It seems a bit weird calling the set “The Complete Collection” when there are only two movies, and so it’s really a double-bill, but that’s neither here nor there.
The basic setup of the original Blacula is that an African Prince, Mamuwalde, tries to enlist Count Dracula’s aid in abolishing slavery. Dracula, being, well, Dracula, is happy with slavery, and so instead vampirises Mamuwalde – cursing him with a version of his own name, Blacula (though Mamuwalde himself only uses this name very late in the second film). Blacula is then entombed with his (non-vampirised, and therefore mortal) wife for 200 years. He’s awoken by two campy interior decorators in 1970s Los Angeles, and soon runs into a girl who he’s sure is the reincarnation of his late wife, while the vampiric curse forces him to kill more or less randomly.
In the sequel, Scream Blacula Scream, Mamuwalde is involved with a power struggle between rival heirs to a voodoo priestess’s position, one of whom is played by Pam Grier. Both films otherwise follow pretty much the same plot, with a police scientist trying to persuade the other cops that a vampire is at large, killing people in the city.
It actually feels kind of unfair to refer to the duology as Blaxploitation films, although they were intended as such by their creators. They actually feel more akin to 1970s cop shows like Starsky And Hutch or Kojak but with supernatural elements. This is probably not surprising, given that the films were produced by Joseph T Naar, who showran Starsky And Hutch for its entire run. Just as the seminal so-called Blaxploitation hit, Shaft, transcended its label by being basically a private eye thriller that just happened to have a black hero, these films did the same by being horror-thrillers first and foremost.
The creators let their stars – William Marshall in both movies, and Pam Grier in the second – have a great deal of input into the scripts; letting actors do this can go very well or very badly, but thankfully it goes well here. Marshall threw out the original idea of Blacula being a modern guy who gets bitten (intended to be played by Richard Pryor) to being an African prince from the past, and introduced the reincarnation-of-the-dead-wife plot element from Bram Stoker’s Jewel Of The Seven Stars, which is more usually done in Mummy films, but which also means that Blacula is in fact the prototype of Coppola’s later Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Blacula looks as low-budget as it was, but this somehow adds to its nostalgia value, as it does feel very 1970s in a three-day week sort of way. It also has a fantastic animated title sequence, but while it avoids racism on either side, it does fall victim to sexism, homophobia and all those other familiar 1970s tropes. Sadly there’s no getting away from those in either film, but they are, after all, products of their time.
Both films are entertaining, though the second is certainly superior, both in terms of technical quality – Bob Kelljan, who had directed Count Yorga, Vampire, and would later direct many episodes of 1970s and 1980s TV cop chows (including the vampire episode of Starsky And Hutch!), took over – and in terms of tension, scares, and humour. The use of mirror lore is especially fun, providing both the best gag and the best thrill, and Mamuwalde’s motivation is unexpected and touching. Mamuwalde also gets his chance to turn into a bat in this one.
What mostly makes this duology, frankly, is the excellent William Marshall. When not wearing the fright-wig and bizarre sideburns that sprout from Blacula when he attacks, Marshall’s Mamuwalde is a thoroughly nice guy, charming, noble, well-educated, and ultimately tragic; everything a good vampire protagonist should be. Marshall, probably best known to genre fans as Dr Daystrom in The Ultimate Computer episode of Star Trek, was a respected stage actor who had done a lot of TV work in the UK in the 1960s, and actually has a very similar timbre of voice to Christopher Lee. He makes a thoroughly watchable protagonist. Pam Grier was already a Blaxploitation star from Coffy when she appeared in Scream Blacula Scream, but there are other faces to watch for too, such as Don Mitchell, who was Ironside’s assistant Mark Sanger for eight years, and Bernie Hamilton (Captain Dobey in Starsky And Hutch).
There are relatively few extras – trailers and a nice entertaining chat from Kim Newman about the films – and the transfers are nice, but basically it’s just great to have this pair given a proper modern release. If you’re a fan of Blaxploitation, or of vampire movies, you’ll want to grab this. However, it’s also a lovely bit of 1970s pulp in general, and so worth seeking out if you have a liking for those old cop shows like Starsky And Hutch, Kojak, or Ironside, and fancy trying something a bit different, but which has the same air.
Or, you know, you just like thoroughly enjoyable weekend evening fun that isn’t too demanding on the brain, and which has a star who’s better than the scripts admittedly deserve. 8/10
David A McIntee