**½/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras C+
starring William Marshall, Denise Nicholas, Vonetta McGee, Charles Macaulay
screenplay by Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig
directed by William Crain
SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM
*½/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras D
starring William Marshall, Don Mitchell, Pam Grier, Richard Lawson
screenplay by Joan Torres & Raymond Koenig and Maurice Jules
directed by Bob Kelljan
by Bryant Frazer It takes some nerve to turn an exploitative, possibly racist script treatment from a low-budget movie-manufacturing plant like Samuel Z. Arkoff's American Independent Pictures (AIP) into a tragic meditation on the legacy of slavery in contemporary urban society, but that's what director William Crain and actor William Marshall damn near pulled off with Blacula. Originally conceived as a blaxploitation programmer with the ersatz jive-talking title Count Brown Is in Town, the project that would become Blacula took on some gravity when Crain cast Marshall, a trained Shakespearean actor, in the title role. Marshall insisted on alterations to the script that gave the film a subtext: he would play the lead as an 18th-century African noble who, while touring Europe in an attempt to persuade the aristocracy to oppose the slave trade, was turned into a vampire and imprisoned for more than 100 years by the rabidly racist Count Dracula. In Marshall's imagining of the story, it was Dracula who, seeking to demean the uppity foreigner, saddled him with the dismissive, derivative moniker Blacula.
That's a lot to unpack, and it all hits the screen in the first ten minutes, a prologue that sets the stage for Blacula's awakening in 1970s Los Angeles. Adjusting quickly to 20th-century life, Blacula's not above slaking his immortal thirst with the odd cab driver or interior decorator. But he quickly focuses on the beautiful Tina (Vonetta McGee), whom he believes to be a reincarnation of his wife, Luva. Meanwhile, L.A.P.D. pathologist Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala), thinking there's something sinister connecting all those blood-drained corpses piling up in the city morgue, is close on his trail with wooden stakes and a silver cross. By the time the cops close in on Blacula in an old chemical factory, the vampire is desperate merely to escape with his beloved.
Crain was hired with nothing more impressive than a couple of episodes of "The Mod Squad" under his belt, and he was obviously moving fast, without much vision or ambition, in a simplistic made-for-TV vein. Moreover, some shots are out of focus, some of the production audio is sketchy, and the editing in a musical set-piece speaks to an apparent lack of available coverage in the cutting room. But the performances are uniformly entertaining, if not always technically accomplished, and Marshall's fierce, majestic take on Blacula must have raised the bar for the rest of the troupe. Like many other screen vampires, Blacula's real superpower is that he's always the smartest guy in the room, a quality that Marshall--an alleged Communist who had survived the blacklist era to appear on television in "Bonanza" and "Star Trek", and to portray a commanding Othello on stage--had no trouble conveying. In incognito mode, his Blacula is a suave, smooth-talking Man About Town with a capacious James Earl Jones baritone whose level, friendly gaze is easily switched out for an intense, almost universally disapproving glare. And when he's preparing to feed, he's part vampire and part werewolf, with extraordinary eyebrows and bristle-brush hair creeping up his cheeks as though the shadows themselves are consuming him. He is one of the few great screen vampires.
John M. Stevens, a DP in the AIP stable who had just shot Martin Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha, knew how to light an unfussy scene, while art director Walter Herndon (The Last Picture Show) daubs the frame with rich colours that go beyond the expected sanguinary tones. With their help, Crain does occasionally work out an exercise in style. I liked a scene with a nightclub camera girl (Emily Yancy) bathed in red, developing photos in a kitchen darkroom, unaware that Blacula lurks beyond a dark curtain. Frame compositions at the climax, which takes place in an underground chemical factory, emphasize diagonal lines of light and shadow that give the film some mildly expressionist qualities. In a surprising flourish, one memorable shot is filmed with a high-speed camera. That couldn't have been cheap.
Notably, for all its exploitative trappings--posters promised that Blacula would feed on "young bodies" and "hot, fresh blood"--Blacula just earns its PG rating, no more. The violence is mostly bloodless. The only love scene is utterly chaste. The drug trade is nowhere to be seen. This might sound like a recipe for a dull exploitation film, but instead parts of Blacula take on an intriguing if unsensational slice-of-life quality. Substantial chunks of screentime are dedicated to watching middle-class African-Americans simply going about their business--working, dining, dancing. I honestly adored the nightclub scenes that anchor the movie's midsection, including a musical performance by then-up-and-coming Santa Monica soul trio The Hues Corporation and the introduction of Skillet (Ji-Tu Cumbuka), a ladies' man who favours enormous lapels and offers to buy Blacula's cape before declaring, "He is a straaaaange dude."
At the same time, the overt references to slavery in the opening scene echo throughout as Blacula, who is eventually positioned as a tragic figure, squares off against his most persistent adversary: the police. In Blacula, police officers all wear motorcycle helmets--and it's a good thing, too, because if you're a cop sneaking up on Blacula, you're gonna need a helmet. Cracking heads is his most explicit way of striking out against The Man. Notably, Blacula's hostility is justified in a downbeat, ironic denouement that makes a textbook case in banal evil out of a careless white detective. Unfortunately, as sharp as Blacula is on race, it's less self-aware when it comes to other marginalized populations. The picture's attitude toward women as passive receptacles for male adoration is hardly notable in the context of the time; more problematic from a contemporary view are the swishy gay caricatures (Ted Harris and Rick Metzler), who are referred to repeatedly as "faggots" and exist solely as fang fodder. Cringe-worthy stuff, if again hardly unusual in a PG release of this vintage.
