Scream, Blacula, Scream(1973). Dir. Bob Kelljan; MGM DVD (2004)

Scream, Blacula, Scream is certainly a product of its time. I strongly doubt that you would see a movie like this made today, although, Vampire In Brooklyn and Bones come to mind as direct descendants of this movie and the original which this sequel is based, Blacula. For better or worse, Blacula and Scream, Blacula, Screamare some of the first black horror movies and whether or not you consider these films or the other titles in the so-called “blaxploitation” genre good film making, they are a significant portion of American film history that cannot be ignored or simply brushed off as dated.

In some ways, the historical context of this film and the story behind the studio that made Scream, Blacula, Scream, American International Pictures and executive producer/founder Samuel Z. Arkoff, could eclipse the films that this studio released through the 1960’s and 1970’s. Besides giving directing jobs to Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese, and virtually starting the careers of Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro, AIP was also one of the leading genre studios in the United States during this time, specializing in horror, action, and in the 1970’s, “blaxploitation.” While Arkoff and AIP tapped into African American viewers and brought them into theatres in a way that no other studio had done or has done since, in hindsight, one can also see the damage this did to black movie actors and actresses in a system that still offered them limited and stereotyped roles.

It is important to have that in the back of your mind while you are watching Scream, Blacula, Scream, not because this is a poignant commentary on race or a really strong story in itself, but because a “blaxploitation” movie is often taken as a fun, cultural novelty that shouldn’t be taken seriously. Even if this picture was intended to be nothing but entertainment, the performance of actor William Marshall alone saves it from that. A Broadway and Shakespeare trained actor, William Marshall conveys such a deep sense of anguish and longing as he pursues Pam Grier’s character Lisa in an effort to free himself from the curse of being a vampire. The story itself is very thin and does not quite come together the way it should but William Marshall’s presence really carries the film.

Lisa is the member of a Voodoo cult whose leader has just died. The opening scene shows a power struggle within the cult(with a lot of jive talkin’) and then shows Richard Lawson’s character, Willis, collecting Bones from a voodoo man and bringing them to life in the form of Blacula. Willis thinks that he is going to control Blacula and have him get rid of Lisa so that he can take over the cult, but instead, Blacula turns him into a vampire and begins to collect his own army of the undead. Blacula wanders through Los Angeles causing death and mayhem until Don Mitchell’s character Justin and the police department begin investigating and become convinced that they are really dealing with vampires.

The back story from the first film is that Mamulwalde was an African Prince bitten by a vampire and he became one. In this film, he believes that he can find a cure through Lisa and her voodoo practices after meeting her at a party and being enraptured by her. The last portion of the movie becomes intercutting scenes of Lisa trying to exorcise the vampire out of Mamulwalde and the police facing off with his vampire army. There is plenty of screaming from the female actresses, even from Pam Grier who usually had stronger roles. She is always the strong female character who fights against the bad guys, but here she seems a little more relegated to Mamuwalde’s love interest and hanging onto Justin. She is supposed to be a voodoo woman who has not quite discovered the full extent of her power but that is really not conveyed that well in the story.

While this is an interesting modern take on the Dracula legend, and there are several suggestive scenes in the movie which play with the idea of vampirism as a sexual experience, some of the story also feels a little incongruous with the atmosphere of the story. What is wonderful to watch is that the film makers did not try to reign in the expressiveness of William Marshall’s performance. He really does steal the entire film. He even gets the best lines in the film, which he delivers in his rich and booming voice(a baritone that resonates and deeply with emotion the same way that James Earl Jones’ does). Even when the dialogue seems interjected with statements that come across as calculated to resonate with the audience, Marshall delivers them in a way that adds emotional impact and meaning.  For a “wham, bam, thank you mam” picture, Scream Blacula Scream has some wonderful moments that come from Marshall’s commanding performance.

Up Next For the November Movie Series Director Sergei Bodrov explores the life of Ghengis Khan in the epic, Mongol.

charles;

vanheck123@hotmail.com

The Legend of The 7 Golden Vampires(1974); Dir. Cheh Chang & Roy Ward Baker. Anchor Bay DVD(1999)

Not released in the United States until 1979 under the title The 7 brothers Meet Dracula, this film is a unique coming together of the Hong Kong based Shaw Brothers Studios and England’s Hammer Studios.  These two genre studios represent the best of martial arts and horror films respectively and the collaborative effort they have produced, while not being a great film, is an exciting and action packed movie that plays to both genres very effectively.

