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William Marshall as Mamuwalde/Blacula
Vonetta McGee as Luva/Tina
Denise Nicholas as Michelle
Thalmus Rasulala as Dr. Gordon Thomas
Gordon Pinsent as Lt. Jack Peters
*SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM*
William Marshall as Mamuwalde/Blacula
Don Mitchell as Justin
Pam Grier as Lisa
Michael Conrad as Sheriff Dunlop
This review covers the original movie, 'Blacula' (1972) and its sequel, 'Scream Blacula Scream' (1973). Although I'd heard of both of these films when they were out back when I was a mere slip of a girl, I never got around to seeing them at the time. I was vaguely aware that they were of the crop of 'Blaxploitation' films popular in the mid 70s, and assumed that they would be just silly.
Having recently acquired copies of both films and watching them for the first time, I was surprised to find them actually quite good. Yes, there is some silliness involved, but they're not the lurid cheesy comedies I was expecting. They are played relatively seriously, with a good dose of humour thrown in at times, but with surprising poignancy as well, particularly from the lead character.
In 'Blacula', the story begins in Transylvania in 1780 with a visit to Count Dracula's castle by African prince Mamuwalde and his beautiful wife Luva. Prince Mamuwalde meets with Count Dracula to ask his help in ceasing the slave trade, but meets with quite distasteful behaviour from Dracula, who not only disagrees that the slave trade should be abolished, but also tries to hit on Luva. Things don't go so well, and Mamuwalde and Luva prepare to leave. Instead, Dracula kidnaps them and bites Mamuwalde, turning him into a vampire. Drac tucks Mamuwalde up in a coffin and announces, 'I shall place the curse of suffering on you that will doom you to a living hell, a hunger, a wild gnawing animal hunger will grow in you, a hunger for human blood. I curse you with my name. You shall be: BLACULA!" He then walls up Blacula's coffin along with Luva, leaving her to starve to death.
After the credits roll, we find ourselves in the present day. Two young interior decorators have paid a visit to Transylvania and bought a job-lot of musty old antiques from Dracula's castle, including the above-mentioned coffin. Our two young blades have their new goodies shipped home and eagerly begin inspecting. 'Hey, you know that chintzy bed we have in the guest room? What about this instead?' one dude declares, indicating Blacula's resting place. 'A coffin?' his pal says dubiously. 'Oh come on, it'll freak everyone out!' he says with relish. They set to work trying to break the big lock holding the coffin closed.
Finally, success - but, the coffin lid begins opening by itself. Slowly and creakily, Blacula emerges from his torpor, and after two hundred years, he's hungry. After feasting on his two morsels, he has a little nap and then goes out for a walk. He ends up in a nightclub and sees a woman who is the image of his long-lost Luva, at a table with some friends. Intrigued, he befriends them. Meanwhile, the police are baffled by not only the mysterious deaths of the two interior designers, but also that one of their bodies seems to have mysteriously disappeared...
I really enjoyed this film. I found the writing, direction and acting to actually be quite decent. As mentioned earlier, I expected it to be a cheesy, lurid and cheap film but was very pleasantly surprised. Production quality was not at all shabby, the actors were good and the casting of William Marshall as Mamuwalde was an excellent choice. He's an imposing presence, a tall, handsome and suave man with a rich, deep, very well-spoken voice. His background was in Broadway and Shakespeare, and it really shows; his portrayal of Othello was even praised by the Sunday Times (London) as 'The best Othello of our time'. He adds a real touch of class and raises the film to a higher level than if the star had been a more average sort of guy, striking me as a bit reminiscent of Christopher Lee as Dracula.
Cinematography and soundtrack were both good quality with punchy, colourful camerawork and decent music, including a couple of live performances at the nightclub. Special effects are average - basically down to just adding a bit of blood, eye bags and sunken-cheek makeup when a vampire goes into feeding mode. And some good fangs, of course.
All things considered, it was very watchable, held my attention, had some good comedy moments as well as much poignancy - you end up really feeling for Mamuwalde's plight, finding that he is a likeable and noble character. And, his sadness at the loss of his beloved wife and his increasing attachment for her modern-day lookalike, Tina, is really moving.
In 'Scream Blacula Scream', we find Blacula once again revived from torpor, this time via voodoo by a young man who wants to use him to take revenge on some people he feels have double-crossed him. However, that does not go according to plan and the young man is dismayed to become a tasty snack for the freshly-revived Mamuwalde and subsequently turned into a vampire himself. The young vampire runs amok, wreaking havoc, and again, bodies pile up and the police don't know what to make of it all. Meanwhile, Mamuwalde goes on a hunt to try to find his old possessions and to enlist the aid of an attractive voodoo priestess to help free him of his curse.
I found this sequel almost as good the original, a rare phenomenon in movieland. Again, it's atmospheric, nicely photographed and well played, with a good cast. As well as enjoying William Marshall back again as Mamuwalde, an added source of enjoyment for me was Michael Conrad as the police sheriff - if you used to love 'Hill Street Blues' as much as I did, he was the likeable sergeant who used to end his daily pep-talk to the boys in blue with 'Hey, let's be careful out there!' I loved seeing him in this film; he was playing much the same character, but a few years earlier.
All things considered, I recommend these two films as an enjoyable late night's viewing of a couple of good old-school vampire stories (no modern-day twinkling pouting 'vegetarian' vampires here!). As displayed on this page, both films are available on one DVD and I highly recommend getting the double bill - if you like the first one, you'll not be disappointed by its equally watchable sequel.
