Blacula/Scream Blacula Scream Double-Feature Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
In 1780, African Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) pays a visit to Count Dracula in Transylvania, seeking his support in ending the slave trade. Instead, the evil count curses his noble guest and transforms him into a vampire! Released from his coffin nearly two centuries later by a pair of luckless interior decorators, Mamuwalde emerges as ‘Blacula,’ one strange dude strollin' the streets of L.A. on a nightly quest for human blood! (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
To a certain cross-section of rural America, all blaxploitation films were pretty scary, but William Crain’s Blacula was the first to blend hip urbanisms with horror movie conventions, as established by Universal in the 1930s. Because it is the first, Blacula is often the default choice for the best representation of the blaxploitation/horror mash-up. However, most modern viewers will probably be surprised by how low key and equitable it is. Though the jive talk and stereotypes have been filtered awkwardly through the white suburban experiences of most of the filmmakers, star William Marshall, who was an established, respected theater actor (his Othello was legendary), personally rewrote the most offensive aspects of the original script (Blacula’s real name was Andrew Brown, after a character in theminstrel comedy Amos and Andy), supposedly inventing the title character’s aristocratic back-story, and demanding that he remain dignified – more like Bela Legosi and Christopher Lee’s popular vampire princes. This unusual balance of dignity and exploitation commerce is what makes Blacula interesting and even unique, though it’s also a symptom of its tedious momentum and made-for-TV production values. It’s not quite outrageous enough for the type of crowd that eats up politically incorrect extremes and not quite genuinely good enough to transcend its B-movie roots.
The most extraordinary thing about the entire movie is that the dignity inherent in so many of the black characters ends up extending to the surprisingly neutral treatment of the gay couple that accidentally awaken Blacula after buying up part of his estate. Billy (Rick Metzler) and Bobby (Ted Harris) are relatively effeminate, but their gayness doesn’t seem to be part of a joke at their expense (aside from the police detective using the f-word to describe them after they’ve died). At least not in retrospect.
MGM has treated their Blacula catalogue material with respect over the years, starting with a very decent-looking anamorphic DVD. This new Blu-ray double feature (with Scream Blacula Scream, as seen below) is the third use of the studio’s original HD scan, which also showed up on Eureka Classics’ UK Blu-ray and the MGMHD television station. Unlike many other genre films under the company’s banner, Blacula was not neglected by MGM. John M. Stephens’ photography, loud costumes, and busy production design help the sometimes unevenly grainy 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer to appear dynamic and sharp at the worst of times. Most clarity issues are due to the moody lighting, which are meant to obscure a lot of detail. Aside from the darkest sequences, colors are homogenized and natural. The obvious print damage, including scratches and dirt, is often relegated to the ends of the various reels. There are some minor compression artifacts throughout, likely because the film was crammed onto the disc with its sequel.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack (the Eureka disc was PCM) suffers from bad recording on the filmmakers’ part and fights against echoey dialogue and audio drop-out throughout the entire runtime. But, considering the quality of the original material, this track is pretty clear or at least consistently listenable. And the creepy machine sounds of the boiler room during the climax are pretty effective. Gene Page’s musical score beautifully encapsulates the film’s dueling gothic and modernist tones as it fluctuates between brooding orchestral motifs, groovy love themes, and funky chase sequences. The music suffers from a twinge of the muffling and echo that the dialogue does, but is generally cleaner and pretty deep-set for a single-channel mix.
