In the early 1970s, the film that was responsible for fusing the horror and blaxploitation genres to box office success was BLACULA. Reinventing the most famous horror legend with an African American in the lead role was a clever idea at the time, and casting William Marshall, a tall, distinguished Shakespearean-trained stage, TV and film actor with an unequaled deep voice, proved a definitive choice. BLACULA was a big hit for AIP and acquainted urban cinema to the Famous Monsters kids, and it spawned a sequel the following year. Scream Factory now unleashes both BLACULA films as a double feature on Blu-ray for the first time in the U.S., giving them the pristine transfers they so richly deserve.
Before the opening animated credits (designed by Sandy Dvore, who did the same honors for the sequel), African Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall, ABBY) and his beautiful wife Luva (Vonetta McGee, THOMASINE & BUSHROD) are guests at the castle of a racist Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay, HOUSE OF THE SEVEN CORPSES) in Transylvania. Mamuwalde's attempts to abolish the slave trade are fruitless, as Dracula makes a rude comment and decides to enslave his dinner guests. With the help of some henchmen and a bunch of hooded vampire brides who like extras from Andy Milligan's THE BODY BENEATH, Drac puts the bite on Mamuwalde, deems him "Blacula" and seals him in a casket while Luva is walled up alive in his company.
Flash forward to the early 1970s, and an interracial homosexual couple of interior decorators (Ted Harris and Rick Metzler) purchase goods from Castle Dracula, including Mamuwalde's coffin. The coffin is brought to LA (utilizing footage from COUNT YORGA VAMPIRE) and Blacula is unleashed to feed upon the modern world, via the streets of LA and its denizens. Through circumstance, he meets and falls in love with a woman named Tina (McGee) who resembles his late wife, while Tina's sister (Denise Nicholas, LET’S DO IT AGAIN) and her police doctor boyfriend (Thalmus Rasulala, COOL BREEZE) play vampire hunter with a skeptical white lieutenant (Gordon Pinsent, THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR). Blacula's bite has caused an epidemic of vampirism (inspiring a wild sequence where the police torch rabid vamps in a hidden warehouse), but his only reason for existing is to spend eternity with Tina, the reincarnation of his beloved Luva.
William Marshall is one of the great screen vampires, and he adds class, fright and a touch of humor to his role. Blacula is a bloodthirsty monster one minute, and a love-sicken tormented being the next (extra facial hair and trademark fangs are added when Blacula is in his monstrous phase). There are some amusing cameos by singer Kitty Lester (who also partakes in one of the scariest bits), veteran actor Elisha Cook Jr. (with a hook hand!), and the singing trio of The Hues Corporation (who would later score a number one smash with “Rock the Boat”), who give us some funky entertainment at a nightclub where even Blacula frequents. The film was helmed by first-time director William Crain, only in his early 20s and a recent UCLA film school graduate at the time of filming. Crain handles the scares, modern gothic thrills and swift pacing like an old pro, though his follow-up feature, DR. BLACK, MR. HYDE, failed to recreate the Blaxploitation monster magic found here, despite a cool make-up design by Stan Winston. The score, which is a nice blend of soft romance and funk (especially the main theme) was done by Gene Page (co-arranger of most of Barry White’s biggest hits). BLACULA is not only one of the most significant drive-in films of the 1970s, it's also a vampire classic that ranks with the best of them.
Marshall always seemed proud of his role in the film, and during production, he insisted his character have a dignified background as well as that he be named Mamuwalde rather than “Andrew Brown” as originally intended. In 1973, Marshall told Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, “I’ve come to like BLACULA and his struggle. I preferred this first one because it did have a freshness about it that was to some degree pleasantly startling for most viewers. And it was fun in many instances. It also included in part the Rip Van Winkle concept of the man who had been sleeping for over 150 years, to wake up in the 20th century and find himself a vampire, which was quite contrary to his wishes or the reason for his mission in the beginning — to do something about putting an end to the infamous slave trade. The irony was that he himself became enslaved. BLACULA is the only vampire I am aware of who is not enjoying his drinks”.
The following year brought us the sequel, SCREAM BLACULA, SCREAM, again starring Marshall as Mamuwalde/Blacula. This time, the direction was handed over to Bob Kelljan, who seemed a natural, having previously handled the similar COUNT YORGA VAMPIRE and THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA. Though arguably not as good as the first, Kelljan adds his own touches of creepiness and humor to this one (and of course those chilling Yorga-esque touches, including a night-time police raid on a mansion full of the undead), and Marshall delivers an even more fierce and ruthless vampire king (this time he even has a red lining in his cape ala Christopher Lee’s famous screen Dracula). In the same Famous Monsters interview, Marshall said about the sequel, “I feel my work as an actor was better in the second one, SCREAM, BLACULA SCREAM, because the tasks and demands were greater. But in the sequel he has no one to love and nobody loves him”.
