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Monday, February 25, 2013

Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973) review


William Marshall (Mamuwalde/Blacula), Pam Grier (Lisa Fortier), Don Mitchell (Justin Carter), Richard Lawson (Willis Daniels), Michael Conrad (Lt. Harley Dunlop)

Directed by Bob Kelljan

"Hey, look here, man. You mean to tell me I ain't never gon' see my face again?! Hey, look man, I don't mind bein' a vampire and all that shit, but, but this really ain't hip! I mean, a man HAS GOT TO SEE HIS FACE!"

The Short Version: This lesser sequel to the 70s cult favorite BLACULA (1972) abandons that films romanticism and humanization of the lead character, opting for a heavier horror accent. Kelljan has essentially reworked highlights from his two YORGA movies for this one. It's voodoo vs. vampire when Pam Grier meets William Marshall, only the former is nowhere near the one woman war machine she was in COFFY (1973). The assault on the vampire filled mansion during the finale is among this films few highlights. An entertaining film, but nothing to SCREAM about. Marshall excels, and shows he was clearly capable of out-menacing Christopher Lee in any of his Dracula roles. It's a true shame Mamuwalde wasn't resurrected a third time.

A voodoo priestess dies without naming her successor. Through a vote, the group choose Lisa Fortier as their new leader. The dead woman's son, Willis Daniels, vehemently disagrees. Humiliated and forced out of the cult, Willis buys the bones of the vampire Mamuwalde from a dethroned occult priest elder and uses them in a ritual to revive the undead prince.

Fresh off helming two COUNT YORGA movies, Bob Kelljan took the job of the Yorga-ish sequel to the horror hit, BLACULA (1972). The blood is a bit thin this time out with a script that offers lots of promise but fails to deliver on much of it. The same two contributors (Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig) from the first movie return with an additional screenplay credit going to a Maurice Jules who also wrote the script for Stephanie Rothman's THE VELVET VAMPIRE (1971). 

There were some minor holes the first time around, but for the sequel, there's a few that are fairly obvious. One of these includes the Ragman, the disgraced voodoo priest. When we meet him near the beginning, he has Mamuwalde's bones in his possession (this itself is not explained) and states he has also wanted revenge on this unnamed voodoo cult. Why has he not done so up to this point?

Another involves Willis, and this gaping plot hole is arguably the most painful of the entire film. His reasoning for bringing the vampire back to life is somewhat confusing. It's obvious it's for vengeful purposes, but this revenge is never put into action. The film is a little over 60 minutes in before he ever even mentions getting back at Lisa again. Curiously, the two of them never meet again after the films opening sequence. His vengeance against the voodoo cult would have made an interesting story arc with both Willis and Mamuwalde butting fangs over Lisa. But this part is muddled, settling for a retread of the first movie via the Yorga pictures as a template.

Mamuwalde himself seems to have no purpose through the bulk of the movie except to vampirize various cast members. He's far more villainous and evil than he was the first time around. It's not till the film is more than half over before we discover he wants to use Lisa to perform an exorcism to send him back to his African tribe for forgiveness. The finale is just as tragic as it was the first time around; only there's no lovelorn romanticism to make Mamuwalde as sympathetic by way of the humanity he displayed in the earlier picture.

Kelljan's movie does link with the original by way of a flashback to the first films opening sequence, and again when Mamuwalde visits the home of Justin Carter where there's an African antique party going on. He remarks about a particular necklace, of which only two were made -- one being for the long dead princess Luva. This is as close as the sequel gets to unification with the character as depicted previously. Marshall is strictly menacing here. It's not a bad thing, and probably the only way to go at this point; it's just that Mamuwalde is basically a taller, deeper voiced version of Count Yorga along with his growing number of undead minions. 

Speaking of Yorga, there's lots of similarities between this film and the two Yorga's -- particularly RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1971). The scene where Gloria rise from her casket and attempts to put the bite on Pam Grier is similar to the one in the second Yorga film where Mariette Hartley is confronted by one of her vampirized friends.

Both Yorga movies featured scenes wherein the heroes have a sit-down chat with the head bloodsucker. In SBS, the exact same thing happens via a verbal and mental chess game of wits between Mamuwalde and Justin.

The assault on the mansion is vastly similar as well. The cops engage in a literal "stakeout" against the small army of male and female vampires. This scene is also edited very well. While the ritual between Mamuwalde and Lisa is going on in another room, the ominous beating of drums is heard on the soundtrack intercut with the cops battling the bloodsuckers. One impressive shot has a policeman in the foreground as a vampire literally floats up behind him. This reverse siege (usually it's the monsters laying siege to the stronghold) is the best part of the film.

