Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973) ***
American International released a fair number of compelling and in some ways even groundbreaking horror movies during the early years of the 1970’s. Unfortunately, the studio enjoyed much less success in crafting worthwhile sequels to those films— compare Count Yorga, Vampire to The Return of Count Yorga, or The Abominable Dr. Phibes to Dr. Phibes Rises Again. AI did get it right at least once, however, with Scream, Blacula, Scream. Blacula had been perhaps the most unlikely triumph of the company’s final decade of operation, rising above a ludicrous title, a shamelessly transparent “high concept” premise, and the silliest vampire makeup since Blood of Dracula on the strength of some magnificently astute casting and a screenplay that, so far as I’ve seen, has yet to be equaled as an example of the tragic antihero approach to vampirism. And while the follow-up falls somewhat short of the standard set by its predecessor, it comfortably sidesteps the pitfalls into which AI’s other 70’s horror sequels plunged headlong, offering up a continuation of the story that feels natural and well thought-out without stooping to mere repetition.
The first hurdle that a Blacula sequel must clear is how to bring Mamuwalde (William Marshall once again) back to life without cheapening the earlier film’s pitch-perfect ending, but it will be a while before Scream, Blacula, Scream addresses that issue. In the meantime, we are shown the funeral of an aged Voodoo priestess, whose followers must now elect her successor. The old woman’s hot-headed son, Willus Daniels (Richard Lawson, of Sugar Hill and Poltergeist), considers it his birthright to step in as Papa Loa, but the rest of the cultists disagree. They want the baton passed to Lisa Fortier (Pam Greer, from Black Mama, White Mama and Foxy Brown), a former junkie street urchin whom the late Mrs. Daniels took under her wing when the girl was seventeen, and who has demonstrated since then a remarkable natural rapport with the spirit world. Beyond that, the congregation doesn’t care for Willus’s attempt to convert the priesthood into a hereditary dynasty. Willus tries to get his way by bluster and intimidation, but that plan goes very poorly. Lisa’s boyfriend, Justin Carter (Don Mitchell), is in attendance at the ceremony, and while he is not a Voodoo practitioner himself, neither is he the sort of man to let bullying go unopposed. Willus retreats when Justin stands up to him, and the cultists let it be known in no uncertain terms that Daniels will not be welcomed back among them should he try to return. Mrs. Daniels was not the only houngan in town, however, and it happens that she herself was a usurper in her time. The man whom she supplanted (evidently at the behest of the congregation) is still alive, too, and the old Papa Loa (Don Blackman) won’t scruple to cooperate with a Daniels if it means making trouble for the people who cast him out. It’s unclear why the old man never played this card himself, but he has in his possession a bag of bones which he claims contains a power sufficient to exact more horrible a revenge than anything his former followers could conceive. The deposed priest hands the sack over to Willus, together with instructions for the spell necessary to unleash the bones’ infernal might.
I presume you’ve figured out by now whose bones those are in the sack, yes? Willus’s conjuring initially seems to have little effect, but just when Daniels decides he must have got something wrong, the skeleton reforms itself into Mamuwalde, the African prince cursed to undeath two centuries before by the legendary Count Dracula. Willus is sorely mistaken, though, if he thinks the vampire is going to lower himself to being used as the instrument of some mortal’s petty vengeance. Before Daniels can utter a single “Can you dig it, man?”, Mamuwalde is on him— nor does the vampire waste any time in establishing the basis upon which their relationship will henceforth proceed. (Nothing says “commanding demeanor” like calmly declaiming, “Your only justification for crawling on this earth is to serve me,” without even bothering to get up off the sofa.) Willus’s first assignment as a vampire henchman comes a short while later, when two of his friends swing by the isolated mansion where he lives (he gets to stay there rent-free in exchange for taking care of the place while the owners are on an extended vacation overseas) in order to pick him up for a party at yet a third friend’s house, and Mamuwalde orders the capture and vampirization of the interlopers. Mamuwalde himself then goes in Willus’s place, apparently with the aim of getting a feel for the environment into which he has been resurrected.
The gathering is at the home of Professor Walston (Cotton Comes to Harlem’s Van Kirksey), scholar of African cultures, collector of African antiquities, and evidently a mentor of sorts to Justin Carter. Mamuwalde presents himself to the professor and his guests as an amateur expert in Walston’s field (the fact that Walston’s collection includes jewelry that once belonged to the vampire’s mortal wife enables him to speak very authoritatively on the artifacts in question), and quickly ingratiates himself to just about everybody. Meanwhile, it comes out in conversation between Mamuwalde and a guest named Gloria (Janee Michelle, from The House on Skull Mountain and The Mephisto Waltz) that Lisa Fortier is the new leader of the neighborhood Voodoo cult, and that she has an exceptional talent for dealing with malign supernatural entities. That gets the vampire’s attention. After all, he’s a pretty malign entity himself, and it occurs to him that a Voodoo priestess as powerful as Lisa is supposed to be might very well be able to exorcise the vampirism out of him and return him to normal life. For now, however, Mamuwalde is hungry, and after excusing himself from the party, he sneaks back in to waylay Gloria as soon as she separates herself from the crowd. It breaks up the party pretty efficiently when the exsanguinated girl staggers downstairs to die in the living room.
