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

The Fearless Vampire Killers(1967); Dir. Roman Polanski; Warner Home Video(2004)

A movie with the subtitle Pardon me, but Your Teeth are in My Neck would suggest to the viewer that they are about to watch something that is in the same vein(I just couldn’t resist) as Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It or the more accomplished Young Frankenstein. The trailer for the release of The Fearless Vampire Killers sets up the film as a parody of vampire movies by adding slapstick sound effects and there is a short special feature included on the disc entitled Vampires 101 which plays as a farce of how to protect oneself from and kill vampires in the form of a lecture given by a very serious and scholarly professor in a creepy castle. Having watched both of these before the actual film, I was almost expecting a film that was absurd, as well as very blatant and intentional about its efforts to parody classic vampire films.

Parody and satire, over the last several years, have gotten a very bad rap because of such movies as Disaster Movie, Scary Movie, Epic Movie, and the countless drone of films that attempt to lampoon everything in sight that could be classified as “pop culture sacred cows.” These movies show very little production value and operate on the lowest levels of humor by finding actors and actresses that can look or sound like the person they are parodying enough to get a few cheap laughs. I bring these movies up not to set them up as straw men in an easy argument for the merits of Polanski’s film but rather to point out that parody is a very delicate thing often taken for cheap entertainment.

What stands out immediately in The Fearless Vampire Killers is the sets and landscape of the film. The castle where a good deal of the action in the film takes place feels Medieval and haunted. The cobwebs, creaky doors, and other aspects that are so often used as cliches and convenient set pieces really feel like they belong there and add an ominous quality to the atmosphere as Prof. Abronsius and Alfred travel through the castle in search of answers.  The inn where Abronsius and Alfred first arrive at, as well as its inhabitants, seem strange and foreboding in their daily routines. You know from the start that things are not quite right when you see the rooms lined with garlic and crucifixes hanging on every wall. But everyone goes about their business and the innkeeper, Shagal, played with great attention to eccentricity and a great sense of comedic timing by Alfie Bass, is unwilling to disclose what it is all about. The inn and the castle are the only interior sets in the film and the rest relies on the beautiful snowy exteriors filmed by the great Douglas Slocombe(cinematographer on the first three Indiana Jones movies among many others).

This attention to detail and moody atmosphere perfectly compliments the performances given by the actors throughout the film. The characters are played with a seriousness that makes the satire work even more effectively, even when they are unrestrained and bumbling as in the case of Polanski’s Alfred or unabashadly sinister as in the case of Ferdy Mayne’s Count von Krolock. There is the homoerotic son of Count von Krolock, played by lain Quarrier and the wonderful hunchback servant to Count von Krolock, Terry Downes who chases after Prof. Abronsius and Alfred in a coffin used as a sled and refuses to let the undead Shagal sleep in the coffin room with his masters, pushing the coffin outside to Shagal’s neurotic complaints. The comic turns these actors give in the film range from the genuinely creepy to the inept attempts of Abronsius and Alfred to stop the vampires once they have discovered them. The darker undertones of the film seem to play out through these characters as they try to reckon with Count von Krolock and his undead forces while unwittingly doing more harm then good in the end.

There are many times when it is refreshing not to know what to expect from a movie, and this is certainly one of those times. What is unexpected about this film does not come from any scary surprises or plot twists that are supposed to shock us but through the landscape that Polanski creates and the attention to detail that he consistently uses throughout the film. He directs The Fearless Vampire Killers the same way that he would have with any of his more serious films and this gives the movie a charm that draws you in and engages you all the way through. Polanski demonstrates a sense of freedom in directing with a deft touch that emphasizes the satirical aspects of the movie while exploring the possibilities of the story material and this makes it more than just an odd curiosity in Roman Polanski’s long film career.

Up Next The October Horror Movie Series gets a tasty but deadly treat with Larry Cohen’s The Stuff.

Charles Jacob

vanheck123@hotmail.com, please feel free to contact me with any comments, questions or general thoughts that you would like to share.