‘Blacula’ Bites, but Never Sucks

One of the best known and most enduring films of the blaxploitation subgenre of films is 1972’s Blacula. Although the title may seem overly simplistic and obvious (much like the following year’s imitative Blackenstein), Blacula itself is no joke and is, in fact, a legitimate and even dignified horror film with terrifying scenes and enduring moral questions. This was enough to win the film legions of fans and a number of awards, including but not limited to the first ever Saturn Award for “Best Horror Film”. The following year also produced Blacula’s only sequel in Scream Blacula Scream; while the second film is much more of a standard blaxploitation flick and is, quite frankly, not quite as good, it is still an entertaining and fun horror film. Both films have now been given the Blu-ray treatment on a single disc by Scream! Factory.

One thing that makes Blacula a classic is that the epithet of the title is not a name embraced by the main character himself. Instead, William Marshall gives us an elegant performance as an 18th century African prince named Mamuwalde, who seeks the aid of Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) to help bring his nation into the modern world and global market. Anyone who has seen a movie (a medium that didn’t yet exist in 1780) knows that Dracula is hardly a good guy, but his “realistic” support of the slave trade would surely seem more distasteful than tainted blood to just about any audience member from 1972 onward. In a move that would surely represent to black audiences a punishment for being “uppity”, Dracula curses Mamuwalde with his vampirism and locks him in a coffin to hunger in vain while his innocent wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) suffers and dies, imprisoned next to him. This is not before he sarcastically applies the pejorative pun “Blacula” to the once powerful and regal prince.

In short… Dracula’s a bad guy.

This opening scene sets the tone and mood for the rest of the film. In modern times, a gay couple who run an antiques business together purchase a lot from Dracula’s castle and bring the seemingly empty coffin of Mamuwalde back to Los Angeles where he arises hungry and angry and ready to bite the very next throat he sees. The film’s characters handle homosexuality just about as sensitively as race. This could be merely a reflection of the attitudes of the day, or it could have been meant to show that while race relations had matured quite a bit between 1780 and 1972, gay rights still had a long road ahead. While the couple is shown to have their close friends, other characters ask who might care about “a dead faggot”.

This same ambiguity surrounds the main character. On one hand, there is no question that Mamuwalde is, indeed, the villain here. Much like Dracula before him, he murders on a grand scale and creates minions and brides to surround and defend him. This is all amid a quest to win the heart of one Tina Williams (also Vonetta McGee), who he sees as the reincarnation of his deceased love.

On the other hand, director William Crain evokes a remarkable pathos from Mamuwalde, aided by the strong acting talents of the lead. The Prince’s modern day crimes are doubtlessly evil and heinous and worthy of contempt, but it is lost on no one that Mamuwalde started as a hero and was cursed to become a monster, a path he did not choose. Not only does this add depth to the “Blacula” character himself, but also makes the film on the whole more appealing to its target audience. This is a strong, smart, eloquent and respectable black man forced to become something he never intended to be due to society and the acts of one rich and evil white guy (exceptionally white, being a vampire and all). Luckily, the consistent hero of the film is Dr. Gordon Thomas (played by the very fine actor Thalmus Rasulala), another tough and educated African-American whom the audience can root for the entire time.

As the final credits roll, the audience knows they have just witnessed an exploitation flick. However, Blacula also leaves with conflicting feelings and a bit of a moral debate considering the questions aroused by both Blacula and “Blacula”.

On the surface, the 1973 sequel Scream Blacula Scream is a more suspenseful and affective horror film than its predecessor. The sequel also has more than its fair share of blaxploitation cred, in that the film’s leading lady is none other than Pam Grier. A Voodoo priestess chooses Grier’s character of Lisa as her successor, enraging the priestess’ son Willis (Richard Lawson) and prompting him to resurrect Mamuwalde with Voodoo magic. Naturally, the dark prince (who, surprisingly, now embraces the name “Blacula”) is about as easy to control as before and soon he is up to his blood-sucking, minion-spawning tricks again. Director Bob Kelljan keeps the scares and tension pumping and that makes for a fun and often disturbing horror film.

However, Blacula was a drama first and a horror and blaxploitation enterprise after that. Scream Blacula Scream is a blaxploitation horror film that takes its influence not just from its predecessor, but the burgeoning subgenre as the whole. This makes for an undeniably entertaining film, but one of lower quality. Further, the morality and social commentary of the first film is lost in the muddled mess that makes up the sequel. Mamuwalde the regal and wrongfully cursed prince (while still portrayed by the excellent and noble actor William Marshall) has been largely supplanted here by “Blacula” the angry monster who is the undeniable villain of the piece. The plot, aside from the voodoo aspect, largely follows that of the original.

The 2015 Scream! Factory Blu-ray release looks and sounds great while still preserving the look of the original films. The disc contains a new interview with Richard Lawson and an audio commentary by film historian David F. Walker, along with the theatrical trailers. While these inclusions are welcome, there is such a rich history of Blacula and blaxploitation cinema that deserves further notice here. Blacula and its sequel both have amazing promotional materials but none appear on the disc, save for the actual trailers. It is not as if Scream! Factory had no access to these, as the inside cover is graced by three posters each from the original marketing campaigns.

This follows a lamentable trend in the re-release of classic and cult films. A decade ago, companies like Blue Underground and Anchor Bay unearthed every rarity and extra they could find and filled their DVDs with new and old bonus features that could make any casual viewer a virtual expert over a weekend. Shout! Factory (of which Scream! Factory is an imprint) is hardly the worst culprit of this trend. In fact, what we do get is welcome considering the fact that their peers have most often released bare bones discs with no features whatsoever. That said, compared to the noted efforts of past companies that have resulted in treasure troves of bonus features, the fact that one would rejoice to have any extras at all is one proposition that sucks far worse than any celluloid vampire could.

Then again, a decade ago, more people were buying DVDs instead of streaming video on demand. The true shame here is that the main reason to purchase Blu-ray and DVD over instant video is slowly becoming a thing of the past, and may one day become a forgotten antique altogether.

Still, the main attractions should be the primary cause for picking up any home video release, and both Blacula films look and sound better than ever. Blacula is a classic, and while Scream Blacula Scream doesn’t quite measure up to its predecessor, it nonetheless entertains and doesn’t ruin the franchise. Considering their place in film history, however, one could be forgiven for wanting to open this coffin after just over 40 years and find a little bit more antiques awaiting the curious viewer.

RATING 6 / 10