Gloria’s extremely weird death naturally brings out the police, led by Detective Lieutenant Dunlop (Michael Conrad, of Satan’s Triangle and The Todd Killings). (Lieutenant Dunlop, strangely, is identified as Sheriff Dunlop in the closing credits.) Dunlop has a passing acquaintance with Voodoo— enough, anyway, to know that some sects venerate snakes and practice blood rituals— and he consequently fingers Lisa as a suspect when his men discover the twin fang-wounds on Gloria’s throat and observe that her body has been completely drained of blood. Carter (who turns out to have been one of Dunlop’s most trusted subordinates before he quit the force to go into the publishing business) offers a different interpretation of the evidence, however. Conceding the suggestive nature of what was done to Gloria, he posits that Willus Daniels could be trying to frame Lisa’s cult in revenge for their rejection of his claim to lead it. Dunlop is not so prejudiced as to deny the sense of Carter’s hypothesis, and he effectively deputizes the former cop to be his intermediary with the cultists. But neither Carter’s theory nor Dunlop’s seems able to account for an ensuing series of crimes, in which more and more people with no evident connection to either Willus or Lisa begin turning up in exactly the same condition as Gloria. Then there’s what happens at the vigil before Gloria’s funeral. The form of Voodoo to which Lisa’s cult adheres prescribes that a priest must spend the night before a burial praying over the body of the deceased, and Lisa is in the midst of performing that duty when the dead girl sits up in her coffin, gives her the old vampire hypno-eyes treatment, and attacks her. Given the circumstances, it’s probably no wonder that Lisa doesn’t find it very comforting when Mamuwalde barges in, and the undead Gloria obeys his command to leave Lisa alone. I mean, if there’s one person in town who can be counted upon to recognize supernatural evil when she sees it, it’s Lisa. Still, a rescue is a rescue, and Mamuwalde manages to convince Lisa to let him see her later, at which point he will presumably explain to her what he is and what he wants her to do for him.
Mamuwalde has two problems, though. While doing some research on the occult down at the public library so that he might aid Dunlop’s investigation of the Voodoo cult on a more informed basis, Carter gets sidetracked on the similarity between the exsanguination murders and the supposed effects of a vampire attack. At first, he’s reluctant to make anything of it, but when the bodies start disappearing from the morgues and funeral parlors to which they had been entrusted, and when Dunlop’s crime scene photographer notices a freakish and physically unexplainable anomaly in what were supposed to be his pictures of the drained corpses, Justin becomes sufficiently convinced to try selling the lieutenant on the idea. Meanwhile, Willus is still fixated on getting even with the cult, and he has little patience with Mamuwalde’s declaration that Lisa is not to be harmed. Furthermore, once Willus brings his girlfriend, Denny (Lynne Moody, from The Evil and Nightmare in Badham County) into the vampire fold, he has at least one ally to support him in a confrontation against the elder bloodsucker. For now, Mamuwalde might look like more than a match for both cops and rebellious slaves, but isn’t his whole plan to have Lisa use her magic to restore his humanity? What power will he have to oppose his enemies then?
The highest praise that I can bestow upon Scream, Blacula, Scream is to observe that it maintains its predecessor’s care in depicting Mamuwalde as a monster against his will, but a monster nonetheless. Mamuwalde lives by killing, and indeed takes a nearly orgasmic pleasure in killing, yet he is revolted by his own behavior, and he dedicates himself to putting a stop to it as soon as an opportunity presents itself. It’s a balance that all too few vampire movies attain when they seek sympathy for the undead while simultaneously constructing their stories along familiar, Stokeristic lines. It was impressive enough when Blacula got it right, and for the sequel to nail it, too, seems almost too much to ask. Beyond that, Scream, Blacula, Scream remains true to the earlier film’s spirit in an even more surprising way by never allowing Lisa to become Mamuwalde’s love interest. Remember, the mainspring of Blacula’s story was Mamuwalde’s devotion to the wife he lost along with his humanity, and whom he believed he had found reincarnated in Tina. Surely not even Pam Grier can compete with the memory of a love that transcends lifetimes, and whether by accident or by design, Scream, Blacula, Scream confirms as much with its handling of the relationship between Mamuwalde and Lisa. I guess it just goes to exemplify the oft-overlooked importance of bringing back the original writers for the second go-round.
Speaking of Lisa and Pam Grier, it must be admitted that actress and character collectively come as the movie’s one major disappointment. Grier is both underused and miscast, and it’s hard to watch this film without grumbling a little over missed opportunities. As blaxploitation heroines go, Lisa is on the meek and passive side— a part more appropriate for somebody like Marlene Clark than for Pam Grier. The character fits well into the story being told, but Grier’s talents and persona both point in a completely different direction. Put her in the role, and all it gets you is every blaxploitation fan on Earth longing wistfully for Coffy vs. Blacula, whereas Scream, Blacula, Scream is something completely different.