertainment value matters as much as whether it is objectively “good” or “bad.” For a moment, put aside such issues as whether a film is well-written, slickly made or acted in a convincing manner. Is it engaging from start to finish? Does it consistently surprise you? Is it never boring for a moment? Are there moments where your mind is blown by what you are witnessing on the screen? If the answer to all those questions is “yes” then the movie has tremendous entertainment value and it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad.
That brings us to Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-In-Law. This was Rudy Ray Moore’s third star vehicle and his second film with director Cliff Roquemore, who also wrote the film this time using one of Moore’s comedy album routines as a springboard. What emerged was a curious mixture of comedy, horror and morality play that remains one of the most mind-expanding movie experiences Schlockmania has ever witnessed. It objectively fits the “bad movie” tag but it delivers so much entertainment value it’s unlikely you will care.
Moore toplines as the title character, a professional nightclub comic and freelance kung-fu expert who comes to Los Angeles to perform. Unfortunately, longtime rivals Leroy and Skillet (played by themselves) are opening a club at the same time with mob money and can’t afford the competition… so they have their goons shoot him. Luckily for Petey, the Devil (G. Tito Shaw) happens upon the scene and uses his power to revive him so he can get revenge. The catch is Petey must marry the Devil’s hideously ugly daughter. Petey agrees to this deal and tries to figure how to get his revenge without having to give the Devil his due.
Petey Wheatstraw often gets goofed on by the bad movie cultists for a lot of obvious reasons: the script operates on its own bizarre logic, the performances are frequently outlandish, it tries to deliver elaborate supernatural effects on a five-figure budget and the kung-fu exists at a play-acting level. The combination of an extremely low budget and lack of expertise also leads to weird technical goofs like a band performance scene where the sound editing is so bungled that you either hear only the performer on screen with the rest of the band missing or a see the drummer playing fills that you can’t hear on the soundtrack.
However, if you view Petey Wheatstraw with a focus on its entertainment value, all of the aforementioned issues recede into the distance. This film is wildly entertaining from start to finish: every two minutes, there’s a wild sight gag, dialogue exchange or outlandish bit of plotting. A few examples of the highlights in this movie: Petey being born as an elementary-school age child and mastering kung fu in the first five minutes of the film, a truck full of watermelons exploding, a funeral procession getting machine gunned by hoods, Petey using a cane from the devil to do a series of good deeds, a villain so terrified by Petey’s resurrection that he defecates in his pants, a kung fu battle with the devil’s minions, a Satanic bachelor party with horned demonic prostitutes, etc. Call this movie amateurish if you like it but it’s got a work ethic like few others.
Roquemore throws himself into the direction to live up to his outlandish scenario: he deploys sped-up action, slow motion, zooms, wild montages, lo-fi optical effects and any other thing he can think of to pump up the onscreen action. The visuals are consistently eye-popping, mixing sturdy cinematography from reliable b-movie cinematographer Nicholas Josef Von Sternberg with outrageously colorful decor and costumes dreamt up by Moore’s co-star Jimmy Lynch. The look this triumvirate creates could be described as “pimpadelic/funkadelic live-action cartoon.”
Moore gives an endearingly wild performance to anchor all of Roquemore’s offbeat creative flourishes, a commanding turn that mixes his stand-up comedy skills, a burlesque interpretation of kung fu and the confidence of a ladies’ man. Better yet, he’s got a full roster of “party album” comedians backing him so this is like Moore’s equivalent of the movies Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby made together in the mid-’70s. The reliable Lady Reed is there as well as Lynch, who gets some of the best lines here, and Leroy and Skillet as the wicked/bumbling bad guys. Also of note: Wildman Steve, who gives an amazing monologue on how the way one goes to the bathroom reveals whether they have love or larceny in their heart(!).
In short, Petey Wheatstraw is a guaranteed good time for those tuned into the oddball end of the cult movie spectrum. Like any great “bad movie,” it delivers everything you expect from a good movie: consistent entertainment value, energy, inspiration and a sense that the creators are pouring everything they’ve got into the proceedings to bring a singular vision to life. Once the end credits roll, you won’t be debating the issue of whether it was good or bad. You’ll just be trying to pick up the pieces of your thoroughly blown mind.
Blu-Ray Notes: Vinegar Syndrome resurrected this fave for blu-ray. It has a great-looking 2K transfer derived from the original negative and a variety of supplements, including trailers, a commentary and the third part of the “I, Dolemite” documentary.