Here, an obnoxious voodoo priest named Willis (Richard Lawson, SUGAR HILL) conjures up Blacula using the dead vampire's bones and some fresh pigeon blood. His intention is to get revenge on the ritualistic group that voted him out as leader, but in turn, Blacula makes the poor soul his undead servant. This leads the vampire lord to meet Lisa (Pam Grier, FOXY BROWN), Willis' rival and voodoo expert. Mamuwalde becomes fixated on her since he believes she can free him of his curse. In the meantime, he puts the bite on various party-going nubiles and two hustling street pimps played by stuntman Bob Minor and Al Jones (whom Mamuwalde lectures on the dangers of "kicking his ass"), causing Lisa's African art dealer/ex-cop boyfriend (Don Mitchell of "Ironside" fame) and the no-nonsense Sheriff Dunlop (Michael Conrad of "Hill Street Blues" fame) to consider the possibilities of a modern bloodsucker stalking the city streets.
Marshall is again excellent as Mamuwalde/Blacula, this time not motivated by love but by the destiny of ending his curse once and for all. He has a horde of pasty vampires at his command, and the climatic vampires vs. police fiasco set in a dark mansion is a highlight. Lots of scenes stick out, including a vampire woman rising from her coffin as Grier's unsuspecting character watches in shock, Blacula's and Willis' vampiric assault on gorgeous Barbara Rhodes (THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST) who screams at the top of her lungs, and Blacula's bloody attack on a young woman (Janee Michelle, THE HOUSE ON SKULL MOUNTAIN) who can't see him creeping up through the reflection of her mirror. There’s also a bit where Willis puts the bite on his girlfriend (Lynne Moody, THE SUPER STOOGES VS. THE WONDER WOMEN) who at first thinks he’s playing around with a pair of plastic vampire fangs. Although also animated in the first film, Blacula's transformation into a bat here seems more a homage to Bela Lugosi in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN or even Lon Chaney in SON OF DRACULA here. Grier is good, but doesn't have as much to do as she does in her other starring roles for AIP (the company certainly exploited her recent COFFY success in the theatrical trailer) and things get a little silly at the sight of a Blacula voodoo doll. This time the eerie music score (which only gets slightly soul-fueled during the opening credits) is by Bill Marx, who also scored COUNT YORGA VAMPIRE, THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA and DEATHMASTER, here adding to his marvelous list of genre credits. SCREAM BLACULA, SCREAM is fun drive-in monster mayhem with quite a few old-fashioned scares, so turn the lights down low and enjoy!
Previously released separately and then as a double feature on DVD as part of MGM’s “Soul Cinema” collection, BLACULA and SCREAM BLACULA, SCREAM now get the Blu-ray treatment from Scream Factory, using MGM’s HD masters. Both films are presented in 1080p HD in their original 1.85:1 aspect ratios, looking quite gorgeous. The High Definition has definitely done these two low budget gems a world of good, with stand-out colors, sharp detail and stable contrast levels. Dirt, debris and speckling are minimal and the grain structure gives the films an organic, filmic appearance that’s pleasing to the eye. SCREAM is especially improved here over the standard DVD, which had poor picture definition during some of the darker scenes. The audio for both is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio mono mixes, and both tracks are surprisingly boisterous at times, with the jive-talking dialogue presented cleanly and the music scores also sounding full-bodied. Like with the visuals for the film, the audio track for SCREAM is especially improved over the standard DVD, as some scratchiness could be detected previously. Optional English subtitles are provided for both films.
In terms of supplements, BLACULA has a thorough and heartfelt audio commentary track with film historian/documentary filmmaker David F. Walker (author of Reflections on Blaxploitation: Actors and Directors Speak). Walker, a big fan of the film but not at all a critical champion of it (or its sequel) gives his views while being honest about the film’s inadequacies and lack of realism (calling it a “serviceable B movie that just has some great things going on” but describing it as “seminal”) as well as info on Marshall and the other actors, and he compares the film to other Blaxploitation horror movies of the time. SCREAM actor Richard Lawson is on hand for a video interview (13:25) produced and directed by Scorpion Releasing’s Walt Olsen. Lawson starts by saying that he originally didn’t get the part he auditioned for (as Willis) but then graduated to that role when the actor cast had to bail out. He describes the film as a training ground for him as a young actor, and he talks about working with his co-stars, his character, his wardrobe and tells a great anecdote about filming the scene biting Lynne Moody’s neck (and director Kelljan’s reaction to it). He of course thinks the sequel is much better than the first one (though BLACULA director Crain was at one time his landlord!). Both films have their own extensive photo galleries (with more than a few rare stills in the mix) as well as the original theatrical trailers (BLACULA is most memorable with narrator Adolph Caesar exclaiming, "Blacula, Dracula's soul brother… deadlier than even he!"). (George R. Reis)
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