Monday, September 18, 2017

B-Movie Review: 'Poor Devil' (1973)

In the early 1970s, Sammy Davis, Jr. starred in a TV movie in which he played one of Satan's flunkies. Despite Adam West and Christopher Lee getting involved, I assure you ... it sucks something terrible

By: Jimbo X

There are exactly three things I know about Sammy Davis, Jr. One, he used to hang out with Frank Sinatra and them back in the day. Second, he had a wonky ass glass eye (the result of a nearly fatal car accident, if you're wonderin.) And thirdly, he worshiped the devil.

I don't know what Sammy Davis, Jr. did in the Church of Satan. Apparently, it didn't last long, because shortly thereafter he converted to Judaism. But for a time, at least, he was a bona fide acolyte of Anton LaVey (whose daughter, I might add, looks JUST like Taylor Swift.) 

Of course, most people have no idea what Satanists were really up to back in the day. You always hear urban legends about them murdering babies in the woods and having blood orgies underneath Chuck E. Cheese's, but from what I've gathered, the classical LaVeyian Satanists were by and large just a bunch of Ayn Rand fans that wanted to make a parody of Catholic doctrine and have key parties on the weekend. Indeed, the bulk of The Satanic Bible is just ripped-off portions of Might is Right, only with all the racist and misogynist stuff subbed out with metaphysical crap about Old Scratch. So outside of dressing in black and burning candles and talking about how dumb the Pope is, I'm pretty sure Sammy Davis and Jayne Mansfield and all the rest of those Hollywood devil worshipers didn't do much of anything at their black masses besides gossip and try to get laid. 

But that's not to say their stints in the Church of Satan didn't influence their work. Take, for example, 1973's Poor Devil, a made-for-TV movie starring Sammy Davis as one of Lucifer's minions. Now, depending on who you ask, Sammy either made the movie right after joining LaVey's clan, or LaVey recruited him to the Church after watching it, so really, it's anybody's guess as to which came first. What we do know, however, is that Sammy intended the TV movie to be a pilot for a full-fledged sitcom, which basically would've been the exact same thing as I Dream of Jeannie except instead of having a magical white woman, you had a magical negro man who was also Satan's pawn. Considering the thing came out just a few months before The Exorcist - not to mention there were some pretty big names involved in the project - it's a bit surprising none of the networks gave the TV show the green light. Well, except for one teeny, tiny little problem with the TV movie/pilot ... the fact that it was boring ass bullshit. 

But hey, that's just my opinion. How about we rewatch this beat to shit VHS copy of the TV special and you can decide for yourself whether or not it's worth a hooey?

Alright, so we get a zoom-in shot of San Fran to begin, with jazzy, upbeat Calypso music playing in the background. We watch this guy in a car watch people walk out of a building. He pulls into a dark alley and grabs a pair of gloves and a grappling hook(?!?) out of his trunk. He tries to throw it atop a building, but the hook falls down and smashes the back windshield of his own ride. He does it again, and the shot turns into a TV screen and we cut to a bunch of black chicks in red dresses wearing pentagram necklaces walking around "hell" - which, apparently, is an airport-like mega-bureaucracy, complete with preposterously long queues.

There, we meet Sammy, playing a character named - get this - Sammy. He's dumping coal into a furnace, and all of a sudden he throws up the devil horns heavy metal gesture and our opening credits doth scroll. Needless to say, we've got one hell (bwa-ha-ha) of a cast in this one, including Jack Klugman as the grappling hook guy, Christopher Lee as Satan himself and none other than ADAM WEST as the asshole boss of the aforementioned grappling hook guy. But yeah - we'll (inverted) cross that bridge when we get there. 

So back to Sammy watching the burglar break into the building. Sammy deduces the guy is desperate, which makes him an excellent candidate for the old Faustian bargain. En route to Satan's office Sammy encounters Mr. Bly, who hates Sammy's guts for its centuries of ineptness (which includes letting the pilgrims make it to Plymouth Rock.) So, he finally enters Lucifer's office (the flames, obviously, are greenscreened in) and EVERYTHING looks like it could be on loan from an early '70s porno.

So everybody watches the shitty burglar on a TV screen. He pulls out a stick of dynamite (well, technically, it's a bundle of dynamite, so you could rightly call it an explosive fagot and be 100 percent linguistically accurate) and tries to blow up the safe, but apparently he forgot the matches (just like Sammy did at the Great Chicago Fire, per Satan.) Eventually he does manage to light the cord, but pangs of guilt force him to stamp out the fire at the very last second. The night watchman catches him but realizes he's just a regular employee and don't think nothing of it. The dude has worked their for 25 years as a junior accountant, and he's pissed because he didn't get a promotion or a gold watch. "Hell hath no better prospect than a good man scorned," Lucifer remarks.

Well - I suppose that would be my reaction, too, if I woke up and some black dude with a glass eye was laying beside me in bed.

So the guy returns home and his wife tells him to not be such a moody little bitch, and Satan agrees to give Sammy the soul-stealing job. Sure enough, the one dude says he'd sell his soul to get revenge on his employer, and Sammy suddenly shows up in bed with our irked bookkeeper (his name is Burnett "Bernie" Emerson, if you're wondering.) They iron out the contractual agreement ("We have some of the best lawyers in the world down there," Sammy states) and Bernie is so amused by his teleportation abilities that he makes him keep appearing and disappearing using the aforementioned "devil horns" salute. Alas, Sammy can't convince Bernie to fork over the rights to his soul, and Satan gives a monologue about how hard it was to trick Adam. NOTE: This shit goes on for about ten whole minutes.

