In the 1970s, some independent movie studios (the kind that cranked out B-movies for drive-ins) finally got the potentially lucrative message that representation matters. A new wave of low-budget action movies (“Shaft,” “Coffy,” “Superfly,” “Hell Up in Harlem”) were made which cast their stories with people of color in most of the major roles. Usually shot on lower budgets (making them more profitable), blaxploitation cinema was becoming a reality, making names of actors like Richard Roundtree, Tamara Dobson, Fred Williamson and Pam Grier. The stories typically revolved around black cops or private eyes who solved drug crimes in urban neighborhoods, and were usually shot in existing real-world locations, giving them a raw, relatable quality.
Many of these movies (and their stars) would go on to inspire other filmmakers decades later, like John Singleton (“Boyz in the Hood”), Quentin Tarantino (“Jackie Brown”) and Robert Rodriquez (“From Dusk Till Dawn”), who would blaze trails for Hispanics in cinema as well, with “El Mariachi” and “Spy Kids”. Tarantino would cast blaxploitation legend Pam Grier as his lead in 1997’s “Jackie Brown,” while Singleton would later do a sequel-remake to “Shaft” in 2000, starring Samuel L. Jackson–taking over for his ‘Uncle John’ (Richard Roundtree). The blaxploitation genre (and its low-budget shortcomings) have also been lovably lampooned in the Wayans Bros comedy “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” (1988), “Undercover Brother” (2002) and “Black Dynamite” (2009–the most perfect spoof of the genre ever made).
While the crime drama/action aspects of blaxploitation films was certainly a moneymaker for its target audiences, the horror genre would also prove lucrative. American-International Pictures, a production arm of MGM Studios that specialized in independent movies, had a long history of making horror flicks under producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson, who produced many movies for B-movie maestro Roger Corman. In 1972 they released “Blacula” (a full year before Marvel comics unveiled its black vampire hero “Blade” and 26 years before Blade’s feature film adaptation). Starring William Marshall (“Othello”) in the lead role, “Blacula” was a blaxploitation knockoff of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” novel. The movie’s success mandated an immediate sequel, “Scream Blacula Scream,” which followed a year later.
The movies’ combined successes paved the way for other blaxploitation horror movies to follow, including “Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde” (1976), the godawful “Blackenstein” (1973), and the 1974 “Exorcist” ripoff “Abby” (which also costarred Marshall). Of this bunch, “Blacula” and its quickly made sequel, “Scream Blacula Scream” remain the best.
******BLOOD-SUCKING SPOILERS AHEAD!******
Directed by 22-year old William Crain (“Doctor Black, Mr. Hyde”), “Blacula” opens in 1780 Transylvania, where visiting African prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his bride Luva (Vonetta McGee) are the dinner guests of Count Dracula (Charles Mccaulay), as they seek his help in ending the European slave trade. After initial pleasantries, it’s quickly made apparent that Dracula is a racist prick who sees Africans only as property, as he offensively appraises Luva like so much breeding stock. The insulted Mamuwalde and his wife rise up to leave, but not before Dracula (acting as the ‘white devil’ of the story) double crosses them yet again–summoning his own army of undead henchmen to knock Mamuwalde unconscious, to Luva’s anguish.
Note: William Marshall is known to Star Trek fans as “Dr. Richard Daystrom”, the unstable computer scientist who created the M-5 in TOS’ “The Ultimate Computer.” Like William Marshall, costar Charles Mccauley was also a veteran of Trek, appearing as the hologram of “Landru” in “Return of the Archons” as well as prefect Jaris, a government official on the pleasure planet Argelius in “Wolf in the Fold” (a sci-fi retelling of Jack the Ripper, written by “Psycho” author Robert Bloch, no less).
Dragged down to the Count’s basement, Mamuwalde is forced to watch as his wife is drained by Dracula’s bloodthirsty undead brides, while Dracula puts the bite on the prince himself–cursing the African potentate with a new, deliberately bastardized version of his own name–“Blacula.” After turning Mamuwalde into a member of the undead, Dracula then seals the coffin, keeping his entombed victim in limbo between life and death.
Note: Like the tragic Universal monsters seen in the 1930s and 1940s films, Blacula is not a monster of his own volition; he is the recipient of an evil curse–in this case, a curse inflicted upon him by a white European. The analogy is obvious.
