Thursday, February 7, 2013

Scream, Blacula, Scream! (1973) dir. Bob Kelljan

Logline: After being resurrected in a voodoo ceremony, the African vampire prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) seeks the help of an adept priestess (Pam Grier) to rid him of his ancient curse. But in the meantime, Mamuwalde can't be blamed for having a few midnight snacks to tide him over...

Released only a year after its predecessor and directed by Bob "Count Yorga" Kelljan, Scream, Blacula, Scream! represents a remarkable uptick in quality, allowing it to snatch the coveted label of a sequel that bests its progenitor. There are noticeable improvements in every key area. Though virtually the same length as the previous film, the pacing is quickened, leaving the audience with more action and suspense due to a profusion of ancillary vampires that require staking. The characters are stronger and more interesting, with Pam Grier, Richard Lawson, and Don Mitchell doing solid work while William Marshall brings an alternately softer and sterner approach to his beefed up role as the titular vampire. Moreover, Marshall's Blacula is genuinely frightening this go-around, with his harsh and static facial expressions making a menacing match with his grotesque movements and posture. Most importantly, the story abandons the first film's simplistic Dracula-as-Tragic-Lover cliche, crafting a more complex story of attempted and failed redemption that deals openly and throughout with ideas of slavery, corruption by white influence, and the power of African religion. 

This sequel's iteration of Mamuwalde is a morally righteous but ultimately conflicted and hypocritical creature of the night. His vampire curse plagues him, and he loathes that he must feed on others to survive (though he certainly isn't about to stop). He spends the majority of the film working with Grier's voodoo priestess to conduct a ceremony that will release him from his vampirism (which, recall from last time, was inflicted by a white man's desire to control him) and allow him to live up to the moral standards he holds for others. Because-- at least on the surface-- this is an impassioned and moral vampire we're dealing with. In one curious scene, Mamuwalde is accosted by two black pimps on the street who attempt to mug him. Mamuwalde chastises them for their life choices when he refers to their prostitute by saying, "You've made a slave of your sister, and you're still slaves, imitating your slave master!" It's a powerful line and sentiment, but it's undercut by the fact that Mamuwalde has been assembling his very own hoard of black vampire slaves throughout the film. He issues these pet vampires commands that they must obey, punishes those who do not, and uncritically expects their total devotion to him and his cause, though providing them nothing in return. (The film's most disturbing scene is one in which a slave vampire stares up at his master and pleads with his eyes for permission to drink the blood from a meal he's captured. Mamuwalde looks down at him in sickened disgust). 

How does the stench of his hypocrisy fail to infiltrate his nostrils like a clove of garlic? He's aware that his vampirism drives him to do evil deeds, but he shows little ability or willingness to control himself. He purposely protects Lisa (Pam Grier's priestess) because her skills as a human will serve him, but decides that all other people are fit for his fangs. His purposeful self-restraint when it comes to Lisa makes it clear that there's some amount of choice involved in his actions, so why not abandon killing altogether so as to practice what he's preaching? As he states at one point, he could simply destroy himself and hence release himself from the curse, but he never seriously considers this to be an option. His desire for his own self-preservation and his own privilege over those he sees as lesser beings (everyone in the room may be black, but he's a vampire, as he often points out to the puny humans who challenge him) makes him into the thoughtless slave imitating the slave master.

Mamuwalde appears to be victim of a scuffle between his dueling personalities: the dignified African prince striving for harmony among the people of his race, and the bloodsucking, power-hungry African animal that Count Dracula-- the whitest of privileged white men-- taught him to be. His choice of African-derived voodoo to help him beat the manufactured "Blacula" raging within him is appropriate, for the literal curse bestowed by white European influence will be "exorcised" through African religious custom. Tragically, his indoctrination away from his cultural and personal identity through the symbolic vampirism is too strong to be peacefully eradicated. At the film's climax, one character attempts to catch his bloodlusting attention by yelling out, "Mamuwalde!" to which our brainwashed vampire growls in response, "The name is Blacula!," signalling his resigned acceptance of his role as corrupted monster. Lisa destroys him with voodoo anyway, demonstrating the validity of the power African religion and belief still has on Mamuwalde's existence, but the tragedy (a genuine tragedy this time) lies in the fact that this isn't enough to save his soul.

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