Anyone who has ever been married knows that In-laws, even the kindest ones, are no joke. Now, just imagine if the father of your betrothed is the Devil himself. This is the predicament in which Rudy Ray Moore's Petey Wheatstraw found himself in Moore's follow-up to The Human Tornado, and the film proved to be a turning point in his career as a performer.
Moore returned to the big screen two years after The Human Tornado with another one of his stage characters in Petey Wheatstraw. Petey is another touring comedian, just like Dolemite in Moore's earlier films, who is rolling into a new town with his crew to set up shop for a standing gig. Little does he know that a pair of busted comedians, played by Moore's pals Leroy & Skillet, have also booked a string of dates around the same time. When Wheatstraw's massive popularity threatens to cost Leroy & Skillet their audience - and their lives if they can't repay the debt they owe to secure their bookings with a local Caucasian hoodlum - they decide to secure their investment by wiping out Wheatstraw and his companions in a drive-by shootout.
Luckily for Petey, the Devil happens to be nearby and snatches up his soul just before it's too late. Old Nick offers Petey a deal: he'll give Petey and his friends and family their lives back and give him the ability to take revenge on those who did him wrong, if Petey will promise to marry the Devil's daughter. At this point Wheatstraw is game for any plan that will get him back on his feet and he accepts the deal. The Devil hands Petey his all-powerful walking cane that imbues the carrier with all of the Devil's powers, and Petey gets down to business. However, when it's time to repay his debt to The Devil, Petey balks after seeing his betrothed and then it becomes all out war as he fights the Devil off to secure his own life and avoid this damned wedding.
Rudy Ray Moore's films aren't exactly known for their gritty depiction of ghetto life. In fact, Moore's films are probably the most escapist of the blaxploitation age. The two Dolemite films that preceded Petey Wheatstraw are fantasy action features, with The Human Tornado going particularly off the rails of sanity. With Petey Wheatstraw, Moore employed The Human Tornado director Cliff Roquemore to both write and direct, and the result is strangely one of the best composed of Moore's career. Yes, there are numerous scenes of Petey and the Devil conversing in a no-budget recreation of Hell, and there are hilariously overboard scenes of kung fu action between Petey and various imps and hoodlums, but it's also more subdued than The Human Tornado.
None of Moore's films had any particular moral stance to defend up until Petey Wheatstraw, and this film doesn't exactly break that streak. However, Roquemore takes great pains to place the fanciful action within a fairly recognizable facsimile of urban life in the late '70s. The result is a strangely emotionally resonant film that just happens to have a paunchy Moore fighting off a dozen leotarded devil imps inside of a night club. It's really something special.
If one word could be used to decribe the films of Rudy Ray Moore, you could do a lot worse than "idiosyncratic." It certainly takes a particular temperment and appreciation of trash cinema to truly engage with Moore's films on anything more than a surface level, but those who allow themselves to connect emotionally to the work might find more than they'd bargained for.
Vinegar Syndrome does it again with their new 2K scan of Petey Wheatstraw. This is probably my least seen of Moore's films, but even that distinction still puts it around the half-dozen mark, and I've never seen it looking anywhere near this good. The film holds up better than The Human Tornado in terms of suffering from less print damage, and the colors and sharpness are definitely beyond what I could've expected.
The multi-part documenty I, Dolemite enters its third part on the Blu-ray for Petey Wheatstraw. In this section we are given further background on the experience of Moore and Roquemore's working relationship from many of the same talking heads that we saw in the feature from The Human Tornado. What is interesting is that we get further interviews with Cliff Roquemore's sons, who both feature in Petey Wheatstraw, so they are able to bring a bit more insight to this disc than the last.
The disc also features a commentary track from Moore biographer Mark Jason Murray and all-around Moore associate Jimmy Lynch along with excerpts from Moore himself. Finally, there is some wonderful archival footage of Rudy Ray Moore giving a location tour of the many settings from all of his features, including this film, The Human Tornado, and Vinegar Syndrome's next feature, Disco Godfather.
I was a goner for this disc before it even arrived, but Vinegar Syndrome's new restoration and context packed presentation make it even better than I could've hoped. Cult film fans need to own Petey Wheatstraw on Blu-ray; it's a definite winner.