A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #9: “Scream, Blacula, Scream” (1973)
by A.J. Hakari
If you take away what’s among the most genius titles of all time, 1972’s Blacula is left looking like a pretty mixed bag. As the forerunner of blaxploitation cinema’s horror sub-genre, it fed into as many of the stereotypes it helped inspire as it blazed new ground. Blacula had its highs and lows, ending up an uneven pseudo-parody that didn’t leave a lasting impression on yours truly. Now I’m sure I won’t be able to recall a lot about its sequel — Scream, Blacula, Scream — in the coming weeks, but during my inaugural viewing, it struck me as being a good deal more focused than its predecessor. The humor and horror flow much better in this film, emerging when all’s said and done as a pretty badass fright flick where the laughs are part of the plan.
So where does this story of the funkiest vampire to ever stalk the earth begin? Why, at a voodoo funeral, of course. The high priestess of a modern-day cult has just passed on, leaving her son Willis (Richard Lawson) beyond pissed that he wasn’t selected as her successor. As a means of getting revenge on those who wronged him, Willis comes upon an old bag of bones, performs a sinister ceremony, and within a few moments, Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) has risen from the grave once more. Transformed into a blood-sucking brother by Count Dracula himself centuries ago, Mamuwalde resumes the rampage that got quashed in the last flick, putting the bite on Willis as the first stop in amassing new undead followers. But the fanged one has grown a bit weary of being a creature of the night lately, seeking out the voodoo cult’s new leader, Lisa (Pam Grier), to perform a ritual that might remove his horrible curse for good.
Scream, Blacula, Scream is visibly more confident than the first movie. It’s well aware of what a silly premise it’s based upon, but it’s still determined to leave viewers with some legit chills. Taking over the directing reins from William Crain, Count Yorga‘s Bob Kelljan makes it his mission to let the scares and snickers come naturally, at which he mostly succeeds. Surprisingly, it doesn’t rely on fish-out-of-water humor much at all, instead mining many gags from Mamuwalde’s relationship with Willis (who finds not being able to admire his looks in the mirror as the biggest drawback to being a vampire). But Mamuwalde himself and the soulless slaves he produces are depicted with the utmost seriousness; Kelljan knows people will be coming in giggling just from the title, so when he blindsides us with one genuinely creepy set piece after the next, the effect is doubly startling because of it.
But — as was the case in the previous picture — the glue holding Scream, Blacula, Scream together is Marshall. The man who would be King of Cartoons exudes presence like a champ, his booming voice leaving no doubt as to his capacity for commanding a vacant-eyed legion of the damned. It’s too bad the script doesn’t always know what to do with him, since the subplot about him wanting his humanity back really comes out of nowhere; he doesn’t seem too conflicted when he’s lunging at necks for a good hour beforehand. Plus, Marshall so dominates every scene he’s in, the other actors don’t stand a chance and don’t contribute anything that memorable, performancewise. Grier is fine as a voodoo mistress who’s still scared stiff when faced with Mamuwalde’s minions, and as I mentioned before, Lawson has a few funny bits as a saner, more fashion-conscious riff on the Renfield type. The rest are divided between skeptical supporting mortals or the pancake makeup-laden ghouls chasing them, culminating in a kill-or-be-killed showdown of the living dead that’s admittedly a really fun sequence.
Scream, Blacula, Scream is a touch rough around the edges, but I definitely preferred the time I had watching this over the original. While the narrative sometimes spins its wheels and doesn’t make a lick of sense (specifically that ending), it’s paced well and plays up either its jokey or spooky side at the right times often enough for you to pay little mind. Scream, Blacula, Scream wasn’t the hit that its predecessor was, but it makes quick work of proving itself as the funnier and freakier of the pair.