Scream Blacula Scream
For the many lonely souls who will undoubtedly look to it for an ounce of frivolous camp and disco-tinged incompetence, the flaw of Scream Blacula Scream is readily-knowable and open-faced: it is, maybe against all odds, a very good film, almost as good as its wonderful name suggests. Although, “against all odds” may be misleading. Many exploitation films, and blaxploitation films among them, are surely bad, and the difficulties of the budget and the audience had their limits for these films to be sure. But exploitation cinema had a certain magic about it, a certain unhinged, brash, expressive quality that freed it from the restrictions of popular cinema and allowed it to concentrate on its own artistic whims with the full extent of its limited budget. Simply put, exploitation films didn’t have to please millions to make a buck, so they had the freedom of actually concentrating on their almost accidental goodness. They had the freedom to eschew normativity and expand in fascinating and creative new directions that didn’t require composure or good sense. They had the freedom to be artistic in an environment where “pleasing the masses” wasn’t of interest. And the fact of the matter is, blaxploitation films were often quality productions, even when they were pretending not to be.
Quality, Scream Blacula Scream most certainly is. It is artistic in the way a number of gritty, hard-edged blaxploitation films were in the era, and despite the racist-tinged slugging the genre has received from middlebrow respectable types over the decades, it is frankly easy to see why so many blaxploitation films are minor masterpieces of feist in their own right. The fact is, these films birthed a new industry for black talents young and old, female and male, pen-wielding, screen-fronting, or camera-donning. One needs only look to the likes of the most famous blaxploitation film, 1971’s Shaft, to see the talents reacting with the full girth and vigorousness of people who until then faced a dearth of opportunity to have their voices heard, cinematically or otherwise, and who reacted with passionate interest and energy to the new chance to create art.
With that, what is Scream Blacula Scream? It is what its name suggests: a vampire film for black audiences, and a very sharp one filled with bite and no small amount of venom. We begin with a dying Voodoo queen choosing her apprentice in Lisa Fortier (Pam Grier), and the son of the deceased, Willis (Richard Lawson) becoming most angry that he is not to be her heir. For revenge, he purchases the bones of African vampire Mamuwalde (William H. Marshall), resurrects him, and plans for him to do his bidding. Naturally, Mamuwalde has other plans; he bites Willis and then proceeds to use him to his bidding, which entails finding Lisa anyway, who he believes can resurrect his dearly departed wife and save him from the pains of eternal life alone.
A decent set-up, but one that unfolds with tinges of shocking depth. Many blaxploitation films look to black history and culture for both audience recognition and cultural import, and our present subject is no different. In particular, voodoo, originally a staple of black culture brought to America during slavery and a tool of both expression and radical critique of slave masters, is treated with a significance and respect seldom afforded to black culture in any film; there is a wonderful little exchange about whether voodoo is an art or a science that slights neither side and treats the subject seriously without resorting to white-washing it. In fact, the way it blends the two, science and religion, is more true to black culture than either alone could be.
Elsewhere, there is a really complex exploration of black community and confrontation (black collectivity without necessarily singularity) evident even in the first scene of the film, and African cultural heritage and art center throughout. At one point a confrontation between Mamuwalde, who prefers the titular Blacula, and two men who wish to mug him (a confrontation with racist connotations, admittedly) even vocally discusses the ways in which modern African-Americans have been torn down by slave masters and still continue to act according to their white masters’ corporate whims. It isn’t morally perfect (it doesn’t critique systems of oppression fully and puts a little too much moral weight on blacks themselves), but it is a brief sideways glance at contradiction, confrontation, disagreement, and even self-hate in the black community in the early ’70s.
Of course, a movie is not all theme, nor should it be. This film, like its predecessor, is primarily a showcase for craftsmen and craftswomen, and it fails on no fronts, excepting maybe its utilization of Pam Grier who is largely a passive figure and not nearly the vivacious, empowered tornado of life she was in so many of her films. She is counterbalanced by Marshall who is fantastic, and easily one of the top three or four on-screen vampire performers. He plays the character like a force of nature, imbibing in his magisterial, charismatic, respectful qualities without ever sacrificing his tenebrous wither and hoarse malcontent. He essays a vile, sadistic bully of a vampire, but a noble one, only let down slightly from the first film in that his essential tragedy is no longer as prime in this film’s eye (the primary flaw here that keeps the film from working at the deterministic level of its predecessor). Still, his ostentatious portrayal attains heft without ever crashing into pompous grandiosity, and he lays a wicked anchor for the film to latch onto.
Elsewhere, the whole feature is briskly written and directed with understated flair and eye for atmosphere. It isn’t overflowing with style, but there is an immediate, even queasy quality to some of the filmmaking that is thoroughly satisfying, even rewarding, along with an inspired edit every so often to just keep the whole thing pulsing forward to its heated, spicy conclusion. Again, there are better vampire films, and better blaxploitation films, but the idea that this film is laughed-off as an ironic hoot is frankly perplexing. Very little about the film even dances up to the line of bad, let alone “so bad it’s good”, and it never once hints at camp, even into the astounding long night of the howl climactic showdown bathed in silence except for insistent, gnawing, clawing tribal drums that haunt with the best of them. It is a thoroughly serious, sensible film, and a pretty good one to boot.
So how good is it really?: 4/5 (a really sharp film altogether, without any meaningful detriments at all)
But how “good” is it?: 2/5 (I suppose it could have some camp value if you really look for it, or go in biased, but this is a film of craft and precision and not one that should be laughed at)