Scream Blacula Scream is a far better and more interesting movie than one might expect. It's the sequel to a blaxploitation horror film, which does not scream "stellar pedigree." Yet it's well-written and well-acted, and it nicely weaves traditional vampire story elements together with then-popular black power themes.
The film begins at the funeral of a voodoo mama loi. Her son, Willis, stands up to declare himself the new papa loi, but the rest of the cult shoots down his claim and tells him that there must be an election. Lisa, played by Pam Grier, is the talented protegé who has the group's support. Willis gets a hot head, argues with Justin (Don Mitchell) and leaves in a huff.
Willis wants revenge and the position to which he feels entitled. To this end he resurrects the vampire Mamuwalde, played by William Marshall, who quickly inducts Willis into his own cause. Willis' transformation is not the only scene that contains humor, but it is by far the most frivolous part of the movie. When he realizes that he no longer appears in mirrors, he complains, "You jivin'...I mean a man has got to see his face!" Yeah, the dialogue is on the forced side. Anyway, Willis recruits some friends into their macabre pyramid scheme, and before long they've got themselves a little vampire army happening.
Justin is a successful entrepreneur who hosts a party to display his collection of African artifacts. Mamuwalde drops in, admires the collection, and is fascinated by Lisa and her occult abilities. His visit is cut short when a party guest, Gloria, cuts her hand and piques his thirst. He goes out the door and comes back through the window, and Gloria is soon bleeding in two more places.
Elements of social commentary appear. When a couple of pimps try to rob Mamuwalde, he makes like an undead Malcolm X and tells them, "You've made a slave of your sister, you're still slaves imitating your slave masters." Then he rehabilitates them in his own inimitable manner.
The perception of police as intruders in African-American neighborhoods is depicted here. A detective, Harley, investigates Gloria's murder and attributes its bizarre nature to voodoo. Or, his idea of what voodoo is. His cluelessness is funny, but there's more message to it than may be obvious.
Justin, formerly a detective under Harley, offers to assist with the investigation. Harley is barely finished offending Justin and Lisa when the dead pimps are found, and Harley decides that Justin's help might come in handy. He mocks Justin's conclusion that a vampire is at work, but gives it more credence as events get weirder. The police mount a raid on Mamuwalde just as he attempts to use Lisa's prodigious voodoo powers to exorcise the vampire curse from him.
Black vampire power
Richard Pryor once had a bit about how a no-nonsense black family would have dealt with the possessed girl's behavior in The Exorcist. Many characters here have a similar reaction to Mamuwalde: Pimps mock his cape as effeminate, and underlings talk smack to him. Once.
There's a very sneaky trick to this movie: Mamuwalde is the villain, which means that the good guys are the voodoo cult. This may be no accident. The movie carries a theme of black identity, and voodoo is a distinctly African-American religion. (Check your atlas- Haiti's part of North America.) Note the white couple who sit on the sofa and watch during Justin's party. That may seem like a throwaway, but it's not: They are outsiders and can observe but are not able to participate. The white police are similarly excluded, and they cannot make sense of the film's events. Their only fallback is to threaten violence when Mamuwalde asserts himself, and they have no power to back up that threat. Mamuwalde himself feels compromised by his European curse and longs to be rid of it, although he has a "call me Mister Tibbs!" moment of black vampire pride late in the film.
It is common for a blaxploitation film to showcase a few good actors, but there are usually some holes in the cast. Not so here, and William Marshall is very good. If this were considered as part of the Dracula tradition, as it should be, Marshall's take on the character could be considered as distinct and effective as that of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. His only weakness, which seems to be a directorial decision as other characters do the same, is that he overdoes the spastic grimacing come feeding time.
Is it scary? No, it's a vampire movie. If you want scary, you're in the wrong genre. But if a vampire movie is what you want, Scream Blacula Scream takes the traditional romantic and charismatic vampire figure and transplants it into a new culture. The African twist feels fresh and helps to make this a better movie than the Dracula films that Hammer was cranking out at the time.