Lash LaRue and The Dark Power

*contains spoilers

Lash LaRue (1916/17- 1996 emphysema) was the man who taught Harrison Ford (1942-) how to use his whip for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

The Dark Power DVD cover

He was a B-grade cowboy star of the late forties and early fifties who never rose to the heights of Gene Autry (1907-1998 lymphoma) and Roy Rogers (1911-1998 congestive heart failure) but is remembered along with countless other lesser known cowboy actors of the period which, I’m sure, true fans of the genre could reel off.

He also loved booze (a life-long addiction), women (an unconfirmed ten marriages) and even liked a joint (he was arrested in 1975 for possession). Found along with the dope in his car during the bust was one of his famous bullwhips. The charges were dropped on a technicality.

His marriages were stormy and he was arrested for among other things public drunkenness and stealing sowing machines from a car where his Wild West show was appearing. He was obviously short of money for much of his life.

Lash LaRue in Hard on the Trail (1972)

In his latter days, LaRue was also a born-again Christian, who reportedly became a missionary for ten years in the early 70s after appearing accidentally in a hardcore porn western Hard on the Trail (1972). Sex scenes were inserted into the narrative without LaRue’s knowledge.

Kids who were the main audience of his movies in the early 50s will remember him as the hero/antihero dressed in black with a black hat, who could sure as hell use a bullwhip. Johnny Cash was almost certainly inspired!

LaRue’s movie career started at Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC 1939-46) the “poverty row” studio with the worst reputation for quality.

One of his first roles was as the Cheyenne Kid in Song of Old Wyoming (1945) with singing cowboy Eddie Dean (1907-99 emphysema). It was one of the first color musical westerns as PRC splashed out on the cheaper Cinecolor process.

Frontier Revenge (1948) trailer

We’re getting to The Dark Power eventually folks!

His career peak in the early fifties developed with a series of competently made, if not very inspired, movies, which fell into two series. The first eight films featured LaRue and comic sidekick Al “Fuzzy” St. John (1892-1963 heart attack) and in the second LaRue played Marshall Lash LaRue in nearly a dozen more.

It was those later movies, which he followed up with personal appearances in small towns where he thrilled audiences with the bullwhip skills for which he is most fondly remembered.

LaRue uses his whip

His original bullwhip was allegedly several meters in length, which he used to bring down the bad guys in his movies, while at public appearances he would use it to rip paper from people’s mouths as they stood some distance away.

LaRue only picked up the whip when he was first asked to appear in a couple of films and had no previous experience. He didn’t have a clue and cut shreds off himself in a frenzy to learn. It wasn’t until PRC ordered lessons, that he became proficient. The producers forked out only after they were impressed by his acting and thought they might have a star on their hands that they forked out.

Sadly, the movies, which were fodder in the day, don’t really pass muster today although King of the Bullwhip is probably worth a look just to get an idea of LaRue in his heyday.

The movie, which I will always remember Lash LaRue for, is the North Carolina filmed 1985 horror, written and directed by Phil Smoot entitled The Dark Power.

When I first saw the film on DVD – I knew it was something special!

An older Lash LaRue

LaRue was Smoot’s childhood favorite and as a local film graduate. The writer/director wanted to help him by casting him in a film with hopes of resurrecting his career and maybe even qualifying LaRue for an actor’s pension. Apparently you need ten years of solid work to get one and LaRue had eight. And with Lash having apparently having beaten the bottle by this time…

The Dark Power is set In a small town in “southeastern United States” and revolves around the legend of the Toltecs – ancient bad guys from before the time of the Aztecs.

The Toltecs did exist and they worshipped a feathered serpent along with the Aztecs and others in the Americas. Such a creature is immortalized in the movies The Flying Serpent (1946) with George Zucco (1886-1960 dementia and pneumonia) and Q: The Winged Serpent. But it is the Toltecs themselves who are evil in this movie.

By the time of The Dark Power LaRue was in his late 60s.

The film opens as he suddenly appears from nowhere with his whip and saves a boy being chased by a pack of marauding (and well-trained and groomed) wild dogs!

