Blu-ray Review: ‘Blacula: The Complete Collection’

The Blaxploitation movement was renowned for bringing its own unique cultural spin to many well-trodden genres, and the world of classic horror proved to be no exception. Now Eureka Classics have brought their considerable restorative skills to a couple of arguably lesser-known films from the era, Blacula (1972) and its sequel Scream Blacula, Scream (1973). While the film’s pun-leaden titles may immediately suggest an out-and-out horror parody, what we’re actually presented with are largely straight-faced reinterpretations of the myth. The first film in particular remains surprisingly thematically faithful to Stoker’s original story amongst the more oblivious contemporary appendages.

The film’s prologue sees an 18th-century African prince and emissary named Mamuwalde (William Marshall) in the deepest darkest recesses of Eastern Europe. He’s on a mission to abolish the slave trade and has come to Transylvania hoping for the assistance of Count Dracula (Charles Macauley). However Mamuwalde is betrayed by his host and turned into a member of the undead and sealed in a coffin while his horrified wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) is imprisoned for life. The story then shifts to 1972, where the Count’s estate, including Mamuwalde’s coffin, has been bought and shipped to Los Angeles. Once freed the prince embarks on a killing spree whilst trying to seduce a woman (the film’s Mina Harker figure) whom he believes to be the reincarnation of Luva (also played by McGee).

Scream Blacula, Scream follows closely in the path of its predecessor, exhibiting many of the same quirks from the first film, from the delightfully lo-fi effects (the animated bat transformation scenes combine live action with a Scooby Doo-like sensibility) to Blacula being embraced by the hip party crowd as some kind of brooding, trend-setting figure. He even has his own Renfield this time around in the guise of his jive-talkin’ heroically-coiffured minion (Richard Lawson). Elsewhere, genre icon Pam Grier is cast as the object of Mamuwalde’s affections. Although both films manage to deliver some genuinely unnerving and well-crafted scares, on the whole, they lack dramatic bite. Budgetary restrictions offer a narrow visual scope which isn’t helped by the plodding, stagy pace (maddeningly slow at times). Most frustrating however, is the scant sociological insight in either feature.

It’s no surprise to learn that the film’s directors (William Crain and Bob Kelljan, respectively) were small screen journeymen, and they do little to conjure up the same trashy pizzazz and slyly subversive eye of genre stalwart Jack Hill (Foxy Brown and Coffy). The films’ saving grace is undoubtedly Marshall, and the late actor is charming and commanding in the titular role, managing to remain a formidable presence under some admittedly schlocky make-up. He easily summons up the same tortured gravitas of his Hammer counterparts from that era. It’s a shame the two films simply can’t match his classy turn, and what we’re left with are intermittently entertaining but largely forgettable entries into the sub-genre.

Adam Lowes