After some hilarious animated credits (with a cartoon vampire bat biting and screwing its victims) we cut to 1972, where antiques dealers Billy (Rick Metzler) and Bobby (Ted Harris) are perusing a treasure trove of artifacts at an old castle in Transylvania…the rumored former digs of the legendary Dracula himself. After successful negotiations with the estate, the two arrange for shipment of the house’s valuables–including a mysterious coffin in the basement–back to their warehouse in Los Angeles. When the shipment of goods arrive, Billy and Bobby begin unpacking. The mystery coffin is unlocked, and soon Mamuwalde awakens for the first time in two centuries–a stranger to this new world and era. Immediately, the bloodthirsty prince drains both Billy and Bobby, their deaths later attributed to “accidents”, despite the peculiar bite marks on their necks…
Note: Warning to my valued LGBTQ readers: The openly gay characters of Billy and Bobby are portrayed as shockingly offensive stereotypes. Billy and Bobby are the gay equivalent of a blackface minstrel show. While some might argue that having an interracial gay couple at all in a 1972 horror movie was “progressive,” the offensive and utterly disposable manner in which they’re portrayed is not cool. Not to mention the fact that other characters repeatedly refer to the two victims as “f****ts” just as casually as someone describing an animal species. 1972 was a very unenlightened time.
At Bobby’s funeral, we see his mourning friends Tina (Vonetta McGee), Michelle (Denise Nicholas) and her boyfriend Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala), a police pathologist. Gordon makes inquiries to the undertaker about some curious markings on Bobby’s neck, not buying the ‘official’ cause of death. Peering in on the memorial service is Mamuwalde, who is struck by Tina’s resemblance to his late wife, Luva. Following Tina home, he frightens the young woman, who drops her purse when trying to flee. Picking up her purse, Mamuwalde is then struck by a cab. As the driver Juanita (Ketty Lester) confronts the dazed vampire, he savagely bites her neck–making her his next victim.
The following evening, Mamuwalde follows the group to a local nightclub, where he hopes to connect with Tina by returning her purse to her. Tina is struck by the older man’s regality and chivalry, while Gordon and Michelle keep a healthy detachment to the mysterious stranger. As Tina and Mamuwalde connect, the club’s photographer insists on taking their photo. Disturbed by the flashbulbs, Mamuwalde decides to leave–but not before promising to see Tina again.
Meanwhile at the LAPD, Gordon consults with his colleagues, Lt. Jack Peters (Gordon Pinsert) and wild-eyed county mortician, Sam (Elisha Cook Jr). The body of Juanita the cabbie is brought in, and her wounds are consistent with those found on Billy and Bobby’s necks as well. Gordon is reluctantly convincing himself that L.A. might have a vampire problem. His suspicion is confirmed later on in the movie, when cabbie Juanita rises as a newly minted vampire and kills Sam–just after Gordon warned him to lock the door where her body was being held.
Note: Juanita’s resurrection is a suitable jump-scare, with actress/singer Ketty Lester really throwing herself into the role of a ravenous bloodsucker. The ill-fated mortician “Sam” is played by character actor Elisha Cook Jr., who played the babyfaced killer in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) as well as an inebriated guest of “The House on Haunted Hill” (1959). Like his costars Marshall and Mccaulay, Cook also appeared in TOS Star Trek as attorney Samuel T. Cogley, who defended Capt. Kirk in the episode “Court-Martial” (1966).
Once Mamuwalde realizes that the club’s photographer possesses incriminating evidence of his inhuman nature (he doesn’t register on film or in mirrors), the vampire stalks and eventually kills her in her home darkroom, destroying the photos she’d taken of him (not realizing the negatives still exist, which Gordon later finds, of course…). Mamuwalde later arrives at the apartment of Tina, successfully convincing the enamored young woman that she is indeed the reincarnation of his beloved Luva–something Tina intuitively understands as well. Mamuwalde makes a promise to protect his newfound wife, vowing never to lose her again.
Note: William Marshall shows much vulnerability and warmth when he plays the lovestruck Mamuwalde, who seems far more human than when he’s in vampire mode. Such a dimensional portrait is a tribute to the talented Marshall. For my money, his Blacula is easily as sympathetic as Karloff’s child-like Frankenstein monster or Lon Chaney Jr.’s melancholy Wolf-Man in the Universal monster movies. He belongs in that pantheon.
Tina’s more skeptical friends, Gordon and Michelle, are much more suspicious of Mamuwalde’s intentions. At the club, the friends meet with the charming prince once again, with Gordon pressing him on his beliefs in the occult–and in vampires. To no one’s surprise, Blacula does admit to a certain fascination with vampires, while offering carefully veiled warnings to Gordon not to follow him too closely. After the death of Sam at the LAPD morgue, Gordon and Michelle decide to team up and do some investigating on their own…
Note: The tenacious Gordon is a combination of Bram Stoker’s character Van Helsing and Richard Roundtree’s John Shaft. Along with William Marshall, actor Thalmus Rasulala also gives a confident and surefooted performance. Sadly, the underused actor would pass away in 1991 at the age of 51.
