As a kid I loved to go to video stores and look at all the posters and video covers and try to guess what the movies were about based solely on the images they portrayed. I fully believe that these flights of fancy are primarily responsible for the development of the imagination I have used in a semi-successful professional capacity throughout the past 10 years or so.
To honour this tradition, I’ve decided to occasionally take a look at a classic poster for a film I’ve never seen and spend a paragraph or two imagining what it could be about. The twist is that after I’ve written this “Bullsh*t Synopsis” I’ll then watch the movie and discuss what it’s actuallyabout the next week in my “B-Movie Bullsh*t Review”. The fun will be had in determining which plot is better—the one that actually got filmed or the one I pulled straight out of my butt in 15 minutes.
Yes, it is a very lame idea, but I’m running out of Rejected By Rod(?) reviews and I gotta come up with some filler ideas PRONTO.
Anyhoo, we begin this epic new adventure with a totally fake look at a 1974 Roger Corman produced Pam Grier classic.
Vanity Fear Bullshit Synopsis Theater
Wanda and June are two happy-go-lucky gals who meet at a local Roman slave auction. Wanda hails from the Nordic region of Europe, while June enjoyed a long boat trip from Africa to get where she is today. That afternoon they’re both purchased by a wealthy lesbian named Patricia, who enjoys mocking her wounded General husband by dressing in the military uniform he no longer has any use for.
At first there’s some tension between the two of them, mostly because Wanda is a horrible racist who’s jealous of June’s abundant femininity (specifically her enormous breasts), but as time goes on they become very close friends. So much so that Patricia becomes so envious of their mutual affection she decides to convince her husband to suggest to the emperor that women be allowed to fight as gladiators.
The idea gives the emperor a total boner and Patricia volunteers Wanda and June as the first two combatants. The emperor gets one look at them and eagerly agrees. Wanda and June attempt to refuse to fight each other, but some erotically charged torture takes care of this and the two of them enter The Arena and battle to the death. Both women prove so strong and courageous that when June has Wanda at the edge of her trident, the emperor denies her the kill with an upturned thumb, sparing Wanda’s life. The crowd cheers his decision, but Patricia is so enraged she berates the emperor. His guards arrest her for her impertinence, much to her husband's delight. The next time we see her it is in The Arena, where she is fighting a losing battle against her two former slaves, who both know the emperor has no intention of giving them the thumb’s up this time.
Following the death of his high priestess mother Willis is rejected as leader of his local voodoo cult. To get his revenge he buys some bones from another of the cult’s cast-offs, unaware that the ritual he will perform with them will result in the resurrection of the centuries old vampire known as Blacula. Once an African ruler named Prince Mamuwalde, Blacula was cursed to walk the earth as a member of the bloodthirsty living dead by a racist Count Dracula. Desperate to get the evil demon that compels him to murder out of his body, Blacula enlists the aid of a beautiful voodoo priestess named Lisa in the hopes that she can free him from his curse. But Lisa’s boyfriend—an ex-detective turned wealthy writer and African artifact collector named Justin—has different plans and intends to put a permanent end to Blacula’s legacy of blood.
Whether the term “dated” is an insult or affectionate compliment depends entirely on the person who is using it. In both cases it refers to a work whose style, themes and relevance are entirely of a different era, which for some viewers means feeling alienated from what they're watching, while for others it means being given a historical snapshot of a time long past, be it one they remember or never got to experience on their own.
Most often, though, “dated” is an indicator of obvious artifice. A film that is so fully realized it feels less like a composed narrative than life caught on film inevitably transcends its "best-before" date. A film that looks “dated” today probably looked just as ridiculous the year it was released. In some cases this is the result of tone-deaf filmmakers trying to capture the flavour of a zeitgeist they themselves don’t understand. In others it’s a case of focusing on a cultural event so ephemeral you could literally mark on your calendar the moment it would cease to have any meaning. But mostly it’s just the result of a generalized failure of all involved.
Making movies is hard.
Not every one can be a timeless classic.
Scream Blacula Scream is dated.
Profoundly dated. Exquisitely dated. Exuberently dated. It’s also wonderful in that way only 70s Blaxploitation can be with its equal parts racist stereotype and affecting humanity. Capturing an age I’m pretty certain never existed, it’s an all out fantasy made deliriously transcendent by one of the greatest combinations of role and actor ever put to film.
In a fairer world William Marshall never would have had to settle for playing Dracula’s tragic African cousin. Standing six foot five and possessing a classically trained baritone that demanded your full attention, he was every bit the equal of Christopher Lee--the most famous Dracula of his generation. Instead he had to settle for Blacula (and I suspect we’re better off for it).
