Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; the jiveness of our turkey is a byproduct of its being deep-vat chocolate-fried. Welcome friends, to the mean streets of Schlocksburgh. Every week, we pick on some fast-talking, upstart bad movie out to make a name for himself, roughing him up with sucka punches of merciless mockery. But then, just when we think we’ve won, that movie kicks in the doors of our gentlemen’s club, The Cynical Shit Heel, and proceeds to blow us away with two well-aimed barrels of undeniable amiability. Then, in acknowledgment that this brash movie from the block now unquestionably owns our territory (and our hearts), we humbly offer a tribute in the form of a funky, themed snack food item.
It’s finally February again…is a sentence few people are wont to utter. But here at Junkfood Cinema, February means one thing and one thing only: Blaxploitation History Month. That’s right, it’s a grand tradition that, to this day, has somehow failed to get us banned from the Internet forever. Some might charge that our adoration for this controversial subgenre reeks of poor taste. I for one resent the implication that we here at JFC have any taste whatsoever. I won’t go into the sociopolitical critiques of blaxploitation because, well frankly it’s boring. But I can tell you that I legitimately love these films and I am so grateful for the actors and characters to which they’ve introduced me. Given that this is our third annual celebration of blaxploitation, I’d say we’ve effectively established this feature as its own franchise. Therefore, for the rest of the month, we will be paying homage to blaxploitation sequels; to the cult titles who experienced a longevity as inexplicable as…the fact that this is our 3rd Annual Blaxploitation History Month.
This week’s fine foxy mess: Scream Blacula Scream.
What Makes It Bad?
As you may recall, Blacula was the blaxploitation version of the popular horror icon Scott Bakcula. Wait a minute, I think I may have that wrong. Quick, everyone leap back to just before I said that and I’ll try again. Quantum Leap jokes are to topical comedy as tapioca pudding is to toothpaste. Blacula is of course the creative recasting of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Because let’s face it, Stoker was a stuffy old honky. In the first film, an African prince was cursed by the original, cracker Drac with his own thirst for human blood. Unfortunately, where Dracula got to live in a castle and have many sexy gothic encounters (sort of a male Elvira, or Malevira, but without the comedy or boobs), Blacula was confined to his coffin until a pair of flamboyantly gay antique dealers released him; slightly less grandiose a story. Blah blah blah, blood rage through the streets of L.A., blah blah melted by sunlight.
But then, thanks to a combination of mystic rituals and box office witchcraft, the super smooth, bad muthasucka returns. The story goes that there’s a feud within an L.A. voodoo sect, because we all know you can’t throw a headless chicken in L.A. without hitting a feuding voodoo sect. So, the queen of this sect dies and plumb forgets to name a successor. Her son therefore declares himself the rightful heir to her kingdom, but the voodoo counsel thinks him too ambitious and seeks to install more reasonable leadership. It’s like Game of Thrones except it’s blaxploitation and nothing like Game of Thrones. So the son, his juju underoos all in a bunch, does what any power-hungry vengeance-seeking man would do…purchase a bag of bones from a shack-dwelling magical hobo. In his palatial mansion, he performs one of the sillier black magic (which in this movie is just called magic) rituals I’ve ever seen. The ritual involves fire, chanting, and a common dove poorly painted blue to make it look tropical; the actual effect is that the dove looks like a rabid college football fan on his way to a CooCLA game. Overall, it’s so silly as to barely qualify as voodoo, it’s more like voo-don’t.
But wouldn’t you know it, the bones belonged to Blacula and he returns to life much to everyone’s surprise, including the man preforming the ritual. So now that he’s back, what is Blacula’s ultimate plan for world domination? How will he take his revenge on the cold new world that orchestrated his demise? Brace yourself for this because he’s gonna…relax in this mansion for the foreseeable future. All he does is hang around that house and build an army of vampire followers; an army he intends to use for the big nothing he has planned. I’m not saying Scream Blacula Scream is too self-contained, what I am saying is that it’s like watching The Real World Snoozeville. He ventures outdoors a couple of times, to be accosted by pimps and fundamentally fail to grasp the concept of prostitution, but other than that he’s a bit of a homebody. It’s truly unfortunate that he chose for his headquarters the one house in L.A. that happens to to have ready supply of perfectly-cut wooden stakes piled up outside just waiting to be discovered by the invading police force. It’s oddly reminiscent of the time Wolfman bought that charming English cottage…next to a silver mine. Nards! Somewhere around the hour mark, he finally reveals that his grand design is to use a voodoo priestess to remove all traces of vampirism from his body so he can return to his African nation where his people will then embrace him. I guess I’m just not seeing how his people are more likely to accept a century-old undead Prince than they would be to accept a century-old undead prince who could transform into a bat using terrible special effects.
