I've got too many review screeners piled up for October and November as well as several work and home life barriers to put together any special seasonal Halloween features, but I got sent one Blu-Ray release to review which fits into the spooky milieu at least, Blacula – The Complete Collection.
The blaxploitation genre came about at the turn of the 1970's when Hollywood producers discovered there was a lot of money to be made out of films featuring, created by and/or aimed at African Americans. At the the tail end of the 60's, the Civil Rights Movement had given African Americans equality in America (legally speaking – unfortunately racism continues to rear its ugly head so it's difficult to claim full equality, even now) and they were riding high on this fact. People liked to see African American heroes kicking ass and giving it to “the man” and the Hollywood bigwigs saw this and jumped on it.
The first and in fact most blaxploitation films tended towards the action and thriller genres, set on “the streets” with bad ass heroes taking down drug dealers, pimps and corrupt cops. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Shaft and Superfly were the early groundbreakers of this style, but soon the producers branched out to fuse the hip blaxploitation template with other popular film genres. Thus came Blacula. The title makes it clear what intention the filmmakers had: with Hammer making Dracula making popular again back in 1966, why not use this to create a blaxploitation/horror hybrid?
The film was a reasonable success on its release in 1972, so much so that it spawned a sequel, Scream Blacula Scream and Eureka are releasing both films on one Blu-Ray in the UK, just before Halloween. I ventured into a dark room to see how well they hold up today.
Director: William Crain
Screenplay: Joan Torres, Raymond Koenig
Starring: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Denise Nicholas, Thalmus Rasulala, Gordon Pinsent
Producer: Joseph T. Naar
Running Time: 93 min
BBFC Certification: 15
Blacula opens in 1780, with the African prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) visiting Count Dracula in Transylvania, seeking his support in ending the slave trade. Of course, this being a blaxploitation film, Dracula is an evil racist (most white people are in these films) and refuses, instead biting Mamuwalde, cursing him to an eternity of being a vampire and naming him Blacula. He is locked in a tomb with his wife where he stays for centuries, until a couple of antique dealers buy his coffin and take it back to Los Angeles where they live. There he awakes from his slumber and bites several necks before coming across Tina (Vonetta McGee) who looks a lot like his long lost love. He tries his best to woo her, but his blood lust keeps getting in the way.
After having greatly enjoyed the last bunch of blaxploitation films I've seen during recent 'Weekends of Trash' I was really looking forward to Blacula. Unfortunately I felt rather let down. Things start well with the aforementioned stand off with Dracula having a campy charm. An unusual and stylish black, white and red title sequence with some funky music over the top gave promise too. However, as the film went on it soon became clear that this was a lacklustre affair.
The whole film kind of just trundles along in low gear. It plays it very straight as a horror film, which is admirable, but there are no truly effective scares so without enough humour or campy charm to fall back on it all becomes a bit dull. I wouldn't call it out and out boring though. It's short and isn't as poorly padded out as many 70's exploitation films are (other than the obligatory funk/soul music scenes). Marshall is very well cast in the title role too. At a towering 6 ft 5 and with a voice like a cross between Christopher Lee and James Earl Jones, he has a great screen presence. It's just a shame his character doesn't have much to chew on.
The Blacula character in general doesn't feel 'bad-ass' enough either. Opening with his backstory and having much of the narrative revolving around his relationship with Tina makes Blacula a more sympathetic character, but in doing this there isn't really much of a true villain and the murders seem out of place, creating a disjointed collection of scenes.
So in general the film was far too flat to ever win me over. As a horror it's not scary, there's not enough humour to make it work as a comedy or spoof (intentional or otherwise) and it isn't even 'cool' enough to work as a traditional blaxploitation ass-kicker. Very disappointing.
Scream Blacula Scream
Director: Bob Kelljan
Screenplay: Joan Torres, Raymond Koenig, Maurice Jules
Starring: William Marshall, Don Mitchell, Pam Grier, Michael Conrad, Richard Lawson
Producer: Joseph T. Naar
Running Time: 96 min
BBFC Certification: 15
Scream Blacula Scream sees Blacula (spoiler for the first film) resurrected by Willis (Richard Lawson), a member of a voodoo cult who is angered when his fellow members feel adopted daughter Lisa (Pam Grier) is better suited to take the place of his grandmother as head of the group. Willis wants to use Blacula to exact revenge, but the African prince of darkness instead turns the young upstart into his own slave and goes about his business, biting necks around the city. Like in the first film though, he is distracted by a lady, Lisa, who he realises has the voodoo powers to finally end his curse.
Coming after watching the first Blacula, my hopes weren't high for Scream Blacula Scream, but I must say I slightly preferred the sequel. I wouldn't say it's a better quality film as such. It still takes things a bit too seriously and the plotting is as muddled and flimsy as ever, but where it scores a few extra points is in handling the genre tropes.
Although it's still hardly terrifying, the horror scenes are more effective here. Housing Blacula in a dimly lit mansion helps and the atmosphere in general better fits the genre, especially with a bit of voodoo thrown in for good measure. Action scenes are better handled too, with a showdown in said mansion at the film's finale containing a couple of entertaining stunts, fights and general carnage.
The Blacula character is more 'bad-ass' here too. Although he still spends too much time fawning over a lady, he seems a bit more bitter about his lot in life (sorry, afterlife) and has chance to take out some nasty pimps and make a nicely over the top thunder-cracking entrance to one scene.
These more fun elements weren't enough to make me love the film though. With pacing issues and still a weak level of excitement when compared with better genre movies, Scream Blacula Scream is merely passable entertainment rather than a blaxploitation classic. Which is a shame because, in the right hands, the concept and the star, the late great William Marshall, could have worked together to deliver two grindhouse gems instead of these below par offerings.
Blacula - The Complete Collection is out on 27th October on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka. Both films are on one disc and the picture quality is very good. I found the audio on Blacula a little murky, but it is likely to do with the source material and the music sounded fine, it was just the dialogue. The audio on Scream Blacula Scream was fine though.
On top of two funky period trailers you get a 25 minute interview about the films with cult cinema expert Kim Newman. This is great. He's a knowledgable chap and gives plenty of backstory to the films' production, reception and their surprising influence on future horror and blaxploitation films.
You also get one of Eureka's excellent booklets with some interesting notes on the films by Josiah Howard as well as plenty of behind the scenes and promotional images.