Acting on a hunch, Gordon and Michelle reluctantly decide to dig up the grave of the slain Bobby, only to see his gray-skinned, fanged corpse rise from the freshly unearthed casket! Gordon immediately slams a stake into the vampire’s heart, and Michelle is now a believer as well. With this discovery, they go to Lt. Peters and begin searching for the missing corpse of Bobby, whom they see walking the streets that same night. They follow the corpse to the shipping warehouse, where many cops are killed, as well as Mamuwalde’s small army of undead vampire converts (including Bobby and the club photographer) when they’re immolated by improvised torches.
Soon the streets of L.A. are cordoned off. As the authorities begin to close in, a desperate Mamuwalde turns into a bat in order to see his beloved Tina. While she doesn’t want to turn on her still-living friends, she is powerless to control her feelings for the debonair vampire. He leaves before she can accept his offer to be changed into a vampire. Mamuwalde is later spotted taking a street-level access into an “underground chemical factory” (so many of those lying around, right…?).
Note: The movie is shot in authentic locations all over Los Angeles, including the neighborhood of Watts, where the infamous “Watts Riots” of 1965 took place. The “underground chemical plant” used in Blacula’s strategic retreat was the Hyperion Outfall Treatment Plant–a sewage reclamation center in Playa Del Rey. Such authenticity gives the movie a gritty reality, despite its admittedly silly premise. One of the best things about exploitation cinema–their low budgets often necessitated a no-frills production design that truly kept things real.
In the final confrontation, Tina leaves her friends to be at Mamuwalde’s side–despite the fact that he’s murdered cops and threatened her friends (bad boys… what’s a girl to do?). Tina is at Mamuwalde’s side when a cop sees him and recklessly fires his weapon, mortally wounding Tina. As her life ebbs away, Mamuwalde desperately tries to quickly turn her into a vampire to save her life, but he is too late, and Tina dies in his arms. With nothing more to live for, a despondent Mamuwalde decides to end his own tormented existence as a vampire. As dawn rises over the city, the former African prince-turned-bloodsucker climbs a stairwell to the surface, where he greets the dawn and his skin begins to melt. Soon, we see his smoke rise from his rotting corpse, as maggots crawl from every orifice. The final shot is of his fleshless bones, baking in the sun…
Note: Not sure exactly how or why so many maggots suddenly got into Mamuwalde’s body so soon after his death (or was he full of maggots already?), but it doesn’t really matter–making sense or not, it makes for a gruesome final moment. Clearly writers Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig meant for this scene to be curtains for Blacula…that is, until Torres and Koenig resurrected him for the sequel a year later.
“Scream Blacula Scream” (1973)
“Scream Blacula Scream” was written by returning writers John Torres and Raymond Koenig, with an assist from Maurice Jules. Directing the sequel would be Bob Kelljan, who directed the two “Count Yorga” vampire movies (1970, 1971), as well as episodes of “Charlie’s Angels” and “Starsky & Hutch.” While “Blacula” would focus on modern life within suburban Los Angeles, “Scream Blacula Scream” would focus on Haitian voodoo.
In her final moments, a dying voodoo priestess, Mama Loa, names her adopted daughter Lisa Fortier (Pam Grier) as her successor, which outrages her biological son Willis (Richard Lawson). Mama Loa recognizes that Lisa’s mojo is stronger than her stepbrother’s; a fact the entitled young man can’t accept. After Lisa’s installation as the new priestess, Willis seeks the help of the elderly sorcerer, Ragman (Bernie Hamilton), who sells him the bones of Mamuwalde–promising him that resurrecting “Blacula” will bring him great power. Willis gets the bones and goes to work. Before long, Mamuwalde is fully restored to his miserable undead existence as a reluctant bloodsucker. The resurrected vampire’s first act, of course, is to bite Willis and make him his undead protégé. Mamuwalde then insists that his newly-minted pupil remain at home, under his control–not exactly what the ambitious young man had in mind…
Note: Blacula’s protégé and would-be usurper’Willis’ is played by Richard Lawson, who would costar in Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist” (1982). Lawson would also costar in 1979’s “The Jericho Mile” as well as countless other movie/TV credits, including the role of lizard fighter Dr. Ben Taylor in the original 1983 miniseries of Kenneth Johnson’s “V”.
