Monday, October 24, 2016

HubrisWeen 2016, Day 19: Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973)

So, while I avoided spoilers in my review of Blacula, I think most of you probably got the idea that things don't go his way in the end. Though, hilariously, not because he got staked, as the poster for that film implies.

Still, just like his melanin-challenged forebear, you can't keep Blacula down when the box office demands he rise up. Naturally, AIP knew that the people wanted a sequel and a year later they gave it to them.

What you might not expect is a sequel that is actually equal to the original, instead of a a disappointing follow-up. There are even a few areas that it improves on the original, with one unfortunate caveat that I will get to in time.

Last we saw Prince Mamuwalde he was walking into the morning sun of Los Angeles after his only reason for continuing his cursed existence was taken from him. So we're going to need a pretty damn good reason for why he's back now, and a viewer could be forgiven for thinking they'd wandered into the wrong movie at first because the opening of the film seems to have no connection to Blacula at all.

The lead mambo (priestess) of a powerful voodoo sect in Atlanta has passed way, and her supporters have all gathered for her funeral. By her side is Lisa Fortier (Pam Grier!), who was taken in by the priestess when she was a troubled teenager living on the street. Lisa obviously thought of her as a mother, which is a bit of a sore spot for the woman's actual son, Willis Daniels (Richard Lawson). In fact, at the funeral, Willis makes a scene because he declares that he should be named as the successor of his mother, since he's her son. Some of the sect agree, a few beg him to wait until after the damn funeral is over to start up this nonsense, but the majority tell him in no uncertain terms that the successor will be named by a vote. The implication is pretty clear that the sect favors Lisa, because she's Pam fucking Grier the most powerful member of the sect, truly gifted with natural ability.

[Side note: I know very little about voodoo, so I can't speak to the film's accuracy too much. However, instead of asking to be made a houngan (priest), Willis says he deserves to be "papa loa" of the sect, and near as I can determine from a brief Google search a "loa" is actually a divine spirit in voodoo. So that's a bit like asking to be made a "cardinal angel" in a Catholic church, if I'm understanding correctly. I actually hope someone who knows more will set me straight on that]

Willis tries to get his way with physical intimidation, but Justin Carter (Don Mitchell), Lisa's boyfriend quickly restrains him. Justin isn't a voodoo practitioner himself, but he isn't about to stand by and let his girlfriend be called a bitch by some upstart jerk. Since Justin is an ex-cop, Willis is physically outmatched and reluctantly leaves the funeral in a fury.

At any rate, the sect has made enemies in the past and Willis wastes no time in seeking out an old man who used to be the lead houngan of the sect before Willis's mother usurped him. The man gives Willis a box of bones he's been saving for a grand revenge plan he's now in no position to carry out. He gives Willis the instructions for a spell to unleash the raw destructive power in the bones.

Willis naturally waits for a thunderstorm to brew around the mansion he is apparently housesitting for an extended period before setting up the spell. He takes his shirt off before he kills a dove and pours its blood over the bones, which are arranged inside carefully arranged candles, while he chants in what sounds like French. The bones spontaneously catch fire, but after the fire subsides nothing apparently happens, and Willis storms off in a frustrated huff. Lisa wakes from a nightmare, looking into the nearby fireplace, apparently having sensed what Willis has unleashed.

You see, unfortunately for Willis, the spell did work, but the old houngan neglected to specify that the power Willis was unleashing would not be under his control. So when Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall, again) walks up behind the man who resurrected him, he repays Willis by immediately draining him of blood.

Moral of the story: Don't resurrect vampires to settle personal grudges.
After another nifty animated title sequence set to the truly odd theme song called "Torment", we rejoin Mamuwalde and Willis at the mansion. While Mamuwalde lounges on a sheet-covered sofa, Willis has gotten dressed up as painfully sharply as 1973 will allow in preparation for going out, but when he goes to check his reflection he discovers he doesn't have one. The following sequence is so hysterical that it could have come from What We Do In The Shadows easily. First, Willis asks Mamuwalde, "What's this, blood?" When Mamuwalde explains that it's part of the curse of being one of the undead, Willis responds with the immortal, "Aw, man, you jivin'!"

Willis declares he doesn't mind being a vampire, but not being able to ever see his face again is just cruel. He pouts briefly before deciding that he's going to head out to the party he was getting ready for anyway.

Yes, I can see how not being able to see this outfit would be deeply upsetting.
However, Willis has not gotten the memo that despite bringing Mumwalde back from the dead, he doesn't call the shots. Mamuwalde explains that not only will Willis not go anywhere without asking Mamuwalde's permission first, but he intones in his rich, deep voice that, "Your only justification for crawling on this earth is to serve me."

Willis's protests that his girlfriend will be upset at him being missing from the party don't sway Mamuwalde one bit. However, two of Willis's friends come by to get him---apparently a couple, a short black guy and tall white redheaded woman. Mamuwalde eats the male half and then both he and Willis chase the terrified woman around the house until she finally just gives up, stands in place screaming at them in terror and finally just faints. Willis looks at Mamuwalde expectedly and is finally allowed to drink her blood.