Audio Commentary With Author/Film Historian/Filmmaker David F. Walker (author of Reflections On Blaxploitation: Actors And Directors Speak, Scarecrow Press, 2009)
Scream Blacula Scream
Blacula lives! Willis Daniels (Richard Lawson), the son of a late high priestess, seeks revenge on the cultists who have chosen his foster sister, Lisa (Pam Grier), as their new leader. Hoping to curse Lisa, Willis unwittingly resurrects Blacula's earthly remains – and unleashes the Prince of Darkness and his freaked-out army of the undead! (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
Blacula was popular, so, naturally, the B-movie titans at American International Pictures decided to make another one. It was tied to the first film and still featured Marshall in the title role, but Scream Blacula Scream is more sensationalistic and, ultimately fits the blaxploitation model better than its predecessor. There’s more emphasis on urban slang, criminal behavior, and general swagger, as well as an expansion of horror movie mythology and Mamuwalde’s ‘man out of time’ experiences (he describes the origins of antiques to wide-eyed onlookers and takes a stroll on a modern street). New director Bob Kelljan had a much stronger sense of style than William Crain and was at the top of his game as he came off the production of Count Yorga, Vampire (1970) and The Return of Count Yorga (1971) – the two films that first redefined Dracula for the post-hippie era. Perhaps he recycles a smidge too much from the Yorga films, but Kelljan’s scary scenes are exponentially more dynamic than any of Crain’s static, TV-movie compositions.
Marshall sometimes appears bored as he’s forced to leave behind some of the original film’s romantic tendencies, but ends up bringing more frightening authority to the role. Despite the lurid subject matter (it’s still quite PG-rated, at least by ‘70s standards), he retains the character’s all-important dignity and continues making important social statements, specifically when he calls out a pair of hustlers/pimps for ‘enslaving’ their prostitutes. Besides Marshall, the sequel didn’t retain any of the major creative staff, but [I]did[/I] pick up a major cast ally in Pam Grier, who is a massive asset, even when not performing at the top of her game (she had her biggest breakthrough the same year with Jack Hill’s Coffy). Honestly, the only thing keeping me from considering Scream Blacula Scream a complete and utter improvement on its predecessor is that there’s even less story to tell this time around. Too many scenes are inflated to fill out a feature runtime.
The voodoo cult angle – an ‘urban-flavored’ twist on the popular Manson Family-inspired tropes that grindhouse filmmakers were exploiting in the ‘70s – became a mainstay for the short-lived blaxploitation/horror boom. It fits the cultural experience of the African American-themed framing as well as the tradition shared by other ‘70s Dracula incarnations, like Alan Gibson’s Dracula A.D. 1972 from Hammer studios. Marshall himself appeared as the title character in William Girdler’s Abby (1974) a cheaply-made urban riff on The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby that struggled for distribution after the Exorcist’s copyrights holders at Warner Bros. sued. Crain’s Blacula follow-up was a race-based variation on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde template (which was already retooled for gender in Hammer’s Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, 1971) called Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976). Scream Blacula Scream’s voodoo aspects also played into Leon Ichaso’ Sugar Hill (1974), in which a voodoo queen calls upon undead Guinean slaves to help her kill the white mobsters that wronged her. Arthur Marks’ J.D.’s Revenge (1976) was more in line with the typical blaxploitation crime picture. In it, the spirit of a murdered hustler possesses a young, well-behaved student to enact bloody vengeance. The best of the bunch, however, was Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess (aka: Blood Couple, 1973), a parabolic and sometimes surreal vampire lore variant that starred Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Johnson and was recently pseudo-remade by Spike Lee as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.
Scream Blacula Scream received basically the same treatment as its predecessor on digital home video, including an anamorphic DVD (that went out of print) and an HD scan that was used on a Eureka Blu-ray and aired on MGMHD. This is an even more uneven transfer than the first film and one that suffers more in terms of compression (still, we’re talking minor blemishes). Dark scenes can appear really muddy and grain levels tend to ebb and flow during the most heavily shadowed sequences. However, when this transfer looks good, it actually bests the first film, especially in terms of complex patterns and fine details. Physical print damage is minor despite the occasionally lumpy grain levels. Colors are, once again, natural, though the prevalently displayed browns and reds do cause a bit of low-level noise.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is definitely better than the first films, again due mostly to the quality of the original material. The single channel treatment flattens some of the vocals and incidental effects, but there aren’t any issues with reverb/echo and the overall mix is more consistent. Bill Marx’s compositions aren’t as catchy as Page’s, but his music is better integrated into the mix. The score exist alongside and fill-in for effects and, along with a number of pop songs, are decently layered, despite the single-channel stuffing. The tribal drums used during the climax are particularly impressive.
New interview with actor Richard Lawson (13:30, HD)
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