Again assuming his iconic role as Dr. Van Helsing, Peter Cushing encounters his arch-nemesis Count Dracula(played with a little too much make-up by John Forbes-Robertson) in the Chinese village of Peng Kwei after Dracula took the form of a high priest who came to his castle in Transylvania to ask for his help. Of course, Count Dracula will not have any of that, and takes the form of the high priest in order to control the 7 Golden Vampires who have been terrorizing the town for many years.

The beginning of the film sets up a very nice prelude to the rest of the story, showcasing the standard but always atmospheric Hammer studio set of the cobwebbed Transylvanian castle as Dracula rises from his crypt and goes to the village of Peng Kwei. This provides a nice contrast for the rest of the film as we are introduced to Van Helsing giving a lecture to history professors at a university in China. Van Helsing relates the story of an unknown village where there is a legend of 7 vampires who arise every 7th moon and attack the villagers. Van Helsing has come to China to do research on vampires but he meets with resistance and disbelief and decides to give up when he is visited by a man from the village who confirms the legend and asks for Van Helsing’s help in vanquishing the 7 golden vampires. 

Here the martial arts elements of the story come into play and dominate the majority of the films’ action sequences leading up to an impressive final battle that is wonderfully choreographed.  Hsi Ching, his six brothers, and sister, all skilled with different weapons, enlist Van Helsing’s help and go with him, his son Leyland, and a Scandanavian heiress who is financing the trip, on a journey to the village. Along the way they battle armies of the undead, a mercenary army, and their own fear as they draw closer to the village and the source of the terror.

The fighting sequences are very stylized, as you would expect a Shaw Bros. production to be, and the characters tend to take a back seat to the action although there are parallel romance stories that are developed in a very standard, side plot fashion. It is nice to see Peter Cushing resuming his role as Dr. Van Helsing. He does not do anything new with this role but because he seems so comfortable in the role of Van Helsing, it also seems to come very naturally for him and he shows his ease with the character even though the direction of the film is not the standard one usually taken for vampire films. Also of note in this film is the makeup done by Wu Hsu Ching who has had a long and distinguished career as a makeup artist for many Shaw Brothers productions and a film that Quentin Tarantino released through his Rolling Thunder Pictures Mighty Peking Man.  The masks of the 7 Golden Vampires and the undead demons are wonderfully decrepit and the scenes of them dissolving and turning to ash are great stop motion effects which enchances the feel of the movie.

Up next for The October Horror Movie Series Boris Karloff is a novelist possessed by the spirit of a murderer in The Haunted Strangler 

Charles Jacob

vanheck123@hotmail.com

Black Sunday(U.S. Title) or The Mask of Satan(1960); Dir. Mario Bava. Anchor Bay DVD(2007)

There are movies that elicit such a strong emotional response that trying to relate to them on any other level proves to be very difficult. Sometimes it is good to gain some distance from a film before allowing an opinion to really take shape and crystallize. But often there are movies which cause an immediate response  and I think that this was the case when I was watching Black Sunday. I found myself haunted by the imagery and poetic dreaminess of Mario Bava’s cinematography and storytelling. The images of the forest and old ruins where Princess Asa and the Prince were put to death and buried after being found guilty of witchcraft and serving the devil come to life in the rich black and white tones which emphasize shadow and fog.

In the later parts of the film the Prince, awakened from the dead to bring vengeance on the family that murdered him and as he looms out of the darkness and wanders through the eerie castle where the present day Vajda family lives oppressed by the curse that had been placed on them two centuries before, the haunting presence of the Princess Asa is almost subconsciously drifting through the film. We are given brief shots of her lying in her coffin which was disturbed by Dr. Andre Gorobec and Dr. Thomas Kruvajan who at first do not pay attention to the superstitions of this Eastern European town they are passing through on their way to Moscow. Even though it is not till the end of the film that she becomes a dominant aspect of the story, Mario Bava conveys her hold over the characters through beautifully constructed atmospheric details.

The haunting imagery of the movie plays wonderfully with the performances of Barbara Steele as both the Princess Asa and the girl Katia Vajda who happens to look just like Asa, Prince Vajda who is tortured by his family’s past, and Prince Constantine who finds himself dragged down by the curse which plagues his family. They are as dark and mysterious as the scenery that surrounds them and Mario Bava’s camerwork really brings out the turmoil that stalks them and shows how Dr. Gorobec and Dr. Kruvajan are gradually drawn into horror that has a hold over these people. The entire story plays out as poetically as a Shakespearean tragedy as it shows the ruin of these characters and their inability to prevent this oncoming doom. Of course, Black Sunday ends more like a Shakespearean comedy with an element of sadness and loss, but this comes more as a relief after such an oppressively dark film rather than feeling forced or contrived.