This inspires Mamuwalde to crash the party Willis was going to: an event hosted by Justin, who turned to publishing after leaving the police force. Using his much improved income, Justin has amassed a serious collection of African antiquities over the years and is throwing a party to show them off before he donates them to a museum. As Justin shows off a necklace to a professor of African studies and Lisa, the professor identifies it as belonging to the Niger dynasty--however Mamuwalde appears and corrects him, saying it's from the Abani tribe and belonged to Princess Luva. Mamuwalde would know from experience, of course, but he passes off his intimate knowledge as being a product of having a passion for African antiquities. he excuses himself for crashing the party, saying he saw it from outside and was instantly drawn to it. Naturally, he's so charming that nobody minds and Justin even invites Mamuwalde to see the rest of the collection, and offers Lisa as a guide.

In a clear example of something you should never say unless you are William Marshall or Idris Elba, Mamuwalde comments that with such a beautiful guide he will have trouble concentrating on the exhibits. I mean, he's absolutely not wrong, but still.

Personally, I think the fact that this review is not just solid pictures of Pam Grier shows admirable restraint on my part.
While showing Mamuwalde around, Lisa notes that she feels she has met him before. Mamuwlade shrugs this off just as Lisa is called away to help Justin with something and allows her friend Gloria (Janee Michelle) to finish showing Mamuwalde around. She finds Mamuwalde entranced by a doll in a display case, which he advises he feels he recognizes but cannot place. Gloria explains it's a voodoo doll, and that is Mamuwalde wants to know more about voodoo then Lisa is the woman to talk to, because she is one of the most gifted practitioners alive.

This gets Mamuwalde's attention. After all, a gifted mambo could potentially free of him of the curse that Dracula placed on him, could she not? Unfortunately, before Mamuwalde can do much toward approaching Lisa beyond engaging in more conversation with her and Justin, Gloria manages to slice her hand. Seeing the blood, Mamuwalde excuses himself and thanks his hosts for a wonderful party so he can sneak outside and then back up the stairs to the bedroom where Gloria has retired to tend to her cut. Unfortunately for her, she is looking into a vanity mirror and therefore has no warning that the vampire is approaching until he is already on her.

The noise of the party covers her screams, but it sure ruins the mood when Gloria staggers into the living room and then falls dead, for all to see.

Mamuwalde, for his part, turns into a bat--to the surprise of a drunk man outside the party--and flies around Atlanta for a while before deciding to turn back into a man and go for a stroll instead. As he passes through the strip club and porn shops district, a woman propositions him but he doesn't quite take her meaning and keeps walking. This draws the ire of two pimps, who decide that if Mamuwalde isn't going to hire any of their girls then they're gonna call him gay slurs and then threaten to beat his money out of him. Mamuwalde points out that this would be a very bad idea with the immortal, "I'm sorry, I don't have any 'bread' on me, and as for 'kicking my ass' I'd strongly suggest you give it careful consideration before trying."

They don't listen, so one gets thrown through a window and the other learns the hard way that switchblades don't do shit to vampires. Mamuwalde also drains them both of blood because he knows better than to let it go to waste.

Meanwhile, the cops have come to investigate Gloria's death and Lieutenant Harvey Dunlop (Michael Conrad), who used to be Justin's superior when he was a cop, proves to be a bit of an ignorant blowhard. he decides Lisa has something to do with the death by saying that the body was completely drained of blood (Completely drained of blood!) and had two marks on its neck like a snakebite. He asserts that the two things everyone knows about voodoo practitioners is they worship snakes and drink blood. I don't know who "everyone" is in Dunlop's estimation, because I have never heard either behavior attributed to voodoo practitioners. I mean, snakes and blood do factor in to their rituals, but not to the extent he implies--and besides, there's not a snake alive that could drain a person's blood through its bite, but that is not addressed.

At any rate, Justin points out that it's far more likely that someone else would be trying to frame Lisa than that Lisa would murder a close friend, possibly even Willis Daniels. Dunlop decides to go with that possibility for the time being, but he doesn't really have enough to bring Willis in. And when the call comes in about the two pimps killed in the same exact way as Gloria, that just leaves Dunlop and Justin confused. I mean, why would anyone kill those two to try and frame Lisa? Even considering Lisa's checkered past before she was brought under the lead mambo's wing, those two pimps have no connection to her whatsoever.

Even stranger, after Dunlop agrees to let Justin assist with the investigation, the coroner shows him something found on one of the victims: bat pelage. or the hair from the skin of a bat. The coroner can't identify the species however. Justin decides to do some research into the occult to see if he can figure out how this revelation might be significant. He does this, delightfully, by going to a bookstore that has a darling little sign reading "Occult" on one shelf right next to "Graphics." Justin has a seat and peruses multiple volumes, which means by the time he's done he's convinced a vampire is stalking the streets of Atlanta.