Speaking of Christopher Lee, it’s hard not to watch Scream Blacula Scream and not think of Hammer’s regrettable attempt to move their most successful gothic horror series into the 20th century--the previous year’s Dracula A.D. 1972. Replace that film’s “swinging” London setting (which includes a scene where the crazy hipsters crash a private party featuring a band that must have been terribly important at the time, since they’re mentioned in both the opening credits and by the party’s host during their performance) with Los Angeles’ black yuppie voodoo community (?) and the films are markedly similar, right down to both title characters transforming from bleached white bones to fleshy bloodsuckers.
But unlike Hammer’s film, the two Blacula films (the first came out the same year as Dracula A.D. 1972) rise above their questionable taste and premise through their insistence on portraying their title character as a sympathetic, tragic figure. Less a monster than a genuine victim of circumstance, the cursed prince is a character we root for, not against.
Several years before playing Blacula, Marshall understudied for Boris Karloff’s Captain Hook in a production of Peter Pan and it’s easy to see why someone would think to have the two actors play the same role. He brings so much desperate humanity to Blacula that its closest horror equivalent is Karloff’s performances in both Frankenstein and (especially) Bride of Frankenstein. Both actors present us with so-called “monsters” who did not choose to be monstrous and whose most horrific acts are either the result of misunderstandings or uncontrollable rages that cloud their better judgment.
If Karloff’s monster is the ultimate portrait of a lonely, ugly man frustrated by his inability to find love, then Marshall’s is one of the horrors of addiction. At his best moments, he retains all of the honor, power and dignity that befits his royal station, but when his hunger strikes he loses his rational mind and is forced to act out in the most antisocial of ways. That said, he tries to select deserving victims when he can. In the case below, he even goes so far as to lecture his next two meals about the damage their crimes are doing to their people:
Suffice it to say, William Marshall’s performance is not dated.
Filled equally with serious black professionals who expertly discuss African history while drinking fine wine, and over-the-top preening pimp daddies in your choice of either ridiculous hat or enormous James Brown hairdos, the film presents us with a clear one-step forward, one-step back situation that is admittedly only a few steps away from your typical Tyler Perry production.
And just like a Tyler Perry movie, the overtly racist characters are much more entertaining than the serious ones, especially Blacula’s resurrectionist and subsequent lackey, Willis, who is played by Richard Lawson in the kind of gleefully over-the-top performance many black actors give when presented with possibly questionable characters to play.
Admittedly a failure as a horror movie, Scream Blacula Scream succeeds instead as a bizarre character drama that just happens to feature scenes where black folks walk around in ridiculous vampire makeup. Ironically its biggest failure comes about as a direct result of its biggest success.
I say this because the film doesn’t so much end as it just freezes mid-scene. Having tried and failed to rid Blacula of the demon that dwells within him, Lisa is horrified by his true face and—as he attacks her boyfriend—tries to stop him by stabbing the voodoo doll she crafted for the occasion with a wooden arrow. This causes him to stumble with pain, but does not kill him. Instead, the film freezes as our sympathetic villain looks up to the heavens and screams in frustration. (Or at least that’s how it ends in the version I saw. According to Wikipedia, “Lisa stabs the prince's voodoo doll killing Mamuwalde and forever destroying Blacula.” I’m not sure if this description is the result of an alternative cut of the film or the writer coming to a conclusion not actually justified by what is presented on-screen.)
From a script standpoint, this ending doesn’t make any sense (even if it does provide the film with its title), but from a marketing standpoint it’s the only one the filmmakers could present without filming a whole new sequence. The problem with making Blacula so sympathetic is that as an audience we don’t want to see him vanquished, even though the film has gone to the trouble to present us with a more typical hero in the form of Lisa’s boyfriend, Justin.
Interestingly, the tension we feel during the climax where Justin and the police are besieged by Blacula’s legion of vampires while on their way to rescue Lisa doesn’t come from our fear that they won’t get to her in time, but instead that they will. For this reason Blacula’s subsequent rage over the interruption of the ritual meant to make him human feels totally justified and we resent both Lisa’s turn against him and Justin’s attempt to kill him. My guess is that the ending once did explicitly show Blacula dying as a result of Lisa’s voodoo magic, but that test audiences roared with disapproval over this outcome. Having no other option, the filmmakers chose to go with a non-ending rather one guaranteed to piss the audience off.
The good news was that this ending easily allowed for another sequel. The bad news was that the film didn’t do well enough to justify one. It’s a shame, because Marshall’s performance more than deserved a lengthy franchise. Sadly, he never received as good a role again and probably remains best known to members of my generation as the second King of Cartoons.
Still, two great performances are better than none, especially when—unlike the movies they’re in—they’re guaranteed to stand the test of time.