Also on Ciao as thereddragon.
A review of the Optimum Home Entertainment two-film DVD, currently about £5 on amazon.
Ah, Blaxploitation. Basically, it was exploitation aimed at African Americans. Hollywood had always made movies aimed at black audiences, but they were usually carefully segregated from mainstream flicks. It was only in the early 70s that (white) exploitation producers figured out how much money there was in making cheap genre movies aimed at urban black audiences. The classics are Shaft and Superfly, but there was plenty of blaxploitation horror. Or, to quote The Simpsons: "Next, on Exploitation Theatre... Blacula, followed by Blackenstein, and The Blunchblack of Blotre Blame!"
The most famous blaxsploitation horror was the first, Blacula, made in 1972. An African Prince, Mamuwalde, visits Count Dracula in the late 18th century to try and persuade him to abolish slavery (a pretty mind-boggling story idea). Drac puts the bite on Mamuwalde, turning him into a vampire ('Blacula', if you hadn't guessed) and imprisoning him in a coffin for 200 years. Dracula's possessions are acquired by a couple of gay antique dealers, and Blacula finds himself awakened in 70s New York. Soon the city is crawling with ethnic vampires. As is so often the case in these things, Blacula discovers the reincarnation of his long-dead wife and tries to persuade her to join him in undead bliss.
It's an odd film, having a curiously old-fashioned plot considering it's part of a genre that's all about modernity - the urban bustle of New York, land of funk and subways, is hardly used at all. Mamuwalde seems unphased by things like cars and electricity, and seems to understand photography suspiciously well (but then he does seem to be wearing a modern shirt and cufflinks in the 18th century scenes). The 'aristocratic vampire trying to find his lost love' plot seems a bit quaint, and the world he moves in is oddly genteel for blaxsploitation (there isn't a pimp or drug dealer in sight).
This isn't very well directed. The sound is amateurish in places, almost drowned by echo (I don't think that's just the DVD). The editing is also terrible, lacking any sense of dynamism (the bit where the vampire is hit by a car is especially poor). Even the music is only mildly funky - no Curtis Mayfield or Isaac Hayes grooves here. There's no scary stuff, and it's crazily bloodless for a vampire movie. The only remotely gruesome bit comes right at the end. It's also oddly sexless, with the vampirism not being even remotely erotic - Blacula bites as many men as women.
A lot of the acting is apathetic, with visibly bored performances. Happily, William Marshall is very much the exception as Blacula. He's a classical actor with a voice rather like James Earl Jones's, and gives a stately, rather hammy performance which has enough of a twinkle in its eye to be thoroughly enjoyable. Imagine an English vampire movie set in Swinging Soho with Donald Sinden as Dracula, and you've got the essence of Marshall's performance here. Thalmus Rasulala, as the film's equivalent of van Helsing, is also very likeable. It's really the supporting cast that lets it down, only one of whom was someone I recognise (perennial bit-part actor Elisha Cook).
It's all a bit daft, with a crazy animated credits sequence and some extremely silly facial hair for the vampires (Blacula himself sweats an awful lot). There's a delightful nightclub scene featuring some of the worst dancing you'll ever see. There are a few hints at politics, with mentions of slavery and the Black Panthers, and Blacula's release from 200 years of imprisonment is doubtless symbolic of something. But unfortunately it lets itself down on the right-on front with its awful stereotype limp-wristed gay characters (one of whom, admittedly, sports an incredible afro).
Ultimately, though, it's a bit too ordinary. It's not camp enough to be funny and not good enough to work by itself as horror. It's kind of loveable, if only for its title, but it's a disappointing film.
Still, it spawned a sequel. Scream Blacula Scream was made in 1973, and is a bit better than the first one. This time Mamuwalde is trying to get a voodoo priestess to exorcise his vampirism. It's effectively a replay of the first film, with the same police investigation sub-plot and even replays of certain scenes.
Only Marshall returns, splendid as ever as Mamuwalde (and now his voice sounds more like Christopher Lee than James Earl Jones). The rest of the cast this time are a bit more animated, especially Richard Lawson as a vain voodoo wannabe who finds himself under Blacula's spell. Don Mitchell plays the 'explaining things and sorting it all out' character, and a very young Pam Grier is the voodoo priestess, unfortunately a bit of a nothing part.
This is more entertaining than the first one. The music is better, featuring lots of voodoo-style drums. It's scarier, with a couple of good moments that made me jump. And it's a lot funnier. The dialogue is a lot sillier ('I don't mind being a vampire and all that shit, but this is seriously unhip!'), and we finally get the obvious scene in which Blacula is accosted by pimps (who call him a 'jive sucker') and he gets to whup their asses good. Both films feature some seriously ludicrous outfits, gigantic collars being very much the order of the day, but this second film goes to far dafter fashion lengths.
But unfortunately it's still ultimately overlong and a bit dull. There's no serious bloodletting, no sex, no gore, and no sense that anything at all is really at stake, so to speak. This is only a marginal improvement on the first film, and great though Marshall is, it's easy to see why there was no third Blacula outing.
The picture quality on the DVD isn't bad. No extras apart from trailers, and the misleading blurb on the box manages to get the lead actor's name wrong. These are far from essential viewing, and best regarded as curios.