Over time, Mamuwalde’s victims begin to stack up, ex-LAPD cop Justin Carter (Don Mitchell) hosts a showing of rare African antiquities at his home. Drawn by the ‘delightful sounds’ from within, Mamuwalde makes an appearance; his regal manner setting him apart from the crowd. The centuries’ old former African prince corrects Justin on some of the artifacts, which were jewels from the former princess, Luva (Mamuwalde omits the part about Luva being his late wife, of course). Justin is grateful for Mamuwalde’s expertise, and asks just how he knows so much about the pieces. Mamuwalde coyly admits to being an enthusiastic ‘amateur.’
Note: A nice connection is made to Mamuwalde’s past, and to his late wife Luva, with the artifacts in Carter’s exhibit; never mind how contrived and coincidental their meeting is within the film.
At the gathering in Carter’s home, Mamuwalde also meets Carter’s girlfriend Lisa Fortier. The vampire is very impressed to hear of her power with voodoo as well. Wondering if he may have found the key to regaining his lost humanity, Mamuwalde decides to keep an eye on Lisa…
Note: Yes, that is indeed Pam Grier as Lisa Fortier; the blaxploitation legend who would go on to star in “Foxy Brown,” “Coffy,” “Black Mama, White Mama,” “Friday Foster” and “Sheba, Baby.” Her career would enjoy a renaissance in 1997 when blaxploitation movie fan Quentin Tarantino cast her in the titular role of “Jackie Brown” (my favorite Tarantino film); a middle-aged flight attendant desperate to get out of an involuntary life of drug trafficking. Grier’s role in “Scream Blacula Scream” isn’t necessarily one of her best, but she is still a strong presence within the film–easily going toe-to-toe with William Marshall.
One of Mamuwalde’s later victims is Gloria (Janee Michelle), a friend of Lisa’s. Deciding to keep vigil over Gloria’s body, Lisa is terrified when the undead Gloria arises and beckons for Lisa to come to her. Vampire-Gloria is about to put the bite on her bestie, when Mamuwalde makes an unexpectedly heroic entrance. He commands fellow vampire Gloria to leave Lisa unharmed, and she complies…
Mamuwalde then tells a shaken Lisa the full truth about himself, and she believes him without reservation–not surprising after seeing her former friend’s corpse rise from the dead to bite her. In exchange for saving Lisa’s life, he asks her if she can help him to break his curse and become fully human again. She agrees.
Note: I’m glad they didn’t make Lisa Fortier yet another love interest for Mamuwalde, despite their earlier flirtations at the party, since it would’ve sapped some her of Lisa’s power within the story. A relationship between Lisa and Mamuwalde would’ve also made Mamuwalde’s undying devotion to his late wife Luva seem a bit less-than-sincere. Giving Lisa Justin as a boyfriend also shores up his connection to the story as well. Smart move by the screenwriters, who could’ve easily gone the other way on that one.
Meanwhile, Mamuwalde heads back to Willis’ pad and calls for a meeting of his newfound vampire-family, including Willis’ former girlfriend Elaine (Barbara Rhoades), Louis (Arnold Williams) and the previously seen Gloria. Mamuwalde commands them not to harm Lisa, as they stare at him with glassy-eyed compliance. He is not entirely sure if they’re entirely under his control, especially given Willis’ earlier signs of defiance, but he assumes they’ll keep their word.
Later, Lisa prepares for the ritual of relieving Mamuwalde’s curse by creating a voodoo doll of him, which has a lock of his hair within its clothing. Before the ritual is completed, Justin arrives with the police (led by future “Hill Street Blues” costar Michael Conrad as Justin’s ex-partner on the force). They interrupt Lisa’s carefully planned ceremony and Blacula is angered by their intrusion. Soon, Mamuwalde’s undead minions show up to begin their attack, before they themselves are impaled by Justin and his old cop buddies.
Lisa is terrified when Mamuwalde, consumed with rage for the unwanted guests, threatens to kill Justin as well. Renouncing his humanity and reclaiming his nature, Mamuwalde shouts “I AM BLACULA!” Realizing she still has the voodoo doll, Lisa drives a stake into its chest before Blacula can kill again. Blacula screams in agony (hence the title), but his final fate is left ambiguous–no doubt for a potential sequel.
Nice to see the ‘femme fatale’ saving the day, too.
Note: Despite a few chuckles (some of them unintentional), “Scream Blacula Scream” is more of a straight horror film in many respects. Kelljan’s direction lacks some of the off-balance quirkiness of the first film; it’s competent enough for a B-monster movie, but overall, it’s workmanlike–lacking some of the color and goofy charm of its predecessor.
