Too often banished to the stalemate of a pop culture joke, William Crane’s Blacula is surprisingly self-aware; a product of the 70’s simultaneously achieving timeless cult status as an impressive addition to the Dracula pantheon.
Here, William Marshall’s incredible spin on the character comes as a result of direct contact with the original Dracula himself. On a diplomatic
mission to gain the support of European royals for the abolition of slavery, Prince Mamuwalde (Marshall) is bitten and transformed into a vampire by Count Dracula. Importantly, Dracula names him Blacula as a put-down: from the start of the film, Dracula is just another white guy who enslaves Mamuwalde in the curse of vampirism. Dracula is dull, merely a means to an end, the real film starts when Marshall wakes up in LA circa 1972 to find he’s been transported there by a gay couple who want to use his coffin as a chic guest-room bed. Hence Blacula’s tongue is planted firmly in its cheek from the start.
Gene Page’s stunning jazz-funk soundtrack keeps the film’s energy at a great place, whilst Sandy Dvone’s opening credits are fittingly bizarre. But past the live band music and the glitz, Blacula has heart as well as soul, Marshall’s tender, at times utterly terrifying, portrayal keeps the film together aided by a She-style love story similarly seen in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula.
In Scream, Blacula, Scream Bob Kelljan takes over from Crain to make a faster and fuller Blacula experience. It’s a great sequel with some really cool ideas, and it actually ends up being better than many of the later Hammer Dracula features by ensuring Marshall never becomes wasteful or over-exposed. Along with that Pam Grier makes an impressive scream-queen appearance as a voodoo priestess attempting to help the bittersweet Blacula.
Of the 2 films, the sequel has benefited most from a new High-Def clear up. Kelljan’s effort is way more technically impressive; a better-looking film with more ideas. Creeping camera movements and fluid editing make the action an impressive part of the film, so much so that you’ll wish you could watch the ever-cool Marshall fight cops and hoods all night. On the ideas front, The Prince of Darkness is here resurrected in a sweaty voodoo ritual as opposed to the astronomical coincidences or dull Christian rites of the Hammer films. It’s darker and rightfully so, the deaths actually achieve tension unseen in Blacula, and the film as a whole (not to mention Marshall’s performance) benefits from a more consistent tone of danger. It’s still not really a horror film, but that doesn’t matter, it’s totally enjoyable.
Both films can stray into the silly, but it’s the quality of the films and Marshall’s endearing portrayal of eternal enslavement that make the film something else. It’s neither a righteous political statement nor a hollow absorption of mainstream characters, it’s a considerate alternate story, an addition to the long history of Stoker’s creation. Marshall heaps charisma and nobility onto a role apparently made for him, carrying the character a considerable distance from Lee, Lugosi, and Oldman’s versions into fresher territory.
Considering the soul flare of the both films’ aesthetic choices, the two are surprisingly narcissistic. Blacula ends with the titular vampire crawling into the sun to put an end to his nightmare of isolation and contemporary culture. Scream Blacula, Scream reacts to the dark path set in the first, showing a meaner more broken vampire and ends with Blacula literally screaming at the anguish of a failed attempt at freedom. Both Crain and Kelljan slip enough humour and contemporary criticism into the background that the films feel quietly indignant. It’s Marshall who steals the show though, leading the way through a two-part story of mayhem, blood, funk, and soul like you’ve never seen.
Dir: William Crain
Stars: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Denise Nicholas, Gordon Pinsent
Scream, Blacula, Scream
Dir: Bob Kelljan
Stars: William Marshall, Pam Grier, Michael Conrad, Richard Lawson