Lash LaRue at his peak

Next there’s the seed of reality television as a television reporter named Mary films an assignment about “living wills”. Unfortunately, an aged Indian medicine man giving the living will testament dies on camera uttering: “Toltec”. Oops can’t use that take – not even on the late show!

As it turns out, the old Indian’s isolated house, where he died, is the centre or a “hot spot” for evil Toltec activity.

The Indian, who was a good friend of Ranger Girard (our hero Lash), kept in his closet such relics as a mini ornamental skull with an eagle on top of it.

When asked what the skull represents, Lash says: “The Dark Power”. Why is the eagle on top of the skull?: “To control the Dark Power”. And Lash is an Eagle cum Scout cum ranger for the local area!

As the film progresses, we are introduced to a bunch of girls, friends of Mary the reporter, who are going to rent the old Indian’s place and use it as a share-house.

From there we are treated to semi-nude bath and shower scenes, a teeth flossing scene (apparently a first like the toilet flushing in Psycho, 1960) and a racist female character who goes to church.

Upon being interviewed by Mary, Lash tells of old Indian lore and how there is a legend about four sorcerers, “tall, powerful demonic men”, who follow “the god of the nocturnal skies who symbolises the destructive symbols of the universe – The Dark Power”.

The Dark Power (1985) trailer

Lash and his Indian friend obviously discussed a lot over the years. Whether it was over beers or toking on a peace pipe I don’t know.

So that’s the set-up as the evil sorcerers are going to rise from the power “hot spots” where they are apparently buried alive and wreak havoc among members of the share-house!

The Dark Power definitely doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is obvious when the Toltecs first appear, as each with a distinct look and personality, and become comical at times. They are also, in a key scene, fascinated by television.

The language and gore isn’t terribly gratuitous even by 80s standards although there is a scene where a guy’s face gets ripped off. And LaRue as the real star turns up at the end of course with his whip to teach the Toltec sorcerers a lesson. Don’t mess with the Lash! Even if it means taking off a bad guy’s head with one crack of the whip! Chuckle.

As is typical of B-movies and Z-movies with one “star” actor – you put them in the opening scene, again in the middle and then in the end scene. Pad out the rest and, voila, a movie. A good case in point in how to make a movie with next to no money is Fred Olen Ray’s (1954-) Alien Dead (1980), which used Buster Crabbe (1908-83 heart attack) of the Flash Gordon serials (1936,38,40) as its star. There this formula is used down to the letter and for its budget it is quite an achievement.

The Alien Dead (1980) trailer

Like LaRue’s B-grade low-budget matinee features, this is “cheesy” fun but lovers of this genre already know what to expect.

The Dark Power has a companion piece, Smoot’s Alien Outlaw (1985), which was filmed shortly afterwards with Lash sans whip and again one of the heroes.

This one concerns a one-woman travelling Wild West sharp-shooting show, alien bad guys with Magnum hand-guns on the rampage and aging B-movie western stars of LaRue’s ilk, Sunset Carson (1920-90 undisclosed) and Wild Bill Cody Jr (1925-89 suicide, depressed over wife’s death) in bit parts.

This ultra-low-budget sci-fi is really an homage to the matinee western, as there’s a horse to the rescue and the sharp-shooting woman is named Jesse Jameson.

This film comes down to the last bullet as all good westerns do and some think the basic storyline was used for the alien hunter movie Predator (1987) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (1947-). That film was successful enough to spawn a franchise.

The Dark Power and Alien Outlaw were obviously labors of love for Smoot – and it shows.

Alien Outlaw (1985) trailer

Before the final fadeout of The Dark Power, Lash says to his dead friend: “The afternoon and evening of my life is yet to be lived…Stay with me my brother”.

It’s a poignant moment of refection for Lash. His rollercoaster life, which included a suicide attempt in 1958, had reached some semblance of inner peace.

While the films never revived the long-faded career of The King of the Bullwhip, it may have got the father of five what he really needed at that time – a pension and financial peace of mind.

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