Saturday, February 21, 2015

BLACULA: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION (1972-1973)

BLACULA: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION (1972-1973)

Label: Eureka Classics
Duration: 190 Minutes
Region Code: B
Rating: 1 Certificate
Video: HD Widescreen (1.85:1)
Audio
: English LPCM Stereo Audio with Optional English SDH Subtitles 
Director: William Crain, Raymond Koenig
Cast: Denise Nicholas, Thalmus Rasulala, William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Charles Macaulay, Gordon Pinsent, Michael Conrad, Don Mitchell, Pam Grier, Richard Lawson


SYNOPSIS: 
Urban action and fatal attraction give rise to a groove from beyond the grave in this funkadelic, fangadelic Soul Cinema sensation! The eternally cool William Marshall puts a fresh spin on the age-old legend of the vampire, condemned to wander the earth with an insatiable lust for blood. In 1780, African Prince Mamuwalde (Marshall) pays a visit to Count Dracula in Transylvania, seeking his support in ending the slave trade. Instead, the evil count curses his noble guest and transforms him into a vampire! Released from his coffin nearly two centuries later by a pair of luckless decorators, Mamuwalde emerges as “Blacula,” one cool, dressed to kill, dude strollin’ the streets of L.A. on a nightly quest for human blood and fine women!

In Scream, Blacula, Scream Blacula lives, and only the legendary Pam Grier (Jackie Brown) has the power to deep-six his reign of terror. William Marshall returns as the noble African prince turned bloodthirsty fiend in this hair-raising sequel to the terrifying hit Blacula! This time, it’s voodoo power versus vampire fury when Willis (Richard Lawson), the son of the late high priestess, seeks revenge on the cultists who have chosen his foster sister Lisa (Grier) as their new leader. Hoping to curse Lisa, Willis unwittingly resurrects Blacula’s earthly remains and lets loose the Prince of Darkness and his freaked-out army of the undead!

BLACULA (1972)
William Marshall appears as African Prince Mamuwalde in BLACULA as the funk soul brother of his white bread progenitor Count Dracula, whom you might be surprised to learn was a racist. At the start of the film Prince Mamwalde is turned into a bloodsucker by Dracula and imprisoned for nearly 200 years inside of a coffin until he is accidentally released by a pair of gay decorators, who purchased the coffin at an estate sale. Of course they are the first to fall victim to his blood thirst. The vampire adjusts to life in modern L.A. with surprising ease and soon encounters an attractive young woman named Tina Williams (Vonetta McGee) whom he believes to be the reincarnation of his beloved wife Luva.

The two soon start to date but Tina's sister Michelle (Denise Nicholas) and her pathologist boyfriend, Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala), suspect her new beau may be the culprit responsible for a series of strange murders, notably the deaths of the decorators. Michelle and Gordon visit the grave of one of the decorators and discover him to be a blue-skinned bloodsucker, learning the supernatural truth of the matter they set out to save Tina from the vampire. 


No one will ever accuse the Blacula films for being politically correct, from the very start we have the white bread Count Dracula scoffing at the idea of stopping the slave trade pitched to him by the African Prince Mamuwalde, who is in turn made a vampire and dubbed "Blacula" by the white prince of darkness, which is pretty funny, c'mon folks, loosen up. Then you have the stereotyped portrayal of homosexuals and suspect black culture references but that's par for the course for a blaxploitation film so you just have to roll with it on this one, it was the era and if you can just except it there's a lot of fun to be had with this funk soul cinema fright fest. 

Marshall cuts quite a figure as the soul brother bloodsucker, a proud, deep voiced vampire, whose baritone easily draws comparisons to Hammer's own bloodsucker extraordinaire Christopher Lee. If you close your eyes you would be hard pressed not to make the comparison yourself but I cannot imagine Christopher Lee saying most of these lines. Marshall brings gravity to the role that could have easily been played for laughs in less capable hands, a proud figure that commands respect, not laughs. 

Loads of side characters bring some fun to the film, notably Ji-Tu Cumbuka in a memorable appearance during a dinner scene whom calls Blacula "one strange dude", and Thomas Rasulala is pretty great in the role of vampire hunter. One of my favorite scenes is that of one of the bloodsuckers victims reanimating at the morgue and attacking the morgue attendant in slow motion, very creepy stuff, but the following scene with the vampire yelping like a chihuahua is cringe worthy, it's a film of lows and highs that way.  

The film has a fantastic soul soundtrack and offers a unique take on the vampire lore with a sweet blaxploitation bent that covers familiar ground but also adds a few new flavors to the mix to keep it interesting. I have to imagine that a strong black character killing white L.A.P.D. officers with impunity must have been quite a scene and offered some much need escapism during a tumultuous era, and framed within the context of a supernatural thriller maybe didn't draw too much attention to itself.

SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973)In the sequel Mamuwalde is resurrected through a voodoo ritual by a guy named Willis (Richard Lawson) who wishes to use the bloodsucker  to usurp the throne of newly crowned voodoo priestess Lisa Fortier (Pam Grier). However, Blacula turns Willis into his own vampire minion which displeases the young man who can now no longer adore himself in the mirror, just one of the many curses of the damned. 

In the role of vampire hunter this time we have Lisa's boyfriend, Justin Carter (Don Mitchell), a former LAPD officer and avid collector of African art who becomes hip to Mamuwalde's bloodsucking ways following a series of strange murders which leave the corpse drained of blood... the victims becoming one of Blacula's resurrected bloodthirsty minions. 

While I enjoyed the first film this sequel is even more enjoyable, and not solely for the addition of the black beauty of Pam Grier as the voodoo priestess. The story arc is far superior this time around and I loved the addition of the voodoo angle, the one area this does not improve upon is the demise of Blacula, the stop-frame end was a real bummer.

I do love how he acquires a horde of bloodsucking minions this time around who take up residence in a mansion and do his bidding, the blue skinned ghouls look great on film and I love the exaggerated incisors which reminded me of Hammer's TWINS OF EVIL. Again we have a funk soul score but nowhere near as enjoyable as the first film in my opinion, but overall this is the better film of the two with a more enjoyable story and just better execution. 

BLU-RAY
Having just reviewed the Scream Factory Blu-ray I can say that the transfers seem very similar and probably derived from the same HD master in my opinion after  comparing still frames from each film, I could not detect a difference. A nice healthy layer of fine film grain, some solid color saturation and decent black levels, a surprisingly satisfying HD transfer. 

Extras do vary between the two, Eureka have not opted for a commentary on either film but do offer a 24-minute piece with critic and author Kim Newman recorded in his home, the shelves and posters will be familiar to anyone who has watched any of his introductions for the VIDEO NASTIES: THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE. The critic and author offers up an entertaining and informative analysis of the films that puts them each into the context of the era with some insights about the cast and crew.The only other disc extra is a theatrical trailer for each film. 

The Blu-ray screener disc sent for review did not include artwork or the 32-page booklet and retail copies are dual-format and offer the film and extras on a separate DVD disc.  

SPECIAL FEATURES
- Brand new 1080p high-definition transfer
- Progressive DVD encodes
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Trailers for both films (4 Mins)
- New and exclusive introduction to the films by critic and author Kim Newman (24 Mins)
- 32-page booklet featuring new writing by Josiah Howard, author of Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide; reprints of original Blacula ephemera; and archival images

VERDICT
The BLACULA series may not be up there with the Hammer horror films but William Marshall is one of the more memorable bloodsuckers in cinema and as far as blaxploitation fright films go these might just be the cream of the crop, which may not be setting the bar very high but true nonetheless. 

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