It took a little while for what is now known as the blaxploitation genre to get going, but by the time Gordon Parks' SHAFT (1971) was on the streets, everyone and his brother (sorry) was looking to cash in on it. Always one to exploit a trend, American International Pictures decided that the best way to kick off a potential blaxploitation horror franchise was to do a version of Dracula. Or not, because BLACULA isn't anything like Stoker's novel (not that that ever stopped Hammer), but it is a brisk and fun movie that also says more about the age in which it was made than was probably ever intended.
We start off in Transylvania. Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his wife (Vonetta McGee) are visiting Dracula (a very un-Christopher Lee-like Charles McCauley, and well done to whoever decided to do something a bit different with the character). Somehow they've been led to think he might support the abolition of the slave trade rather than turning out to be exactly what we all want Dracula to be, which is an utter bastard of the highest order. Incensed that anyone would even think he would be interested in getting rid of slavery, Dracula curses Mamuwalde with vampirism and walls his wife up with him to die.
The 1970s. And not just the 1970s but the Afro-haired, gaily coloured, massive shirt collar and dayglo coloured pendant wearing 1970s. A couple of camp young male antique dealers (one with handbag and the other with cigarette holder), are in the process of buying the contents of Castle Dracula. Everything gets shipped back to their warehouse in Los Angeles. A misplaced crowbar and some ill-advised curiosity later, and Blacula is up and about and vampirising. At the funeral home where one of his victims is being prepared for burial, Blacula spots Tina (McGee again) a dead ringer for his dead wife. Kim Newman may well be right in his talking head piece included as an extra in this set, that this might be the first vampire film that features the theme of pursuit of lost love. If he is then Coppola's DRACULA did indeed rip off BLACULA, which is as amusing as it is ironic.
More deaths occur and Mamuwalde eventually gets the girl. By the end he's being pursued by the might of the LAPD and has created a warehouse full of vampire slaves. I've not seen the ending we have here done in a vampire film before this one, either, and if you've not seen the movie I'll leave you to discover it for yourselves. BLACULA is a lot of fun, and while some of the acting leaves a bit to be desired, William Marshall is excellent in the title role. Regal, majestic, commanding and at the same time extremely likeable, he gives the character a depth other actors would have had a lot of difficulty achieving. Gene Page’s music errs on the side of funk rather than horror (but that still means it's actually rather groovy) and somehow the manager of the Hues Corporation did a deal to have them singing three songs! (But no 'Rock the Boat'.)
One of the things AIP seemed effortless at (and which Hammer never really managed to do) was combine the idea of the gothic vampire with 1970s urban life. Both BLACULA and the COUNT YORGA pictures showed how a vampire of Dracula's ilk might survive in modern day America. It's unsurprising then that when William Crain, BLACULA's director, proved to be unavailable, the task of directing SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM fell to Bob Kelljan, the director of both Yorga movies. Blacula is brought back to life by voodoo to be used as an instrument of revenge. He's given a splendid buildup and introduction in one of AIP's longest-ever pre-credit sequences. After that it's business as usual, with Blacula this time building up a vampire horde at an isolated country house. All he wants is to die and he needs sexy voodoo specialist Pam Grier to help him. It all builds to a final showdown at the house with some well-orchestrated action sequences and scarier music courtesy of Kelljan's regular composer Bill Marx. SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM is actually preferred by many people to the first film, but I have to say I like the original more.
A prime slice of early 1970s exploitation, both of AIP's BLACULA movies are now presented in this fine dual disc DVD & Blu-ray set from Eureka. The transfer of BLACULA is especially excellent, with very little grain in the image. The picture quality of SCREAM isn't quite as good but presumably that's a film stock issue. The only extra is Kim Newman talking for twenty five minutes about both films. He does a good job of placing both movies in context, giving us some background, and suggesting how influential they might actually be. As well as that you get trailers for both films and a 32 page booklet with new writing by Josiah Howard and reprints of BLACULA press materials. Overall this is a very nice package indeed, and well done to Eureka for including both films in this highly presentable set.
Eureka are releasing AIP's BLACULA: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION on dual format Blu-ray and DVD on 27th October 2014 - just in time for Halloween