In the 1970’s a genre of film came into existence called Blaxploitation. It’s one of those genres that sometimes people get mixed emotions about. On the surface, these films seem to take advantage of the African-American community and put them in roles that some might deem demeaning. However, that view of the genre is not really accurate; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
What people do not realize is that these films were intended as symbols of empowerment for the black community. They employed black directors, writers, and actors to make movies that black audiences could relate to and often they had underlying social commentary about race relations. Occasionally, some of these movies would crossover to wider audiences and become commercial successes opening up otherwise unaware viewers to a world and culture they knew nothing about. Two such films were Blacula and its sequel Scream Blacula Scream, which kicked off the entire Blaxploitation horror genre and are being released on blu-ray for the first time ever.
Blacula (1972) was produced by B-movie maestro Samuel Z. Arkoff ( I Was a Teenage Werewolf) and was the first Blaxploitation movie to mix with the horror genres. The film starts in 1780 when African Prince Mamuwalde (played by the classically trained Shakespearean actor William Marshall) travels to implore Count Dracula to help stop the slave trade. Not knowing that Dracula is a vampire, Mamuwalde falls prey to Dracula who attacks the Prince and his wife Luva (played by Vonetta McGee, The Kremlin Letter). Dracula bites the Prince, turning him into a vampire and locks him in a coffin to live a lifetime with a thirst for blood he can never quench. It is also Dracula that gives him the moniker “Blacula” at this time and puts the coffin in a tomb next to a living Luva so she can die while hearing the screams of her lover. 200 years later Blacula’s casket gets relocated to the Los Angeles as a decorative piece and Blacula escapes roam the streets finally fulfill his lust for blood. While out he runs into Tina, who looks identical to his dead wife Luva. Blacula created an army of newly turned vampires as Mamuwalde spends all his time trying to seduce Tina. Tina’s friend, Dr. Gordon, discovers Blacula is a vampire and is determined to hunt him down. That’s all I really want to give away without spoiling the rest of it. It should be noted, however, that Blacula is not a villain. He is a wronged man that is now a vampire and wants to be with his true love forever.
The next year brought us Scream Blacula Scream (1973). A dying Voodoo queen chooses her adopted apprentice Lisa (played by Blaxploitation legend Pam Grier, Foxy Brown) as her successor instead of her trueborn heir. The trueborn heir wants revenge and so he buys the bones of Blacula and uses a voodoo spell to bring the vampire back as his minion. However, Blacula turns him into a vampire and makes him his own slave. A police officer with an interest in the occult investigates the murders committed by Blacula and his vampire army. Blacula turns to Lisa to help him cure his curse, but whether it will turn out as they hope I won’t tell you here.
Now, these movies may not be considered high art or a huge delight for cinema fans. The acting, while not bad (talents like Marshall and Grier are pretty good in their roles), might be considered a bit hammy or stereotypical (there is lots of “jive” talking and vernacular, particularly in the sequel). The production value is not great, as these were intentionally filmed as low-budget B movies. And, truth be told, Blacula is not scary. There is a bit or gore and blood and gets a bit graphic at times but it’s hard to take it too seriously. But that’s not the point of these releases.
Films like these are important to watch for historical importance. Blaxploitation brought a whole subculture to the forefront and influenced a ton of future filmmakers from Spike Lee to Quentin Tarantino. While the characters seem stereotypical and unoriginal, that was not the case at the time. This was new, fresh, and spoke to a whole audience that had not been directly reached before. Even a film like Blacula makes its own subtle statements about the role of African-Americans in a predominantly Caucasian culture. Now, off of my soapbox, the movies are also really entertaining in their own way. When watching you just kind of sit back and wait to see what happens. At no point do they bore you and for a 43-year-old low-budget movie some of the special effects are still pretty cool today.
Now, on to the presentations. Blacula and Scream Blacula Scream are both presented with 1080p transfers, both shown in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Both films have been thoroughly polished and now have great rich colors, minuscule details, especially in facial features, can now be clearly seen and the flamboyant 70’s wardrobe has never looked so good. Scream Blacula Scream does have a slightly better presentation (near perfect), probably do to a better preserved original film. Both movies come with DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mixes and had no audio dropouts that I noticed, but the original Blacula does occasionally have an echoey sound in most of the castle scenes which I am unsure if it was intentional. That said, the dialog sound is great and clear.
• Audio Commentary With Author/Film Historian/Filmmaker David F. Walker (Reflections On Blaxploitation: Actors And Directors Speak)
• Theatrical Trailer
Extras (Scream Blacula Scream)
• New Interview With Actor Richard Lawson (Vampire’s Assistant)
• Theatrical Trailer
Overall, Blacula and Scream Blacula Scream are two of those movies that very film fan, film lover, and film enthusiast should own. As far as historical value, this one could right up there with a classic like Citizen Kane if for no other reason than its influence on film. But, if you happen to be a fan of cult genres (particularly Blaxploitation) or if you want to see something like you have probably never seen before Blacula can certainly take you on a trip.
Blacula and Scream Blacula Scream are available from Scream Factory on March 3rd on a single disc blu-ray double feature release.
Fun Fact: William Marshall, who stars in the lead role of Blacula, might be better known to audiences as The King of Cartoons on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.
Photo Credit: American International Pictures