Written by: Joan Torres (screenplay), Raymond Koenig (screenplay)
Directed by: William Crain
Starring: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee and Denise Nicholas
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďYou shall pay, black prince. I shall place a curse of suffering on you that will doom you to a living hell. I curse you with my name. You shall be... Blacula!"
Vampires and horror films have been lock step and hand-in-hand with each other literally since the beginning, when George MťliŤs took viewers on a three minute tour of Le Manoir du Diable; when they moved into the Talkie age, Universalís Dracula escorted them there. So it should come as no surprise that a vampire would help to usher in the short-lived wave of horror-tinged blaxploitation titles. Plus, Dracula can so easily be transposed into Blacula that this was a no-brainer (I imagine someone--probably a white guy--at AIP being particularly smug and pleased with himself when he came up with it).
Dracula (Charles Macaulay) himself actually shows up first, though; we open in his castle in 1780, where heís being visited by African prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his wife (Vonetta McGee) , who have arrived to discuss the abolition of the European slave trade. The count has none of that, and decides to turn Mamuwalde into a vampire before sealing him away in a coffin. He ends up resting there for nearly 200 years and remains locked away long after Draculaís own demise, and heís not reawakened until a couple of interior decorators purchase some wares from the old estate; for some reason, they buy a coffin thatís found in a hidden room and ship it back to LA.
It is, of course, the tomb of Blacula, who is unleashed in the modern world, or at least a Blaxploitation-tinted version of the modern world. If nothing else, Blacula is a perfect mix of horror and blaxploitation blood, as it combines the gory chops of the former with the funk-tinged, flamboyant styles of the latter. Basically, it looks and feels like an adventure that Hammerís Dracula could have had if he had awakened in Los Angeles instead of London in 1972. We find ourselves dumped into mean streets, full of cops, but not so full of gangsters (as in the case with many blaxploitation films); instead, this is a fairly straightforward tale that doesnít get too tangled up. In fact, itís almost amusing how quickly it his the ground running, as doctor Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) cracks the case rather quickly; even when he tells the white cop on the case that he thinks vampirism is involved, itís just accepted, and it's nice to skip the typical skeptic beats.
The same can be said of the romance that emerges between the freshly resurrected Mamuwalde and Tina (also portrayed by McGee), a girl he encounters that of course reminds him of long-dead wife. When they first (literally) bump into each other, Mamuwalde is mistaken as a mugger (it doesnít help that he accidentally snatches her purse), and Tina is so creeped out that she considers changing her locks. Cut to the next scene that sees Mamuwalde stroll in and clear everything up during a birthday celebration (for Tinaís sister, who is also married to Dr. Thomas--another example of how compact the film is). Before long, Mamuwalde and Tinaís love blossoms in a subplot thatís cribbed a bit from Universalís original Mummy film; we typically associate these fated, cross-generational love stories with vampires these days, but I think Blacula is actually one of the first films to do this with vampires, which coolly sets it apart from previous incarnations of Dracula. Marshall is stately and elegant in the role, infusing the character with the requisite suaveness that takes us back to the debonair playboy that Lugosi portrayed, only heís much more personable--just donít ask me how an 18th century African prince so deftly manages to adapt to 20th century LA. At any rate, heís quite affable and even a little cozy, so the love story has a lot of weight; in fact, Blacula is mostly a tragic love story more than anything.
It doesnít sell its horror elements short, though; when Marshall isnít posing as the charming Mamuwalde, heís fierce and predatory, much like Christopher Leeís Dracula. One of the filmís best jolts comes during a dimly lit dark room session thatís interrupted when Marshall eerily glides into the screen. While Blacula isnít loaded with many genuinely fun jumps like that, it is rounded out by some grisly gore and neat special effects (Marshall even transforms into a bat). Despite its punny title, Blacula is hardly a raucous, jokey affair, outside of a couple of morbidly amusing lines (at one point, Mamuwalde orders a Bloody Mary). Itís purely 70s too, right down to the dropping casual epithets and broadly realized caricatures (just check out those interior decorators, who couldnít be more flaming if they were on fire).
Interestingly enough, Blacula isnít as overtly political as a lot of blaxploitation films, despite its framing of Dracula as a slave driver. Even Mamuwaldeís eventual fate has some obvious subtexts: heís now chained to his bloodlust and is even forced to take his ďmasterísĒ name. This is pretty much where it ends, though, as most of the violence is of the black-on-black variety (which I suppose could be read as being grounded in reality). I was surprised that they resisted the urge to have Rasulalaís doctor play off of Van Helsing , particularly since the name Abraham could carry obvious implications in any dialogue involving slavery. Instead, Blacula takes a timeless tale and feels content to dress it up in those 70s clothes without making any sort of grand statements on race (in fact, Blacula features congenial relationships all the way around--I feel like Dr. Thomas and Mamuwalde would get along quite well if the latter wasnít on a bloodsucking murder spree).
As such, Blacula lives up to its name--itís a purely black take on Dracula that gives vampires a little soul after all. Its title character was so dashing that he couldnít be contained in one film, as he returned a year later in Scream Blacula Scream, where he was joined by Blaxploitation queen Pam Grier. Blacula itself is seminal in its blending of genre elements, and it works well enough due to its brisk pacing and Marshallís fantastic performance. The film has been released on DVD twice, though the discs were the same in each instance. Part of MGMís Soul Cinema series, Blacula receives a nicely colorful anamorphic transfer and a serviceable mono track that are only accompanied by the filmís trailer. It was later repackaged in a 2-pack with its sequel, which makes for a great deal that no fan of this material should be without. Blacula is funky, gory, and would have Bram Stoker dancing in his grave (if he had any rhythm--something tells me he doesn't). Buy it!
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