While every shot pays special attention to the broad spectrum of shadow that black and white film making offers, it also emphasizes the supernatural elements of the story which Mario Bava shows through violent storms, wind, and primal elements which denote impending evil. However, it is not a story about good vs. evil in the traditional sense. Two highly educated and scientific doctors who are not able to understand supernatural phenomenon and dismiss everything as superstition are inept at confronting evil when they come face to face with it. In fact Dr. Kruvajan is seduced by it and becomes a servant to it. Other characters in the story, such as the Vajda family, are not good or bad, they simply exist as people who face retribution. There are many aspects of this film that are played as a simple revenge story but it is interesting and very effective how Mario Bava turns the people who are seeking revenge into the villains of the story and brings to the forefront many of the themes that work on a much deeper level in the film.

Up Next The October Horror Movie Series fights a different kind of vampire in the Hammer Studios and Shaw Brothers co-production of Peter Cushing in The Legend of The Seven Golden Vampires.

Charles Jacob;

vanheck123@hotmail.com

Phantasm IV:Oblivion(1998); Dir. Don Coscarelli. Anchor Bay DVD(2008)

Sadly, the film series with the tongue in cheek tagline “The Sequel With Balls” seems to have lost a few along the way to this fourth installment which attempts to explain the origins of the dreaded Tall Man and the undead horror he unleashed on mankind. Origin stories are such a tricky business, especially when they come years after the original film. While this film works in continuity and following the characters who have been played by the same actors across the series(except for Michael in Phantasm II), the emotional connection that the viewer should have with them just does not exist. It is often difficult in horror films to convince the audience to care about the characters because they are usually convenient plot devices to kill off. This is not the approach that Phantasm IV attempts to take but it falls short in clearly stating what the characters should be doing besides wandering around and fighting for their lives.  The fact that Michael’s brother Jody was converted to The Tall Man’s service in Phantasm III and returns as a force of good or evil trying to either lead Michael down the wrong path or help him is ultimately lost as the film progresses because of the ambiguity of the relationship they have with each other.

Reggie Bannister again reprises his role as the freewheelin’ ice cream man who has become a soldier in the war against the Tall Man’s minions and is in hot pursuit of Michael as he goes to fulfill his destiny with the Tall Man, who again is played wonderfully by Angus Scrimm. Throughout much of the movie, the action centers around Reggie(who is definitely the most fun character to watch in the movie) more than it does for Michael and in some ways they feel like two story lines that never really intersect except the scenes that involve Jody. Two of the best scenes in the movie involves Reggie’s character and an evil state trooper fighting it out on the highway but at this point the movie has drifted away from creepy, atmospheric horror, to something that resembles mad max meets night of the living dead. Then there is the scene with the woman he saves on the highway and tries to get lucky with only to find out she has killer orbs for breasts and is trying to do him in. The film meanders like this for many scenes, incorporating flash backs from scenes that must have been cut from the original film(which is actually a refreshing use of stock footage rather than recreating the scenes in fuzzy black and white recollection style) and despite the revelation of where the Tall Man actually comes from there seems to be no real resolution to the chain of events set off in the first movie.

I have to say that after watching Phantasm I would not have foreseen the story taking such a sharp turn into apocalyptic territory. Maybe it is just me, but this seems a little outside of the scope that the story is capable of operating in. The blend of science fiction and horror still works in this film where it becomes an inter-dimensional saga. However, this time travelling and collision of past and present seem to work contrary to the atmosphere of the film which is supposed to be a world in which no one is left. Is the Tall Man supposed to be like a plague that sweeps over the land? Why does he pursue Michael so intently?

As I stated in my review of  Phantasm, this is the type of movie where the first film was satisfying because very little was explained and the horror was much more palpable. While the acting and production value has certainly not decreased with the passage of time, the more that has been explained the less makes sense as you are watching this series. In the end, I am not sure what to make of this film except to say that it is good fun as long as you don’t try to think about the philosophical issues it attempts to raise or the hints of apocalyptic good vs. evil it tries to mix into the story line. But in the end, isn’t having fun with a movie like this what it’s all about?

Up next the October Horror Movie Series might be located on top of an old indian burial ground in the Stephen Spielberg produced and Tobe Hooper directed classic Poltergeist.