Grindhouse and drive-in purveyor Earl Owensby, who made his producing-acting debut with the 1974 one-two punch of a Walking Tall (1973) ripoff called Challenge and its sequel, The Brass Ring, tossed a clergy collar on his ersatz Buford Pusser — and changed his name to the Reverend James Lowery — for this, his third movie: a Death Wish (1974) rip off. Since the film has a priest dolling out the justice, Dark Sunday ends up as a weird, obscure sidebar on many a Christploitation, aka Godsploitation, lists.
Regardless of Dark Sunday ending up on those critical lists, Earl Owensby will always be known best for his fifth film, Buckstone County Prison (1978), a film which crossed the chain-gang classic Cool Hand Luke with the biker-karate-Indian actioner Billy Jack. There’s fourteen more films to chose from Owensby’s vanity-producing resume — of which he acted in eleven. Sure, none of them have a lick of originally between them, but Owensby is always committed to his leading man role and his films are never not entertaining. And, most importantly, they always made bank in the big city, sticky-floored in-doors and backwater drive-ins — Buckstone being the most successful of the bunch.
You need need a ripoff of Burt Reynolds’s Hooper when that’s missing from the rental shelf? Earl’s got one: Death Driver (1977). Smokey and the Bandit rented out? Pick up a copy of Hit the Road Running (1987). Need a wolfman flick? Check out as Earl as the cursed Colin Glasgow in Wolfman (1979; co-starring R.C. Nanney, aka North Carolina-famed disc jockey “Curly Lee,” also of 1979’s Knobby the Belwood Wampus Cat). In the mood for a killer dog flick? Check out Earl as a backwater sheriff fighting off government-bred mutts in Dogs of Hell (1983). Need another Cool Hand Luke rip to fill the void of Clint Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz being rented out? Grab a copy of Chain Gang (1984). Heck, Owensby has done it all: even portraying (a faux) Elvis — with a Roy Orbison vocal assist — in Living Legend: The King of Rock and Roll (1980). Yeah, Earl also jumped on the slasher bandwagons to the lands of Carpenter with Day of Judgement. You need a retro-horror omibus, well, a “3-D” bandwagoner? Earl’s got one: Tales of the Third Dimension in 3-D (and both are also very “Godsploitation” and Christ exploity).
Okay, enough with the Earl Owensby love. Let’s unpack Dark Sunday.
Reverend James Lowery is a skid row reverend helping young junkies to a better life through his homegrown flophouse and rehab center. Needless to say: a cured and Chirst-saved junkie is one less customer for “the Candyman,” a local drug dealer. So ol’ Candy sends his goons after the good minister for cutting in on his action — and they blow away the Reverend’s wife and kids at a riverside picnic. His wife and son, Eric, are dead. His son Jody, survives. And the Rev is left mute with a bullet-shattered voice box.
Let thou the seven seals of revenge be broken.
As with Death Wish (1974), as well as Dirty Harry (1971) and Magnum Force (1973), inspiring the Italian film industry with a series of gritty, brutal revenge films, aka Poliziotteschi, this Jimmy Huston-directed and Early Owensby-produced Bronson-Eastwood amalgamate — due to its way over-the-top violence — actually pinches from the Italian knockoffs. In fact, due to its ultraviolence, the revenge proceedings play as a “white” version of a blaxploitation actioner.
Yeah, sure, while well-shot and edited, everything about this against-the-budgeter from the Owensby House of Flicks is cheap and ripped off from other, better known movies. But Earl Owensby is an engaging, passionate actor on screen and he keeps you watching. And you can’t not stick around to see how much more violent this southern-baked grindhouser can get: for that “NR” rating on the DVD sleeve just ain’t whistlin’ dixie, Cletus.
After four films with Owensby — Dark Sunday being his debut, along with The Brass Ring, Death Driver and Buckstone County Prison — Jimmy Huston went off on his own. As with Owensby, Huston ripped off everyone, as well, starting with the (very) Carpenter-inspired Final Exam (1981), and the ’80s de rigueur vamp-comedy, My Best Friend Is a Vampire (1987). The last time we heard from Huston in the director’s chair was the Lou Diamond Phillips and Judge Reinhold-starrer, The Wharf Rat (1995). His greatest success was writing the Lethal Weapon variant Running Scared (1986) starring Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal.
If you love the grindhouse and drive-in cinema of old, make a point of watching at least one of Earl Owensby’s films in your travels — but more than one, if you can. You can watch Dark Sunday on You Tube. You’ll be glad you did.
You can learn more about the still-active Earl Owensby Studios (James Cameron’s The Abyss was shot there) and purchase Earl’s films direct from the studio’s website. There’s also a nicely written Wikipage on Earl’s accomplishments. In 1997, longtime Owensby associate Noel T. Manning produced a touching, feature-length documentary, Earl Owensby: The Man, the Myth, which is legally available on You Tube via Manning’s personal page.
About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.