Luckily, while cooking up this scheme, Blacula encounters plenty of genre conventions. At one point, a completely superfluous dance party, replete with awfully so-so soul music and supposedly hot booty, takes place in his honor. There is also a racist policeman that shows up at one point, though I have to admire the bold decision to cast a black actor as the obligatory white racist police officer. There are of course the jive-talking pimps to which I previously alluded, whose fashion is inspired by the excrement of Rerun from What’s Happening. And the mutton chops are back! Oh my Sam Jackson, if these aren’t the most epic mutton chops in cinema. The demarcation between Blacula’s calm public guise and his meaner blood-sucking side is that his mutton chops suddenly extend from his cheeks to his eye sockets; reclassifying them as murder chops. And one of my favorite era-inspired absurdities is that his first follower, the man who brought him back to life in the first place, more upset that he can no longer see his reflection in the mirror than he is about being a vampire. “A man’s GOT to see himself!” Yeah, clearly you’re the biggest problem, Carly Simon.
But where Scream Blacula Scream really shits the coffin is in its bookends. The first film had a wild, animated opening title sequence that, while costing them all of twelve dollars, discoed us into the right mindset for the film. The sequel however opts for a much blander approach. They zoom in to Blacula’s face and do that technicolor photo-sketch imagry that epitomized 70s television. Between that and the recorded-at-the-last-minute opening song, I either expected to hear a voice-over stating “This week, on Blacula…” or witness him introduced as a member of The Partridge Family. But at least the ending is good, right? Ha, I laugh at you. The ending involves a few murky alterations to both voodoo and vampire mythos and then it ends…just ends. Blacula does his titular scream as he looks to the ceiling, and the film, in keeping with its odd TV theme, actually concludes with a goddamn freeze frame. Looks like the A-Team wins again…if the “A” stands for “abrupt” and “astoundingly unsatisfying.”
Why I Love It!
In Scream Blacula Scream (at one point titled Blacula II: The Blackening…in my mind), the world’s foremost blood brutha is once again played by William Marshall. Marshall, who would go on to portray the King of Cartoons on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, is even more badass in the sequel if that’s conceivable. His return is actually handled with creepy seriousness that strives to build upon the character’s mythology. We first see his profile in shadow, and we are immediately aware of his legacy; sort of the black vampire version of Alfred Hitchcock. His dedication to carrying himself with old-world esteem and distinguished charm not only makes the character impossibly likable, but also allows him to serve as a satirical juxtaposition to the 70s caricatures that canonized the genre. When the uppity pimp asks for all his bread or else he’ll kick his ass, Blacula calmly explains that he carries no bread with him and that the pimp should carefully consider the consequences of said kick to the posterior. Take that, rudeness!
In the sequel, Blacula tangles with the likes of the one and only Pam Grier. Grier plays the voodoo priestess tasked with crafting a ceremony to exorcise the vampirism from his body. She is sexy as ever, but she’s much softer and more vulnerable in this film than she is in Coffy or Foxy Brown. I don’t mean soft as in weak, I mean she is chiefly responsible for taking Blacula down, but she’s lovely and sweet and you fall in love with her for entirely different reasons. Plus, if you ever make the mistake of calling Pam Grier weak, she shows up in your home like Bloody Mary and puts two in your chest, and I am not about to invite that wrath upon me; fool me twice, shame on me. She’s really one of the selling points of the film. So, two of my favorite blaxploitation icons in one film? Do I really need to explain why this makes me love Scream Blacula Scream?
Where the original was a more traditional blaxploitation gimmick in which Dracula is merely thrown into an urban setting mostly for laughs, Scream Blacula Scream feels like a blaxploitation Hammer film. Blacula sets up his grand, pastoral domicile, even in the middle of the big city and seems to wait for his evil deeds to attract the attention of the villagers (i.e., the cops), which it eventually does. The police, stakes in hand, storm the castle mansion and Justin (the boyfriend of Pam Grier’s character) becomes the de facto Van Helsing. He busts in there like afroed Peter Cushing and dispatches the legion of the undead with a goddamn crossbow. Hammer time! And don’t forget about the army of busty female vampires…I know I won’t.
Junkfood Pairing: Cookies and Scream
This discontinued Halloween candy may be hard to get your hands on, but amounts to the best possible accompaniment for Scream Blacula Scream. Apart from the sharing of a pivotal word with the film’s title, Cookies and Scream combines candy and cookies for a eerily delicious symphony of sugary goodness. The combination of blaxploitation and horror, of William Marshall and Pam Grier, creates a similarly delicious symphony for our eyeballs.