Blacula/Scream Blacula Scream (William Crain/Bob Kelljan, 1972/1973) Movies don’t necessarily have to be particularly good to become classics. Take the Blacula films for example. Once that title is heard, it’s never forgotten. The fact that it arrived in the midst of the blaxsploitation cycle made the flicks instantly iconic and yet, that’s not the same thing as saying that they are vastly underrated fright masterpieces that need to slither under the skin of wider audiences. Nope, they are just as silly and campy and cool as you’d hope from the pun joke title. If you’re a fan of either strange little subgenre that a film called Blacula falls under, you’ll definitely have fun when peaking at them through the right amount of reverence and ironic detachment. They are certainly ridiculous relics of a specific time in genre filmmaking that will never occur again. I suppose that’s why it’s entirely appropriate that both Blacula and its sequel Scream Blacula Scream have been given the Blu-ray restoration treatment from the good folks at Shout Factory. No other company would treat these titles with the same respect and god bless Shout for that.
Blacula opens with probably the most potent sequence in both movies. Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) pays a visit to a quite recognizable Transylvanian castle as part of his international quest to stop the slave trade. Unfortunately, Count Dracula proves to be one of the biggest privilege white racists of the entire Blaxsploitation era and forever curses the Prince into being a slave to blood and the night. Pretty clever stuff actually. From there, we flash forward to the 70s when a pair of dumb-dumbs buy the coffin containing the prince and bring it to Los Angeles where they open it up and unleash Blacula on the streets. The plot plays off the classic Dracula long-lost love story along with some detective stalking, culture clash humor, and of course plenty of bloodsucking.
It’s all very silly, but knowingly so. Clearly everyone involved knew they were making a romp and enjoyed the hell out of themselves doing it. Anytime the supposed heroes take the screen, the movie tends to grind to a halt (even though none other than Gordon Pinsent plays one of the top boys in blue). But whenever Marshall is on screen as Blacula, it’s a damn treat. The man who was one of the most famous Othellos on the stage and Pee-Wee’s King Of Cartoons on television casts an imposing and creepy presence that could have been gone down as one of the best big screen Draculas were it not for the cheesy production values and gimmicky title. Still, watching him saunter through clubs in a cloak without rousing suspicion (only Marshell could pull that off) or stalking the streets for blood makes Blacula a delight.
The movie was a big hit by exploitation standards, so the endlessly opportunistic producer Samuel Z. Arkoff made sure that there was a sequel on screens within twelve months. Even better, he got rising star Pam Grier to co-headline the proceedings. In a perfect world, the movie would have cast Grier as the most badass vampire huntress you’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, as you may have noticed by now, we don’t live in a perfect world. So, instead the nonsensical script that was clearly written under unreasonable deadlines offers up some mumbo jumbo about a voodoo cult resurrecting Blacula along with some exorcism ditties and bunch of other plot threads crammed together that don’t quite work. Still, the filmmakers clearly had a bigger budget for Scream Blacula Scream, so the horror set pieces are far more effectively staged, the gothic mansion setting is fairly evocative, and the movie is even fairly stylish by the standards of D-grade 70s schlock. Once again, Marshall is the reason to watch the movie, rising above the garbled dialogue to cut a legitimately imposing presence impressive enough that you’ll wish he’d gotten one Blacula movie that offered a little more than camp value. Still, the sequel is about as fun and accidentally funny as the first, just in different ways. So it’s hardly a disappointment, even if it’s a shame that Grier was stuck with a fairly passive damsel in distress role when she really should have been kicking Blacula ass. She was born to do such things.
The HD restorations for both Blacula and Scream Blacula Scream are quite strong. It’s hard to imagine that the colors were this rich and the details this clear when the movies originally debuted in drive-ins and grindhouses in the early 70s. The audio has been cleaned up as much as possible, which more than anything else makes it clear just how awful some of the original sound recording was (seriously, you’d think they would have at least tested recording in Dracula’s castle to avoid such substantial echos, but I guess not). The special feature section is slim, but strong. Trailers for both movies are included, which are just as absurdly entertaining as you’d hope. Co-star Richard Lawson shows up to share some brief, but very fond memories about shooting Scream Blacula Scream on a shoestring that paints an amusing portrait of what the nature of 70s exploitation movie production.
Even better is an audio commentary on Blacula by Blaxsploitation expert David F. Walker that’s one of the most entertaining commentaries I’ve ever heard by someone with no connection to the original production. Walker takes the right mix of reverence and mockery to the material, sharing amusing anecdotes like how Samuel Arkoff inexplicably considered the Blacula screenplay to be the best he’d ever read and wryly/lovingly poking fun at the movie’s excesses whenever appropriate. That’s all you get, but really it’s all you need. The fact that these movies are on a double feature Blu-ray at all is a special treat for trash cinema lovers. If you’ve dabbled in campy 70s horror or Blaxsploitation movies, then you really owe it to yourself to see the Blacula movies. Unlike the horrendous Blackenstein or Dr. Black And Mr. Hyde, these movies are actually worth revisiting. Seriously, hard though it might be to believe, you really need to check em’ out.