Sammy and Bernie are still whispering about the plan in bed and they finally decide to go to the living room to hash out the fine details. "I don't want to go to Hell," Bernie says, "I've never even been to Europe." Sammy tries to convince him Hell is actually quite livable, comparing it to a less humid version of Miami. But he still can't seal the deal. The next day Bernie goes to see his boss and he's played by ADAM WEST. Adam says he wants the company to do gangbusters sales on Dec. 24 and he forces Bernie to work mad overtime that evening. Then Sammy tells him if he sells his soul right then and there, he can buy his wife all kinds of neat stuff, like fine furs and, uh, a dishwasher. So Bernie finally agrees to sell his soul, but right before he inks up the contract he walks in on his wife swapping spit with his boss! He then says he's off to go kill himself, and we cut back to the living room scene where we learn Adam West FORCED a kiss on his wife. You see, she wanted him to come over so she could ask him why he didn't give her husband a promotion, and he made him work late because he thought they want to fuck all night. So yeah - it's your usual, run-of-the-mill misunderstanding that also kinda'-sorta' implies attempted rape.

Meanwhile, Bernie makes good on his suicidal promises and lies down on a cable car track (you know, it being San Fran and all.) Eventually, Sammy convinces him to sign the contract, but what do you know, he doesn't have a pen on his person so he has to teleport to hell and get one. He carefully explains that if the deal doesn't get Bernie EXACTLY what he asks for, he automatically gets his soul back. The two come to a mutual agreement, and the soul finally gets sold

So Bernie goes home and tells Sammy about his plan for revenge. "We rob the store," he says, "I want to steal every item from all four floors." To which Sammy replies: "I've signed a nut." You see, the problem is the devil won't give Sammy THAT much power, so he rounds up a whole bunch of famous rogues (Blackbeard the Pirate, Bonnie and Clyde, Al Capone, etc.) for a boardroom meeting in Hell and beseeches 'em for some advice. "I never thought the advice they would give me is so outdated," Sammy bemoans after Bonnie starts reading a poem for no real apparent reason and goofy music totally obfuscates the soundtrack.

So Sammy FINALLY comes up with an idea to get all the people in San Fran who've already sold their soul to Satan to help loot the store (the horde includes a lot of politicians, obviously.) There, Bernie runs into his father-in-law and realizes that's how he gets a new car every year. They all stuff the merchandise into a helicopter, which keeps flying BACK AND FORTH to Alcatrazz to drop off the stolen goods. Now, as to why nobody notices this, of course, is never explained, but it probably has something to do with dark magic hypnosis or blah blah blah

Of course, Bernie starts having second thoughts right before all of the merchandise is stowed away. He realizes if there's no inventory, everybody will get laid off, so he orders Sammy to put all of the goods BACK into the store. Adam West goes to a police station and says his store has been robbed, but Sammy gets his troops to successfully return all the goods before daybreak. So when Adam finally gets the police to come to the store, all of the merchandise is back where it belongs and the cops all think he's drunk as a skunk. 

In the next scene Bernie goes to the annual Christmas party and they throw him a surprise 25th anniversary bash and give him a gold watch, plus a placard on his door. Then his wife explains what REALLY happened when she smooched Adam West, and then Sammy tells him his wife CAN'T go to hell with him when the contract expires (read: when he fucking dies.) Alas, Sammy realizes he didn't put Bernie's new watch back, so technically it's a breach of contract and Bern's a free man.

Lucifer shows up, but Bernie can't see him. So Bern just keeps talking to an empty chair while Lucifer chews Sammy out for screwing up the deal, so yep, he has to go back to shoveling coal in the 8,000 degree Fahrenheit furnaces for another 700 years. Some wacky music plays, we fade to the end credit and that's all she wrote, my niggas.

Ahem - I think it's safe to say to hell with this shitty movie, am I right? You know, because the characters are in hell and stuff?

Well, let me put it as delicately as I can - that movie sucked a huge horse dick.

Let's not act like the whole Faustian bargain gimmick doesn't have some potential as a comedic plot device. I mean, we all remember Bedazzzled being a pretty good take on the material, but then again that movie also had Elizabeth Hurley wearing tight red leather and smoking cigarettes and just generally acting like a big ol' slut, so even if it wasn't funny we still had an excuse to keep watching it (preferably, without our pants on.) But Poor Devil just doesn't work at all. Sammy's hammy camera mugging doesn't come off as endearing, charming or even remotely funny, and Christopher Lee just goes through the motions like he don't even give a fuck. Even Adam West - who certainly needed the money, this being the post-Batman 1970s and all - turns in a halfhearted, relatively emotionless performance. Nobody really looks like they want to be in the movie, and nobody in the movie really feels like they're giving it 100 percent, neither. Like the XFL, this was just a bad idea from conception to finish line, and I'm pretty sure everybody involved with it would love to scrub it from their resume. 

Not that you care, but the flick was directed by a guy named Robert Scheerer, who would later go on to direct a whole bunch of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes and co-written by Earl Barrett, Arne Sultan and Richard Baer. And of those three, the only one that's really important is Baer, since which TV show is he most famous for writing? That's right, I Dream of Jeannie, which is pretty much the exact same story as Poor Devil except you really can't jerk to it, unless you really have a thing for glass-eyed Satanists of Color. 

Needless to say, the TV movie never get expanded into a full-fledged television program, and I think it's a pretty safe bet to say we didn't miss much from it never becoming a regular series. Like oil shortages and "Disco Duck," this is just one of those things that belongs in the 1970s ... and tis a pity it didn't have the good sense to just stay there.


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