It's also at the end where Mamuwalde shockingly, and mockingly accepts his "slave name" of Blacula. Dracula cursed him with it and to hear the pronouncement come out of his mouth is a powerful moment in the movie. After the ritual to send him back fails once Lisa's boyfriend Justin busts into the room, Mamuwalde goes crazy and knocks him unconscious. She reluctantly agrees to start the ceremony again elsewhere, but once the vampire takes out a slew of cops, she wants him to stay away from her. Justin then enters the room and calls to him, "Mamuwalde", to which the angered vampire says, "The name is Blacula!" At this point a brief battle of voodoo vs. vampire begins.

Like the first movie, the social issues of racism and anti-establishment plot points that dominated most blaxploitation movies are mostly absent here. There's one sequence where Mamuwalde is wandering the city streets late at night, observing the porn peepshow shops and passing up the advances of a prostitute when he's confronted by two pimps (one played by Bob Minor). They demand he hand over his "bread", or they're going to kick his ass. Delivered in Marshall's wonderfully aristocratic delivery, he states he has no bread with him and states in long form the consequences that "kicking his ass" will bring. He then scolds the two men for imitating their slave masters through their criminal actions instead of taking the high road to obtain the "bread" they seek. 

This brief scene is a striking dichotomy when put up against the escapist racism of most black action pictures that made those movies so outrageous and made their heroes even more righteous. Again, like BLACULA before it, race relations are stable between whites and blacks as both are shown working together. This relationship is most strong between Justin and his former boss, Lt. Dunlop (played by Michael Conrad, a familiar face from dozens of television programs). Both Conrad and Mitchell have some funny interplay between them.

"You are never to leave this house without my permission. Your only justification for crawling on this Earth is to serve me. Understand me well. If you ever dare to disobey, I will slice into your chest and pull your worthless life out."

As mentioned above, the character of Mamuwalde is more vicious here, and only ever given a hint of sympathy during the last half via a dialog exchange where he states to Lisa his actions are beyond his control. Marshall defines formidability sinking his teeth into the role this second go round; and he's even better at being menacing than even Christopher Lee was in any of his Hammer interpretations. His vampire is also a bit more physical than Lee's was, showing an eagerness to lift his opponents into the air, or toss them through windows.

His dialog is elucidated wryly at times, and pertinently threatening on more than a few occasions. The showdown between the vampire prince and the good guys in the bowels of a factory in the first movie is replicated here more intensely, but any audience identification with the vampire is erased save for some minor commiseration during the final moments.

Pam Grier was back onscreen after blazing a name for herself the month prior to SBS's release in COFFY (1973), only her role here is the polar opposite of the vengeful angel of that film. Lisa is extremely passive, yet honorable. Grier shows a striking amount of emotional range between the two films, and in some ways, she comes off better from an acting perspective here. Her role here is no comic book creation, she's more of a real woman. No doubt Grier is preferred blowing away the bad guys, but as Lisa she shows what she's capable of outside the WIP/action heroine persona she'd entertained since 1970.

Richard Lawson gives a spirited performance as Willis, the son of the dead voodoo priestess. From the opening sequence, we can see he isn't a very civil minded person and brings his humiliation onto himself. His character -- who resurrects Mamuwalde for a revenge that's never enacted -- comprises the sporadic comedic element found here. Choice moments include his discovery he can no longer see himself in the mirror and, after Mamuwalde decrees no one is to harm Lisa, Willis boldly proclaims what he intends to do to her oblivious to the prince standing behind him.

Don Mitchell (familiar to 70s TV show fans from his recurring role on IRONSIDE) arguably does more with his role here than Thalmus Rasulala did in the previous movie, but with less charisma. Mitchell's character of Justin Carter represents an even more successful black man in a world making ground where issues of racial equality are concerned. Unlike Rasulala's scientist, Mitchell plays a former policeman, now retired and the owner of a publishing firm. He lives in an extravagant home replete with numerous African artifacts. Rasulala never got to go mano a mano with Mamuwalde the way Mitchell does, but the latter fails to pull off the charisma despite delivering a more spirited performance.

The musical score is uninspired here, and nowhere near the catchy tunes of the previous movie. But then, BLACULA had The Hues Corporation and SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM has no band featured save for some soul tunes heard in the background during the party sequence. The score itself is reminiscent of the YORGA series with its understated cues, but these too lack punch. The only composition that stands out is the voodoo beats that play over the climax. 

Of minor note, the end credits list Craig Nelson as 'Sarge', but I didn't see him anywhere in the film. Nelson was a bumbling cop in Kelljan's RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1971) as well as finding fame for his role as the father in the POLTERGEIST series and on the successful television series, COACH. 

Despite having some great moments of spookery, SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM is an average film compared to the original. That Pam Grier is the co-star is reason enough to watch it. As it is, this sequel's major coup of respectability is in the performance of William Marshall who yet again gives his body and soul to this role. It's a shame Mamuwalde was not brought back to life a third time, or, better yet, a series that went the length of Hammer's Dracula productions.

This review is representative of the MGM DVD.

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