HELL UP IN HARLEM (1973) Blu-ray
Director: Larry Cohen
Olive Films

Producer/director/writer Larry Cohen's BLACK CAESAR was a big hit for AIP, so the studio requested an immediate sequel. Made and released the same year as its predecessor, HELL UP IN HARLEM brings back the character of Tommy Gibbs, the "Godfather of Harlem," played by the charismatic Fred Williamson. In the American release of BLACK CAESAR, Gibbs dies at the end after being shot and then assaulted by a young gang. Gibbs lives only in the home video version and the foreign theatrical version, so it must have been a little perplexing to American theater audiences to see him back. But he was back, and although the plot is muddled and confused, the film never fails to entertain with its nonstop action and relentless violence.

Anyway, logic is thrown out the window as Gibbs' papa (Julius Harris, the hook-armed villain from LIVE AND LET DIE) gets his son's gang to frantically storm a hospital and force them to tend to the badly injured gangster. Papa Gibbs also obtains the book of ledgers containing a list of corrupt officials (a carry-over plot device from the previous film). Also back in smaller roles are Gloria Hendry (BLACK BELT JONES) as Helen who is completely neglected by Gibbs for betraying him (she's now a hooker), and D'Urville Martin (FIVE ON THE BLACK HAND SIDE) as the pint-sized pimp turned Reverend, Rufus. Formerly a modest cook, Papa Gibbs now gets heavily involved with his son's affairs and quickly turns into a pimp-suited heavy with his own theme song ("Big Papa") and controls things while Tommy takes off for Los Angeles. Zach (Tony King, GORDON’S WAR), one of Gibbs' clan, becomes more hungry for power, killing his old man in a street fight. Gibbs then slowly make his way back into New York and wages a one-man war against Zach, an unethical D.A. (Gerald Gordon, ANTS!), and all his other enemies.

In the first film, Gibbs had a limp caused by a traumatic childhood experience. We now forget about that, as he's running like a maniac, chasing Zach from a New York airport to one in LA (on separate flights!), arriving just in time to wup his ass on the luggage conveyer belt. He also climbs the Sony Tower in Times Square to be a sniper, stabs a Coney Island beachgoer with an umbrella (complete with animated blood!), and shoots a guy with a pistol concealed by a paper bag, leaving the poor bastard on his back with a frankfurter sticking out of his mouth! So HELL UP IN HARLEM may not live up to the previous film, but it’s constant shoot-outs, outrageous death scenes, overall energy and jaw-dropping guerilla style of filmmaking put this one well over the top. With a terrific score by Fonce Mizell, the funky, soulful soundtrack tunes were performed by Motown artist Edwin Starr (best known for the top-ten hits “War” and “Twenty-Five Miles”). Starr was a good choice, but it’s nowhere near as memorable as what James Brown did for BLACK CAESAR (Brown actually recorded an entire score for this film, but it was rejected by AIP. Learn more about that in the commentary included here).

MGM previously released the Sam Arkoff-presented HELL UP IN HARLEM on DVD as part of its now-dormant "Soul Cinema Collection" and now Olive Films has licensed their HD transfer for this Blu-ray. The film has been presented in 1080p HD in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and looks quite nice here. Colors are well saturated, detail is exceptional and grain is filmic and heavier during nighttime scenes. Flesh tones appear realistic and textures are also solid, with the overall image being clean and free of any noticeable blemishes. An English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. track is included, and it’s a well-balanced mix even if one or two scenes sound a tad low due to the original recording, but it’s hardly worth mentioning. Optional English SDH subtitles are provided (the packaging claims that the music has been edited for home video, but the original score is in tact).

As Olive Films’ recent Blu-ray release of BLACK CAESAR didn’t carry over Larry Cohen’s commentary from the previous MGM DVD, it’s a nice surprise to find a newly-recorded commentary with Cohen here, moderated by Steve Mitchell, director of the documentary KING COHEN: THE WILD WORLD OF FILMMAKER LARRY COHEN. Cohen has a natural zest for this kind of thing, and he provides a solid, well-detailed overview of the production, and Mitchell asks all the right questions: this is a great commentary that never runs out of energy. It starts with his revealing how he hired some local Harlem gangster-types to play gang members, and that Fred was filming THAT MAN BOLT for Universal on the East Coast at the same time (Cohen was filming IT'S ALIVE for Warner at the same time as well). There's also tons of behind-the-scene tidbits about how he shot most of the film on various locations without getting permits, and that there was a lot of ad-libbing and making things up as they went along to get it done quickly! Nobody does guerrilla filming better than Larry, and it's a joy to hear about it. The original theatrical trailer (narrated by Adolph Caesar) is also included. (George R. Reis)