Sunday 30 April 2023

Scream Blacula Scream (1973)

Director: Bob Kelljan
Writers: Joan Torres & Raymond Koenig and Maurice Jules, based on a story by Joan Torres & Raymond Koenig
Stars: William Marshall, Don Mitchell and Pam Grier

Index: The First Thirty.

After Coffy, Pam Grier was the kick ass chick in blaxploitation movies and I’m utterly sure that audiences wanted to see what she would come up with next. Well, further kick ass flicks were on the way in Foxy Brown, Sheba, Baby and Friday Foster, but she had a couple of others to knock out before them.

This was the first, a sequel to 1972’s Blacula, which was exactly what you think it was. I’ve seen it before and it’s better than Blackenstein because of the presence of William Marshall as the lead actor. He was tall at 6’ 5”, elegant and very well-spoken, through his background as a Shakespearean stage actor and opera singer, and he fits very well alongside a select list of his white counterparts in classic horror, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and Christopher Lee.

He’s back for this sequel, reprising his role of Prince Mamuwalde, known as Blacula. Why he could possibly be back is open to debate, as he was a sympathetic monster in the first film and ended it by deliberately walking into the morning sun. He’s just as good here, selling a script that deliberately has fun playing up his outdated manners.

“Your bread, man, all of it!” demand a pair of street hoodlums. “Or are we gonna have to become antisocial and kick your ass?”

Utterly unphased and presumably grasping only the threat in the situation, he apologises: “I’m sorry, I don’t have any ‘bread’ on me, and as for ‘kicking my ass’, I’d strongly suggest you give it careful consideration before trying.”

Then he backhands one through a window and slams the other face first into a door. And, after that, he feeds.

This may seem a relatively straightforward vampire movie, but it starts out in voodoo and that’s where Pam Grier comes in with promise of delivering much, a promise that sadly isn’t fulfilled, though that’s hardly her fault.

We’re in Los Angeles and Mama Loa, voodoo queen, dies during the opening scene with all her followers gathered around in respect and to see who will be her successor. Willis Daniels believes that it ought to be him, as her son, but she didn’t name anyone, so it goes up for a vote and everyone else chooses Lisa Fortier, an apprentice she adopted from the streets. She’s supposedly an immensely powerful practioner of voodoo. “Lisa has more natural power than anyone in the last ten years,” we’re told.

Of course, Willis doesn’t take that vote well. Of course, he’s a loud-mouthed pain in the ass who insults Lisa and threatens the rest of the group. Of course, he leaps at the first chance he’s given to gain power and that’s what kicks off the real story here.

Some crazy looking old dude opens a metal box that’s been buried in the ground inside a room. Out of the box he pulls a bag and out of the bag he pulls a set of bones, powerful bones to give to Willis to help in his revenge quest against voodoo priests with too much power. Guess whose bones those might be?

I have to mention here that the ritual is cool and for more than the obvious reason.

Sure, it looks great, with this easily Richard Lawson’s best scene in the movie. He’s topless but for a necklace of teeth and he recites in French over the ritual circle of candles, before daubing the blood of a sacrificial pigeon onto these powerful bones that he’s been given.

However, what I didn’t realise until now is that this recitation is what British doom metal band Cathedral used as the opening sample on my favourite song by them, Voodoo Fire.

What’s telling is that Willis, right there with the bones, believes it’s a bust, so wanders off to sit back with a Coors bemoaning his lot, but Lisa feels it from afar. Clearly those followers of Mama Loa picked properly and we’re set for an epic battle between Blacula, resurrected by a jealous jackass, and the new Mama Loa. That I was very much ready to see!

The catch is that that’s very much not what happens. Sure, those bones are indeed Prince Mamuwalde’s and Willis’s ritual worked, even if he promptly paid the price for it, becoming the first of Blacula’s growing army. Sure, there will be a battle between the vampire and his nemesis, but, perhaps because this was shot before Coffy, even though its release date was a month later, that nemesis is not Mama Loa.

Instead, she’s a sort of fizzled love interest. She intrigues Blacula and he forbids the vamps he gradually turns from killing her. However, she isn’t a replacement for the wife he lost in the first film; she’s just a conduit by which he believes he can be exorcised of this evil being that plagues his existence and spirited back to his ancestral homes in Africa.

And, while that still sounds like a fair use of Grier’s talents, post-Coffy, it really isn’t. What it translates to is that her character promises much early but delivers little late. At the point it comes down to battle, she’s another damsel in distress and it’s embarrassing to see the star of Coffy and Black Mama White Mama be given such an inconsequential part in the conflict. It isn’t her fault and she does her job well. It just isn’t the job she should have been given.

Instead, it falls to Justin Carter to serve as a foil for Blacula, which isn’t an easy task, given that vampires might be believable out in the European countryside but surely not within the American inner cities, even after Blacula has turned them personally.

Willis is OK with his new status as vampire, for instance, until he realises that he can’t see himself in the mirror now. “Aw man, you’re jiving!” he pleads to his master.

Carter collects African antiquities and, due to the magic of coincidence, he’s showing off a new set of acquisitions at a party at his house, when Blacula wanders in to find that some are from his own neck of the woods, including one necklace previously worn by his wife. He has a polite way of correcting Prof. Walton, Carter’s token expert, that feels very right indeed.

Fortunately, once he rumbles what’s going on and has to go to the cops with stories about vampires, Carter has the benefit of being an ex-cop himself, so the lieutenant, played by Michael Conrad, of Hill Street Blues fame, cuts him some slack, and they pick up the stakes he has for them.

There’s a lot of promise here and Marshall is excellent, but it’s all wasted. It starts getting cheap in the third act and the finalĂ© is surely the cheapest. No wonder Blacula III was never even talked about and Grier got to go on to a much better picture.

1 comment:

Karen said...

Loved your take on this film, Hal. I have a thing about vampires (and not in a good way), so this isn't one that I've seen since it came out and I was a child -- before I developed my vampire phobia. But I remember it and the original well -- William Marshall is always so impressive (I knew about Shakespeare, but I didn't know he sang opera!) and I totally agree with Pam Grier being woefully underutilized. Still, it's quite a movie, I'll say that for it!