FANTASIA OBSCURA: A Blaxploitation Movie With Teeth

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you learn from your mistakes and do much better the second time around…

Scream Blacula Scream (1973)

Distributed by: American International

Directed by: Bob Kelljan

Believe it or not, once upon a time sequels were not expected out of every genre film.

Yes, you made a film, wrapped up production, and didn’t have a follow-up on the drawing boards plotted out months ago. It was a time before “franchise” and “tent pole” were movie terms, let alone essentials, a time that was more innocent and pure…

…well, okay, “innocent” and “pure” were probably flexible terms when Blacula premiered in 1972:

One of the main pillars of Blaxploitation cinema, Blacula seemed to be a natural idea that everyone wondered why it took so long to become reality. An African prince, Mamuwalde (William Marshall), is making diplomatic ventures on behalf of his people when he runs afoul of the ruler of Transylvania, Dracula (Charles Macaulay). Vlad the Impaler’s namesake curses Mamuwalde by making him a “child of the night” which leads to his adventures in modern day Los Angeles. And thanks to Doctor Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala), a cat equal parts Abraham Van Helsing and John Shaft, Mamuwalde is turned into a pile of bones and finds eternal rest from his curse.

But, you know, the better vampires never really die…

Our sequel begins with a cold open among a meeting of a voodoo lodge. The old leader has just passed away, and there is discussion among the mourners as to who gets to lead them going forward. Her son, Willus (Richard Lawson in his first credited role), insists that the honor belongs to him; the rest of the congregants state their wish for an election, and for choosing Lisa (Pam Grier), an orphan the leader adopted who we’re told is especially gifted in the craft, when the time comes.

Furious at the rejection, Willus seeks out Doll Man (Don Blackman in his last role), another member of the lodge who was cast out, and gets from him a bag containing the bones of Mamuwalde, which was what was left of him from the last film. Willus tries to cast a ritual to resurrect the vampire to do his bidding; the spell succeeds in raising the undead, but as far as controlling Mamuwalde, not very much…

Thanks to Willus lucking out (?) with a gig to house-sit an old place up in the hills, Mamuwalde has a sweet pad to crash at, where he can go out from to prowl the city, including a side trip to the bad side of town that doesn’t turn out well… for the neighborhood “businessmen”:

On his walkabouts, he works his way into a party where African artifacts from Mamuwalde’s homeland are being displayed, a party attended by Lisa and her boyfriend Justin (Don Mitchell), a former policeman who left the force to pursue opportunities in the private sector. It’s at the party that Mamuwalde realizes that Lisa’s gifted, which draws his interest.

Which is lucky for her, since during the party he snacked on Lisa’s friend Gloria (Janee Michelle), who became a child of the night while Lisa was watching over her body as per funerary custom:

Not that Mamuwalde’s control over his minions is absolute; after letting his spawn know that Lisa is off limits, he still has to have a talk with Willus and his girlfriend Denny (Lynne Moody in her first role) to keep them from talking back to him:

The reason Lisa is valuable to Mamuwalde is, as a voodoo practitioner, he hopes she can relieve him of the burden of being undead and be mortal again. But as we’ve seen in other Blaxploitation films, can you ever really leave the game once you played it so well…?

What made Marshall’s portrayal of the title character so iconic was how he played the role; his bearing as a noble prince cursed with vampirism is built on his training for Broadway and opera, and he brings much of the flourish that comes out of those disciplines to the role. For the second film, he’s so comfortable as the character that the confidence in his delivery just overwhelms you. Only Bela Lugosi has ever been so commanding as a vampire on screen, and by the second film Marshall’s at the height of his game.

Opposite Marshall, Grier’s Lisa makes for an interesting counterbalance. She’s one of the few women vampires have sought on film for purposes other than to satiate a lust; Lisa is actually the key to Mamuwalde’s quest to become mortal again, and he has to bargain with her for release. While audiences back then may not have been willing to accept Grier in a less kick-ass role than she had played in her last film, Coffy (which was released mere weeks before Scream Blacula Scream hit theaters), she shows considerable talent as a woman confronted with horrors unimaginable who must stay strong in the face of evil.

In many ways, audiences’ reactions at that time to Grier sum up their overall reactions to the film: they make unfair comparisons to earlier works without taking into consideration how much craft and effort was made for the follow-up. The script for the second film flowed better and took a precious second now and then to explain what was going to happen, unlike the first film that just expected you to nod and keep up with it. William Crain’s work on Blacula being his first theatrical directing gig shows in his execution, while Bob Kelljan’s experience on both Count Yorga, Vampire and The Return of Count Yorga serve him well on his third focus on the undead. And there isn’t a single wasted character or characterization in this film, something that most sequels don’t manage to accomplish.

The film deserves a better reputation than it was given, as both a sequel and a Blaxploitation genre pic. There is a solid film that was crafted by experienced hands that made only one mistake, coming out after the first film did.

Sadly, there were no further Blacula pictures; the closest we’d get to a follow-up film would be 1995’s Vampire in Brooklyn, a film that is also being seen with fresh eyes and more appreciation years later.

Which speaks to the eternal nature of the Undead…

NEXT TIME: As we just showed, sometimes the attempt to continue an ongoing story actually works very well. Other times… well-l-l-l-l…

About James Ryan 129 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…