Saturday, March 20, 2021

Movie Reviews: Scream Blacula Scream

Scream Blacula Scream
directed by Bob Kelljan
Hollywood occasionally notices that Black audiences exist and would like to watch films in which Black actors/actresses are not always the chaste best friend, comic relief, incompetent bad guy, or useless "red shirts" who die to demonstrate the danger for the (usually white) hero/heroine. 
The late sixties and early seventies were one of those times. Scream Blacula Scream was created during that period. 
Scream Blacula Scream was a sequel to the original, equally unimaginatively titled Blacula. Despite the name, however, neither the original nor the sequel were bland mishmashes of Stoker's Dracula. In the original film--although the time period is off by about three hundred years--- Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall), leader of the African Abani people, travels to Europe to seek support for ending the African slave trade. 
Mamuwalde asks the help of Count Dracula. Unfortunately Dracula is a racist who supports the slave trade. Dracula finds it ludicrous and offensive that any African could call himself a prince. 
Dracula turns Mamuwalde into a vampire and imprisons him, telling him his new name is Blacula. In the seventies, Blacula's sealed coffin is transferred to Los Angeles where the revived Blacula turns people into vampires while searching for the reincarnation of his long lost love.  This film starts shortly after the first film's events. A religious leader/voodoo Queen is near death. She transfers leadership to her adopted daughter Lisa (Pam Grier) instead of her biological son Willis (Richard Lawson).
Willis is a nitwit with impulse control issues. Rather than accept his late mother's choice and reflect on his shortcomings, Willis decides to revenge himself upon his sister by using voodoo. Willis buys Blacula's bones and resurrects the vampire, intending to use him as an undead hitman to eliminate Lisa and any other opposition.
Unfortunately for Willis, his kung-fu is weak. Or rather his voodoo is weak, just as his mother suspected. The revived Blacula bats aside Willis' feeble attempts to control him and instead turns both Willis and his girlfriend into vampires under his domination. Curious about Lisa, Blacula seeks her out. Blacula is impressed with Lisa's grasp of voodoo. Blacula is less happy to learn that Lisa has a boyfriend, Justin (Don Mitchell), who is an ex-cop and budding African art expert and archaeologist. 
Blacula hates what he is; he tries to limit his violence and bloodlust to those he thinks deserve it. However the bloodlust always wins out. Blacula thinks that Lisa might be key to a solution. Justin is intrigued by Blacula's expert knowledge of African artwork and artifacts and a little worried about this tall stranger making goo-goo eyes at his woman. Justin has noticed the uptick in people found drained of blood. Justin has shared his ideas about the deaths with his genially bigoted former police supervisor, Lieutenant Dunlop (Michael Conrad--later to find fame in Hill Street Blues as Sgt. Esterhaus "Let's be careful out there".)

Despite the looser conventions of the early seventies and the cleavage fest then going on at horror titan Hammer Studios, Scream Blacula Scream didn't exploit the most noticeable attributes of its actresses. When Pam Grier and Barbara Rhoades are in a low budget film, one might expect some revealing costumes. But here, whether from contract restrictions, actress decisions, or writer/directorial choice, both actresses are covered up. This movie could have been made in the fifties as far as that aspect goes. 
William Marshall was a classically trained stage actor who stood an imposing 6'5" and spoke in a rumbling bass voice. Everything about him said MAN. Marshall was a bad fit for the submissive or cartoonish roles available for most Black male actors during much of his career. Here, Marshall dominates the screen and the story. Nobody else can really hang with him which is a pity because when he's offscreen, the movie stalls. 
Kelljan also directed Count Yorga, Vampire. Kelljan reuses that film's scenario of a former skeptic deliberately trying to delay a vampire from leaving before daylight. It's effective. Unfortunately the special effects are not that convincing. In fact they are not good at all. This film does successfully build impending sense of doom through potent use of darkness and silence. There is a super creepy vampiric revival which stands up to anything in modern cinematic horror. Marshall's presence saves this movie from being bad. By a sideburn hair...
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