For whatever reason, the first film's success did not translate into a career for Crain, who was disinvited from the sequel. Instead, Scream Blacula Scream was directed by Bob Kelljan, who had made the hit Count Yorga movies, which were also distributed by AIP. The sequel delves into voodoo lore--probably thought of as a more authentically black mythology than vampirism--and casts Pam Grier as Tina, a contemporary voodoo priestess locked in a power struggle with cocky rival Willis (Richard Lawson). In a bid to gain the upper hand, Willis inadvertently summons Blacula, who takes charge of the situation and assembles a small army of minions (portrayed more like zombies than like vampires, but whatever) to do his bidding. Again with the corpses and their strange puncture wounds; again with the cops and their skull-protecting motorcycle helmets; again with the PG rating (no doubt insisted upon by AIP, eager to maximize the potential audience) requiring that the film's requisite sex act be encoded as an especially aggressive back rub. This time, however, Blacula sees a path to redemption, and begs Tina to exorcise the evil in his soul so he can return to his roots as an African prince.
Though Scream Blacula Scream has fans who feel it eclipses the original, I'm not among them. Pam Grier as an L.A. voodoo priestess sounds like an unbeatable proposition, yet the script gives her precious little to do. Kelljan works up a modest head of steam in a couple of scenes, like the one where he plots a 90-degree camera tracking move to capture Grier in profile as her undead sister rises from a coffin in the background of the shot. Yet mostly, it's more like Talk Blacula Talk. Granted, the script offers a few amusing bits of dialogue that get the social subtext of the Blacula myth bubbling to the surface--our antihero lectures a black ex-cop on the true provenance of some of his appropriated African artifacts and hectors a couple of pimps for being imitation "slave masters," and a police lieutenant looking to railroad Tina on murder charges actually declares out loud, "My thinking may be prejudiced due to race, creed, and colour, but then again none of us are perfect." That's a pretty good line. Too, there is a hilarious bit featuring a frightened redhead whose eardrum-rending shrieks threaten to blast the movie into orbit before she faints dead away, never to be heard from again.
Aside from those fleeting moments of life, Scream Blacula Scream is a pretty huge snooze, not to mention a terrible waste of Pam Grier. It may be more polished than its predecessor, visually and aurally (The Muppet Movie DP Isidore Mankofsky's cinematography is TV-movie handsome, and Bill Marks contributes a score with impressive percussion arrangements), but when it comes to horror film, the soul is so often in the rougher edges.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Presenting these movies in 1.85:1, 1080p transfers, Scream Factory's Blu-ray double-feature of the Blaculas is adequate but not exceptional. The source material for the first film seems to have been an interpositive, judging from the minor white and black speckling in the picture; the HD image feels just a little soft overall, without a strong grain structure or retention of detail in the shadows, though these qualities vary from scene to scene and sometimes shot to shot. Colour reproduction, however, is on target, with a degree of saturation that appears to reflect the intended palette without dialling the intensity to garish or anachronistic extremes. Scream Blacula Scream is more consistent across the board. If anything, it's actually grainier than the original, but it also exhibits substantially better dynamic range and a richer tone overall, along with more deeply saturated colours. (Where Crain seemed reluctant to splash red across the frame, Kelljan really brings on the crimson.) If I had to guess, I'd wager the second movie's cleaner look is largely due to its film-to-HD transfer being of more recent vintage. There's not much to critique about the audio quality, beyond noting that Blacula is occasionally fairly poorly recorded, and this disc's monophonic DTS-HD MA tracks prove it. Scream Blacula Scream fares better on that count, although the soundmix is still very much a product of its time, not to mention budgetary constraints. Your subwoofer will not be getting a workout.
Extra features are fairly slim. Writer and filmmaker David F. Walker offers an apparently off-the-cuff audio commentary on Blacula, where he brings to bear his impressive expertise on blaxploitation, most notably a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of the backgrounds of the actors involved and the circumstances of the production. What finally put me off was the strenuousness with which he insists on the poverty of cinematic craft at hand in Blacula not once but continually throughout the track's running time, complaining about the staging, the acting, the script, the stuntwork, you name it. His gratuitous slams against Hues Corporation liken their dancing to "spasms or seizures," and he compares singer Hubert Ann Kelley to "the best drag queens." At one point, he denigrates a shot by claiming "the music is done but this woman in the red is still dancing," then as soon as he shuts his yapper you can quite clearly hear music playing. (When he complains that director William Crain once yelled at him during a phone call, I had no trouble imagining the conversation.) He does refer to an interview he conducted with Marshall before the actor's death and, boy, do I wish that conversation had made its way onto this platter somehow.
Scream Blacula Scream is supplemented solely by a new 13-minute video interview with Richard Lawson, who plays Willis in the movie. Lawson, still a working actor after all these years, dispenses some day-in-the-life show-business tidbits, though it's inessential viewing. Both films' trailers are on board in HD, sourced from what look like modestly beat-up 35mm prints. (The one for Blacula, "the black avenger," features an alternate take from the darkroom scene.) The single BD-50 is topped off with photo galleries for the two movies, containing the usual assortment of colour and black-and-white production stills and marketing materials.