To take a sequel in a different direction is double edged: yes, the audience avoids a rehash, but stray too far and the filmmakers risk alienation. Thankfully, this isn’t an issue with Scream Blacula Scream (1973), the follow up to the preceding year’s surprise hit Blacula – it still (wisely) focuses on Prince Mamuwalde, while adding some fresh flavor and turning decidedly towards a gothic feel.
Released by AIP near the end of June, SBS wasn’t nearly the hit that the first was; for some reason audiences stayed away despite promising more after hours bloodletting and groovy music. A pity then as Scream Blacula Scream is a better film than the original – slicker, funnier, and it gives titular (and returning) star William Marshall a chance to be even more menacing. It simply has more bite. (Hey, you knew it was coming.)
As our fair Prince was turned to dust in the original, we open in an indiscriminate storefront as an elderly voodoo priestess has passed away. Her rightful heir Lisa (Pam Grier – Coffy) sits beside her still body, yet is contested loudly by the priestess’ son Willis (Richard Lawson – Poltergeist), who believes he should preside over the loose congregation. When he is confronted by Lisa’s well to do boyfriend Justin (Don Mitchell – Ironside), Willis flees and visits the old expunged voodoo priest, who gives Willis the bones of Mamuwalde to enact his revenge on Lisa and the others.
Once Willis resurrects Mamuwalde in the mansion he’s housesitting, Mamuwalde decides that Willis will make a good vampire slave and turns him. He then heads to an African antiquities party hosted by Justin, and immediately becomes intrigued with Lisa – especially when he finds out her position in the voodoo community. Perhaps Lisa can cure him of his affliction? He’d better hurry up and find out, as the police are closing in on all the undead bodies he’s leaving strewn about…
Perhaps the returns for Scream Blacula Scream weren’t as great because the film hews closer to Hammer than it does to Shaft; the Blaxploitation is certainly more subdued here than it is in the original. There are direct nods to the sub-genre – Blacula confronts a couple of pimps on the streets, the party at Justin’s place – but there is a deliberate turn towards the old traditions of the shadowed manor and the engulfing staircase. Maybe the appeal to a wider base weakened what worked in the first?
Except other than a pulling back on cultural (and political) leanings, SBS is a stronger film in most ways. The focus this time around is the social status within the black community itself; Justin, a retired ex-cop, owns a successful advertising firm and is inclusive – his respect for Lisa’s followers is admirable, even though they don’t run in the same circles. He never uses his love for Lisa as a reason to accept them - he seems as genuine towards them as they do towards providing a positive platform for their religion.
Supplanting Christianity with voodoo can be seen as a cynical take on kowtowing to Blaxploitation requirements (it popped up a lot), but what it does offer is a fresh alternative to the usual iconography used in vampirism (well, not completely – the bloodsuckers still have to be destroyed); not only that, but Mamuwalde wishes to use Lisa’s powers to rid himself of his never-ending curse. There’s less hokum associated with the religion – although depending on how you feel about the use of dolls to inflict pain and/or heal, mileage may vary.
So we have voodoo, a vampire army growing bigger by the minute, and a weary (read: angry) bloodsucker who wants out of the biz. So where are we going to hang all this action? If you’re director Bob Kelljan (Count Yorga, Vampire) and returning screenwriters Joan Torres, Raymond Koenig, and new addition Maurice Jules (The Velvet Vampire), you steer away from the urban jungle and head for the safe strata of the gothic manor.
But after the necessary (and wonderful) re-socialization of Mamuwalde into the modern black landscape in Blacula, it’s a gas to see him play in the world of Lugosi and Lee – where I think he bests both, thanks to the singular talent of William Marshall.
Anytime the film ventures into the mansion – which is very often – it plays into the strengths of Hammer’s Dracula films; foreboding darkness, shadowed intrusions and attacks, and malevolent intent all led by the imposing presence and earth shattering baritone of Mr. Marshall. His vampire compels one to listen to his every word; his hold on his victims and the audience is mesmerizing, whether he is admonishing pimps for being slave masters or putting Willis in his place, he commands the screen and manor in a way few others can.
Scream Blacula Scream has the reputation as being “lesser than” its predecessor - a film that backs away from its inherent politics for a more straightforward horror tale. But by infusing the film with classical lore it leaves an even bigger impression: despite its modern setting, Marshall’s Mamuwalde is as timeless as Lugosi, Lee, or Stoker himself.
Scream Blacula Scream is available on Blu-ray as part of a Double Feature with Blacula from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: The Carpenter (1988)