As Halloween approaches, let’s take a moment to reflect on two of Blaxploitation cinema’s seminal horror films and the legendary actor William Marshall.
Written by Joan Torres & Raymond Koenig
Directed by William Crain
“You shall pay, black prince. I shall place a curse of suffering on you that will doom you to a living hell. I curse you with my name. You shall be… Blacula! ”
And thus Dracula has cursed African prince Mamuwalde into a life of eternal suffering. Mamuwalde awakens in 1972 finding a different world than when he last saw Count Dracula. He encounters interracial gay couples, glitzy night clubs, and sassy cab drivers. This new world does not bother him as he has but two objectives, bloodsucking and finding his lost love.
Blacula starts as pure exploitation cinema: a Dracula story for a black audience, a pun in the title, Afros, bell-bottoms, and loads of jive talk. This could easily have been a parody of Bram Stoker’s most famous creation, but Blacula plays it straight, rarely ever addressing the title character by his moniker. William Marshall brings a regal quality to the character of Mamuwalde and should be held in such esteem befitting Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, and Gary Oldman. Marshall’s performance is that of a man tormented by his deeds and his immortal prison. Marshall towers over the rest of the cast, revealing volumes about his character in simple glances and gestures, not to mention his commanding voice.
The story skimps on the social commentary of the 1970s, but uses the vampire metaphor for the African slave trade. Mamuwalde is cursed or imprisoned by Dracula, renamed and over a long distance of time, finally resides in America. He has lost his identity, his purpose in life, and the thing most important to him: his wife, Luva. Like Mamuwalde’s immortal nights, slavery is forever a part of black culture.
Part monster movie, part character study: on the surface Blacula is Gothic horror in the modern world; beneath the surface, fathoms of isolation and pain imposed by the institution of slavery still burn for an entire population in American culture.
Scream, Blacula, Scream
Written by Joan Torres, Raymond Koenig, & Maurice Jules
Directed by Bob Kelljan
Most successful horror films have lackluster sequels. Blacula’s box office success allowed producer Samuel Arkoff to give this sequel a bigger budget and higher ambitions, and Scream, Blacula, Scream exceeds every marker.
Pam Grier and Richard Lawson round out a strong cast that supports William Marshall’s Mamuwalde as one of cinema’s most tortured villains. Director Bob Kelljan cultivates a darker tone and style to this film, making it closer related to a Hammer film than its predecessor. Mamuwalde dwells in a castle with his harem of vampires, and commands an unquenchable, unforgiving desire to see his plan through to the end.
What is missing from the original film that is attended to here in one masterfully crafted scene is Mamuwalde’s adjustment to the modern world. Mamuwalde faces the decadence of a red light district, modern music stars, prostitution, and street crime–this man knows he does not belong here and that times have changed, but humanity on many levels has not.
Scream, Blacula, Scream is not always an intellectual’s horror film though, and on occasion, like it’s predecessor, horror succumbs to humor. The biggest laugh in the film is served up as a newly turned vampire tries to check his style in the mirror only to find he no longer has a reflection.
So what does Blacula have that Dracula does not? In essence, Dracula is a wholly evil character. The Blacula films’ titular character exists in equal states Mamuwalde (human) and Blacula (evil). The films hold a mirror to the duality present in every man, which makes the films so much more accessible and relatable. Scream, Blacula, Scream is the superior film of the two, perfectly balancing horror and drama and deserves to be considered in the cannon of serious horror films.
William Marshall also starred in blaxploitation The Exorcist knock-off picture Abby, in which he is tasked with playing the hero priest and to his credit delivers a strong, assured performance. During what is easily the creepiest scene in the film, his commanding voice cuts through the demon’s havoc with cool superiority. Abby uses many of The Exorcist’s plot points but draws very little on it’s mood and atmosphere. Sadly it never reaches any horrific heights. Marshall is also known for his role as the King of Cartoons in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, but it is the Mamuwalde/Blacula character that reveals Marshall’s talents and on-screen charisma.