Monday, January 31, 2011

Blacula (1972) and Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973)

The sub-genre (if it can be called that) of blaxplotation can be considered either the most racist series of films created, or as is my opinion, just another example of what most people forget: the film industry is an industry, first and foremost. Its employees may be artists of varying caliber, but it is an industry, and thus, creates and releases product with the intent and hope that a profit will be seen.

In the 1950's, the burgeoning market was Youth, and its enthusiasms. This lead to a burst of films being made that were geared to the youth market, what it was perceived as being what that market wanted. Mass producing any form of entertainment leads to the creation of a lot of what can be charitably referred to as dreck or garbage, and rightly so. Periodically, however, a film or twelve will rise up through the mountains of twaddle and reveal an artist, or a vision that is rather unique.

In the 1970's the market targeted was what became known as blaxplotation. Some of these films are, at best, so racist as to be terminally disgusting, brutal assaults on the human condition that should be at best ignored.

Several, however, raise so far above this level of public humiliation that they need to be championed and re-examined.

First then, the two films involving the African Prince Mamuwalde. In the first film Blacula, he is see traveling with his beautiful wife in an attempt to eliminate the slave trade. Sadly, the powerful prince he is attempting to convince is (of course) Count Dracula. He is bitten, and from there the story spins on.

There were other attempts to sell vampire stories in modern dress, but the first standout feature here is the fact that it not only puts the vampire in the 20th century, but along with another film released that same year The Night Stalker, it deals not in the territory of Oh, Look, A Beast Of The Night but more to the point of Are You Kidding??? Do You Really Believe That A (from The Night Stalker, one of my favorite lines) Real Live Vampire Is Killing People?

More importantly, though, is the plot line that shows Mamualde's wife, Luva was not brought into the ranks of the undead, but left buried alive with her husband so she may hear his desperate cries of bloodlust and he can hear her slowing dying. His torment is inflicted from without, underscored by the horrific loss. One can only imagine the madness that would have roiled within his tortured psyche, unable to help, unable to offer comfort, just to remain locked in his coffin, and then, the eventual abyss of silence.

When Mamualde comes to "life" in the 20th century, it isn't long before he meets what is the spiritual twin of his wife... Attention: for those of you who just said, hey! That sounds familiar... that is because it is the basic plotline of the Coppola version of Dracula.

The harsh negatives about this film are many: skid row budget, poor cinematography, the makeup (several of the undead are a pale, lime green), the images surrounding Mamualde when he becomes Scary Blacula rather than Hip And Cool... these are forgiven easily due to the serious horror maven's approach to the horror genre, which was stated by Stephen King as you have to have a taste for good bologna.

What makes the film worthy of consideration?

First and foremost, there have been many, many portrayals of Dracula. From the silent Max Schreck (called Count Orlok) to Bela Lugosi to Frank Langella, David Niven, Leslie Neilsen, Lon Chaney Jr., Willam DeFoe and on and on... BUT: There is ONLY ONE Blacula, and that is the place to start with the swooning fanboy approach; the brilliant performance of William Marshall.

Marshall's Mamualde is a prince, regal, authoritative and powerful, a man's man that happens to be in a position of power. When he becomes the blood lust infected night stalker, however, there is a real sense of longing and regret; he is no longer human, and that awareness torments him.

That longing, that existential torment is what takes the sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream a work of enormous power. While the flaws remain from the first film, the performance by Marshall is if anything stronger and more subtle at the same time. While in the first film, he was (if only briefly) an abolitionist, here he is more of a Black Pride spokesman.

One scene stands out (among many), in which the Prince walks the streets at night, and is accosted by a black prostitute. Being a gentleman, he turns her away, not with visible disgust but with a sense of distaste. When moments later he is assaulted by her two pimps, his comment about how they had destroyed a black woman (leading to one of the better slides from Prince to Vampire) underscores what the best of these films can offer, a generic (and sometimes muted) call to personal responsibility that echoes the change in El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (aka Malcolm X).

What really makes the second film interesting is, of course, Pam Grier. Not the best performance of her career, to be sure, but the mere inclusion of her magnificent presence makes any movie (to me) worthy of sitting through.

It is her character that moves this film from simple monster movie aimed at a certain market to a deeper, more interesting film. Ms. Grier is a voodoo priestess, and while her character seems more suited to the I Am Going To Stand Here And Scream Because I Am An Idiot Female, she is a spiritual person, wanting to help the tortured soul who seeks release. Release rather than redemption is the point, and that makes the film more than mere sequel but a perfect bookend to the first film.

Spoiler alert....

Why is the title Scream, Blacula, Scream? Because, at the ending, he is screaming, Ms. Grier's magick is bringing the torment to an end, but the ceremony is a form of surgery, if you will, and it cannot be interrupted or slowed for it to be complete. Once the door is kicked in and the "good guys" rush in, the ceremony is shut down, and Marshall here is perfection and horrifying, not because he is a Thing That Sucks Blood, but because he is on the verge of peace and it is torn away from him. The supposition would be that there was not enough of a market to continue, or maybe the notion that the blaxplotation subgenre was flawed in and of itself (see below) but I feel it has more to do with the fact that the ending scream ended the series. Why continue? It isn't going to get better. Marshall caps both films in that one agonized cry. The series really has nowhere else to go.

The last thing that must be examined here is the notion that this subgenre is full of racist depictions. While that argument can be made of other films, in both of these films one sees much, much more.

For every pimp, hustler or whatever stereotype, there is a doctor, publisher or businessman; imagine that, black men are more than just a stupid stereotype! What is also interesting is the preponderant view of other blaxplotation films that white men are all corrupt and evil, but in these two films, while men of differing colors are antagonistic to one another, the antagonism is based less on skin color but more on the men are simply being men, butting heads.

In Scream, Blacula, Scream one of the main characters Justin Carter (played by Don Mitchell) is mentioned as running his own publishing company, but when people start dying in A Certain Strange Manner, his past comes out: he was formerly a police detective. Not a beat cop, a detective. His counterpoint, still on The Job, is Sheriff Harley Dunlop (played by Michael Conrad, most widely known for being Sgt. Phil Esterhaus on TV's Hill Street Blues). These two men do not get along, but the sense, from dialogue and performance, has more to do with life choices and the strangeness of the situation. They may not like each other, they may not socialize, but there is a respect that one wishes people would approach in real life.

Of course, for my friends that are all about the music: watch Blacula and see, not once but twice, The Hues Corporation perform, and neither time do they perform Rock The Boat.

Packaging both films together, and watching them back to back, is not only a grand pleasure but a rather eye-opening experience.