Sucking–er, Summing Them Up.
While the low-budget shortcomings of the blaxploitation genre make “Blacula” unintentionally hilarious at times, there are a few genuine chills as well, such as cabbie Juanita’s resurrection from the morgue and Billy’s leaping from the grave. Even if the movie’s scares aren’t as deeply unsettling or technically proficient as those of “The Exorcist” or other horror mainstays, they still work well enough to make engaged audiences jump at the right moments–this is the stuff of Halloween fun houses. Whatever “Blacula” lacks in high-end production value, it more than makes up for in its earnest desire to entertain (gotta love those nightclub musical numbers)–as well as its irreplaceable lead actor William Marshall. Marshall’s charisma, dignity and pain as the cursed Prince Mamuwalde drives the movie to a somewhat better place than it’d occupy without him. While the movie’s other performances range from barely-competent to good-enough, the Broadway-trained Marshall is on a whole other plane, and he forces the entire cast to join him whenever they’re onscreen together–his presence makes “Blacula” work.
“Scream Blacula Scream” has less comedic bits than its predecessor, with a stronger emphasis on both horror as well as Mamuwalde’s quest to become human again (this was some serious Anne Rice-style stuff–three years before she’d release “Interview With The Vampire” in 1976). Pam Grier (who would go onto blaxploitation legend status with “Coffy,” “Foxy Brown” and “Black Mama, White Mama”) offers a more take-charge female protagonist than the coltish Vonetta McGee, which is also in keeping with Grier’s more vital role in the story. While the voodoo angle of the story pulls “Blacula” deeper into Haitian folklore than its more urban predecessor, it also gives the sequel a fresh perspective instead of a tiresome retread. The low-budget roots of both “Blacula” films have since become part of their charm, which forgives many of their technical and dramatic sins.
Yes, “Blacula” and its sequel could certainly be made far better today, but the late William Marshall really sold these films–shortcomings and all. Better to have a pair of clumsy B-movies with such a memorable actor in them than a technically superior, if forgettable remake.
William Marshall (1924-2003).
Whatever shortcomings “Blacula” may have had in production value, Marshall in the lead role was not one of them–he easily elevates the material, playing a tragic vampire as memorable as those created by Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. Few of the other 1970s blaxploitation horror films would be as well made, or feature a lead as charismatic as the late William Marshall. Even with his commanding stature (6′ 5″), dignified bearing and Shakespearean voice (he played “Othello” both onstage and in film, several times), Marshall also had a quality of pathos about him–channeling grief and inner turmoil as easily as he rose to play a regal head of state.
To fans of Star Trek, Marshall is best known as the computer genius Dr. Richard Daystrom, the man who created the computer systems of the starship USS Enterprise, as well as the powerful new “M-5” computer prototype in the TOS episode, “The Ultimate Computer” (1968). Daystrom’s goal was to automate Federation starships with a new, all-powerful command computer system based on the workings of his own mind. Unfortunately, the M-5 computer followed the insecure, unstable doctor’s mental patterns a bit too closely, creating a defensive computer that began to protect its own survival at all costs–this leads to a tragic war games exercise with four Federation starships, killing hundreds in their crews. “The Ultimate Computer”, like the best Star Treks, includes a message about the dangers of automation at the expense of our humanity–and also of automation that amplifies our own weaknesses as well (the episode predates the similarly-themed 1983 cautionary film “WarGames”).
On film, Marshall would also have roles in “The Boston Strangler” (1968) and “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” (1977) as well as the comedy anthology, “Amazon Women on the Moon” (1987) where the actor got to embrace his comedic chops as he played an over-the-top swashbuckler in a segment titled “Video Pirates” (Marshall actually understudied Boris Karloff for the role of Captain Hook in a 1940s Broadway production of “Peter Pan”).
Sadly, Marshall passed away in 2003 after a long struggle with both diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. Marshall was a unique and irreplaceable presence in stage, film and TV.
Where To Watch.
“Blacula” and “Scream Blacula Scream” can be rented for streaming on YouTube, Amazon Prime, AMCPlus, Shudder; “Blacula” can be streamed for free on PlutoTV, while “Scream Blacula Scream” can be streamed for free with ads on Tubi.com. Both films are also available for purchase on DVD/BluRay from Amazon.com (prices vary by seller). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current COVID pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are now over 712,000 as of this writing (with over 4.5 million deaths worldwide), so please continue to wear masks in public, and get vaccinated as soon as possible to minimize risk of serious infection.
Have a safe and happy Halloween!