“That is one weird dude.”
I haven’t seen much in the way of blaxploitation films in general. I’m not sure if that’s due to a lack of availability in rural Maine growing up or… well, just growing up in rural Maine. The few things I did see tended to be action movies – Shaft, Super Fly and Dolemite in particular. I didn’t see a blaxploitation horror film until much later in life. I’ve always thought that film was Blacula, but it turns out it was the sequel – Scream Blacula Scream – which features the return of Blacula via the medium of voodoo.
I kept waiting for 70’s voodoo to make an appearance while watching Blacula and was confused when he’s released due to odd tastes in interior decorating.
It’s still a hole in my film viewing – blaxploitation films in general and blaxploitation horror more specifically. I’ve got films like Abby, J.D.’s Revenge and Blackenstein on the list to get to eventually. I watched Sugar Hill in one of the earliest 31 Days and it was awesome. I keep looking for a cheap copy of it on Blu-ray.
There are plenty of people more qualified than I to discuss the phenomenon of the blaxploitation film, but I can hit the basics. In the 1970’s producers of cheap, drive-in level movies saw an untapped market in films where black characters were the stars – the heroes and heroines. Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song – which was written, produced, scored and starred in by Melvin Van Peebles – is generally accepted as the first film in the genre. Shaft – one of the most famous films and characters to come out of the genre – came out that same year, 1971. Blaxploitation films used the less restrictive medium of the exploitation film to present characters who were living the black experience – are at least a very stylized version of it – with an emphasis on sex, violence and a struggle against white oppression in poor urban neighborhoods.
The genre was immensely popular and has influenced numerous modern filmmakers – including Quintin Tarantino, who has talked often about the genre in relation to his own filmmaking.
I’m woefully under informed about the genre, it’s stars and creators, and it’s influence. I feel like I need to read more on the subject – and definitely see more films. Recommendations?
I saw Blacula on Turner Classic Movies. Yes, I still watch cable channels (though I actually have YouTube TV rather than regular cable). TCM is a great way to watch classic films of any kind, but October sees a ton of excellent horror films join the programming. Other than that, Blacula is streaming on Fubu and can be rented from any of the usual places. Shout Factory has a double release of Blacula and Scream Blacula Scream on Blu-ray, but it’s apparently out of print.
So first thing to set expectations – this is an exploitation film – meaning general production levels are on the same level as other horror movies of the time, like Last House on the Left and 3 On a Meat Hook. It’s nowhere near as dark or brutal as those films, I’m just saying it’s not Hollywood level set design or cinematography (or scripting or… well, you get the idea). I will say the music is pretty damn good, though.
The main character is really only called Blacula once in the entire movie, and it’s fairly early on. Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his bride Luva (Vonetta McGee) travel to Transylvania to seek Count Dracula’s aid in ending the slave trade. This is a bad idea, because Dracula is a racist shitheel who threatens to enslave Luva and then, when Mamuwalde responds with indignation, bites the Prince – transforming him into a vampire. Dracula seals Mamuwalde in a coffin, cursing him with eternal thirst and giving him the name Blacula. Luva too is walled up in the tomb alive.
Centuries later a couple of gay stereotypes buy the estate and have everything – including Mamuwalde’s coffin – shipped to LA. There he’s released and the two men become his first victims.
William Marshall brings a level of gravitas to the character of Prince Mamuwalde. The 6′ 5″ Shakespearean actor and opera singer has an amazing voice, equal to that of James Earl Jones, and a commanding presence. His force of personality means you can understand why people don’t question why he wears a cape in 1972 LA. I mean they question it – just not to his face. He also never refers to himself as Blacula – and why the hell should he?
The murders of the two gay men bring the attention of Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala), an LAPD Pathologist who begins to suspect there’s something odd going on as the blood-drained bodies begin to pile up.
Mamuwalde is definitely the bad guy here – but stuck in the situation through no fault of his own. He’s definitely a tragic villain, forced to make do in a time and place he doesn’t know or recognize while also being cursed with a horrific condition. That he also finds Tina (Vonetta McGee again) who is the spitting image of his wife and with whom he hopes to be reunited is just the icing on the Shakespearean cake. Yes, it’s odd how he quickly adapts – well enough to know all the great music hot spots and to recognize and understand a camera, despite it being invented a century after he died – but those details would just bog down the pace.
Instead we get vampire attacks, racial office politics, fights, gun battles, a ton of humor and some great music. Generally I’m not a fan of 70’s movies that pause the action for a music sequence (looking at you, Dracula 1972 AD), but I’ll give this film a pass because I actually enjoyed it.
Despite Mamuwalde’s attempts to keep his identity a secret (including a memorable attack on a photographer that’s probably the closest to actually being scary) the secret is eventually found out. From that point on it’s a race to find Mamuwalde’s resting place and stop his reign of terror before Tina becomes his next victim.
The pacing is uneven, as is the level of acting. Marshall is just (literally) heads and shoulders above the others, though Rasulala does his best – and has some of the funniest lines. (Looking at bite marks on a victim’s neck he shakes his head. “Nah, that’s ridiculous.”) There are far too many scenes of police officer shooting vampires with no effect (though the sight of white policeman shooting a black man who shrugs it off with a laugh still resonates). There are some standout moments, however, such as an attack on morgue attendent Sam(the ubiquitous Elisha Cook Jr) shot in slow motion.
The ending is pretty damn effective. His love beyond his reach Mamuwalde could easily kill all the remaining characters in a vengeful rage. Instead, without his last connection to his past, he chooses to walk up the stairs and into the sun. It’s a testament to his will and his character – which seems odd to say after he’s killed all those people.
The Bottom Line
Much better than the film I thought it was, Blacula works as exploitation level horror movie fare, but it’s also got some teeth to it (sorry). Marshall’s Mamuwalde elevates both the character and the film as a whole. If you can handle the cheap feel to everything then you can have a pretty good time.