Amazingly, Justin immediately goes to Dunlop with this. Dunlop, naturally, laughs in his face--until the crime scene photos come in from the two murdered pimps and they're not showing up in any of the photographs, despite everything else--including the paramedics apparently lifting empty air--showing up perfectly. Justin claims this is the proof he needs and asks to be able to monitor the bodies of the two victims to see if they come back to life as vampires.

Poor Lisa, on the other hand, gets to find out the hard way that Justin is on to something. Gloria was a part of the sect so Lisa needs to stand vigil over her body that night and pray over her, before the burial can be completed the next day. Well, Gloria wakes up and quickly compels the helpless Lisa to come to her...

"Dear Penthouse: I am the head priestess of a voodoo sect and I never thought this would happen to me..."
Luckily for Lisa, Mamuwalde appears at that point, dramatically blowing open the back doors of the parlor where her coffin is held and ordering Gloria into the night, to return to his lair with the rest of his vampire brood. Lisa realizes that she recognized Mamuwalde because her connection to the spirit world allowed her to witness his resurrection in the flames when she had her nightmare earlier. Mamuwalde, however, promises her that he will not hurt her and he will not allow any of his vampires to harm her, either.

In fact, Mamuwalde needs her help. He knows she has the power to exorcise the demon inside of him that makes him an immortal, murderous bloodsucker. he has to depart because the sun is coming up, but he convinces her to promise to come with him tomorrow night to perform the ritual.

Once back at the mansion, Mamuwalde gathers his menagerie of vampires and tells them all in no uncertain terms that Lisa is not to be harmed, and if any of them lays a finger on her he will make them regret it. Of course, this is the opposite of what Willis wanted in the first place and his newly vampirized girlfriend, Denny (Lyyn Moody), wasn't much fond of Lisa, either. However, they find out the hard way that even discussing any action against Lisa brings Mamuwalde's wrath down upon them right quick.

Meanwhile, Lisa keeps mum about her encounter but the two dead pimps and Gloria are missing, so Dunlop is starting to buy Justin's vampire hunch. And when Justin meets with Mamuwalde to discuss history, the initially pleasant conversation very quickly finds the two discovering that they're onto each other before Mamuwalde makes a gracious exit. When Dunlop sends two officers to collect Lisa, Mamuwalde appears to stop them--and then tosses them both throw a door when one of them gets racist, before taking Lisa to the mansion in order to complete the ritual.

That's enough to send Dunlop, Justin, and multiple expendable cops (one of whom is Craig T. Nelson) to raid the mansion. At Justin's insistence they arm themselves with makeshift stakes from the picket fence pieces they found outside the mansion (and later Justin and Dunlop pick up a crossbow and a decorative axe, respectively, from inside the house like it's a video game boss's lair). However, even with those weapons and Mamuwalde busy with the ritual, they're about to find that they're in for a brutal ordeal with his undead minions...

"Hey, lieutenant: should we maybe come back when it's not night out?"
I'll get the absolute, 100% worst part of Scream, Blacula, Scream out of the way right off the bat (no pun intended): Pam Grier should not have been cast as Lisa Fortier, as written. While it's true that Grier's expected role as a badass blxploitation headliner who kicks asses and takes names hadn't been fully cemented yet--Black Mama, White Mama came out earlier in the same year and Coffy was released the same month--she was already known for playing fierce, strong characters. So when you tell me that there's a movie where Pam Grier plays a voodoo priestess who crosses paths with Blacula, well, I'm assuming she's either evenly matched or has the vampire eating out of her hand.

Instead, Lisa is a passive character, even more so than Tina in the first film because she almost seems to lack any agency despite being the chosen head of a voodoo sect. Until the very end of the film, she never seems to take any action that is based on what she wants, but instead revolves around what others want of her. Sure, she is ultimately the one to defeat Mamuwalde when all others fail--in a really neat, if somewhat predictable way--but that comes at the end of a film she has spent most of the running time being a damsel in distress.

Make no mistake, there's an argument to be made about how it's nice to see her playing against type and how black women are often denied the chance to play a passive role because of the stereotype of strong, independent black woman. It's also true that Pam Grier is very good in the role, even if it's not a role that really suits her. However, it just feels very disappointing when it could have been so much more.

However, the rest of the film is excellent. The vampire makeup for Blacula is still kind of silly, but the makeup for his minions has improved so that there is nothing in the film as embarrassing as Dracula's brides in the first one. As I said in the first film, sometimes crude makeup effects are more unnerving than polished ones and that's absolutely true of this movie's vampires, which makes the climax a lot more unnerving than you might expect of a sequence that features a vampire waiting in a pantry to jump out kill someone.

While I think, overall, the original film is a bit better, this film is absolutely on equal footing to it and is a sequel that is actually essential viewing if you loved the original. (Unlike some others I could nameScream, Blacula, Scream does what a sequel should by expanding on the themes of the original instead of just recreating it. Another doomed love story for Mamuwalde would be silly, but a doomed attempt to regain his humanity? Now that's an engaging hook.

I honestly can't recommend this film enough, even with the few flaws it has. If you want my advice, make it a double feature with the original, just as Scream factory's recent Blu-ray suggests.

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